Monday, April 29, 2013

Music from the Home of the Sun King and the Land of the Son of Heaven

Last week, I posted this at the Market Square Concerts Blog when The Four Nations Ensemble and a group calling itself "Music from China" came to town to perform music from the French Baroque, mostly from the time of Louis XIV and the Palace of Versailles interspersed with music of the "classical tradition" from China, using the Imperial Palace of The Forbidden City as its metaphor. Since it took me several days to research and write the post, I thought I would add it here, as well.

Here’s a short clip to introduce you to The Four Nations Ensemble:
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Though they’re playing Handel, here, rather than, say, Couperin, it’s a chance to dip your toe – or, better, your ear – into the sound world of the Baroque.

Here are members of "Music from China," a short clip recorded recently at William & Mary College:
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Their program here was called “Plum Blossom and Fluer-de-Lys: Music of War and Peace in the Forbidden City and Versailles.” And while I might have wished for more prefatory detail about the unfamiliar Chinese music and perhaps some translations for the picturesque titles of the various French pieces for those of us not fluent in the langauge, the thing I missed most was a chance to find out a little bit more about the instruments, whether French or Chinese. For the audience, most of the time the Chinese instruments were partially hidden behind music stands. While a lecture recital wasn't the object, here, I felt an opportunity was missed to communicate with an audience experiencing this for the first time.

It’s not really an odd combination at all, if you think about it - this combination of French and Chinese music - the difference in the sound-world aside. If the Language of Music is truly international, it’s only the surface “dialect” that changes. Beneath that surface lies a varied world of commonalities rather than differences.

One thing, if nothing else, is the love French composers of the Baroque era had for picturesque titles. Descriptive, evocative or merely suggestive of mood, Couperin and Rameau wrote tons of keyboard pieces with titles like La Poule (The Hen) or Les regrets by Couperin (here, performed by Andrew Appel of the Four Nations Ensemble)

Though most of the French works on the program have “abstract” names – suites and things like that – individual movements may have descriptive titles. However, all you have to do is look at the offerings on the Chinese side of the program to see titles like “Quietude” or “The General’s Command” and, of course, “Ambush on Ten Sides” which will probably bring to mind (dramatically, at least) any number of fight scenes in classical Chinese martial arts films. The event describes dates back to a historical event in 202 BC but the music became a virtuoso piece for the pipa or Chinese lute sometime in the 17th Century; a famous version of it dates from 1818 with several other arrangements and versions of it available.

Here is an hour-long program “Music from China” presented recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which includes introductions to the instruments and the instrumentalists as well as a good bit of music:
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With all the talk about personality types and the psychological tests that exist to evaluate them and ways of determining who is a Left-Brained person and who’s a Right-Brained person, I’m reminded that composer Ned Rorem used to describe everything in terms of being either German or French. As national stereotypes go, it seems fairly accurate: the Germans are traditionally tradition-bound and precise (I used to joke about a Berlin-born friend who would become frantic is we were a few seconds late) where the French are typically more laissez-faire about life in general. Things that might be described more recently in pop-psych terms as being Left-Brained (logical and objective) would be, to Rorem, “German.” Things that were Right-Brained (irrational and subjective) would be, then, “French.” Having lived in Paris much of his life, he quite possibly had enough experience to make this generalization.

It amused me to see him write somewhere – probably in one of his numerous published diaries – that “The Japanese are German and the Chinese are French.”

Think about it.

It may or may not be an accurate stereotype, dealing with the two major cultural and political nationalities in Asia, but it has something to say for the Japanese love of technology (logic) and, if nothing else, a more picturesque and impressionistic (subjective) approach to art and music in China that is very akin to what we in the West are more familiar with in French art and music.

The argument, I think, falls apart when discussing Japanese art which is, after all, its own adaptation of what were originally Chinese influences, and has many of the same traits. It’s true than many Japanese composers – Toru Takemitsu, perhaps, the most familiar to Western audiences – are stylistically full of impressionistic titles and hazy Debussy-like harmonies.

But in their pursuit of performing mostly Western music in their concert halls and the training required at the conservatory level, it might seem a more rigid, rule- and goal-oriented society. Political systems and the attitudes toward Western Art differ as well, but the Chinese training of classical musicians, I gather, would be more comparable to the French conservatoires, where the end (seeing the big picture) is more important than the means (seeing the details), though anyone who ever studied with Nadia Boulanger in early-20th Century Paris would never consider her a laissez-faire teacher…

Anyway, keeping the possibility of these contrasts and similarities in mind, a journey to Paris and Beijing might at first seem an odd pairing for a classical music concert, at least as we normally think of them.

But when you look at the Big Picture – in this case, music as an International Language – perhaps it’s not so unusual, after all?

