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An Encore for the Romantics: Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, we’re revisiting an excerpt from one of our favorite performances of 2022. Minnesota Orchestra Assistant Concertmaster Rui Du was featured as soloist in Chen Gang and He Zhanhao’s The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto during our first-ever Lunar New Year celebration concert last February. Du and Principal Cello Anthony Ross played the primary themes depicting one of the most beloved, lush and tragic romances in all of Chinese folklore. 

About The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto

The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto is credited jointly to two composers—Chen Gang (b. 1935) and He Zhanhao (b. 1933), who collaborated on its composition in 1959 while they were students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Cast in one long movement and subdivided into seven sections, the concerto is a musical representation of the Chinese legend of the Butterfly Lovers, with the solo violin representing the protagonist Zhu Yingtai, and the cello part symbolic of her lover Liang Shanbo. Chen was responsible for the majority of the concerto’s scoring, while He’s primary contribution was the work’s famous opening theme. The concerto is scored for a standard-sized Western orchestra, and utilizes a variety of traditional Chinese techniques and styles to create a sound world suitable for its story. Among them are the use of a five-pitch pentatonic scale and a number of melodies from Chinese folk songs and from a well-known Chinese opera version of the Butterfly Lovers story. Across the concerto we follow Zhu and Liang as they meet in childhood, attend school and grow closer. The tale turns tragic as Zhu is betrothed to another man, Liang becomes ill and dies, and Zhu throws herself into Liang’s grave. In closing, the lovers’ spirits emerge as butterflies. 

The Butterfly Lovers, which premiered in 1959, is often used in figure skating routines, memorably for Chen Lu’s free skate performance at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, at which she became the first Chinese athlete to win a medal in figure skating.