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Chinese composer Gang Chen is a 20th-century one-hit wonder. He co-composed the violin concertoLiang Shanbo yu Zhu Yingtai (‘The Butterfly Lovers’, 1959) which is instantly recognizable worldwide.
Chen first studied composition with his father, Gexin Chen, and then with Shande Ding. He studied at the Shanghai Conservatory from 1955-1960. After graduating, he became a teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory. With the exception of spending a stint as head of the Guanxi Institute of the Arts, Chen has held his post at the conservatory.
Chen has written in nearly all the Western art music genres and film scores, though it is his first successful work that he is still famous for. The concerto won five Golden Record prizes and a Platinum Record Prize.
The Butterfly Lovers was a composition assignment that Chen completed together with violinist Zhanhao He. The two were to form the group “Experimental Group for Violin Music of Chinese Style’. The concerto is in one large, 26 minute-movement, modelled on the Western sonata form. Interesting Chinese techniques are used including techniques from the Yueju opera style of the Zhejiang Province. East and West are united in harmony in the composers’ use of tonality, with an emphasis on pentatonic harmonies, giving a distinct Oriental feeling. The two students used Zhanhao He’s previously writtenButterfly Lovers Quartet as a starting point, expanding it to create a grand concerto.
The concerto was premiered on 27 May 1959 by violinist Lina Yu at a ceremony celebrating the tenth anniversary of the founding of New China. Lu recalled, ‘When I finished the first performance, there was total silence from the audience. We were anxious for a moment, and then there was a thunderous applause. I felt relieved and motivated, so I played the second time’.
While the composers were thrilled to have written such a masterpiece, they ‘never expected the work to become a classic. They said they just felt relieved that they completed the assignment’.
At the time the concerto was written, most composers were writing works for the purpose of propaganda or with communistic themes including the recruitment of soldiers and the great steel movement. All other types of music were labelled “decadent” and condemned. The concerto was banned until 1977.
The concerto is based on the tragic Chinese love story of Liang Zhu (Butterfly Lovers). This legend is often referred to as the Chinese Romeo and Juliet. Another saying is, ‘Where the sun shines, there are Chinese; where there are Chinese, the Butterfly Lovers can be heard’.
The story is based on the popular legend from Southern China about Yingtai Zhu and Shanbo Liang. Zhu was the daughter of a wealthy family from the Zhejiang province during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (265-420) in which women were not allowed to attend the university. Desperate to study, she pretended to be a man in order to study at the Wansong Academy, where she met and fell in love with Liang, a poor intellectual from Shaoxing City.
After three years of studying together, Zhu tried to hint to Liang that she was actually a woman, but Liang did not understand what she was trying to tell him. Cleverly, Zhu told him she had a sister and that they would make a lovely match. Several months later, Liang came to meet and propose to Zhu’s sister and discovered that Zhu was actually a woman and they fell in love.
However, as tragic love stories tend to go, there was no happily ever after at this point. Zhu was arranged to marry Wencai Ma, a man from a wealthy family to create a marriagemen dang hu dui (perfect in social status). The poor scholar Ling was struck with grief and died shortly after of a broken heart.
The wedding day with Ma finally came. During the wedding procession, Zhu requested to stop at Liang’s grave, at which time a whirlwind appeared and the tomb opened; Zhu was able to jump into the grave to confess her love to Liang. The tomb closed and rain, thunder and lightning followed. As the clouds parted and the sun began to shine, a couple of butterflies flew up from the grave, and these are said to be the spirits of Zhu and Liang, resurrected as butterflies.
The concerto, though written in one movement, contains three sections: falling in love, refusing to marry and metamorphosis. The concerto opens with a fluttery flute solo, setting the scene in the serene town in the Zhejiang Province. The violin solo follows and the cello responds to the violin’s melodies. The delicate violin represents Zhu while the low, rumbling cello represents Liang.
Western instruments are used, along with a sonata form model, Western pitches, variations and a cyclic form while Eastern elements such as the pentatonic scales, syncopated chords and restless rhythms combine with the local opera style to create a unique blend of East and West. One critic describes the unique musical language as ‘Wieniawski mixed with Bruch, perhaps if the two had a well-mannered child dressed in a pentatonic scale’.
Butterfly Lovers is most definitely Chen’s signature work, whether he appreciates it or not, and it signifies the changing of China as the bans on culture were lifted. ‘It’s a tune that does not ages as does its performers’.