Happy AAPI Month! Meet Composer Tyzen Hsiao

Celebrate AAPI Month with CYSO by learning about important composers influencing music beyond the Western hegemony. Tyzen Hsiao was a neo-Romantic composer, pianist, and conductor known for blending Taiwanese folk elements with Western classical music. He composed nearly 100 works, from concertos to symphonies to ensemble pieces, often inspired by his deep affection for Taiwan. CYSO Social Media Team member Marisa Lin delves into Hsiao’s legacy and his immeasurable contributions to Taiwan’s music history. 

Tyzen Hsiao

Born on January 1st, 1938 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Tyzen Hsiao spent his childhood on the piano bench, often next to his mother. Only two pianos existed in Kaohsiung, one of which belonged to his family. His mother, a church pianist, taught him piano from a very young age, and Hsiao frequently watched his mother practice a mix of church music, Japanese folk songs, and European classical music.

Before graduating from Chang Jung Senior High School, Hsiao’s father, a dentist, asked him to pursue a career in medicine. However, Hsiao’s high school principal recognized Hsiao’s musical talent and helped convince Hsiao’s father to let him pursue music instead. In 1959, Hsiao entered National Taiwan Normal University to study piano. Shortly after graduation, he moved to Japan to continue studying the piano and composition at Musashino Academia Musicae in Tokyo, Japan. 

In 1967, Hsiao moved back to Taiwan, teaching at various schools while composing short choral and piano pieces on the side. 6 years later, he was hired as a professor by his alma mater, National Taiwan Normal University. There, he met famous Austrian composer Dr. Robert Scholz, who became both his friend and mentor. Later on, Hsiao dedicated “Fantasia Waltz,” a work for two pianos, to Scholz in appreciation for his support. 

Hsiao in front of his piano at home.

In 1975, Hsiao’s first showcase was presented at Taipei’s Chungshan Hall. However, Hsiao’s life quickly took a turn with the failure of his wife’s business. Struggling with finances, Hsiao and his wife decided that Hsiao would immigrate to the United States along with their four children while his wife would stay in Taiwan. In 1977, Hsiao immigrated to the US, shortly living in Atlanta, Georgia before moving to Los Angeles, California at the invitation of his friend. 

For over a year, Hsiao ran a small gift store in LA selling handicraft goods shipped from Taiwan by his wife. In his spare time, he played the piano just for amusement. One fateful day, he had a musical awakening when three elderly women, stunned by his playing, asked him, “Young man, what are you doing here?” Hsiao quickly closed up shop and returned to dedicating his life to music. 

Several of Hsiao’s works were related to civil liberty and democratic movements, such as his “March of Democracy” (1980). However, this led him to be blacklisted by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government in Taiwan. The ban wasn’t lifted until over a decade later, when Taiwan was progressing towards democracy in 1992. 

In the mid 1980s, Hsiao started pursuing a master’s degree in composition at California State University, Los Angeles. During this time, Hsiao began to truly discover his own musical style, melding Taiwanese folk songs with classical, romantic, impressionist, and modern styles. In 1988, Hsiao finished his Violin Concerto in D Major, the first violin concerto ever produced in Taiwanese history. Four years later, his violin concerto was premiered by Cho Liang-Lin and the San Diego Symphony, launching him to international status as a composer. 

In 1993, Hsiao composed one of his most widely acclaimed works, “1947 Overture,” a 20 minute long piece for soprano, chorus, and orchestra. It was inspired by Taiwan’s 228 Incident, a tragedy when thousands of Taiwanese were killed by the KMT in a pro-democracy uprising. The structure of the piece demonstrates the evolution of Taiwan and honors the thousands of civilian lives lost on February 28th, 1947. 

In his many years abroad, Tyzen Hsiao has transcended the role of a Taiwanese composer to become an internationally recognized artist. His work is filled with homeward yearnings, which appeals to drifters everywhere.

For his deep love and dedication to Taiwanese music, Hsiao was awarded Taiwan’s National Art Prize (2004) and National Culture Award (2009). Sadly, during this time Hsiao’s health was deteriorating, yet he persisted, continuing to compose and attend several music festivals held in his name. Hsiao’s final dream was to finish composing his “Love River Symphony,” dedicated to Kaohsiung, his hometown. However, Hsiao was unable to finish his composition after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013. He passed away on February 24th, 2015 at his residence in Los Angeles, CA. 

Tyzen Hsiao stands as one of the most prominent figures in Taiwan’s musical history. His ability to intricately fuse Taiwanese and Western idioms is showcased in several of his most beautiful and haunting works. Despite the many hardships he faced, his spirit and devotion to his homeland was everlasting, and he remains to be a household name in Taiwan.

Thank you for sharing your research, Marisa! Learn about other Asian American and Pacific Islander composers in our last AAPI Listenng Guide.

About Marisa

Marisa Lin

Marisa Lin is a violinist in CYSO’s Concert Orchestra and junior at Lyons Township High School. When she’s not practicing, you can find Marisa developing new recipes for her baking blog or taking goofy pictures of her dog.

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