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The Gaohu: A Distinctive Instrument in Chinese Orchestras

Last Updated on 2023/11/27

The Unique Sound of Gaohu: A Soprano Instrument in Traditional Chinese Music.

The Gaohu (高胡), commonly referred to as the “high-pitched erhu,” is a traditional Chinese string instrument. It shares many similarities with the well-known erhu, including its shape, construction, bowing techniques, and notation system. However, there are distinct differences that set the Gaohu apart, most notably its smaller resonator box, which is typically held between the player’s knees during performance.

Historical and Cultural Context

The Gaohu’s emergence is closely linked with the folk music of Guangdong Province in China. It has a strong association with the region’s Cantonese opera, where it was a leading accompanying instrument, earning it the nickname “Yuehu (粤胡).” Its creation is attributed to the significant modifications made by the composer and musician Lu Wencheng (吕文成) in the early 20th century. Lu transformed the traditional silk strings of the erhu to steel strings and adjusted the tuning to produce a clearer, brighter sound, which became characteristic of the Gaohu.

Design and Evolution

Initially similar to the erhu in construction and materials, the Gaohu’s main distinction lies in its finer and often cylindrical resonator box, differing from the erhu’s hexagonal shape. Its back opening lacks the sound windows found in erhu designs. Innovations in Gaohu design continued, especially in the 1970s. Some luthiers reshaped the resonator box into an oval shape, inspired by the acoustics of oval loudspeakers, to enhance the volume and broaden the resonance frequency range. Additionally, a three-string variant was introduced, extending the instrument’s range by a fifth.

Musical Characteristics

The Gaohu is a soprano instrument in Chinese orchestras, often playing an important role similar to the soprano in a female quartet. It is celebrated for its crisp, bright sound, with a round and rich lower register and a luminous upper register. This makes it particularly suited for playing lyrical, lively, and ornate melodies. In orchestras, the Gaohu often decorates the main melody with ornamental passages, adding emotional depth and complexity to the music.

Tuning and Playing Techniques

Typically, the Gaohu is tuned a perfect fourth or fifth higher than the erhu, with common tunings being a1-e2 or g1-d2. Its range usually spans from a1 or g1 up to b3 or a3, with higher notes being possible but often tense and sharp. The playing technique involves clamping the resonator box between the knees to control volume and minimize extraneous noise. The right hand employs various bowing techniques, including rapid and strong strokes, while the left hand uses slides and decorative fingering. Traditional Cantonese playing styles avoid the use of pressing and vibrating the strings, favoring a cleaner sound.

Repertoire and Usage

The Gaohu is a staple in performing Cantonese music, Chaozhou music, and accompanying Cantonese and Chaozhou operas. It holds a significant place in Chinese folk orchestras, with usually six seats allocated to it. The instrument’s expressive capabilities have led to a rich solo repertoire, including traditional pieces like “Shuang Sheng Hen (双声恨),” “Yu Da Ba Jiao (雨打芭蕉),” and modern compositions such as “Zhu Jiang Zhi Lian (珠江之恋)” and “Chun Dao Tian Jian (春到田间).”

Source: Baike Baidu

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