Born in 1938, Cung Tiến probably suffered the initial battles of the First Indochina War. According to what he said in an interview, Cung Tiến came back to Hanoi and pursued secondary education at Nguyễn Trãi school and subsequently at Chu Văn An school in Sài Gòn. It implies that his family belonged to the group of Vietnamese people who chose to return to the regions controlled by the French (“dinh tê”/”hồi cư”). And thus, he joined the wave of intellectuals who emigrated to the South after the Geneva Conference in 1954, like Mai Thảo, Vũ Khắc Khoan or Thanh Tâm Tuyền.
Indeed, Cung Tiến had a good rapport with these intellectuals. With the pseudonym Thạch Chương, he was one of the prolific writers of Sáng Tạo, Quan Điểm and Văn, the pioneering magazines that contributed greatly to the development of literature and arts in South Vietnam under the First Republic. They got so acquainted with Western philosophy from an early age that they could move on from Marxism and open up to other paths of philosophical inquiry.
Needless to say, Cung Tiến reaches the level of intellectual ability that hardly any music composers of and after his time could be able to surpass. This could be reflected in his diverse and profound oeuvre varying from art critique to poems and short stories. He is also known as a qualified translator with the translations of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Despite being affiliated with a generation that turned their back to pre-war achievements in order to give birth to the original and unprecedented creations, Cung Tiến could not get rid of the impact of pre-war music and literature. His most notable works, namely Yellow Autumn (Thu vàng), Nostalgia (Hoài cảm) and Hometown (Hương xưa), still adopt the elements of the New Poetry movement (phong trào Thơ Mới), that is to say the mimesis of the natural scenery, the nostalgic feeling and the references to Chinese classical poetry.
Cung Tiến also admitted that he had been greatly influenced by the New Poetry authors like Xuân Diệu or Huy Cận. But then he had a shift in interest when he found out a new poet, Thanh Tâm Tuyền, whose poems bring about a totally different breath of air, that is of modernism. With the inspiration from Thanh Tâm Tuyền, Cung Tiến wrote Teardrops of the mossy stones (Lệ đá xanh) and Spring reverberations (Vang vang trời vào xuân).
In later years, Cung Tiến dropped his attention to lyrics and focused more on writing illustrative music for the available poems. The transition started with The Yellow Crane Pavilion (Hoàng Hạc Lâu) whose lyrics is based on Vũ Hoàng Chương’s translation of Cui Hao’s poem, and then reached its climax with Ballad of a Warrior’s Wife (Chinh phụ ngâm), which was composed on the pentatonic scale for the orchestra without vocals. This shift in Cung Tiến’s music career somehow reminds us of Phạm Duy when he started to write the Đuống River Rhapsody (based on Hoàng Cầm’s poem) and Illustrating Kiều (Minh họa Kiều, based on Nguyễn Du’s classic Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh) during his final years of life. Could it possibly be a common pattern of intellectual music composers’ life when they reach a certain age? Is this phenomenon related to what Simone de Beauvoir meant when she said aging weakens the creativity of novelists?
Talking about the correlation between music and poetic lyrics, Cung Tiến once said: “Đoàn Thị Điểm’s verses already make a song by themselves. What I did is simply to take from it the insights, the emotions, the scenes, and adapt them to music. That is the first time I deliberately utilized the pentatonic chords that are uniquely Vietnamese.”
On a global scale, Cung Tiến woke up to the demand for a Vietnamese way of musical expression, a system of our own, which is why he came back to the traditional literary classics and the use of pentatonic chords. Probably this demand is the point at which the paths of Nguyễn Thiên Đạo, Ngọc Đại, Nguyên Lê, Hương Thanh, Ngô Hồng Quang or Kim Ngọc, albeit disparate, converge.