Technically, this isn’t a tone poem; it’s right up-front about being a concerto. But what a concerto it is, and it’s a masterpiece of tone painting as well. It is also a programmatic work, intended to tell a story.
The work is the Butterfly Lovers Concerto for violin and orchestra, by He Zhanhou (who composed the main melody) and Chen Gang (who wrote the development sections). The work purports to tell the story of an old Chinese folktale:
The concerto illustrates the folktale of the star-crossed lovers Zhu Yingtai and Liang Shanbo, known as the “Chinese Romeo and Juliet.” Yingtai, the only daughter in her family, breaks with the convention prohibiting women from studying and attends classes disguised as a man. At school she falls in love with another scholar, Shanbo, but is recalled home to be married to a wealthy merchant. Shanbo dies of heartbreak. On the way to her wedding, Yingtai passes Shanbo’s grave and begs for the ground to swallow her up. The grave splits open and Yingtai throws herself into it. Yingtai and Shanbo’s spirits transform into a pair of butterflies that fly away together.
The Butterfly Lovers Concerto is a deeply gorgeous work, with an East-meets-West flavor as eastern melodies are interpreted in the language of western instrumentations. It is infectiously melodic, and it is as crowd-pleasing a work as you’ll find in all of classical music. Maybe it’s not especially profound…but I’m not at all sure it needs to be.
Here is the Butterfly Lovers Concerto.