Gang (and He Zhanhao) – The Butterfly Lovers Concerto (for erhu)

by Max Derrickson

He Zhanhao (born 1933) and Chen Gang (born 1935)

The Butterfly Lovers Concerto

The Maori of New Zealand believe that the soul returns to earth as a butterfly. In ancientGreece, the word “psyche” meant “soul and breath,” and was symbolized by a butterfly. Myths about moths and butterflies abound in Celtic lore, and in Aztec and Mayan mythology, sacrifice was deeply associated with the butterfly. But probably the most ancient mythology equating the soul with butterflies comes fromChina.

Nor is there a lack of cultural lore about star-crossed lovers. The West has Romeo and Juliet, and Tristan and Isolde. China has the ancient love tragedy of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, who, sometime in the 4th Century, were undone by rigid social conventions. The story made its way into the traditional Yueju opera of Zhejiang Province.

This is the tale that composers He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, keenly familiar with the Yueju repertoire, chose as the basis for tonight’s beautiful Butterfly Lovers Concerto, which they co-wrote in 1958 while students at the Shanghai Conservatory. At the turn of the 20th Century, “classical” Chinese musicians felt that serious music should be modeled upon Western traditions, and thus began their rigorous study of European composers, especially Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, and Grieg. But over time, Chinese idioms and modes blended with Western forms and ideas. Of the “Four Generations” of theNewSchoolin Chinese music, Zhanhao and Gang were of the Fourth—and last. Only a few years after they wrote this concerto, the Cultural Revolution put an end to everything Western.

Their composition, a marvel of lushness and beauty, is a wonderful mix of the Western symphonic tradition with Chinese folk music and vocal techniques. Zhanhao and Gang originally wrote the concerto for a Western violin, imitating the sound of the erhu. The erhu is a traditional bowed Chinese instrument that has only two strings—and no fingerboard—attached to a resonating body typically encased in snakeskin. The lack of a fingerboard allows for extreme vibrato and bending of pitches. This beautiful, intimately emotive instrument was most often used to express weeping and intense emotion.

In 1988, after Chen Gang met Jiebing Chen at the Shanghai Conservatory and listened to her spiritual playing of the erhu, he realized that perhaps the erhu could be even more expressive in depicting the lovers’ conversations and their inner feelings. He rearranged the concerto for erhu and asked Miss Chen to premiere the new version. Since then, Miss Chen has performed the concerto with many of the world’s top symphonies, including the New Moscow Philharmonic, Shanghai Symphony, and San Francisco Symphony.

The Story of The Butterfly Lovers  [. . .]