The Phoenix for Soprano and Orchestra was co-commissioned by the Seattle Symphony and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. It was written for soprano Jane Eaglen and for both orchestras. The work was premiered on February 5th, 2004, in Seattle by Jane Eaglen and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. It is dedicated to Jeff Sanderson and Mitch Mathews.
Instrumentation: three flutes (two doubling piccolo), two oboes, one English horn, three clarinets in Bb (one doubling Eb clarinet, one doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), four French horns, three trumpets in C, three trombones, one tuba, timpani, crotales, glockenspiel, bell tree, small suspended cymbal, two tambourines (high and low), wind gong, crash cymbals, low tam-tam, two flexatons (high and low), low bass drum, guiro, ratchet, triangle, harp and strings.
In the spring of 2003, I was approached by both the Seattle Symphony and the Danish National Symphony to write a new work for each orchestra. The Seattle Symphony requested a work for voice and orchestra for the superb soprano Jane Eaglen for the Symphony’s centennial celebration; and the commission from the Danish National Symphony would be for the bicentennial birth anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen.
I was immediately drawn to the thought of combining these two projects together. I have always been fascinated to Andersen’s works. Growing up in China, I read almost all of his fairy tales, popular in their Chinese translation. However, while perusing through Anderson’s works this time, I came upon a prose text called The Bird Phoenix with which I was not familiar. I was attracted not only to the beautiful and beguiling narrative, but also moved by the profundity and the grandiose portrayal of the mystical bird phoenix—the bird of Arabia. I found Anderson’s interpretation of the bird to be illuminating in that it went far beyond the traditional understanding of the legend. He had transformed the celebrated bird into the muse of all artistic creation—a bird of epic proportion and majestic inspiration, and the muse of all peoples.
Lyrics of the Phoenix
Inspired and based on a short story by Hans Christian Andersen
English Lyrical adaptation by Bright Sheng
In the Garden of Eden, under the tree of knowledge,
bloomed a rosebush.
Here in thefirst blossom,
a bird was born—her flight was as swift as the flashing of light,
and her plumage was as ravishing as her enchanting songs.
Yet when Eve plucked the apple from the tree,
and she and Adam were expelled from Paradise by the angel’s flaming sword,
a spark fell into the bird’s nest, setting it ablaze.
The bird perished in the flames,
but from one red hot egg deep inside the nest,
there fluttered aloft a new bird—the one and only Phoenix!
The legend tells us that she dwells in Arabia and every hundred years she sets afire her own nest and dies.
But each time from the glittering egg,
arises a new Phoenix,
dashing into the world.
She hovers around us, swift as light,
sweet in song and resplendent in color.
When a mother sits by her baby’s cradle,
the bird rests on the pillow and her bright wings form a glory around the baby’s head.
She flies through the houses of the poor and brings rays of sunshine,
leaving behind the perfume of violets.
The Phoenix is not only seen in Arabia.
No, she soars through the glimmer of the northern lights across the icy plains of Lapland.
She dances among the yellow flowers in the short summers of Greenland.
And in the shape of a moth,
she fliesover the hymns of the miners beneath the copper mountains of Fahlun and coal mines of England.
On a leaf of a lotus,
she floats down the sacred waters of the Ganges and brightens the eyes of the Hindu Girl.
The bird Phoenix!
Do you not know her?
The bird of Paradise,
the holy swan of songs! On the Thespian cart,
she flapped her filthy black wings,
disguised as a chattering raven.
Her red swan beak glided across the Icelandic harp.
And she flew through the halls of songfest in Wartburg.
She sang the Marseillaise and you kissed the beautiful feather as it fell from her wing.
She came in the splendor of Paradise.
The Phoenix, the holy swan of songs,
reborn each century,
created in flames to perish in flames!
Your golden rimmed portrait hangs in the palaces of the kings,
but you yourself, lost and lonely,
wing around only in the legend: the Phoenix of Arabia.
In the Garden of Eden,
under the tree of knowledge,
you were born.
When the first rose blossomed, God kissed you and called you
your rightful name—music.