Chen Yi (composer)

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Chen Yi
Native name 陈怡
Born (1953-04-04) April 4, 1953 (age 69)
Guangzhou, China
Occupation(s) Composer, Violinist
Instruments Violin
Years active 1970–present

Chen Yi (simplified Chinese: 陈怡; traditional Chinese: 陳怡; pinyin: Chén Yí) (born April 4, 1953) is a Chinese violinist and composer of contemporary classical music. She was the first Chinese woman to receive a Master of Arts (M.A.) in music composition from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Yi was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her composition Si Ji (Four Seasons).

Early life

Chen was born and raised in Guangzhou, China into a talented family. Her parents were doctors and musicians; her mother played the piano, and her father was a violinist. Her older sister was a child prodigy, and both she and their younger brother continue to work as professional musicians in China.

Chen began studying piano at the age of three, heavily influenced by the music of Western composers such as Bach and Mozart. However, once the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, Western attitudes were severely shunned and arts were opposed. For ten years, education came to a halt and people were relocated to work in large communes in countryside. Chen's father and older sister were sent away, but she managed to stay in her hometown a while longer and continued to practice music, although she was forced to stuff a blanket inside her piano in order to dampen the sound and play her violin with a mute. When she was 15 years old, the family house was searched, all possessions were taken, and the rest of her family was dispersed to different locations to perform compulsory labor in the countryside.

Chen used her time spent laboring in the countryside to learn and appreciate Chinese folk culture. Her connection with Chinese music would prove a useful tool in finding her own voice for her musical compositions in later life. At age seventeen, she returned to Guangzhou and began working as concertmaster in the orchestra of the Beijing Opera Troupe in Guangzhou.


Chen lived for many years in New York City, and studied composition with Chou Wen-chung and Mario Davidovsky at Columbia University, earning a DMA with distinction. Her husband is the composer Zhou Long. As of 2006, both Chen and Zhou are professors of composition at the University of Missouri–Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance.

Alongside a great number of orchestral works, Chen has also made many contributions to the choral repertoire and the chamber music repertoire, including works written for traditional Chinese instruments. Chen's works are published by the Theodore Presser Company.

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