HAVING described the musical instruments in use in China we still have for consideration the music itself, and the conditions which led up to it.
Among the Chinese instruments mentioned in the preceding chapter, the preponderance of instruments of percussion, such as drums, gongs, bells, etc., has probably been noticed. In connection with the last named we meet with one of the two cases in Chinese art in which we see the same undercurrent of feeling, or rather superstition, as that found among western nations. We read in the writings of Mencius, the Chinese philosopher (350 B. C.), the following bit of gossip about the king Senen of Tse.
“The king, ” said he, “was sitting aloft in the hall, when a man appeared, leading an ox past the lower part of it. The king saw him, and asked, `Where is the ox going?’
” The man replied, `We are going to consecrate a bell with its blood.’
” The king said, `Let it go. I cannot bear its frightened appearance as if it were an innocent person going to the place of death.’
” The man answered, `Shall we then omit the consecration of the bell?’
“The king said, `How can that be omitted? Change the ox for a sheep.’ ”
As stated before, this is one of the few cases in which Chinese superstition coincides with that of the West; for our own church bells were once consecrated in very much the same manner, a survival of that ancient universal custom of sacrifice. With the exception of this resemblance, which, however, has nothing to do with actual music, everything in Chinese art is exactly the opposite of our western ideas on the subject.
The Chinese orchestra is composed of about sixteen different types of percussion instruments and four kinds of wind and stringed instruments, whereas in our European orchestras the ratio is exactly reversed. Their orchestras are placed at the back of the stage, ours in front of it. The human voice is not even mentioned in their list of musical sounds (sound of metal, baked clay, wood, skin, bamboo, etc)., whereas we consider it the most nearly perfect instrument existing. This strange perversity once caused much discussion in days when we knew less of China than we do at present, as to whether the Chinese organs of hearing were not entirely different from those of western nations. We now know that this contradiction runs through all their habits of life. With them white is the colour indicative of mourning; the place of honour is on the left hand; the seat of intellect is in the stomach; to take off one’s hat is considered an insolent gesture; the magnetic needle of the Chinese compass is reckoned as pointing south, instead of north; even up to the middle of the nineteenth century the chief weapon in war was the bow and arrow, although they were long be-fore acquainted with gunpowder and so on, ad infinitum.
We are aware that the drum is the most primitive instrument known to man. If all our knowledge of the Chinese were included in a simple list of their orchestral instruments, we should recognize at once that the possession of the gourd, mouth-organ, and lute indicates a nation which has reached a high state of civilization; on the other hand, the great preponderance of bells, gongs, drums, etc., points unmistakably to the fact that veneration of the laws and traditions of the past (a past of savage barbarism), and a blind acquiescence in them, must constitute the principal factor in that civilization. The writings of Chinese philosophers are full of wise sayings about music, but in practice the music itself becomes almost unbearable. For instance, in the Confucian Analects we read, “The Master (Confucius)* said: `How to play music may be known. At the commencement of the piece, all the parts should sound together. As it proceeds, they should be in harmony, severally distinct, and flowing without a break, and thus on to the conclusion.’ The definition is certainly remarkable when one considers that it was given about five hundred years before our era. In practice, however, the Chinese do not distinguish between musical combinations of sound and noise; therefore the above definition must be taken in a very different sense from that which ordinarily would be the case. By harmony, Confucius evidently means similarity of noises, and by “melody flowing without a break” he means absolute monotony of rhythm. We know this from the hymns to the ancestors which, with the hymns to the Deity, are the sacred songs of China, songs which have come down from time immemorial.
