Posts Tagged ‘music’

[Note: This blogpost was modified from my debate with Skepsikyma :]

Zhuang Zhou, better known by the title of Zhuangzi, was the second greatest philosopher of the Daoist school, after the founder Laozi. Greatly revered by generations of followers of the Daoist tradition, Zhuang Zhou’s philosphy has inspired numerous works of art, including a piece by Song Dynasty guqin master Mao Minzhong, Zhuang Zhou’s Butterfly Dream.

The piece itself is a peaceful reverie, which is evident to the listener from the first handful of notes, which set the tone and mood of the piece. The piece picks up after a couple of glissandi, yet remains tranquil in mood throughout. On occasion, one can hear traces of emotional intensity, yet this is always followed by a subsequent, gradual return to peace.

I shall, however, refrain from over-interpreting the piece with my own views, and instead present to the reader only the information necessary to understand it fully. Therefore, I will post here the passage from Zhuangzi on which the piece was based:


Although written in Classical Chinese, the passage is not difficult to understand. Here is my translation:

In the past, Zhuang Zhou dreamt that he was a butterfly, a lively butterfly. He told himself that he was happy, and had not a worry in the world. He knew no Zhuang Zhou. Abruptly he awoke, and suddenly, he was Zhuang Zhou again. Yet was it Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt of being a butterfly, or is it now a butterfly who is dreaming of being Zhuang Zhou? Between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly, there must be one thing that separates them: It is transformation.

This paragraph is the last of the second chapter of Zhuangzi, Qiwu Lun, or On the Sameness of Things, which posits that all things are one. It concludes the concept very well. All things are one; what separates one thing from the other is transformation. A rational person might point out that it was Zhuangzi who turned into a butterfly in his dreams, and not vice versa, but how do we know exactly? When Zhuangzi turned into a butterfly in his dreams and knew no Zhuang Zhou, was he also a butterfly?

According to Daoist thought, it is only the most spiritually developed man who can see through the barrier between dream and reality, regard all things as one, and forget what we call ‘self’. In one world, he was a butterfly; in the other world, he was Zhuang Zhou. The butterfly was joyous, without a worry in the world, and belonged to the realm of spirituality; Zhuang Zhou was human, had to deal with worldly affairs, and belonged to the realm of man.

In the words of Moni Tianhong, one of the foremost guqin masters of our times, to master this piece, one must be able to ‘[…] Ride on the winds across the massive void, to transform in the same rhythm as the heavens and the earth, and to be one with all things.’ This is demonstrated in the video, by an anonymous performer whose work we are fortunate enough to be able to enjoy through YouTube.


In The Shadows of the Dark Dream, a collection of essays from the Qing Dynasty, writer Zhang Chao wrote that Zhuang Zhou becoming a butterfly was a blessing for Zhuang Zhou, but the butterfly becoming Zhuang Zhou was a curse for the butterfly. This is sadly true. Transforming into a butterfly rid Zhuang Zhou of all his worldly worries, but transforming into Zhuang Zhou robbed the butterfly of its peace and tranquility. So, too, was the butterfly who wrote this piece robbed of his piece and tranquility. After dedicated his life to performing, collecting and composing guqin works, Mao Minzhong went to Beijing for a place in government, the greatest honour for any scholar in Imperial China. He failed, and passed away in Beijing. One can hope that in his eternal rest, he will again transform into a butterfly, and roam the realm of spirituality forever.


Both of Beethoven’s two piano sonatas, Op. 27, bore the subtitle of ‘Quasi una fantasia‘, or ‘almost a fantasy’. Nevertheless, it is the lesser-known No. 1 that became known by this name, for the popular, misunderstood and rather hackneyed second sonata has taken the title of ‘Moonlight’. It was the music critic Ludwig Rellstab who, in his 1824 novel Theodor, bestowed this name on the first movement of the piece. He was not the first to associate the piece with the night: Czerny, one of Beethoven’s most successful students, called it a ‘night scene’.

There is no evidence that Beethoven had moonlight in mind. In fact, Czerny likely got the nocturnal associations from his friend Field, who invented the nocturne. Czerny, himself a prolific composer of the genre, would not be unfamiliar with its characteristic style – cantabile melody, broken-chord accompaniment – which is heard throughout the first movement of Op. 27 No. 2.

By prescribing the mood of the piece, Czerny and Rellstab have unwittingly stripped the sonata of an important element: That of a fantasia. A fantasia is a piece that breaks free from restrictions, flouts convention and lets ideas flow naturally from the mind and sentiments from the heart. Thanks to Czerny and Rellstab, every time a pianist plays the piece, she thinks of moonlight over a lake, instead of engaging the imagination that is an integral part of a fantasia. Even if the interpreter does not have lunar intentions (or deliberately avoids holding them), the listener cannot but feel there is, for we have been instilled since an early age the notion that the sonata is about the moon.

Music is an art. What is art? Art is a way of expressing ideas that leaves room for interpretation. It is not the artist’s job – lesser still, the job of interpreters – to fill in every detail, capture exact ideas, and tell the audience – reader, listener, theatregoer, admirer of fine arts – what to think. The greatest masters do not weave ‘seamless celestial robes’ (天衣無縫); to use a Cantonese phrase, when you draw a figure, you don’t have to draw in the intestines, too (唔洗畫公仔畫出腸). This poem from Li Qingzhao is an example:


Last night a sprinkling of rain, a violent wind. After a deep sleep, still not recovered from the lingering effect of wine, I inquired of the one rolling up the screen; But the answer came: “The cherry-apple blossoms are still the same.” “Oh, don’t you know, don’t you know? The red must be getting thin, while the green is becoming plump.”

(Translation courtesy of Lucy Chao Ho, Seton Hall University)

Who was the soul who rolled up the screen? Some say her deceased husband; some say a servant girl. Some say he was a figment of the poet’s imagination. We will never know, nor do we need to know. Generations of interpreters can decide for themselves. For the same reason, I prefer listening to Op. 27 No. 1 rather than its celebrated sibling. I cannot escape from Rellstab’s moonlight.