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The Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto

An orchestral concerto for an ancient Chinese legend


The Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto

An orchestral concerto for an ancient Chinese legend


All cultures have their myths, their fables, their legends, and the most transcendental of these are invariably about love, requited or otherwise, tragic or successful; and the Butterfly Lovers is all of these things and more. The two sentences oft uttered when referring to the Butterfly lovers, or Liang Zhu (梁祝), today one of the most well-known Chinese pieces of music, are: “Where the sun shines, there are Chinese; where there are Chinese, the Butterfly Lovers can be heard” and, “it’s the Chinese Romeo and Juliet.”

When He Zhanhao and Chen Gang first set their pens to paper, they never expected that their musical piece would later go on to become one of the most popular and representative symphonies in Chinese music history. During the time it was written, in 1958, popular artistic and literary subjects had intensely communist themes such as the “recruiting of soldiers” or “the great steel movement”, and artistic themes other than revolution or outright propaganda were stamped as “decadent” and suppressed, often in brutal fashion. Chen once said in an interview that the Party committee secretary of Shanghai Conservatory of Music at the time, Bo Men, was “under pressure” choosing “Liangzhu” as the theme of the symphony, as a gift to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

So for He and Chen, both of whom were students, the music was initially conceived as a task more than anything else, and it was not set to be a sudden outburst of emotion by any stretch of the imagination. However the composers were highly motivated, as He said, “we simply want to write something welcomed by Chinese farmers, by common people.”

The Butterfly Lovers tells the story of a legend popular in southern part of China. Zhu Yingtai, the only daughter of a wealthy family in Zhejiang province, was an intelligent and literate young woman, living in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (265–420), a feudal period where women were not allowed to receive a university education. However, she persuaded her father to let her masquerade as a man and travel to Wansong Academy to study. There she met Liang Shanbo, a poor intellectual from Shaoxing City, and later fell deeply in love with him during their three years studying together.

On the way back home, Zhu’s feelings were so passionate that she hinted to Liang that she was in fact a woman with womanly desires. Yet the naive Liang failed to get the hint. Instead she said she had a younger sister and would like to act as a matchmaker for them. When he visited Zhu several months later to propose to her sister, he finally discovered that Zhu was a woman. They fell in love. However, their confessions of love were not able to prevent Zhu from marring a man from a rich family, Ma Wencai, at the behest of the parents.  Zhu’s parents arranged this marriage believing it to be men dang hu dui (门当户对, perfect in social status) with Ma, rather than with the poor scholar, Liang. Liang was so deeply grieved that he fell gravely ill and soon passed away.

On the wedding day of Ma and Zhu, Zhu asked the wedding procession to stop in front of Liang’s grave. A mysterious whirlwind emerged, and Zhu jumped into the grave to express her love to Liang. The tomb immediately closed,  lighting flashed in the sky, thunder rolled, and rain poured down. As the sky cleared, a pair of butterflies emerged from the grave, which were said to be Liang and Zhu’s spirits. The lovers resurrected as butterflies, never to be apart again. Touching stuff, indeed.

He and Chen brilliantly divided this love story into three sections–falling in love, refusing to marry, and metamorphosis, with the symphony being composed as a free-form violin concerto in one single movement. Though not majoring in composition, He and Chen had a good grasp of musical orchestration and how western instruments can be used to create an elegant atmosphere with Chinese characteristics. A wonderfully lyrical flute solo opens the story, bringing the audience into a peaceful and beautiful watery town in Zhejiang Province, Zhu’s hometown. The music proceeds to delicately segue into a violin solo and a cello solo respectively, where the tone of violin vividly portray Zhu Yingtai, while the cello’s brooding low pitch represents Liang Shanbo.

Music techniques in classical music, such as variations or cyclical forms, do not appear out of place in the Butterfly Lovers. Composers sought ought the possibility of presenting a Chinese love story in a Western symphonic medium in which the devices and vocal techniques of Yue Opera in Zhejiang Province and Jing Opera in Beijing were incorporated.

One of the wittiest exemplars of this lies in the section of Zhu’s resistance to marriage. Syncopated chords and agitated rhythm from Chinese traditional instruments mix together, conveying stress and tension with disharmonious musical effect. The final section borrows from Chinese art forms as well, where the episode of the butterflies flying together is adapted from the  Kun Qu Opera (昆曲 the oldest extant form of Chinese Opera),You Yuan Jing Meng (游园惊梦).

“Adopting  methods frequently used in Chinese Opera, such as Jin La Man Chang, (紧拉慢唱 fast bowing and slow singing) not only strikes a chord in Chinese audience, but also embellishes the music with unique Chinese features,” says He.

First Premiered in 1959 by, the then teenage, Chinese violinist Yu Lina, the Butterfly Lovers has since went on to be rendered by many famous violinists and orchestras throughout the world, often heard as an embodiment of a changing China.

Listen to the concerto below:

Image Courtesy of liangzhu.org