The Legend of Cowherd and Weaver Girl (牛郎织女之神话) (2018) · 19 min

Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra

2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, tuba, 3 percussionists, percussion solo, harp, piano, strings

Written for Wang Beibei

Program Note

The Legend of Cowherd and Weaver Girl (牛郎织女之神话) was composed in 2018, a percussion concerto expressly written for the Chinese and Western percussion virtuoso Beibei Wang. The work derives its inspiration from an ancient Chinese myth which first appeared in the Shijing (诗经, “Book of Songs”) of the Zhou Dynasty. It is said that the granddaughter of the Empress of Heaven, the Weaver Girl, was good at weaving cloth, and every day wove rosy clouds in the sky. She hated this boring life, so she secretly went down to Earth and married the Cowherd in Hexi, without permission, to live a life of farming and weaving. This angered the Empress of Heaven, who descended to Earth in order to take the Weaver Girl back to Heaven, and then, with a swipe of her hairpin, created the Milky Way, separating the Cowherd and Weaver Girl on both sides of the galaxy (some say in the forms of the stars Altair [Cowherd] and Vega [Weaver Girl]). However, their steadfast love for one another so moved all the magpies on Earth that they flew to the heavens to build a “magpie bridge” upon which the Cowherd and Weaver Girl could meet. Finally recognizing that their love for one another could not be denied, the Empress of Heaven agreed to allow the Cowherd and Weaver Girl to meet on the magpie bridge once per year. This day is celebrated in China as the Qixi (七夕) Festival, or Chinese Valentine’s Day, and falls annually on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

Two contrasting emotions, love and sadness, can be heard in this music; anxiety and beauty are melded within its sound. Among the various percussion instruments, paigu (a set of five Chinese drums reminiscent of Western tom-toms) play an important role. The beginning of the piece is essentially a sound design, depicting the lonely confines of the Cowherd plowing the fields with his loyal ox. One can hear buzzing insects, the muttering of the Cowherd in the solo contrabass, and a lion’s roar (a drum head with a cord passing through it) made to sound like the groaning of the ox (when the cord is moved back and forth). The entrance of the harp adds a fresh spirit of melancholy to the Cowherd’s loneliness, but also a theme of hope. The entrance of the vibraphone and glockenspiel marks the arrival of the Weaver Girl on Earth, and the courtship between the Cowherd and Weaver Girl follows until a reference to Chinese wedding music seals their bond—in fact, De Ritis uses actual transcriptions of Chinese wedding music as performed on suona and sheng that were recorded in the field.

This marital bliss is harshly interrupted by Chinese paigu, creating a tense and uncertain premonition. The large amount of Chinese percussion gives this section of the work characteristics of Chinese traditional music called chuida yue (吹打乐,wind-and-percussion music), and is used to represent the Empress of Heaven descending to Earth to retrieve the Weaver Girl and bring her back to Heaven. Once again, the Cowherd is alone plowing his fields, that is, until he discovers that his ox has special powers and is able to fly the Cowherd on his back, up to the heavens, in order to reunite him with the Weaver Girl. When she learns of this reunion, the Empress is even more furious than before (depicted by appropriately furious percussion performed with virtuosity by Beibei Wang), leading the Empress to create the Milky Way, forever separating the Cowherd and Weaver Girl. When the reality of this situation is fully understood, the sadness of the ensuing musical phrases is unmistakable and leads us to the first of two cadenzas in the work. (It should be noted that the cadenzas were conceived by soloist Beibei Wang, with some input by De Ritis). The first cadenza concludes with music representing all the magpies from Earth rising to the heavens in creation of the magpie bridge over the Milky Way, derived from magpie bird call transcriptions by De Ritis heard in the upper winds, layered one upon another. This is followed by a mélange of all the musical ideas present within the work — a cacophonous bacchanale — that leads us to the second cadenza, a more traditional statement of Chinese percussion virtuosity, featuring Beibei Wang on paigu. The work’s conclusion follows soon after the completion of the second cadenza.

The sections of music that feature the orchestral percussion often adopt rhythmic characteristics similar to Beijing opera gongs and drums, as well as gestures found in percussion ensembles of the Tujia people (in which two cymbals play, one on the downbeat and another on an offbeat). Beibei Wang’s cadenzas create a special atmosphere. Overall, the musical gestures in this music are complex; rhythm and timbre predominate. The underlying narrative of The Legend of Cowherd and Weaver Girl — the contrasting ideas of a couple in love, sadness, joy, and the intensity of the furious Empress of Heaven — is clearly illustrated.

— Zhang Boyu (from the CD program notes, BMOP/sound 1092, June 2023)

Anthony Paul De Ritis arrived at Chinese music in the mid-1990s via electronic music, when he made samples of a pipa for a proposed electroacoustic work during a trip to Hong Kong for the annual International Computer Music Conference. Although the result wasn’t immediate, in 1999 the project became his first piece involving a Chinese instrument, Plum Blossoms, which exists in both its original electroacoustic guise and as a version for pipa, orchestra, and electronics. It was during this time that he met the great pipa artist Min Xiao-Fen, with whom he worked in developing the idiomatic nuances of the solo part. He also wrote his concerto Ping Pong for her; for pipa artist Wu Man he wrote the solo piece Zhongguo Pop. (This spring De Ritis has a residency at the MacDowell Colony to expand Zhongguo Pop to an ensemble piece.) The practice of working closely with players, all the more critical with less familiar Chinese instruments, has been a key component of De Ritis’s method. Although tailored to particular players, the solo writing in his concertos—whether for guitar (Pop Concerto, for Eliot Fisk), bassoon (Riflessioni, for Patrick de Ritis), pipa, or in this new work for percussion soloist—is well-balanced and idiomatic, as well as being brilliantly virtuosic. His new percussion concerto is dedicated to Beibei Wang, whom De Ritis first met at a concert sponsored by UNESCO a few years ago.

