Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/December 1880/Oriental Music

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By S. AUSTEN PEARCE, Mus. D., Oxon.

INNUMERABLE questions arise in the mind whenever that mysterious art, called music, occupies our thoughts—questions respecting its source, its course or development in various epochs, its laws, object, action, limitations, and influence. These are not easily answered satisfactorily, and appear to have been as great problems to the ancients as they are to ourselves. For, attempting to penetrate the thick mists that veiled their past, they failed to discover the origin of any one musical instrument; and being completely baffled in their researches concerning the inception of musical systems, and also unable to account for the remarkable sway that their art-works exercised over hearers, they contented themselves with conserving these systems and art-works in their entirety, for the benefit of posterity.

We, who are always ready to invent theories for the explanation of phenomena, find ourselves extremely perplexed in accounting for various musical facts that at first sight seem simple and easily understood. If, therefore, we are unable to explain our music to ourselves, and the ancients could not explain their music to themselves, it should not cause surprise if we fail to comprehend their music. For, although it is said, "Human nature is the same in all ages," the tonal art, which appeals to every individual's own inner nature so very directly and intimately, reveals strongly marked differences among men.

The difficulties to be overcome in forming an adequate conception of the music of other peoples are, therefore, great. If, after persistent effort or even a life-long devotion to performance and composition, we find perplexing mysteries at every turn, we may naturally anticipate encountering inscrutable enigmas in the endeavor to comprehend the true nature of the forms of art specially adapted to the necessities of races so far removed in time and place, thought and feeling, as the ancient Orientals.

Even the music of the modern occupants of the East is so strange and foreign to our wants and inclinations, that many persons speak of it with disrespect; and travelers and generally well-informed artists, judging of its merits by the casual performances of poor peripatetic musicians, are frequently led to the belief that it is unworthy special regard. It would be more philosophical to assume that an art practiced throughout the Orient by all classes of persons, in all times, would, if seriously studied, present many aspects worthy of deep reflection. However little we may be able to sympathize with Chinese, Hindoos, Persians, and other peoples in their artistic aspirations, we should not be tempted to provoke a smile at their expense, but approach the study of their music with the greatest respect. In this spirit let us proceed.


Music and its instruments were commonly believed in the East to be gifts from Heaven, and therefore its cultivation and their preservation became religious duties. The Orientals took no credit to themselves for inventing the various extraordinary instruments with which they performed their wonder-working melodies, and, as will be presently shown, no modern nation has yet invented a really new one; for all those we employ are either enlarged or simplified forms of prototypes that were in use at the earliest times of which we have any record, and are really prehistoric.

The sacred books of the Chinese give a complete account of their organ—most exact measurements of the lengths, diameters, thickness, materials, etc., of each pipe, and so on—not to suggest improvements, or take credit for the devices mentioned; but simply that, should the instrument from any cause become obsolete, it could be revived; and thus this great gift, from some remote ancestor, would still be secured for future generations. Confucius and various emperors are portrayed performing on the kin (a stringed instrument), and music occupies the first rank among the sciences.

In India, Brahma himself is believed to have presented music to mortals, and the invention of the seven-stringed vina is attributed to the god Nareda. Saraswati, the Minerva of the Hindoos, is represented playing on the lute, Krishna on the transverse flute, and harpists are adorned with wings.

In Egypt, the formation of the three-stringed lyre is attributed to one of the secondary gods. Osiris is regarded as the giver of the flute, Isis of songs, and Thoth of musical theory. In Egyptian hieroglyphics the nofre, a long-necked stringed instrument played with the hands, is labeled "good." In a satiric papyrus, now at Turin, Rameses III, as a lion, is playing chess with a favorite, figuring as a gazelle; and in another papyrus in the same collection these characters reappear playing respectively a lyre and harp, a crocodile is performing on a nofre and a slave on the double pipes. Music occupied a much more important place in the religion and daily life of Eastern peoples than it does among ourselves, where it is often regarded as an ordinary amusement or diversion, and unworthy any higher function. Hence the unwillingness so commonly manifested by very many religionists, having the best possible intentions—who accept the Bible, and think they regard all its teachings—to be cross-questioned with reference to their belief in its many statements respecting this art. They find the sacred writings of the Hebrews bearing testimony to its worth and power as well and fully as those of other ancient nations, and that not only the Jews (who were always extremely fond of and susceptible to its influence) are addressed, but also succeeding Christians; for, according to the New Testament, the blessed ones in heaven are unceasingly occupied in music.