That’s where this Thursday night’s program will be taking us, leaving from Whitaker Center at 8pm – with a program by two ensembles joining forces for “Music of the Court: Versailles and the Forbidden City.”

One – the Four Nations Ensemble – offers music from the French Baroque associated with the French royal court of the first half of the 18th Century and life at the palace of the “Sun King.”

The other ensemble presents music inspired by the ancient traditions of the rarified world behind the Imperial Court of the “Son of Heaven.”

While it would be easy to call this week’s concert – the last one of the official subscription season, believe it or not – “East Meets West” or something stereotypically bland, it’s more than just a collection of pieces from Western Europe and pieces from China.

Since music was a fundamental part of aristocratic life – more so in 17th and 18th Century Europe as we’re used to with music of the French and German Baroque and the musical life of Mozart and Haydn’s day – it wouldn’t be a big stretch of the imagination to realize music was a very important aspect of the aristocratic life in China as well.

The only problem is, most of us in the West are unfamiliar with even the basic details of Chinese history. If we’re familiar with the names of a few dynasties – the traditional way of describing its historical eras – it’s more likely the dynasty’s name will be followed by “vase” or “poet” rather than approximate dates or the equivalent to whatever era was happening in Western Europe.

To many audiences today, used to Beethoven and large orchestras in vast halls (not to mention amplification in popular music), instruments like viols and harpsichords may seem quaint, the bailiwick of the historically informed “Period Instrument” world.

So, imagine being confronted by the variety of instruments played in China. We might think of the er-hu as “The Chinese Violin” but there are numerous types of such violin-like (or more specifically, viol-like) instruments. Yes, they are divided into the equivalents of string, wind and percussion instruments just like their Western counterparts - flutes, oboes, lutes, zithers and dulcimers - but they have different sounds, tunings and playing techniques that create, on the surface, a different world of experience from the Western instruments we might be reminded of.

But then, for many in the modern day audiences, sometimes the sound of a viol or a harpsichord or a recorder will sound just as different from the traditional violin, piano or flute.

Here’s another ensemble (Jordi Savall and Les Concerts des Nations) playing the second half of a work The Four Nations Ensemble has included on their Market Square Concerts program: from the fourth of the “Concerts royeaux” (Royal Concerts) which were composed for the Sunday concerts King Louis XIV requested – no, “commanded” – for entertaining his court living at the Palace of Versailles.
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(The final movement, beginning at 5:01 in this clip, is the famous Forlane, a lively dance movement in Rondo-form, one of those chestnuts of the Baroque Era to achieve pop status. In their performance in Harrisburg, the Chinese instruments joined in on the refrain with the Four Nations Ensemble for a jovial conclusion.)

Louis XIV, Patron of the Arts
Louis XIV is the epitome of the 18th Century absolute monarch with its whole concept of the Divine Right of Kings. Called “the Sun King,” a nickname which didn’t need to originate with sycophantic courtiers, Louis le Grande, the center of France's royal universe, ruled for 71 years, the longest reign in French and, for that matter, European history. He died days shy of his 77th birthday and had outlived so many of his heirs that his great-grandson become his direct heir, a boy of 5 who became Louis XV.

It may have been, to borrow a phrase from the English author Charles Dickens writing about a slightly later time in the history that affected another resident at Versailles, “the best of times, the worst of times,” with periods of great cultural achievements in the arts and frequent periods of warfare, but above all it was an age defined by the king’s palace.

Not just any palace, but one where he required many of his aristocrats to live with him – all the better to keep them under control (especially the ones who had participated in the rebellion known as The Fronde during his childhood). Through an elaborate court ritual, the king was aware which of the nobility was there to attend him (or wait on him) and who was absent, which he was then able to use to distribute favors. Whether “Sun King” referred to Louis’ brilliance, his life-giving benevolence or the fact he was the center of the courtly universe revolving around him, this helped to weaken the power of the aristocracy and, among other things, to coalesce the unwieldy and still largely feudal society into a strong central state which made France one of the leading powers in Europe during his reign.

Versailles in 1722
This place was called Versailles, and quite a place, even today. It’s now a museum for a Golden Age in French civilization. It hallways and rooms as well as the art that adorns them evoke a time we can only imagine.

Louis XIV’s father, Louis XIII, had turned a former hunting lodge into a royal residence around 1624. Louis XIV, then, turned it into one of the most magnificent royal palaces in Europe and the home of French kings until 1789 when Louis XVI – the grandson of Louis XV who himself ruled 58 years – was overthrown in the French Revolution and guillotined in 1793.

Since then, the palace was rarely lived in: Napoleon’s second wife lived in some apartments in the main building, but the Emperor preferred the Grand Trianon, a smaller retreat in a corner of the Versailles grounds with its own park.

