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Zodiac Tales (2016) 十二生肖

Concerto for Orchestra

1. The God of Rain
2. Of Mice and Cats
3. Three Lambs under the Spring Sun
4. The Elephant-Eating Serpent
5. The Tomb of the Soulful Dog
(In Memory of Alice Cheng)
6. The Flying Horses

Program Note

The original 2006 version of this work was commissioned by The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, Music Director. This commission was made possible with support from the Philadelphia Music Project, an artistic initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, administered by the University of Arts.

Five movements of the work were premiered by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, conductor, on January 30, 2014.

This is the revised 2016 version, premiered by the National Symphony with Christoph Eschenbach conducting his final concert as its Music Director on June 15, 2017.

The fifth movement, The Tomb of the Soulful Dog was written in memory of my mother Alice Cheng who was born in the year of the dog, and passed away on February 8th, 2005.

The work is scored for three flutes (with the second doubles piccolo 2, and the third doubles piccolo 3), three oboes (with the third doubles the English horn), three clarinets in Bb (with the second doubles Eb clarinet, and the third doubles the bass clarinet in Bb), three bassoons (with the third doubles the contrabassoon), four French horns in F, three trumpets in C (with the third doubles trumpet in Bb), two tenor trombones, one bass trombone, one tuba, timpani, four percussion players (xylophone, glockenspiel, crotales, four cowbells, four wood blocks, 4 bongos, guiro, slapstick, ratchet, triangle, low temple block, Peking Opera cymbals, 2 bell plates, wind gong, small tam-tam, large tam-tam (60”), low bass drum), harp, and strings.

Every Chinese is born in a zodiac year symbolized by a specific animal that accompanies the person throughout his or her life: the year of the mouse, the buffalo, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the serpent, the horse, the ram, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, and the pig.

However, we know that the Chinese did not first create the notion of the zodiac cyclic calendar. Many other ancient civilizations such as the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Indians, and the Babylonians all cultivated the concept that the planets in the heavens were divided into twelve constellations, represented by twelve animals, although some of these animals were different from those in the current Chinese system.

We also know that, approximately four thousand years ago—around the time that zodiac belief reached China—the Chinese started studying astronomy and astrology. However, the first detailed writing in Chinese literature did not appear until the Eastern Han Dynasty (23-220 A.D.) well over two thousand years later, when a Chinese philosopher named Wang Chong discussed the relationship of nature and the twelve constellations in his famous treatise, “Weighing the Measurement”. Since then, legends of these astrological animals have been appearing throughout history of Chinese literature; and some of the most vivid images of these largely fictional tales have provided me with inspiration as a point of departure for me to compose.

1. The Rain God

Also known as the dragon, The Rain God is the only mythical animal among the twelve. According to Chinese tradition, the dragon symbolizes the highest celestial power. Its appearance is a combinationof nine animals, the head of the qiu (a Chinese mythical animal between a small lion and large dog), the antler of the deer, the eyes of the rabbit, the ears of the bull, the body of the serpent, the belly of the giant clam, the scales of the carp, the paws of the eagle, and the palms of the tiger. Among the twelve, it is not only the mightiest but also rules for the affairs of rain and water. Through history, the Chinese have built temples all over the country to honor the dragon god, praying for a good season of rain for the crops and for protection from the flood.

2. Of Mice and Cats

A pair of mice can reproduce almost a thousand young ones over the period of a year; and each three-month-old mouse is mature enough to reproduce again. With the mouse, I see different images: from one mouse to hundreds, to thousands, and even millions of mice all in one place.

According to the legend, the cat did not make it into the zodiacs because of the mouse. They were good friends at one point, but when the Jade Emperor (a god-like figure in Chinese mythology) summoned the animals to his court for zodiac designations, the mouse intentionally did not wake up his sleeping friend as he had promised he would. Arrived the first before the Emperor, The mouse was chosen as number one of the twelve zodiac animals. The cat and mouse became enemies ever since.

3. Three Lambs under the Spring Sun

Chinese myth believes that the ram is the sun god. Here, the picture of three lambs resting under the sun in early spring signifies the good omen of happiness and a generous harvest for the year.

4. The Elephant-Eating Serpent

Although the serpent is not as powerful as the dragon, it still has much strength and is known for its ability to swallow much bigger objects than the size of its own body. Thus the metaphor describing a person’s extreme greediness is called ‘the serpent who craves to eat an elephant’.

5. The Tomb of the Soulful Dog

The notion that ‘the dog is Man’s best friend’ has also been part of Chinese culture for a long time. The most well-known fable is about the dog of Emperor Liu Bang, the founder of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.). In the legend, the Emperor’s dog saved his master’s army by sacrificing himself to put out a fire set by the enemy as they besieged and surrounded the Emperor’s troops. Emperor Liu later buried the dog in a serene ceremony and built a large tombstone inscribed with ‘The Tomb of the Soulful Dog’.

6. The Flying Horses

In Chinese mythology, the heavenly horses could travel as much as a thousand miles a day across the sky—an image that is truly inspiring, with visions of thousands of them dashing over the horizon together.

—Bright Sheng