The Hebrews were taught that Jehovah gave Moses special directions for the making of silver trumpets and a code of signals. They were allowed to mend musical instruments in the Temple on the Sabbath-day; believed the art to be efficacious in curing mental aberration, and the prophets not only employed it, but, as in the case of Elisha, appear to have found its use essential. Their music-schools, the arrangements for the Temple-worship, the various styles of composition adapted to different social occasions, prove the time and thought spent in the practice of music to have been, at least from our point of view, excessive; yet in no passages is long-continued indulgence in its exercise censured or moderation advised. The high estimation in which this art was held in times long past and our difficulty in understanding the matter find an illustration in the meeting of Saul with the company of prophets descending a hill, each playing upon a musical instrument. It would seem exceedingly strange to us if a king or president should meet and join a body of learned men in a similar manner.

The technical study of Oriental systems of music is rendered difficult from the fact that these are overlaid with a mass of symbolism, that makes accurate, positive definition frequently unattainable. In some cases strange and extravagant hyperbole leads to a general notion being formed of the character of certain forms, but yet to great uncertainty as to their actual nature. In the case of some Oriental nations, the perfected systems, the theories and their symbolical analogies and illustrations came to be valued more highly than the music based upon them. The Chinese, for instance, compared at a very early period the twelve notes of the chromatic scale with the lunar zodiac, and the expression of each note with the expression of outward nature—the weather of each month.

Their various modes have characteristic significations. That of Koung (= fa) represents the emperor—the sublimity of his doctrine, the majesty of his countenance, and the high importance of his actions; the mode Cheng {= sol) represents the minister—his intrepidity in the exercise of his duties, firm administration of justice, and slight rigorousness; and so on, throughout the complete series.

The Hindoos were also led to personify all their modes, but their excited, unbridled imaginations led them to place in their heaven the presiding deity of each. Their systems are complicated, symbolical, mystical, and beautiful. They believed in miracle-working melodies, called Ragas, each having its own special power on rain, harvests, sun, wild beasts, etc., and the faith in their efficacy still exists. It is rarely tested because of the alleged difficulty in finding an executive artist competent to perform the music with the proper expression in the particular locality selected for the trial.

The Persians, who regarded music as physic for the soul, found in a tree and its roots and branches a fitting emblem and convenient illustration for their technical system of modes, and, in the strings of their lute, correspondences with their seasons.

The Chaldeans and Egyptians required the whole cosmos for an exemplification of their systems; and thus, through the Greeks, the expression "music of the spheres" has come down to us.

Here, at least, we find a link connecting the dead past with the living present. Pythagoras and the mathematical musicians of his age and country made the middle string of the Greek lyre typify the sun, and the others the planets; and even their opponents, Aristotle and the practical musicians, were led to acknowledge that, when this middle string was out of tune, the whole instrument was out of tune, but that if any other string were untuned the lyre would still be playable. Here evidence is found that there then existed a vague, glimmering notion of the peculiar and inherent importance of some one note, which we now fully recognize, and commonly speak of as the key-note—from which all the other notes are measured, and in which all find justification.

And, further, the Greek modes, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, etc., which were somewhat similar to the ecclesiastical modes that bear the same names interchanged, have given place in Europe to our modern major and minor scales, which are exclusively used by all those peoples who do not employ the Hungarian system. Now, although these scales have hardly been in general use for two centuries, there is gradually growing up among ourselves a recognized scheme of characterization or symbolism analogous to the schemes formulated by the Orientals. For we not only speak of major modes as bright and genial, and minor modes as sorrowful and depressed, irrespective of the music to be cast in these modes—and also regard our sharp keys as brilliant, and flat keys as calm and soothing, irrespective also of the music to be rendered in them, and although we are perfectly certain of the fact that mathematically they present no variation—but we notice that the notes in any one key have each their special signification.

Attempts have been made to define these characteristics, which must be allowed to be successful, for thousands of persons are unanimous that their experiences agree.

The most satisfactory proof of this is that large choral bodies have been trained to sing from printed copies of music, at first sight, most elaborate compositions, simply by being taught to identify the various notes by recognizing uniformly their character, and thus to sing them correctly without the aid of an instrument. The societies acquainted with this—the tonic sol-fa system, in which particular ideas are associated with each note—have for twenty years competed successfully for prizes, at large festivals in England, with the best organizations trained in other methods.

We are, therefore, rapidly forming complex psychologic systems, side by side with our technical systems, which to the ancients would prove as strange and unaccountable as some of theirs do to us; or even still more strange, for the want of sympathy would not be entirely due to difference of musical temperament of scales, or to mere remoteness of period and nation, but to the use of harmony and simultaneous melodies that render our music bewilderingly complex in its structure to those nations who do not employ polyphony.

An elaborate characterization of even one isolated interval—say of the sweet-sighing-sadness of the sixth sound of the Æolian harp, the dominant seventh of nature—could be no more intelligible to one who had never experienced the combination than the sweetness of honey be made known to one who had never tasted it.

