The Splendour of China: The story of the “Butterfly Lovers”

Q: You’ve mentioned the Butterfly Lovers is a very romantic story. What happens?

Michael Hope (MH):

It’s pretty hot stuff.  Here’s the gist of it:

–          Boy meets precocious girl in college (but the girl is actually disguised as a boy because in China’s 3rd century, girls were not allowed to attend school…).

–          Boy and “girl” become best friends and drinking buddies.

–          After graduation, boy discovers the girl’s true identity and they fall in love.

–          However, learning that the girl is betrothed to another, the boy commits suicide.

–          Later, on the way to her wedding, the girl passes the boy’s grave and commands the heavens to open up the grave.

–          The heavens oblige with a clap of thunder, and as the grave opens, the girl dives into the chasm and dies herself.

–          They both get transformed into butterflies and fly out of the grave into the heavens, forever united…

It’s a great story – one that I think blows Romeo and Juliet out of the water in terms of steaminess….

Q: What makes the Butterfly Lovers Concerto a unique piece of music?

MH: It’s incredibly descriptive.  The composers have gone to great pains to describe – through a process called “tone painting”- each element of the story.  For example, the floating butterflies, the village dances, and most importantly, the emotions, are brought to life with the sounds of the orchestra.  It’s a true piece of program music that way, and very easy to follow.  Also – even though it was written in the mid-20th century, the piece is very easy to listen to.  Unlike a lot of 20th century music, this piece is not afraid to show off a good tune!  It’s a bit of a toe tapper and you’ll definitely leave the concert hall humming all of the piece’s beautiful melodies.

Q: Why are the Yellow River and Butterfly Lovers concertos significant in Chinese culture/history?

MH: Traditionally, classical music is dominated by music by European composers.  These two pieces (Butterfly Lovers and Yellow River) are distinct in that they are two of the only compositions written by Asian composers that have broken into the mainstream repertoire played by western orchestras.  In China, they are considered blockbusters, and the very, very best of what Chinese Music Composition has to offer.