When the monarchy was restored, French kings did little more than visit the palace and eventually it became a museum and, in modern times, a major tourist attraction. It may still be used for state occasions and grand congresses but for little else, at least as it was originally intended.

Panoramic View of Versailles today

For instance, it has over 720,000 square feet of floor space, 2,300 rooms (of which the famous Hall of Mirrors is only one) and 2,153 windows. The collection is home to over 6,000 paintings, 2,100 sculptures, 1,500 drawings and 15,000 engravings, over 5,000 pieces of furniture and objets d’art.

Royal Shuttle...
One item may look curious (see left): this was a single-occupancy "taxi" that would be carried on poles like a palanquin so the royal feet did not need to tire themselves out when traveling from one end of the palace to the other.

The music associated with the age of the French kings living at Versailles can only be imagined, however. Many of the greatest musicians living in France at the time worked or performed there. There were numerous ensembles for various occasions, from the king’s private orchestra called of Les 24 Violons du Roi (which was actually a string orchestra founded in 1626 by Louis XIII) that was later supplemented by an additional 16 players. There was a grand band for ceremonial purposes with winds and brass – and orchestras for the opera or the Royal Chapel could be created by combining members of the string and wind ensembles. These were largely disbanded or reduced in 1761 due to budget cuts – even at Versailles – but then, Louis XV was more interested in math and science, less so in music compared to the two previous kings.

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And now, a world away – to China.

We remember important facts about ancient Empires – Alexander the Great and the expansion of Rome across the “known world” – how things fell apart with the barbarians and maybe how Charlemagne created the Holy Roman Empire out of the medieval rubble (though the most we remember of it was “it was neither Holy nor Roman”). So if Alexander’s empire is dated to the 300s BC and that Rome flourished around the rise of the Christian Era (since we divide time into BC=Before Christ and AD=Anno Domini, in the year of Our Lord) and Charlemagne lived around 800 AD, it might come as a surprise to realize “written history” in China dates back to the Shang Dynasty before 1,000 BC or that the first truly united centralized state we now think of as China originated with Emperor Shi Huang-ti (literally “The First Emperor” in Chinese) in 221 BC, initiating a state generically considered Imperial China that lasted until the Revolution that established the Republic of China in 1912 AD – a total of some 2,100 years of more or less direct continuity.

Compare that, for instance, to the Roman Empire which lasted only some 500 years, much of which was spent in political free-fall and social chaos after which the surviving Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire) continued to shrink until 1453, almost 1,000 years later, when it fell to the rising Ottoman Empire.

And compare that longevity to our own history – a government that has been in existence some 237 years.

Chinese history is divided (like Egypt was) into its various dynasties. Curiously, the dynasty Shi Huang-ti founded barely outlived him. On the program, you’ll find references to the Han Dynasty (between 206 BC and 220 AD) as well as the Qing, the last official dynasty of the Empire which ruled from 1644 to 1912.

Alas, it seems the music marked on the program as “Han Dynasty” is not from such an ancient age as that – the Red Herring I referred to earlier – but to a style that developed during that time period: this particular piece was inspired by a poem of Li Bao (or, in a previous transliterating of Chinese names, Li Po) who lived in the 8th Century during the Tang Dynasty, considered a Golden Age of poetry if not Chinese culture in general. If I read the Music from China website correctly, a piece with the title “The Moon Over Fortified Pass” was actually written in 1995 (AD) by Huang Qiuyuan, then a composition student at Beijing’s Central Conservatory.

Though in actuality, it is based on a “type of military music known as Gujiao Hengchui (Music of Drums, Horns and Transverse Flutes)” that has existed since the days of the Han Dynasty. “These tunes, numbering fifteen in all, were sung and played by soldiers on horseback patrolling the frontiers. Noted Tang dynasty poet Li Bai [a.k.a. Li Po] (in the 8th Century AD) wrote lyrics for some of this music, the most famous being The Moon Over Fortified Pass."

So while the tradition might be very old and the music written down sometime before the 8th Century, it forms the basis of a more modern setting which helps preserve an ancient tradition.

The later Qing Dynasty, meanwhile, would be roughly parallel to the time of the French Kings at Versailles – as well as the rest of the 18th and 19th Centuries in European history.

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We know a refined musical culture existed in China even before The First Emperor in 220 BC: the earlier Zhou Dynasty (1122 to 256 BC). The debate about “popular” and “art” music was raised in a question by a powerful ruler to his advisor, Mencius, around 300 BC, whether it was “moral” to prefer popular music to the classics (Mencius diplomatically answered it didn’t matter so long as the ruler loved his subjects).

The First Emperor of China
Shi Huang-ti established, among so many other things in his centralizing bureaucracy, an Imperial Music Bureau to “regulate” various aspects of court and military music and determine which folk songs, for instance, would be officially recognized.