According to Amiot one of the great court functions is the singing of the ” Hymn to the Ancestors,” which is conducted by the Emperor. Outside the hall where this ceremony takes place are stationed a number of bell and gong players who may not enter, but who, from time to time, according to fixed laws, join in the music played and sung inside. In the hall the orchestra is arranged in the order prescribed by law: the ou, or wooden tiger, which ends every piece, is placed at the northwest end of the orchestra, and the tschou, or wooden box-drum, which begins the music, at the northeast; in the middle are placed the singers who accompany the hymn by posturing as well as by chanting. At the back of the hall are pictures of the ancestors, or merely tablets inscribed with their names, before which is a kind of altar, bearing flowers and offerings. The first verse of the hymn consists of eight lines in praise of the godlike virtues of the ancestors, whose spirits are supposed to descend from Heaven and enter the hall during the singing of this verse by the chorus. Then the Emperor prostrates himself three times before the altar, touching his head to the earth each time. As he offers the libations and burns the per-fumes on the altar, the chorus sings the second verse of eight lines, in which the spirits are thanked for answering the prayer and entreated to accept the offerings. The Emperor then prostrates himself nine times, after which he resumes his position before the altar, while the last verse of eight lines, eulogistic of the ancestors, is being chanted; during this the spirits are supposed to ascend again to Heaven. The hymn ends with the scraping of the tiger’s back and striking it on the head.
We can imagine the partial gloom of this species of chapel, lighted by many burning, smoky joss-sticks, with its glint of many-coloured silks, and gold embroidery; the whining, nasal, half-spoken, monotonous drone of the singers with their writhing figures bespangled with gold and vivid colour; the incessant stream of shrill tones from the wind instruments; the wavering, light clatter of the musical stones broken by the steady crash of gongs and the deep booming of large drums; while from outside, the most monstrous bell-like noises vaguely penetrate the smoke-laden atmosphere. The ceremony must be barbarously impressive; the strange magnificence of it all, together with the belief in the actual presence of the spirits, which the vague white wreaths of joss-stick smoke help to suggest, seem to lend it dignity. From the point of view of what we call music, the hymn is childish enough; but we must keep in mind the definition of Confucius. According to the Chinese, music includes that phase of sound which we call mere noise, and the harmonizing of this noise is Chinese art. We must admit, therefore, that from this point of view their orchestra is well balanced, for what will rhyme better with noise than more noise? The gong is best answered by the drum, and the tomtom by the great bell.
China also has its folk song, which seems to be an irrepressible flower of the field in all countries. This also follows the precepts of the sages in using only the five-note or pentatonic scale found among so many other nationalities. It differs, however, from the official or religious music, inasmuch as that unrhythmic perfection of monotony, so loved by Confucius, Mencius, and their followers, is discarded in favour of a style more naturally in touch with human emotion. These folk songs have a strong similarity to Scotch and Irish songs, owing to the absence of the fourth and seventh degrees of the scale. If they were really sung to the accompaniment of chords, the resemblance would be very striking. The Chinese singing voice, however, is not sonorous, the quality commonly used being a kind of high, nasal whine, very far removed from what we call music. The accompaniment of the songs is of a character most discordant to European ears, consisting as it does mainly of constant drum or gong beats interspersed with the shrill notes of the kin, the principal Chinese stringed instrument. Ambros, the historian, quotes a number of these melodies, but falls into a strange mistake, for his version of a folk song called ” Tsin fa.”
Now this is exactly as if a Chinaman, wishing to give his countrymen an idea of a Beethoven sonata, were to eliminate all the harmony and leave only the bare melody accompanied by indiscriminate beats on the gong and a steady banging on two or three drums of different sizes. This is certainly the manner in which the little melody just quoted would be accompanied, and not by European chords and rhythms.
If we could eliminate from our minds all thoughts of music and bring ourselves to listen only to the texture of sounds, we could better understand the Chinese ideal of musical art. For instance, if in listening to the deep, slow vibrations of a large gong we ignore completely all thought of pitch, fixing our attention only upon the roundness and fullness of the sound and the way it gradually diminishes in volume without losing any of its pulsating colour, we should then realize what the Chinese call music. Confucius said, “When the music master Che first entered on his office, the finish with the Kwan-Ts’eu (Pan’s-pipes) was magnificent how it filled the ears!” And that is just what Chinese music aims to do, it “fills the ears” and therefore is “magnificent.””
