An Interview with the famous composer, Chen Gang. In 1958 Chen Gang and He Zhanhao collaborated to compose the popular violin concerto the Butterfly Lovers, which employed western musical instruments to bring into life this Chinese story of love and freedom in a fascinating rhythm.
OVERVIEW OF CHEN GANG
Prof. Chen Gang at the Department of Music Composing in Shanghai Conservatory of Music, is a famous contemporary composer in China. In 1958 while studying in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Chen Gang and his classmate He Zhanhao collaborated to compose the violin concerto the Butterfly Lovers, which employed western musical instruments to bring into life this Chinese story of love and freedom in a fascinating rhythm. In May 1959, the Butterfly Lovers made its debut performance in Shanghai and gained instant fame in the community of music. Later on, the Morning in the Mountain Villages of the Miao People, Golden Steel-Smelting Furnace and The Sun Shines on Taxkorgan composed by Prof. Chen all became popular pieces and are still played even today. In 1997, his violin concerto Wang Zhaojun was played in the U.S., which brought him the title of Honorary Citizen of Dallas. His name has been included in the Who’s Who in the World, International Who’s Who in Music and other 16 lists of such kind. In 2002, Prof. Chen won the Hollywood SCAM Award because “he has built the bridge of international exchanges with his excellent art”.
Reporter: Your name often reminds us of the beautiful melody in the Butterfly Lovers, which seems to be another name of yours.
Chen Gang: The name of a composer is connected with his works. Some people care about the titles that are associated with them, such as “famous”, “musician” or “master”. But for me, these titles are not quite so important. The most important thing for me is the vitality of my works. People love my music and they have loved it for years. This gives me the greatest satisfaction.
Reporter: The Butterfly Lovers has flown to the whole world. Do you nurture some special feeling for butterflies?
Chen Gang: Butterfly is free and beautiful. That’s also my purpose of writing the Butterfly Lovers. I once dreamed of huge swarms of butterflies rising and flying in front of me. I hope the Butterfly Lovers is a colorful butterfly flying freely. I wrote such a poem for butterflies, “Just fly and take the love for mankind to the world, to the space and to the eternity.”
Reporter: Fifty years have passed by, what is the secret for the “colorful butterfly” to remain young?
Chen Gang: Music never tells lies or bluffs. To touch the listeners, music has to express its sincerity. If a piece of music always manages to retain its dynamism and vitality, I believe that’s not just because it is a piece of melody or that it tells a touching story. Indeed, the reason is that it expresses the sincerity, goodness and beauty in human nature, and such characteristics are shared by all of us. Music is closely related to the era, but it also has to transcend the era. The trendy things might not certainly represent the era. The greatest melodies can produce something that touches our inner world. Nowadays, people discuss a lot about the universal values, and I think sincerity, goodness and beauty are universal values. The love story described in the Butterfly Lovers is known to Chinese people and can be heard by foreigners. The violin music comes from the West, but Chinese people love it too. So we don’t have obstacles in musical communications because it expresses something shared by all deep down in our hearts, namely, love, freedom and goodness.
Reporter: After the debut of the Butterfly Lovers, it has been spread quickly and made itself a legend. People from overseas favorably call the concerto as the “Butterfly Lovers”.
Chen Gang: In 1959 when Yu Lina played the Butterfly Lovers in Lycenm Theatre, the radio broadcasted the concerto on the second day and it soon became quite popular in the whole country. The following year, Cao Peng, who was studying in the former Soviet Union, heard about the concerto and asked someone to send him the music score. He then directed the Soviet Union band to play it. In 1972, the American Boston Radio also played and introduced the Butterfly Lovers while titling it as “Romeo and Juliette of China”.
When the Butterfly Lovers became known by the world, I was deeply touched by friends from the music community, in particular the Japanese violinist Takako Nishizaki. Indeed, she was the first to name the concerto as the Butterfly Lovers and I believe the naming is perfect.
Takako Nishizaki loves it so much that she made 7 discs for it. When the Butterfly Lovers was first recorded, she didn’t even know about the love story. She was simply touched by the music. As she gradually learned more about the background story, she made slight changes in her performance. She said, “more and more, I find the Butterfly Lovers can help me forget the playing skills and fully convey the emotions”. And I think her comments have explained why the people with different cultural backgrounds love the concerto. In 1981, I visited her home and found that she was completely infatuated with the Butterfly Lovers. The design of butterfly was found on the carpet, curtains, and many decorations and accessories. I wonder why a foreign musician loves a Chinese concerto so much deep in her heart. Personally, I think she does not just love the music, but also the profound and rich Chinese culture symbolized by the music.
Reporter: Ms. Takako Nishizaki’s love for the Butterfly Lovers is just one protruding example. Wherever the music is played, it creates the greatest sensations.
Chen Gang: You are absolutely right. Indeed, I have always been touched by all this burst of passion shown by the audience.
On July 2, 1997, i.e. the second day after Hong Kong’s return to China, I attended a huge celebration in the Bowl Theatre in Hollywood, U.S. On that day, when Lv Siqing played the first phrase of the Butterfly Lovers accompanied by the Hollywood Studio Symphony, the thunder-like applause rose. I was there too. The theatre is built with a valley on its back and applauses just rose one wave after another. It was the first time for Chinese musicians to perform on that stage for 70 years. And I can never forget the excitement.