(Incidentally, the subject of Tan Dun’s opera, “The First Emperor,” premiered at the Met in 2006 with Placido Domingo as Shi huang-ti, concerned the creation of an imperial anthem during a time of warfare and the building of the initial Great Wall of China.)

While musicians were generally lower in status than poets, rulers even before the empire would send out scholars to collect folk songs to “check the will of the people,” many of them dating between 800 and 400 BC.

The earliest surviving written music is a song, “The Solitary Orchid,” attributed to Confucius who died in 479 BC. This collection of songs, incidentally, was one of the books banned and burned by Shi Huang-ti (he buried hundreds of scholars alive for hiding some of these banned books) and it had to be reconstructed from memory in the years following the overthrow of his not-so-powerful son.

(Incidentally, while Shi Huang-ti built the Great Wall, or rather connected several already existing but not very practical walls, little of the original wall exists: what we see today was largely rebuilt in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The First Emperor was reluctant to discuss his own death and didn't leave a will concerning his successor, but yet he managed to build a sizeable tomb only recently discovered with its 6,000 terra cotta warriors to guard him in the after-life.)

While much of the performance details of this music would have been passed on orally from teacher to student, the first great flowering of written instrumental music for the ch’in (or qin) of the zither family (which originally dated back to 2500 BC) was in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).

1425 Chinese music manuscript
Here, for instance, is a musical manuscript for the ch’in dating from 1425 (see left). It is a kind of notation familiar to lutenists studying Renaissance and Baroque music who have to master complex forms of tablature that many, in exasperation, joke must have been invented by a blind person. This kind of notation still exists today, though greatly simplified, in popular sheet music that may include “guitar chords” representing the basic strings and frets of the guitar neck and where the fingers would be placed to play the correct pitches.

Earlier systems of notation in China might use a series of markings given picturesque names to indicate types of attack or groupings of notes that might be comparable to the neumes of Gregorian chant or the ecphonetic notation you might find in Hebrew Bibles prior to Christianity.

Later notations used numbers to designate pitches, just as we use letters – A, C, G and so on.

Marco Polo aside, incidentally, the first known account of East meeting West – at least, musically speaking – would be the arrival of an Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci who presented the Emperor with a harpsichord in 1601. He trained four eunuchs to play the instrument.

While Chinese instruments might be the equivalent of bowed instruments like violins or plucked instruments like lutes and zithers or those played with hammers like dulcimers, the idea of playing something like a ch’in with a keyboard must have seemed a novelty to the Chinese, then. One wonders what the Imperial Court must have thought of this “strange music.”

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View of the Forbidden City today
The Chinese equivalent of Versailles is a series of palaces enclosed behind walls and gates in the center of Beijing which had served as an occasional dynastic capital before it became the Imperial Capital during the Ming Dynasty around 1400. The old Tianning Pagoda may date from the 1120s but the city underwent many transformations, having been captured, burned to the ground, rebuilt and then abandoned between then and 1406 when the Imperial Palace was begun, completed in 1420. It became known as “The Forbidden City.” Beijing then remained the Imperial Capital ever since.

 The entire complex consisted of numerous buildings – palaces and temples, mostly, and ceremonial gates – all within a walled complex covering some 7,800,000 square feet. Its “Outer Court” was used for ceremonial purposes and the Emperor and his family lived within the “Inner Court.” There was a rigid hierarchy regulating everyone in relationship to the Emperor who, whatever his name or reputation, was called “The Son of Heaven.” The bureaucracy and ritual of the Forbidden City would make Louis XIV’s Versailles look simplistic by comparison.

One of the great emperors of this dynasty was Qianlong who ruled for 60 years before he abdicated in 1796. He was a great patron of the arts, both “a preserver and a restorer of Chinese culture.” While he himself wrote some 40,000 poems, he still engaged in periodic book-burnings, banning books deemed to be subversive, a list that included some 2,300 titles.

Hall of Supreme Harmony
Today, following the demise of its Empire, the rise of the Republic and the revolution that brought about the current Communist state, the Forbidden City remains a museum of Chinese culture, and like Versailles today is a major tourist attraction. Even though the pageantry of the Imperial Age has passed, the square in front of the City is a major part of Beijing’s public life. At 109 acres, it is the largest public square in the world, spreading out before the Gate of Heavenly Peace or, in Chinese, Tienanmen. For many Westerners, Tienanmen Square will forever be remembered for the 1989 protest and its ensuing massacre, especially with its iconic image of the young man facing down a line of government tanks.

One need only think back to a time when riots in a Paris square in front of the Bastille Prison in 1789 eventually ended the long and illustrious world of many of the kings who’d lived in the rarified world of Versailles.

- Dick Strawser

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