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Musical Butterflies

Blue butterfly
Michal Mrozek
Blue butterfly

Metamorphosis has always been the greatest symbol of change for poets and artists. Imagine that you could be a caterpillar one moment and a butterfly the next.” — Louie Schwartzberg

I learned about the idea of a “personal symbol” from my mother, who had a personal symbol for as long as I knew her. She was a fan of seashells, and while she loved them all, with special affection for the nautilus (known as a symbol of the “home”), the grace and elegance of the radiating grooves of the St. James scallop shell meant the world to her.

It wasn’t until I was almost an adult that it hit me how drawn I was to the idea of a butterfly as my own personal symbol. The changes a caterpillar goes through to become a butterfly are utterly remarkable to me. I saw monarchs frequently in our Boston back yard, and occasionally other New England butterfly species, but I wondered if there were any in my favorite shade of blue. Trips to the library helped me learn that of the ten rarest butterflies in the world, three of them were blue. My symbol was born.

All of that makes the following selections especially meaningful to me.

Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg started writing his collections of Lyric Pieces in 1866, and by the time he was done 45 years later, he had published 66 short piano pieces in 10 volumes. The first piece in Book 3 was simply titled Sommerfugl, (Butterfly). And how cool is this: I found Grieg playing the piece in 1906 for a piano roll! The Welte-Mignon company re-engineered the sound in 1991 so you can get an idea of how Grieg would have played it himself in a live concert!

French composer Claude Debussy was so inspired by a poem by his fellow countryman Theophile Gautier, that he set The Butterflies to music as a song for soprano with piano accompaniment. The music was probably written around 1881. It was lost until the New York Public Library located Debussy’s autographed copy in their archives. It was given its world premiere in 1962 at New York’s Town Hall.

Here’s the poem:

Snow-colored butterflies
Fly in swarms over the sea.
Beautiful white butterflies,
when could I take the blue path in the air?

Do you know, oh most beautiful of all,
My bayadere with jet-black eyes,
If they could lend me their wings,
Tell me, do you know where I would go?

Without taking a single kiss from the roses,
Across vales and woodlands,
I would go to your half-closed lips,
Flower of my soul, and there I would die.

And here is French soprano Sandrine Piau with pianist Jos van Immerseel:

His fellow countryman Gabriel Fauré also composed music inspired by butterflies, but for solo piano. His 2 Pieces pour piano: No. 1 Papillons noirs, No. 2 Papillon blanc were published in 1907Since the original publication, arrangements for piano with violin, cello, or flute have also gained popularity. Here are cellist Oren Shevlin and pianist Mariko Ashikawa:

And there’s still another Frenchman who wrote about butterflies! Like Debussy, Camille Saint-Saëns would also be inspired by a poem. He wrote his song Papillons in 1918, after reading a poem of the same title by Renée de Léché:

Papillons (translated from the French)

Where do you fly, so frail,

Little light butterfly?

Is it not true then that the wing

Tired of fluttering?

Don't you fear that the breeze

May your play wither you,

Or may the hurricane break you,

That one evening comes to bruise you?

Oh! no, your diaphanous body

Wants to be intoxicated with the azure,

Of the fading rose,

Of a purer spring sky...

And like Debussy’s song, this one by Saint-Saëns was also for soprano with piano or orchestra. Once again, here is soprano Sandrine Piau, this time with Le Concert de La Loge, conducted by Julien Chauvin:

London-born composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor died in 1912 at 37 years old, yet in that short life he left more than 80 works for piano, voice, orchestra, and ballet. During the 2020 pandemic, Canadian pianist Luke Welch began looking for new music to play on his online concerts, especially works by Black classical composers. Very little music by Coleridge-Taylor was known and recorded, and Welch made this his personal project. Among the pieces Welch uncovered was a Coleridge-Taylor’s musical description of a butterfly. Here is Welch playing Papillon:

Chinese composers He Zhanhao and Chen Gang wrote The Butterfly Lovers violin concerto in 1959 when they were Shanghai Conservatory of Music students. The concerto tells the story of two young people who become friends, fall in love, and when the young woman is betrothed to another by her father, her beloved takes ill and dies. The young woman throws herself into his grave and the pair are transformed into butterflies who will never be separated again. Joshua Bell recorded the piece for Sony in 2023. Here he is playing the delicate-yet-dramatic (butterfly transformation) ending:

The concerto was written originally for only western instruments, but this recording was made with a mix of Chinese and western instruments. You can learn more about it in my colleague Brian McCreath’s interview with Joshua Bell.

Sept Papillons (Seven Butterflies) was written for solo cello by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, and premiered in September 2000 in Finland by cellist Anssi Karttunen, to whom the piece is dedicated. The piece is made up of seven short sections titled “Papillons 1”, “Papillon 2”, etc. Here’s Karttunen playing the piece in France in September, 2023:

And finally, I’m ending this butterfly collection with a suite of pieces named Papillons (Butterflies) but that likely have nothing to do with the actual insects. Robert Schumann was inspired to compose the suite in 1831 after reading his favorite author Jean Paul’s novel, Flegeljahre. Schumann biographers discovered that the novel made no real mention of butterflies. As far as I can tell, he was describing 12 scenes at a masked ball, which include a mix of nine waltzes, two Polonaises, and a Finale. For this butterfly lover, the title is good enough to get it included! Cyprien Katsaris is the pianist:

Jean Paul may not have mentioned butterflies in Flegeljahre, but he did in his 1804 Introduction to Aesthetics: “Let all that is marvelous fly neither as a bird of the day nor as one of the night, but as a butterfly at twilight.”

Coda:  Here are a couple of links that will interest butterfly fans, young and old. The first is the San Diego Zoo’s “Butterfly fun facts” list.

And the second is about a local treasure you can visit, The Butterfly Place, in Westford, Mass. Go to the “Gallery” option across the top of the page and it will show you some beautiful butterflies, with a button to enlarge the photo.

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.