Reporter: Music is borderless. Dissemination and exchanges in music also provides the possibility of civilization dialogues.
Chen Gang: Yes. The genuine culture is about human nature, and thus can be understood by the whole world. Whenever and wherever, only things about human nature can be passed on and become classics. Culture cannot be “exported” or “made” because it cannot be compelled or forced upon. Instead, culture evolves naturally. Cultural exchange is not about one culture annihilating another culture. Instead, it aims to produce resonance, achieve mutual appreciation and understanding.
Reporter: What do you think of such comment as “there is always the reflection of a nation behind each classical melody”?
Chen Gang: The term “reflection” is good. If the music is completely national and unique, it can be played all over the world and will gain popularity. For instance, Chinese people don’t speak Italian. But there are many Chinese people who really enjoy Italian operas. Another example is the Kunqu Opera. Though foreigners don’t quite understand the content, many of them like it very much. So some people say that “the national things also belong to the world”. But this is just one aspect of the issue.
Another aspect is about how to speak world language while retaining the reflection of our own culture. If we simply focus on “national things”, they sometimes would not become accepted by the rest of the world because there is no common channel. Music must adopt the world language, but it also has to contain Chinese elements.
The combination of Western and Chinese cultural elements shall not mean piecing them together in a forceful way because that would only produce awkwardness. I believe they should be fusioned in such a way as to produce new things. Shanghai was the craddle of Chinese urban culture, and the city is featured by absorbing new things and blending Western and Chinese elements. I would like to take my father Chen Gexin as an example. He was called the “Music Genius”. Seventy years ago, my father composed the song I Love You, Rose, which is still popular today. The music adopts Chinese tunes and western jazz rhythm. The Butterfly Lovers uses the fundamental key of the Yue Opera music and tells a national story, but we have transformed it into another lyrical language. As symphony music, it can be played by Yu Lina, Takako Nishizaki or Du Mei. In the form of western music, the Butterfly Lovers has the Chinese romantic charm, atmosphere and aesthetics.
Reporter: Many people, when talking about China, only know that China has a long history and ancient civilization. As a matter of fact, we have modern things, too. What course should we follow?
Chen Gang: Last year after we gave the performance in Germany, the elderly mayor of a local city stepped onto the stage excitedly. He said he only knew that China had Peking Opera. But it was the first time The violin concerto the Butterfly Lovers is based on a folk love story known to each and every Chinese. The concerto adopts the sonata structure to narrate the three sections of the story, namely, “becoming brothers”, “Yingtai refusing the arranged marriage” and “transforming into butterflies in front of the tomb”. This musical piece lasts for about 26 minutes. Based on the tune of Yue Opera popular in Zhejiang Province of China, the concerto intermingles symphony with elements of Chinese folk music. At the end of the concerto, the light and graceful string music highlights the eternal love between the hero and heroine, who become butterflies flying out of their tomb so as to stay together for eternity. In 1981 and 1982, the Butterfly Lovers won the Gold Disc Award and Platinum Disc Award in Hong Kong. It was the first time these awards were ever presented to classical music. In 2007, the first Chinese moon-orbit detection satellite Chang’e was launched into space. After extensive votes, the violin concerto the Butterfly Lovers was chosen as one of the 30 music pieces to be carried by the satellite. It has being played in space ever since February 2008. that he had enjoyed such wonderful classical music from China. The mayor was so excited that he almost fell on himself. And we were quite moved by his kind words.
I think we should first have confidence in our culture, which is worth respecting. However, we should neither depend on history alone nor discard our history. We have to find new courses, that is, to showcase the dynamism and vitality of China and its people in modern days. And such portrayal should be modern, with Chinese characteristics but should also be reflective of its 5,000-year culture. Modified by such terms, we will have a unique look. Then we will seek better taste and explore something profound and straight to the heart to reveal the glamour of human nature because it is universal and eternal.
THE “BUTTERFLY LOVERS”
The violin concerto the Butterfly Lovers is based on a folk love story known to each and every Chinese. The concerto adopts the sonata structure to narrate the three sections of the story, namely, “becoming brothers”, “Yingtai refusing the arranged marriage” and “transforming into butterflies in front of the tomb”. This musical piece lasts for about 26 minutes. Based on the tune of Yue Opera popular in Zhejiang Province of China, the concerto intermingles symphony with elements of Chinese folk music. At the end of the concerto, the light and graceful string music highlights the eternal love between the hero and heroine, who become butterflies flying out of their tomb so as to stay together for eternity. In 1981 and 1982, the Butterfly Lovers won the Gold Disc Award and Platinum Disc Award in Hong Kong. It was the first time these awards were ever presented to classical music.
In 2007, the first Chinese moon-orbit detection satellite Chang’e was launched into space. After extensive votes, the violin concerto the Butterfly Lovers was chosen as one of the 30 music pieces to be carried by the satellite. It has being played in space ever since February 2008.
Published in Confucius Institute Magazine.
Number 25 Volume II. March 2013.
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