I wrote “Yan zi/The Swallow” as a tribute to the five years my husband and I spent living in Hong Kong. Such wonderful memories! I found this melody set to a piano accompaniment in a book of collected folksongs (of which there are many), and learned the text and pronunciation from my first Mandarin teacher whose uncle, coincidentally, was a famous singing teacher in Shanghai who frequently taught this song in his studio.
This piece mixes a folksong from the Chinese province of Xinjiang, “Yan zi” (燕子 meaning “little swallow”), with a Canadian folksong from Newfoundland, “She’s like the Swallow”. This piece is set for SSATB and string quintet (optional piano) and is also available in SSSAA. "Yan zi" was performed in Hong Kong by the Hong Kong Children's Choir (Kathy Fok, Artistic Director), and "She's Like the Swallow" was performed in St. John's, Newfoundland by Susan Quinn's Quintessential Vocal Ensemble (QVE).
The aching quality of each tune initially inspired me to combine them. However, after working with these two melodies, I found they formed an interesting fit with one another, despite having different time signatures. What transpired was a ‘dovetailing’ effect which lent itself well not only to representing a swallow in flight, but also to the thematic context of each melody: the transcendence of the human spirit after death (“She’s like the Swallow”) and the separation of two lovers across a mountainous border (“Yan zi”).
I use these two melodies to tell a universal story of love and loss. The textual content of each song shapes the musical development of the piece. I begin with the first verse of “She’s like the Swallow” to introduce the memory of a lover who has passed away. The entrance of the second melody (“Yan zi”) serves to transport the listener back in time to the couple’s youthful and innocent love affair. Creating this “past”, while suggesting the development of a relationship over time, also adds to the poignancy and shock of the lover’s death depicted by the key change and return to the second verse of “She’s like the Swallow” later in the piece.
The song “Yan zi” (燕子) is thought to be Kazakh in origin because there is a large Uyghur minority (a Turkic ethnic group) living in Xinjiang province. Uyghur melodies are heptatonic which is unlike the music of the Han majority which typically uses pentatonic scales. This piece – in its cross-cultural exploration of music, identity, nationalism, and belonging – therefore serves as a pedagogical example of music’s ability to cross borders and take on different meanings across time and space.
I imagined several possibilities for the performance of this piece. Just as the text, musical themes, and instrumentation interweave both melodies, I decided to present this piece in a multi-media format to draw attention to the idea of 'music and place' and ponder the question of musical 'borderlessness'. I think performances mixing western and eastern dance also could be very effective, especially in representing the lovers’ past and present. In any case, it is important to highlight the appearance of each tune in the texture, and to use rubato phrasing as a way to create a sense of ‘timelessness’ in the piece. Finally, this piece could be used to start a community engagement project particularly if you have an under-represented choral group (eastern or western) in your area.
I have provided both the Chinese characters and pinyin for the Mandarin text in this introduction. For choirs unfamiliar with Mandarin, the vowel sounds are pure and you should have no problem figuring them out as you gain more experience reading pinyin. To gain proficiency with the consonants, non-speakers will need to note the position of the tongue. Ideally, I recommend working with a Mandarin coach, however, you can contact me for further guidance if needed.
I hope you enjoy performing this piece as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Xie xie (谢谢) Thank you,
Dr. Jeanette Gallant
Enjoy this arrangement of an Acadian folksong entitled, "Marie Madeleine" (more commonly know as "Une petite vache noire").
This is an arrangement of an Acadian folksong entitled “Marie Madeleine” (more commonly classified in the French-Canadian folksong repertoire as “Une petite vache noire”). This short, lively SATB piece is loads of fun and highlights the quintessential elements of the Acadian folksong tradition: podorythmie (seated foot-tapping), diddlage (mouth music), and the spoons. But, it also stretches the tradition to include more modern elements. Don’t be fooled by thinking this is just a simple folksong. It is a challenging and complex piece that reflects the innate musicality of this long-standing Canadian oral tradition.
The Acadians are a French-speaking diasporic community who largely live in Canada’s east coast provinces. During colonial times, the Acadians were deported from Canada by the English in small groups beginning in 1755. Though many returned after a seven-year exile, some Acadians found a new home, including those who are the ancestors of the Cajuns in Louisiana.
While this folksong can be found in other parts of French Canada, I chose to feature the Acadian dialect in this rendition because it is emblematic of the role that language plays in creating social inequity. Due to their colonial past, the Acadians have a different sense of history and linguistic identity to that of the Québecois. This piece shines a light on the social and linguistic stratification of the Acadians who – up until more recent years – were thought to be ‘lesser’ in social status than other Canadians.
This song is part in my family story. It often was sung by my father, my Auntie Lily, and my Uncle Richard, all Acadians who suffered the impacts of these historic wrongs. My father, Paul Gallant (1917-2008), was the youngest of ten children and had a grade eight education. He was the lucky one; most of my Acadian aunts and uncles could not read or write. Folksong would remain the only remnant of my father’s Acadian past because he had to lose his French accent to find work and was told by a nun from Québec to stop speaking French at home because it was a ‘low class’ form of French. I dedicate this piece to his memory with love.