• Bright Sheng
  • Melodies of a Flute (2012)

  • G Schirmer Inc (World)
  • fl(afl), mba(cym), vn, vc
  • 15 min

Programme Note

First performance:
April 10, 2012
Camerata Pacifica
San Marino, CA

1. Flute and Phoenix
2. Lotus Flowers

Composer note:
Melodies of a Flute was commissioned by Luci Janssen, for her husband Richard, on the occasion of their 40th wedding anniversary. It was written for Camerata Pacifica, who gave the premiere performance on April 10th, 2012, at Huntington Library of San Marino, California, with Adrian Spence on flute and alto flute, Catherine Leonard on violin, Ani Aznavoorian on violoncello, and Ji Hye Jung on marimba and small suspended cymbal.

Melodies of a Flute was inspired by the poetry of Li Qing Zhao (1084-c. 1051), arguably the most important woman poet in the history of Chinese literature. Unlike her (mostly male) contemporaries during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Li was audacious in expressing her deep feelings, sometimes in a rather direct and sensuous way. According to the Confucius tradition, unwavering expression of love and passion was considered taboo and distasteful. Most of the "love" poems found in ancient Chinese poetry were often used as metaphors for articulating something else, e.g. the author's loyalty to the emperor. When love was the true intended theme, it was often implied in other symbolic forms such as flowers or weather.

But Li Qing Zhao, expressively or metaphorically, wrote often about her love life with Zhao Ming Cheng, a government official and Li's soul-mate husband.

In the first movement, I tried to capture the mood of longing in Memories of a Flute on the Phoenix Terrace, in which Li referred her union to Zhao to an old myth about love and music to utter her melancholy emotional feeling on the eve of Zhao's departure to a far-away post, designated by the emperor. This fable, known as Flute and Phoenix, was a recurrent reference in her poems: Nong Yu, an avid jade flute player and the daughter of a Duke, fell in love with a virtuoso musician named Xiao Shi, who, when playing the (vertical) flute, could recreate the song of the phoenix. Later the two were married and played flutes everyday on the Phoenix Terrace built by the Duke, until one day, charmed by the music, the phoenix came and brought them to heaven.

The image of the second movement, Lotus Flowers, came from a poem in which the author accounted a spontaneous boating race and lost her way among the lotus flowers. As in many of Li's works, this poem may suggest itself as a sensuous metaphor:

      To the Tune: Like a Dream

      I always remember that dusk at a pagoda by the creek.
      In our boats, we were exulted but exhausted,
      Too tipsy to remember our way home;
      We lost into the deep place of lotus flowers.

      Row! Row!
      We startled a flock of egrets and gulls.

— Bright Sheng