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Happy Lunar New Year!

Souvenir celebration dragon
Sandy Millar
Souvenir celebration dragon

I wished my friend Libby a Happy New Year when we got together for a long-delayed lunch in early January. Libby was born in Hong Kong and said, “Thanks, but remember, you’ll have to wish me a Happy New Year in a month, too!” She explained that in Hong Kong and across Asia and many other communities around the world, the Lunar New Year is celebrated in late January or February and is based on the first new moon of the year. The Chinese further categorize years as having an affiliation to one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. 2024 is the Year of the Dragon.

I asked Libby to tell me more about a “dragon” year. She said that while the other 11 signs are based on real animals, the only one that is based on legend is the Dragon. It is the fifth creature in the zodiac and is considered the most powerful. The Dragon represents strength, and as a result, the ancient Chinese emperors claimed they were descended from dragons.

In 2000, composer Nancy Faber, inspired by China’s ancient mythology of dragons, wrote Chinese Dragons. Although it was originally a piece for one piano-four hands, it also has been transcribed for flute quartet. The quartet is in three movements titled “Dragon Dances,” “Dragon’s Gate,” and “Dragon in the Clouds.” Here is a 2021 flute quartet rehearsal recording of the piece:

Dragons have also been part of western lore, but influenced strongly by Christianity, they are often portrayed as evil creatures to be vanquished (for example, “St. George and the Dragon”).

One of the best-known dragons in western opera appears in Act 2 of Wagner’s 1857 opera, Siegfried, when the young title character sets out on a quest to kill the dragon “Fafner,” who is guarding great treasure in his cave. The Bavarian State Opera does a fanciful depiction of the evil dragon:

With his dying words Fafner the dragon warns Siegfried of the power of the treasure, which is also a foretelling of even more evil that Siegfried is about to face.

“This is the story of a boy, a saint, and a dragon...” So begins composer John Rutter’s musical retelling of Kenneth Grahame’s 1895 story The Reluctant Dragon. It was originally just a chapter in Grahame’s book Dream Days, but became a stand-alone story in 1938. Rutter wrote The Reluctant Dragon, an Entertainment in 1985. Here is the intro to the piece with Richard Hickox conducting The King’s Singers and the City of London Sinfonia:

And children of all ages who are dragon fans will enjoy the 1987 stop-motion animation movie based on the Grahame story, also titled The Reluctant Dragon.

In the DreamWorks film How to Train Your Dragon, instead of fighting dragons, which is the way of life for his Norse tribe, the chief’s son, Hiccup, befriends a dragon he has named Toothless. Here’s the scene where Hiccup tries to train Toothless to fly with him as a rider. The music is by John Powell:

And here’s the scene’s music without dialogue:

More dragons! Composer Audrey Snyder wrote The Knight and the Dragon for men’s voices, and here is a quartet called The Great Pretenders, performing the short piece in 2014:

In Joaquín Turina’s piano suite, Mallorca, written in 1927, the first of the three movements is called “Las Cuevas del Dragon,” or the “Lairs (caves) of the Dragon.” It turns out that the famous tourist attractions in Mallorca are covered in stalactites and stalagmites. The caves were so named because their dark eeriness conjured up in the imagination just exactly where a dragon might live. Pascal Gallet plays it here:

Whether your mind’s picture of dragons is evil and fierce or just a gentle and misunderstood creature, there’s music for that!

CODA:  Here’s a little more about the Year of the Dragon:

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.