De Ritis’s involvement with the culture and people of China goes well beyond music. He travels frequently to China, has studied Mandarin for many years, and was a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. De Ritis has also created networks of cooperation with musicians and teachers in the U.S., France, Canada, and Germany, where he has been in residence at the Hochschule für Musik in Hamburg. A longtime member of Northeastern University’s music faculty (including several years as head of the department), he has had a stable base from which to further not only his compositional career, but also innovative educational, cultural, and entrepreneurial enthusiasms. To his degrees in music composition from Bucknell and Ohio universities and a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, he added an MBA from Northeastern, and has been an appointee to the university’s cross-disciplinary Entrepreneurship and Innovation Group of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. 

BMOP has released two CDs of his music on BMOP/sound, with plans for a third, including the present piece. Electronic music was a major part of De Ritis’ training, especially at UC Berkeley, where he worked closely with the legendary electronic music guru David Wessel; many of his works include electronic components, including Devolution, a concerto for turntablist DJ Spooky, and Legerdemain for orchestra and electronics, both of which were performed and recorded by BMOP. De Ritis’ approach to purely instrumental music has been influenced by his work with electronics. He employs instruments to expand and “hold” harmonies like a resonance filter; builds chords spectrally following timbral analysis; distributes sound and resonance in space, and even “edits” form as if splicing tape or using sequencing software. Another influence is the use of pattern and process of classic minimalism. These techniques and ideas are melded and transformed via the composer’s great sonic imagination and inviting expressiveness.

The Legend of Cowherd and Weaver Girl takes its title and narrative from a Chinese folk tale, one of the group known as the Four Great Folktales in Chinese culture. Although he has rarely based works on explicit narratives, De Ritis was interested in the challenges of creating musical reflections of particular characters and ideas. The percussionist doesn’t play a character role, but rather spins out the emotional thread of the narrative, while the orchestra illustrates key story moments and creates the overall atmosphere. Cowherd Star (Altair) and the Weaver Girl Star (Vega) fall in love, which is forbidden. The Queen of Heaven—also Weaver Girl’s grandmother—banishes the Cowherd Star to Earth to become an actual cowherd, and dooms Weaver Girl to weave clouds perpetually. One day a group of fairies begs permission of the Queen of Heaven to descend to the land of mortals for a holiday at a healing lake, and ask to take Weaver Girl along. The Queen agrees. Meanwhile, the Cowherd, who has been unfairly abandoned by his mortal family, lives alone with his bedraggled Ox, who, as it happens, was once Golden Ox Star and has magical and intuitive powers. On the day the fairies and Weaver Girl bathe in the lake, Ox says to Cowherd out of the blue, “If you steal a dress from beside the lake, the girl will be your wife.” Destiny determines that the dress belongs to Weaver Girl; they recognize each other, and marry. The Queen of Heaven finds out and has Weaver Girl abducted back to heaven. Fortunately, Golden Ox Star has the ability to fly Cowherd back to heaven as well, but with a wave of her hairpin the Queen creates the Milky Way to separate the two stars. One day a year, though, the Queen of Heaven allows the Magpie Bridge to bring them together. De Ritis worked with Beibei Wang in crafting the solo part and consulted with BMOP percussionist Robert Schulz to determine components of the large and varied orchestral percussion section. The harmonic profile of much of the piece is derived from samples of a unique array of gongs. Some of the sounds we hear are literal translations of action, e.g., the plodding of the Ox at the start of the piece, accompanied by ambient nature sounds.

The percussion soloist begins with vibraphone, moving into a detailed, casually virtuosic gloss on the music heard in harp and middle strings, which we might identify as the “love theme” and which accounts for the reuniting of the lovers. For the wedding, the soloist switches to traditional wedding drum, improvising on a set pattern along with a verbatim transcription of ceremonial wedding music (woodwind chorus). The soloist switches to paigu and other drums for an exchange with the orchestral percussion, leading to the Queen of Heaven’s wrath and Weaver Girl’s abduction; a recurrence of the opening music for the Cowherd his Ox, and their flight to heaven. After the big improvised cadenza, the magpies enlisted to form the bridge—transcribed from actual birdsong—bring a recapitulation of the “love theme” in high metallic percussion. Stars fill the sky.

— Robert Kirzinger (program notes from the BMOP premiere, April 21, 2018)

View Score

The Legend of Cowherd and Weaver Girl was recorded on April 22, 2018, featuring percussion soloist Beibei Wang, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose, director; Mechanics Wall, Worcester, MA, by Joel Gordon; and officially released by BMOP/sound (BMOP/sound 1092) on Chang’E and the Elixir of Immortality, June 16, 2023.


Mr. De Ritis, curiously, was alone in using Chinese folklore and instrumentation. An eclectic whose other works draw on popular and electronic music, he based “The Legend of Cowherd and Weaver Girl” (2018) on an ancient tale of forbidden love between celestial beings. It is built on narrative elements, or at least motifs that represent characters and actions (including a transcription, for winds, of traditional Chinese wedding music). But it is also a concerto for a large array of Chinese percussion instruments, and that aspect, thanks to the high-energy virtuosity of Beibei Wang, is what captured the attention in this colorful, 20-minute score. Still, a listener without a program book would not have picked it out as the program’s only score not written by a composer born in Asia.

— Allan Kozinn, April 24, 2018 (The Wall Street Journal)



“A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams,” by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose, Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, April 21, 2018. [program]