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'Butterfly Lovers' soar again in Sunday concert

ONE of the composers of the famed "Butterfly Lovers Concerto" says his excellent later works are always eclipsed by his maiden music about tragic love. It will be performed tomorrow on its 50th anniversary, reports Nie Xin

One of the composers of China's beloved "Butterfly Lovers Concerto" -- to be performed tomorrow on its 50th anniversary -- says he was surprised by its success and for years has labored to live up to it.

"Nothing surpassed the achievement of this concerto," says He Zhanhao who composed "Butterfly Lovers" in 1959 with Chen Gan, a fellow student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. "I never thought it would be so successful."

The concerto, sometimes called China's "Romeo and Juliet," will be performed at Shanghai Concert Hall by Yu Lina, once a student at the conservatory with the composers. Yu is credited with first performing the work publicly at the Lyceum Theater on May 27, 1959.

Yu will also perform Sibelius' "Finlandia Op. 26" and Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64." The Youth Symphony of the Shanghai Conservatory will cooperate.

"Butterfly Lovers" tells the famous story of forbidden love, arranged marriage and a woman who disguises herself as a man so she can attend school where she meets her lover. She later throws herself into his grave and the two are magically transformed into immortal butterflies.

Composers He and Chen, both in their 70s, still teach composition at the conservatory and hope to be in the audience tomorrow night.

He, Chen and Yu are part of a conservatory group trying to develop a uniquely Chinese style of violin playing, drawing on traditional instruments, elements and techniques.

"People compare my later works with 'Butterfly' and this put great pressure on me," He tells Shanghai Daily. "It sometimes seems a pity, because it eclipsed my other works and made them fade in comparison."

Among his numerous other works, the symphonic poem "Longhua Tower" is considered musically and artistically superior to "Butterfly." He is known for his captivating melodies and also composed "Peacocks Flying Southeast," "Diary of Martyrs" and "Never Forge the Past," among other works.

The concerto's great success cannot be separated from its story, says He.

"It's about love and the story is so well known in Chinese folklore. That's why it became so famous in such a short time."

This year marks the 50th anniversary of "Butterfly Lovers," probably the most famous Chinese composition outside of China, and composed in the Western tonal system, making it more accessible to some than the also famous "Yellow River Concerto."

It was first performed publicly on May 27, 1959, at Shanghai's Lyceum Theater - that's the official performance, but He himself performed it a few weeks earlier for the public at the conservatory.

The Lyceum performance was part of the celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

"Butterfly Lovers" did not become really famous until the late 1970s after the cultural restrictions of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) were loosened.

It is sometimes said that He composed the famous opening and that Chen composed the development. He, however, says that the work was a collective effort.

"The composition was the result of the contributions of many students and tutors at the conservatory," he says.

They were part of an academic group known as "Study Group on the Nationalism of Violin." The students included He, Yu, Ding Zhinuo, Shen Xidi, Zhang Xin, Zhu Yinh and others. Chen later joined the group.

"We were a group of young people dedicated to creating China's own violin style," says He. He was transcribing erhu (two-string fiddle) pieces for violin, and there's also an erhu version of "Butterfly."

They composed violin concertos by adapting traditional Chinese music, like "Er Quan Ying Yue" ("The Moon Reflected in Er Quan") and "Butterfly Lovers."

"Butterfly Lovers" was performed at the Beijing Olympics and is a favorite around the world in concert halls and at figure-skating events.

Solo versions by Sheng Zhongguo and Lu Siqing and Takako Nishazaki have taken their place besides Yu's original.

Before He composed the violin concerto, He had played a Yueju Opera version of "Butterfly Lovers" (also known as "Liang Zhu") hundreds of times on stage. He was a member of the Zhejiang Yueju Opera Troupe and at the time played the violin and yangqin (dulcimer). In 1957, He entered the Shanghai Conservatory, joining classmates Chen and Yu.

"Butterfly Lovers" legend had been performed as traditional Chinese operas in different regions, including Yueju Opera, Sichuan Opera and Huangmei Opera. It has been adapted as a concerto for quohu (a small erhu with higher pitch common in Cantonese music.)

The concerto is in one movement, broken into distinct sections. Each tells part of the story. Some of the melodies come from Yue Opera and traditional folk songs; Chinese chord structures and musical patterns are used.

The violin solo is symbolic of Zhu and the cello is the voice of her lover Liang.

"Butterfly Lovers Concerto" concert

Date: March 7, 7:30pm

Venue: Shanghai Concert Hall, 523 Yan'an Rd E.

Tickets: 80-480 yuan

For more information,check


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