Here one would willingly address thoughtful musicians, who strive to understand the present condition of their art, by tracing the history of its phases, being able to appeal to their technical knowledge of our own formal systems of scales, etc., in giving details of other and more complex systems, which can not be made readily comprehensible to the general public. But we must be content to pass on and speak of other links, connecting the present with the most remote ages.

No more ready proof of the great musical acquirements of the ancients can be found than in the marvelous skill shown in their instruments. Many have become obsolete, but others are still hi constant use, and are found with various modifications in all countries. They give evidence of high civilization at a very early period, not only in the costliness and rarity of the materials used, and the knowledge of the science of acoustics displayed in their production, but in the mental power required for their first conception.

The hollow-cone-shaped porcelain vases of China, that have five holes to be stopped so that the air within may be made to vibrate in certain determinate ways to produce with accuracy the notes required by the performer, are, as wind-instruments, marvels of inventive genius. The pipes of a Chinese organ are rendered dumb by a hole bored near the foot of each one, and which the player stops with his finger when the pipe is required to sound its note. Acousticians fail to comprehend this; and, although enormously large church organs are built by ourselves, we do not really know the motion of the vibrating column of air in any one pipe, the wind with which it is supplied not entering it. Nor can we tell why one stopped with a plug at the top, when sounded, vibrates violently on two of its sides, the other two remaining quiescent. Various other phenomena, that are said to be fully understood in recent works on sound, are only partially accounted for.

There is a tendency to refer all instruments to respective epochs, according to their degrees of development, partly because our pianoforte has been so rapidly elaborated from the Irish harp, which alone had a tension-bar, and our harmonium from the Chinese reed, also by the key-board appliance, and partly because consistent theories are so easily invented. We should, therefore, be on our guard in this matter, as in others, respecting chronological sequences, and remember that many instruments have been periodically simplified, as in the ease of the violin; or chosen for their simplicity, as in the case of the Greek lyre over that of the Egyptian harp, notwithstanding its extremely limited powers; and particularly the historic fact that most elaborate instruments were known in mythologic times in China.

Adopting the classification of Jubal—the sixth from Adam—"harp and organ" (commonly called "string and wind"), and adding the generally unrecorded percussive instruments to form the third genus, it is not difficult to invent a theory of development. For we may assume that the warrior's bow-string, giving a well-defined tone when pulled with the finger, led to two or more strings being systematized and plucked with the plectrum or struck with mallets, giving rise to the many forms of Egyptian harps, all of which are in the form of a bow, and have no "tension-bar" to resist the pull of the strings; then that the friction of two bows led to the violin species, by the addition and augmentation of resonating cavities for one bow and the modification of the other bow, which has only recently been made, and the addition of a finger-board.

Hand-clapping, not for applause, but rhythmic accentuation as practiced in the East, may be supposed to have led to the Jew's-harp and instruments consisting of bars free at one end, then to others free at both ends, then to plates free all round, as cymbals more or less concave, and subsequently to bells, sonorous boxes, drums, etc.

A simple reed or pipe may be supposed to have led to many pipes being systematized, their materials changed, their mouth-pieces varied, as whistle, beak, single reed, etc.; then that the powers of each pipe were increased by the boring of holes in it at certain particular points, much as a Gray's telephone increases the capacity of a single wire by enabling it to transmit in both directions several messages simultaneously; then, finally, to the systemization of such pipes.

But here, at the end of our series, we find an instrument, the bagpipe, that figures in Chinese myths. However little we may relish the quality of the tone of this instrument, when it is badly played, and at only a short distance from us, we must give it the highest place in the scheme, and admire the skill displayed in its formation.

The real worth of Oriental music is not to be learned from routine practical musicians, who rarely know anything of the underlying principles of their art, but must be gained by a patient study of ancient writings, in which the respective theories are recorded. For the most part, the theories point to the possession or the possibility of greater art-works than any with which we have become acquainted; and the cultivation of certain departments of the art, which we neglect.

The Chinese are sensitive to changes of pitch (transposition), to the exact agreement of the words of a song and its music, as well as to the expression imparted to their ordinary speech by vocal inflections; while we are for the most part indifferent as to absolute pitch, set poetic rhythms to dance-tunes, have different verses to the same music, and less frequently speak with strongly marked variations of tone. Their belief that not only the voice of man, but all nature, should praise its Creator, led them to make an elaborate system of quality of tone (timbre), selecting eight kinds of materials from the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms for the construction of musical instruments.