With their views as to what constitutes the beautiful in music it is not strange that the Chinese find our music detestable. It goes too fast for them. They ask, “Why play another entirely different kind of sound until one has already enjoyed to the full what has gone before?” As they told Père Amiot many years ago: “Our music penetrates through the ear to the heart, and from the heart to the soul; that your music cannot do.” Amiot had played on a harpsichord some pieces by Rameau (“Les Cyclopes,” “Les Charmes,” etc.) and much flute music, but they could make nothing of it.
According to their conception of music, sounds must follow one another slowly, in order to pass through the ears to the heart and thence to the soul; therefore they went back with renewed satisfaction to their long, monotonous chant accompanied by a pulsating fog of clangour.
Some years ago, at the time of that sudden desire of China, or more particularly of Li Hung Chang, to know more of occidental civilization, some Chinese students were sent by their government to Berlin to study music. After about a month’s residence in Berlin these students wrote to the Chinese government asking to be recalled, as they said it would be folly to remain in a barbarous country where even the most elementary principles of music had not yet been grasped.
To go deeply into the more technical side of Chinese music would be a thankless task, for in the Chinese character the practical is entirely overshadowed by the speculative. All kinds of fanciful names are given to the different tones, and many strange ideas associated with them. Although our modem chromatic scale (all but the last half-tone) is familiar to them, they have never risen to a practical use of it even to this day. The Chinese scale is now, as it always has been, one of five notes to the octave, that is to say, our modern major scale with the fourth and seventh omitted.
From a technical point of view, the instruments of bamboo attain an importance above all other Chinese instruments. According to the legend, the Pan’s-pipes of bamboo regulated the tuning of all other instruments, and as a matter of fact the pipe giving the note F, the universal tonic, is the origin of all measures also. For this pipe, which in China is called the “musical foot,” is at the same time a standard measure, holding exactly twelve hundred millet seeds, and long enough for one hundred millet seeds to stand end on end within it.
In concluding this consideration of the music of the Chinese, I would draw attention to the unceasing repetition which constitutes a prominent feature in all barbarous or semi-barbarous music. In the ” Hymn of the Ancestors ” this endless play on three or four notes is very marked.
This characteristic is met with in the music of the American Indians, also in American street songs, in fact in all music of a primitive nature, just as our school children draw caricatures similar to those made by great chiefs and medicine men in the heart of Africa, and, similarly, the celebrated “graffiti” of the Roman soldiers were precisely of the same nature as the beginnings of Egyptian art. In art, the child is always a barbarian more or less, and all strong emotion acting on a naturally weak organism or a primitive nature brings the same result, namely, that of stubborn repetition of one idea. An example of this is Macbeth, who, in the very height of his passion, stops to juggle with the word “sleep,” and in spite of the efforts of his wife, who is by far the more civilized of the two, again and again recurs to it, even though he is in mortal danger. When Lady Macbeth at last breaks down, she also shows the same trait in regard to her bloodstained hands. It is not so far from Scotland to the Polar regions, and there we find that when Kane captured a young Eskimo and kept him on his ship, the only sign of life the prisoner gave was to sing over and over to himself the following:
Coming back again to civilization, we find Tennyson’s Elaine, in her grief, repeating incessantly the words, “Must I then die.”
The music of the Siamese, Burmese, Javanese, and Japanese has much in common with that of the Chinese, the difference between the first two and the last named being mainly in the absence of the king, or musical stones, or rather the substitution of sets of drums in place of it.
For instance, the Burmese drum-organ, as it is called, consists of twenty-one drums of various sizes hung inside a great hoop. Their gong-organ consists of fifteen or more gongs of different sizes strung inside a hoop in the same manner. The player takes his place in the middle of the hoop and strikes the drums or gongs with a kind of stick. These instruments are largely used in processions, being carried by two men, just as a sedan chair is borne; the player, in order to strike all the gongs and bells, must often walk backwards, or strike them behind his back.
In Javanese and Burmese music these sets of gongs and drums are used incessantly, and form a kind of high-pitched, sustained tone beneath which the music is played or sung.
