I. Opening (full work below)

The Grand Canal performed during a nationally televised celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. © Photo: Zhejiang Daily

Program Note

Like the emblematic Great Wall, the Grand Canal of China is one of the oldest and most ambitious man-made structures in that country and the world. With a history spanning more than 1,400 years, the canal is the longest artificial waterway on the globe, running 1,794 kilometers from the northern capital of Beijing all the way south to Hangzhou. Along its course, it crosses five major rivers, the Haitong, Yellow, Huai, Yangtze, and Qiantang.

In commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Hangzhou Federation of Literary and Art Circles commissioned acclaimed Chinese-American composer Zhou Tian to create a work that would celebrate the Grand Canal and its history while adding to an ongoing effort to gain recognition for the canal and its history as a World Heritage Site. The symphonic suite includes six movements, each incorporating diverse elements and demonstrating in different ways how the canal has been intertwined in the fabric of Chinese cultural life for more than a millennium. The 35-minute work celebrates one of China’s great landmarks, with grand scope and imagination.

The Grand Canal recording was selected as one of the 100 Important Audio and Video Publications of 2009 by General Administration of Press and Publication of China, chosen as a theme at 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and exhibited at MIDEM 2010 in Cannes, France.

One of Zhou Tian’s primary interests in composing the works was the opportunity to include traditional Chinese musical elements related to the culture of the Grand Canal in combination with the sonic resources of a Western symphony orchestra. In the composer’s own words: “because the Grand Canal is man-made by generations of workers, it is as much about people as it is about its beauty. In this symphonic work I used many traditional Chinese sounds, such as boatman’s chant, Erhu, Zhongruan, and Chinese opera singing and narration in the style of Yue, in an attempt to capture the essence of the humanity of the Grand Canal. Overall I wanted the piece to be a musical journey to many sides of the Grand Canal. It celebrates its history, culture reference, and beauty, and hopefully conveys a sense of grandeur, romanticism, and warm feelings along the way.”

Exploiting all of these resources in a kaleidoscopic fashion, the piece is comprised of six or seven movements (one movement, "Life," requiring a full chorus is omitted from the orchestra-only version) to be performed as follow, with description from the composer.

—Princeton Symphony / Zhou Tian

I. OPENING (序): a celebratory fanfare (with optional choir)

II. BEGINNING OF A DREAM (梦源): featuring a Chinese opera singer and narrator in the style of Yue Ju, accompanied by erhu and orchestra (with optional choir)

III. SPIRIT (河魂): literary “River Soul,” a symphonic dance.

IV(a). LIFE(生命): a hymn of lives along the Grand Canal. (Choir required. Omitted in the orchestra-only version)

IV. MOTHER (母亲): the Grand Canal is known to the Chinese as the “mother river.” This slow movement contains melodies that were inspired by traditional Chinese music, featuring a Chinese opera singer and the erhu. (With optional choir)

V. RHYTHM (水韵):a rondo that beginnings with three soloists – the ruan, violin and cello—and develops into a full orchestra setting, all based on a distinctive Chinese rhythm. (With optional choir)

VI. THE GRAND CANAL (运河): a culmination of previous materials into a grand summary. (With optional choir)


Composer Zhou Tian, Music Director Rossen Milanov, and Caroline Harris of Princeton University Art Museum at the pre-concert talk of Princeton Symphony's 2012-13 Season Opening Concert.
© ZhouTian / Princeton Symphony Orchestra


The US Premiere of The Grand Canal by Princeton Symphony conducted by Rossen Milanov
The Star-Ledger. © ZhouTian / Princeton Symphony Orchestra


© Copyright Zhou Tian / Zhou Tian Music
All rights reserved

The Grand Canal (2008)

Commissioned by Hangzhou Federation of Literary and Art Circles

For Erhu, Ruan, Chinese opera singer, (Mixed Chorus), and Orchestra

30 minutes (scoring 1)
35 minutes (scoring 2)

Scoring 1:
4331/timp/4 perc/hp/pno/erhu (Chinese violin)/ruan (Chinese lute)/Chinese opera singer/str

Scoring 2:
4331/timp/4 perc/hp/pno/erhu (Chinese violin)/ruan (Chinese lute)/Chinese opera singer/SATB chorus/str

Premiere: 26 September - 1 October 2009, performed in nationally televised celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Hangzhou Philharmonic Orchestra
Yang Yang, conductor

US Premiere: 7 October 2012, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, NJ.
Princeton Symphony Orchestra
Rossen Milanov, conductor

Recording: Pacific PCD6421
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