But, although they spent much labor in devising complete schemes, formulating scales, and calculating them with great nicety (like the modern Persians), even to the invention of the "equal temperament" (which European nations subsequently learned to use), in devising a regular notation, and in fact securing all the appliances necessary for the production of really great music, we fail to find them in possession of a single melody that would be generally acceptable to a modem audience. Their composers appear to be deficient in the power of imagination, without which it is impossible to invent a beautiful musical idea. We regard our melodies as so many happy thoughts, or felicitous expressions, developed with consistency and true to some particular mental mood; or at least presenting some recognizable sequential psychologic progression. Yet nevertheless, they have compositions intended to describe scenes, as if music to them conveyed definite intelligible ideas. Thus, one composition (although to us almost ludicrous from its awkwardness, shortness, and want of coherence) appears to have simulated for them the progress of a battle, being marked at various points, "The proclamation of the general," "His warriors preparing their fighting-men," "The general gives his orders," etc., ending with "Repose after victory,"

The absence of harmony not only makes all these specimens unattractive, but the fact that they were conceived entirely free from the influence of harmonic design renders them foreign to our thoughts. We may whistle or hum a Strauss waltz or little Verdi tune with satisfaction, because these melodies were produced under the bias or dominion of harmonies, which are generally so simple and natural that we commonly say that they are implied in the melodic shape. For this reason an accompaniment may be extemporized or imagined. And the modern system of chords tending to create a desire for a constant return to the key-note, whenever a satisfactory termination is required, the absence of this acknowledged sound in Chinese melodies seems to make a cadence, in our sense of the word, impossible to them.

The Chinese language being monosyllabic, it lends itself readily to the Canto-Fermo style of song that is employed in ancestral worship, and which greatly resembles the style of the old Lutheran chorals, except that the melody of the former makes more skips upward and downward.

The lines of the poetry being four syllables in length in every strophe (as "See hoang sien tsow" of the "Ancestral Hymn"), and the notes being long and of equal length, a rhythmic uniformity is secured. But this is merely accidental, for in the secular melodies no evidence of a symmetrical rhythmic order or plan is observable, which also makes a definite rhythmic termination on a strong and anticipated accent as impossible as the definite tonal termination already noticed. The Chinese do not even appear to understand stress or accent, for in the orchestral score of the above hymn the instruments of percussion mark off groups of notes, not by greater stress, but by an increased number of instruments.

Turning to their neighbors, the Hindoos, on the contrary, we find extremely elaborate rhythmic designs (musical feet), and also phrases so symmetrical and compact that they are at once acceptable, and so coherent and consistent in their succession as to suggest words indicative of well-known moods. In this respect they present no difficulties, and are more easily supplied with accompaniments than those of the Chinese.

Our immediate acceptance of Indian music attests our Aryan fellowship.

The use of silk for strings and the employment of instruments of extreme softness in the East, sufficiently disprove the statement that ancient music was barbaric and noisy. Many instruments of percussion are soft as drops of water falling into a fountain. Chaldean music was soft and sentimental. Egyptian harps were not of powerful tone. The Hindoos have a flute with vibratory apparatus so extremely delicate that it is sounded by one end being suddenly pressed to the neck of the performer. The Greeks and Persians loved soft music, and singers did not strain their voices. The Hebrews alone among ancient people sang "with all their might" unrestrainedly, and delighted in making a grand consensus of tone in their choruses of voices and instruments and the clapping of hands. In other nations solo performances were more general, and among the Hindoos an executant would risk his reputation if he did not execute variations on a theme at each recurrence. These and other performances were most frequently extemporaneous. Conception and realization being thus conjoined, the result of sudden impulse, it was necessary for the player to warm with his theme until he became intensely interested in it; and his excited imagination to be stimulated by other influences until he succeeded in his artistic efforts, and in gratifying his audience. No cold reflection supervened, the composer was his own performer, his enthusiasm was perceived and his improvisations at every turn were surprises that gave delight.

A complete history of music would be a history of the world, so intimately is it found connected with the language, habits, poetry, religion, and life of the various nations. Our form of the art is alone adapted to our wants; and when we consider its enhanced powers, its modern counterpoint and harmony, we are at a loss to understand how Oriental music, with its greater limitations, could exercise so powerful a sway over its hearers.

Oriental music has, for ages, shed a benignant and salutary influance on the hearts, minds, and senses of millions of persons, and still is a source of gratification to more than half the population of the globe. It has given immediate expression to many various conditions of mind, has raised noble feelings and subdued painful ones; it has alleviated suffering and softened down coarseness and hardness of heart.

The joys and sorrows, aspirations and emotions of an age are sounded forth in its music; therefore that of the past is chiefly valuable as a contribution to historic national psychology. Let us so live that our own music, as a reflex image of ourselves, may attest our progress, not only in the physical sciences, but in nobleness of soul and all true worthiness.