In Siamese music the wind instruments have a prominent place. After having heard the Siamese Royal Orchestra a number of times in London, I came to the conclusion that the players on the different instruments improvise their parts, the only rule being the general character of the melodies to be played, and the finishing together. The effect of the music was that of a contrapuntal nightmare, hideous to a degree which one who has not heard it cannot conceive, Berlioz, in his “Soirées de l’orchestre,” well described its effect when he said:
“After the first sensation of horror which one cannot repress, one feels impelled to laugh, and this hilarity can only be controlled by leaving the hall. So long as these impossible sounds continue, the fact of their being gravely produced, and in all sincerity admired by the players, makes the `concert ‘ appear inexpressibly `comic.’ ”
The Japanese had the same Buddhistic disregard for euphony, but they have adopted European ideas in music and are rapidly becoming occidentalized from a musical point of view. Their principal instruments are the koto and the samisen. The former is similar to the Chinese eke, and is a kind of large zither with thirteen strings, each having a movable bridge by means of which the pitch of the string may be raised or lowered. The samisen’ is a kind of small banjo, and probably originated in the Chinese kin.
From Buddhism to sun worship, from China to Peru and Mexico, is a marked change, but we find strange resemblances in the music of these peoples, seeming almost to corroborate the theory that the southern American races may be traced back to the extreme Orient. We remember that in the Chinese sacred chants “official” music as one may call it all the notes were of exactly the same length. Now Garcilaso de la Vega (1550), in his “Commentarios Reales,” tells us that unequal time was unknown in Peru, that all the notes in a song were of exactly the same length. He further tells us that in his time the voice was but seldom heard in singing, and that all the songs were played on the flute, the words being so well known that the melody of the flute immediately suggested them. The Peruvians were essentially a pipe race, while, on the other hand, the instruments of the Mexicans were of the other extreme, all kinds of drums, copper gongs, rattles, musical stones, cymbals, bells, etc., thus completing the resemblance to Chinese art. In Prescott’s “Conquest of Peru” we may read of the beautiful festival of Raymi, or adoration of the sun, held at the period of the summer solstice. It describes how the Inca and his court, followed by the whole population of the city, assembled at early dawn in the great square of Cuzco, and how, at the appearance of the first rays of the sun, a great shout would go up, and thousands of wind instruments would break forth into a majestic song of adoration. That the Peruvians were a gentler nation than the Mexicans can be seen from their principal instrument, the pipe.
While it has been strenuously denied that on such occasions human sacrifices were offered in Peru, the Mexicans, that race whose principal instruments were drums and brass trumpets, not only held such sacrifices, but, strange to say, held them in honour of a kind of god of music, Tezcatlipoca. This festival was the most important in Mexico, and took place at the temple or “teocalli,” a gigantic, pyramid-like mass of stone, rising in terraces to a height of eighty-six feet above the city, and culminating in a small summit platform upon which the long procession of priests and victims could be seen from all parts of the city. Once a year the sacrifice was given additional importance, for then the most beautiful youth in Mexico was chosen to represent the god himself. For a year before the sacrifice he was dressed as Tezcatlipoca, in royal robes and white linen, with a helmet-like crown of sea shells with white cocks’ plumes, and with an anklet hung with twenty gold bells as a symbol of his power, and he was married to the most beautiful maiden in Mexico. The priests taught him to play the flute, and whenever the people heard the sound of it they fell down and worshipped him.
The account may be found in Bancroft’s great work on the “Native Races of the Pacific,” also Sahagun’s “Nueva Espana and Bernal Diaz,” but perhaps the most dramatic description is that by Rowbotham:
And when the morning of the day of sacrifice arrived, he was taken by water to the Pyramid Temple where he was to be sacrificed, and crowds lined the banks of the river to see him in the barge, sitting in the midst of his beautiful companions. When the barge touched the shore, he was taken away from those companions of his forever, and was delivered over to a band of priests, ex-changing the company of beautiful women for men clothed in black mantles, with long hair matted with bloodtheir ears also were mangled. These conducted him to the steps of the pyramid, and he was driven up amidst a crowd of priests, with drums beating and trumpets blowing. As he went up he broke an earthen flute on every step to show that his love, and his delights were over. And when he reached the top, he was sacrificed on an altar of jasper, and the signal that the sacrifice was completed was given to the multitudes below by the rolling of the great sacrificial drum.