Romance of the Kingdom: Two Chinese Musical Classics

In this post, I like to introduce two works of Chinese music that may not be familiar to Western audience but in China, have become icons of Chinese classical music. As it turns out, both works are inspired by traditional love stories that are themselves classic works of literature. As both were composed in the early part of the 20th century, they are “modern classics”, blending Chinese melodies and instruments with Western-style orchestral arrangements.

The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto

This violin concerto has to be the most well known of Chinese modern classics. The piece was written in 1958 to a story that dates to the Tang Dynasty (9th or 10th century) of two lovers, one of whom was disguised as a boy. Naturally, the courtship could not consummate and it ended with both lovers parting. However (and this is what gives the song its name), after both had died, they emerged as a pair of butterflies, never more to be parted. More details of the romantic story can be found in note [1] at the end of this blog.

The concerto was composed by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang. He was a first-year student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1958 when was asked to write a concerto. The then 24-year-old did so with great reluctance, feeling unqualified for the task. Little did He know then that The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, which he co-wrote with his classmate Chen, would become one of the most well-known Chinese classical music works.

Musically the concerto is a synthesis of Eastern and Western traditions, although the melodies and overall style are adapted from traditional Chinese Opera. The solo violin is used with a technique that recalls the playing technique of Erhu, the Chinese two-string fiddle. It is a one-movement concerto, with three sections that correspond to the three phases of the story—Falling in Love, Refusing to Marry and Metamorphosis.

Here is “The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto” performed by Takako Nishizaki and Zhongguo Shen with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Song of the Red Bean

The second music work is the melancholic “Song of the Red Bean”, a work composed in 1943 to the lyrics of a poem in a famous 18th century novel, Dream of the Red Chamber or Dream of the Red Mansion. Like “The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto”, Song of the Red Bean narrates a love story, this time, set in the waning days of a noble family, which served as a metaphor for the soon-to-end Qing Dynasty. More details of the story are given in note [2] at the end of this blog.

The song takes it name from the bean as symbol of love. As it is sung in Chinese (see video below), readers may not understand what is sung. To help you along, here are excerpts from the 18th century poem in English, which sets the core lyrics for the song.

Filling the gallery, spring blossoms and willow bloom perpetually.
Sleepless stormy twilights, through the window I stare;
Unforgettable sorrow, past and present.
Delightful cuisines I desire not;
Looking in the mirror, I see my gaunt reflection.
Those frowning brows, feeling the pain of missing you;
In these endless nights, my world stops turning.
Oh! You are on my mind, as inexorable as the vague distance
As unstoppable as the ever-flowing streams.

And here is “Song of the Red Bean” rendering the words of the above poem in song:


[1]The narrative for “The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto” is derived from Chinese folklore, that tells the story of the lovers Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. The two had been studying together, with Zhu Yingtai disguised as a boy, her identity unknown to her friend Liang Shanbo. Their period of study together and friendship is a happy one, which comes to an end when Zhu Yingtai is compelled to return home, and the couple part at a pavilion, eighteen miles from the city. This forms the exposition of a tripartite sonata-form movement.

[2] Dream of the Red Chambers, to which “Song of the Red Bean” is based, tells the story of one Jia Baoyu, the carefree son of a great, dynastic family in its waning days and his love for his poetic but sickly cousin whom he considers his soulmate. By a turn of events, he fell for a second women (another cousin) who is rich and smart, the ideal of the marriageable Chinese girl. The romantic rivalry and friendship among the three characters against the backdrop of the family’s declining fortunes forms the main thread of a convoluted story. There is a famous scene that involves a bride switch which parallels Shakespeare’s theatrical device for deception and disguise. More than just a love story, Dream of the Red Chamber is also a tale about a noble family’s fall from grace, a metaphor for the socio-political upheavals in the waning years of the Ching dynasty.

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