He Zhanhao and Chen Gang
Violin Concerto the Butterfly Lovers

deo    First section of the butterfly Lovers
             (Plaid by Chinese violinist Lu Siqing with Beijing Symphony Orchestra at Beijing Music Hall in 2008)

The concerto is the most beloved violin concerto in China. The concerto was written by He Zhan-hao and Chen Gang in 1959 while they were students of the Shanghai Conservatory. Musically, the Concerto is a synthesis of the Eastern and Western traditions although the melodies and overall style are derived from the Opera of Shanghai. The original version has a marked traditionally oriental color. In the spirit of the Shanghai Opera, the Concerto, as a whole, conveys on a musical level aspects of a traditional Chinese painting in its light and calm mood. Chen later revised the original score in an attempt to intensify the dramatic power of the music by further contrasting both the tempi and the dynamics of the Concerto. The result is that the later version sounds far more Western and further removed from the Shanghai Opera that inspired its antecedent.

Although the Concerto is written in sonata form, it is also strongly programmatic. The narrative is based on Chinese folklore since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and tells the story of the lovers Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. Liang Shanbo had been studying with Zhu Yingtai, disguised as a boy, for many years during which Ting-tai had fallen in love with Shanbo who was ignorant of her true gender. One day, Yingtai received the news that her family had arranged for her to marry a wealthy neighbor and she was forced to leave Shanbo. After a time, Shanbo, greatly missing his companion, attempted to visit Yingtai house where he found out from a servant that Yingtai was a girl and about to be married. Only then did he understand what Yingtai had so often tried to tell him, and in his bitter despair he fell ill and died. On learning of the death of Shanbo, Yingtai visited his grave and in her grief begged his tomb to open. There was a clap of thunder, the tomb broke open and Yingtai leapt into the grave, from which the two lovers emerged as butterflies and flew away together, finally reunited.

Techniques of the Chinese string instrument, er-hu, are used by the violin in this Concerto and this serves to emphasis the Chinese character of the work.

The exposition begins with a flute solo against a background of soft tremolo on the strings, followed by a beautiful melody on the oboe which represents a peaceful, sunny spring day. The solo violin, accompanied by the harp, sings a simple and graceful love theme and enters into a dialogue with the cello, which renders into music the first encounter of Shanbo with the girl Yingtai at a wayside arbor. A free cadenza leads to a lively rondo, in which the solo violin alternates with the orchestra. Three happy years of close affinity pass quickly, and the two young students have to return to their homes. An Adagio utters their reluctance to part.

The development opens with ominous foreshadows on the gong, cellos and bassoons. Brasses break in with a fierce and malicious theme, the them of feudal forces. The violin pours out first the anxieties of Yingtai in free rhythm and then her protest in powerful syncopated chords. The two themes-the protest theme and the feudal forces theme-are woven into a climax of conflict. Yingtai protests against an undesired marriage. In the Adagio that follows, a duet for violin and cello evokes the longing of Shanbo and Yingtai for each other when they visit in the girl's parlor. The music shifts abruptly into san-ban (free rhythm) and kuai-ban (fast tempo). Yingtai pours out her grief to the heavens at Shanbo's tomb after his forlorn death, The device of jin-la-man-chang (singing freely upon a rushing accompaniment), borrowed from Shaoxing and Beijing operas, ushers in another climax. After the violin finishes its last plaintive phrase, the whole orchestra bursts into a powerful tutti. The tomb opens, and in plunges Yingtai. The music swells to the largest climax of the Concerto.

The flute and harp imbue the recapitulation with a celestial bliss. The love theme reappears on the violin con sordino (muted). Out of the tomb fly a pair of butterflies, which are believed to be the transfigurations of the deceased lovers, whose true love was perpetuated in a verse:

                A rainbow shines and flowers flourish.
                Amid the flowers butterflies flutter
                In pairs that never sever.
                The spirits of Liang and Zhu never perish.