Romeo and Juliet eclipsed by the tragic beauty of Chinese Butterfly Lovers
The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto is one of the best known classical orchestra pieces in China, though a vast majority of its live performances take place in Western concert halls.
It was written in 1958 by He Zhan-hao (何占豪) and Chen Gang (陈钢), both students of the Shanghai Conservatory at the time. Musically, the piece is a loving meld of Eastern and Western traditions, although the melodies and central style were indeed mainlined from traditional Chinese Opera.
A very singular sound immediately catches one's ear, and it is that of the solo violin; its parts were intended to invoke the specific playing technique of the traditional Chinese fiddle Erhu.
The Concerto takes the form of a sonata, adapting the famous ancient legend into the three-act structure:
- Falling in Love
- Refusing to Marry
The tale's original Chinese title is the combination of the lovers' names: Liang Shanbo (梁山伯) and Zhu Yingtai (祝英台). Like many old stories of tragic young love, Liang Shanbo was a schoolboy of poor social standing, while Zhu Yingtai happened to be the only daughter of a wealthy family.
The two lovers met at school, even though under the rule of Eastern Jin dynasty girls were not allowed to study. Eager to learn, Yingtai had unceasingly and vehemently asked her parents for permission, and when her wish was finally granted, it had come under the condition that she was to attend classes in disguise as a boy.
One day, on her way to school, Yingtai met Liang Shanbo, and in a twist of fate they quickly became best friends. Yingtai soon found herself falling in love with him, but she could not express her feelings for him without revealing her identity.
Many moons had passed before Shanbo finally discovered the truth, and with this came the joyous realization that he, too, was in love with Yingtai. However, it was a little too late for them, since Yingtai's parents had already arranged her to be wedded to an heir of another influential family.
The devastation of the heartbreak as well as regret of having missed the fate's offering of one true love brought great illness upon Shanbo, and he soon passed away.
It is at the end of the third act that the story builds up to a dramatic climax, at the marriage ceremony, when the wedding procession, struck by mysterious strong winds, is prevented from passing over the bridge under which Shanbo's grave had been lain.
The winds were relentless, building into a storm so mighty, that its thunder and lightning split Shanbo's grave open. Unable to cope with the unwanted marriage and loss of Shanbo, Yingtai did not hesitate for a second and jumped into the grave, to finally be with her one true love.
The wedding crowd, still stunned by the storm and the ground's miraculous opening, could only watch as, moments later, a pair of beautiful butterflies emerged from the hollow grave.
The Concerto performed by Central Philharmonic Orchestra in Beijing with Lu Si-Qing on solo violin: