Music and Revolution

Henry C.K. Liu hliu at
Tue Dec 1 09:29:41 PST 1998

Dnaiel and Paula:

With reference to your earlier exchange on music, you may the following of interest. The operas of Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi and above all Wagner, all have strong revolutionary content and form. There is even a reference in Opera to the secret police.

For example, during the Tang dynasty, despite the efforts of Wu Zhao, the ruling Celestial Empress (Huang Tai'hou), to build a broad coalition of support, the political situation at court remained tenaciously tenuous. The ruling Celestial Empress helds power but lacked indisputable legitimacy. Her 4th son, 24-year-old Li Dan, the yet to be inaugurated Enlighten Heritage Emperor (Rui'zong), enjoyed legitimacy, albeit disputable, but no ruling authority. Her 3rd son, Li Zhe, enjoyed indisputable legitimacy but has been judged unfit to rule, banished from court and forbidden to partake in politics. It was a situation that invites continuous political treachery and opportunism. Political plots, major and minor, never nonexistent even in the best of times, began to be exposed daily. The motives behind these plots were diverse and contorted alliances were concocted solely on the principle of selecting one's allies from among the enemies of one's enemies, with total disregard for political idealology or social affinity. To contain the political chaos and to limit the open season for high treachery, the secret police, which for millennia had always been the private instrument of the rulers of China, now infested the court. In the Selected Biographies (Lie zhuan) section of the Old Book on Tang (Jiu Tang Shu), compiled some 260 years after the events, in 945, would be a large chapter entitled Atrocious Officials (Kushi), a derogatory euphemism for the secret police. Confucian opposition to the secret police is not based so much on distaste for the abuse of civil rights or its lament for the loss of political freedom, as it is based on its abhorrence for the victimization of innocent parties, often righteous members of the loyal opposition, and sometimes the innocent personal enemies of the powerful. A system to openly encourage anonymous political informants was instituted by Wu Zhao, the ruling Celestial Empress (Huang Tai'hou). Sealed bronze boxes for the deposition of secret petitions were ordered to be placed in public squares in cities and towns all over the empire. The box for proposing deserving memorials and for depositing resumes of worthy scholars desirous of government appointments, was labeled Court Favors (Ting'en). It was placed on the east side of the main public square of all major cities. The box placed on the south side of the square was labeled Solicited Advice (Zhao'jian), for expressing opposition to controversial policies. The box placed on the west side was labeled Vindication (Shenyuan) for countering false accusations and acts of injustice. And the box on the north side was labeled Intelligence (Tongxuan) for information on treasonous secrets and plots. Rewards were offered for useful information and penalties were not attached to honest information that turns out to be false leads. Accusations that were verifiable as false, however, would lead to punishment of accuser, provided whose identity was known. As a result, the system, probably the first and only system of secret ballot of public opinion in Chinese history, worked effectively. Wu Zhao, the ruling Celestial Empress (Huang Tai'hou), was able to receive information on the pulse of the empire without it first being filtered by the self-serving secret police or the self-justifying bureaucracy. The Catholic Inquisition, beginning in 1233 and continuing until the 19th century, would employ similar means of collecting informant letters. In the first act of La Gioconda, the popular opera by Italian composer Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886), Barnaba, the detestable Venetian villain who is a spy for the Inquisition, informs Alvise Badoero, chief of State Inquisition, by secret letter, of the impending plan of Badoero's wife, Laura, to flee with Enzo Grimaldo, a nobleman from Genoa. Barnaba deposits the accusatory note in the bronze lion's mouth, a depository intended for collecting informant letters, while he sings the popular aria: "O monumento!", gloating that as a spy for the Inquisition, he is more powerful than the Doge himself. The bronze lion's mouth, similar to the bronze Intelligence box of the Tang dynasty, would become in modern time a tourist attraction in Venice. La Gioconda, an unabashedly vulgar opera by Ponchielli, a provincial composer who would be known more for having been a teacher of his celebrated pupil, Puccini, would be disparagingly referred to by modern music critics as a "singer's opera", typical of a genre of grand theatrical crowd pleasers. Ponchielli, a star student at the influential Milan Conservatory, would remain at only minor posts in the provinces after completing his studies. He would be greatly influenced by Wagner, as would many of his contemporaries. Though not a genius, he would be considered a founder of modern Italian opera, more for it's form than its musical development. While Ponchielli would achieve some success in his late 30's, La Gioconda would be the only of his several operas that would enjoy universal renown. The librettist of La Gioconda, Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), a worldly figure travelling in the circle of such great figures as Victor Hugo, Verdi, Berlios and Rossini, would also write the librettos for Verdi's Otello and Falstaff. Boito, also a composer, would become known mostly for his opera Mefistofele.

Upon the completion of the Enlightenment Pavilion (Mingtang): Sacred Pavilion of Ten Thousand Holy Statues (Wanxiang Chengong) in Union Jade Palace (Hepi Gong) in Buddhist Luoyang, the Holy Capital (Shendu), in 689, Wu Zhao, the ruling Celestial Empress (Huang Tai'hou): Holy Mother Divine Emperor (Shengmu Shenhuang), now past 65 years old, personally led the inauguration ceremonies which were held 10 days before 1st day of the New Year. The ceremonies were attended by tens of thousands of loyal subjects from all parts of the empire. The ceremonies took place on a cold winter day, but the sun cooperated by shining warmly on the large crowd. History would record a special orchestra with 2 sections, one of string and wind and another of brass and percussion, being assembled for the inauguration of the Enlightenment Pavilion: Sacred Pavilion of Ten Thousand Holy Statues. The massive orchestra consisted of: 200 players of sheng, a 14-pipe mouth organ set in a gourd wind chamber which was supplied with air by the player blowing through a side mouth pipe; 120 players of the qin, a 7-string zither; 80 players each of the wu'xuan, a 5-string zither, and of konghou, a small harp; 60 players of the di, an oboe like instrument; 60 players of the xiao, an 8-hole flute; 40 players of the laba, a brass bugle; a large percussion section of drums, cymbals and carillons and, of course, an 800-member female chorus, male choruses being never used in ancient Chinese court music, probably because there was only one male permitted in the whole palace: the Emperor. The 14-pipe sheng is a simplified version of the ancient mouth organ, yu, which has 22 pipes in 2 rows and plays a dodecaphonic (12 notes) scale. The 7-string qin is a later version of the ancient zither, known as se, with 25 silk strings. The se, which has been mentioned in the Dialogues of Confucius, traces its origin to the ancient State of Qi, a major kingdom in Shandong during the Spring and Autumn period (Chunqiu 770-481 B.C.) and is understandably the choice instrument of the Confucian literati. Samples of these instruments, excavated in 1956 from the tombs of the Marquis of Dai and his clan members, dating back to the Xi'han dynasty (Western Han B.C. 206-24 A.D.), would be on display in modern time in Hunan Provincial Museum in Changsha, Hunan Province, where the tombs are located. A special dance, entitled: Holy Longevity Dance (Sheng Shou Wu), accompanied by an expanded version of (Sheng Shou Yue), was choreographed personally for this august occasion by Wu Zhao, the ruling Celestial Empress (Huang Tai'hou): Holy Mother Divine Emperor (Shengmu Shenhuang). Holy Longevity Music was composed jointly over a decade ago by Li Zhi, the late High Heritage Emperor (Gaozong), and Wu Zhao, the then Empress Wu. The new Holy Longevity Dance was staged under the supervision of the Rites Ministry (Li'bu), renamed Spring Office (Chun'guan) 5 years ago, in 684, the 1st year of the reign of Civil Enlightenment (Wenming), after the Li Jingye revolt. Spring Office was a functional ministry of Civil Development Platform (Wenchangtai) which was renamed from Central Platform (Zhongtai) which had in turn been renamed 22 years still earlier, in 662, from Ministerial Supervisory (Shangshu Sheng), the executive organ. Holy Longevity Dance was performed with 1,000 female dancers with golden crowns and costumes in 5 colors. The dancers grouped around formations which sequentially depict 16 word characters, spelling out the message: "Holy (Sheng) Beyond (Chao) Most (Qian) Ancient (Gu) Path (Dao) Calm (Tai) All (Bai) Prince (Wang) Imperial (Huang) Emperor (Di) Ten-thousand (Wan) Years (Nian) Precious (Bao) Blessing (Zuo) Abundance (Mi) Perpetuity (Chang)."

Music is considered as a form of civic communion in ancient China. Poetry and music are among the 5 rites and 6 muses (wuli liu'yue) established by the venerated Duke of Zhou (Zhou'gong) of the ancient Zhou dynasty (1027-256 B.C.), father of Chinese feudal culture. Music (Yue) would be defined in the Old Book on Tang (Jiu Tang Shu), compiled 256 years later, in 945, as an medium invented by the ancient sages to govern human emotions. The Old Book on Tang (Jiu Tang Shu) would assert that human beings are endowed with the gift of knowing and the emotions of joy (ji), anger (lu), grief (ai) and delight (le). It would report that the ancient saints (shengren), apprehensive of that unchecked human desires would result in social catastrophe, created music to tame human nature and rites to discipline human passion. Aside from having established hereditary monarchy, the Duke of Zhou was credited with having established feudalism, institutionalized it with an elaborate system of the 5 rites (li): rite for governing all social relationships and personal behavior; rite governing codes of dress; rite of marriage; rite of burial and rite of paying ancestral homage. These 5 rites have been identified by Confucius (551-479 B.C.) as the foundation of a civilized society, governing human behavior to enable them to live together peacefully in a harmonious community. The Duke of Zhou also defined 6 categories of ceremonial music for all formal occasions. He had been beatified by Confucian scholars as the father of formal Chinese feudal culture, whom Confucius himself looked to as a role model.

Unlike its function in modern Western culture, music in chinese dynastic culture was not intended to make the individual human spirit soar, as much as it was intended to glorify the collective spirit. In that respect, Tang music has much of its social purpose in common with Western Baroque music or modern revolutioanry marches. In the Chinese language, the same character is used to denote music (yue) and delight (le), although the pronunciations and meanings are distinctly different when the character is used in different contexts, not unlike the English words: muse and music. The Aspiration (Zhi) section of the Old Book on Tang would devote 4 chapters on music entitled: Sonic Delight (Yinyue). These chapters on music would be placed immediately after the 6 chapters on rituals (liyi), indicating the importance of their subject matter. The chapters on music in the Old Book on Tang (Jiu Tang Shu) would begin by asserting that emotion is caused by essence that moves the inner core; while sound generates lyrics that are expressed externally. The 1st chapter reports that the ancient Holy King (Shengwang) regulated music with scale (lu du), made it lyrical with hymns of praise, gave it rhythm with bells and drums, projected it with strings and pipes and employed it to cleanse the spirit and to repel frustration. It goes on to claim that: Applying music to the nation, there would be order at court; Applying music to the universe, there would be peace among the spirits; Applying music to entertaining visiting guests, there would be harmony between sovereign and subjects; and, Applying music to battle, there would be bravery among soldiers and citizens. Love, unfortunately but not surprisingly, is not mentioned. After all, the Old Book on Tang would be written by crusty Confucian scholars who would not consider romantic love a worthy emotion. The musical system of Chinese culture is based on a dodecaphonic lu (12-note scale) from which the basic notes of a series of pentatonic (5-note) scales are selected. A pentatonic scale is a 5-note scale in which the tones are arranged like a major scale with the 4th and 7th omitted. The 12 notes are generated by calibrations based on the interval, the difference of pitch between 2 notes, of the 4th and the 5th, starting from a foundation note known as the huangzhong (imperial bell), a musical note of mystical character representing the principle and the basis of well-being of the dynasty. The fall of a dynasty has sometimes been attributed to improper huangzhong. Consequently, considerable care has to be taken to arrive at the correct fundamental note emitted from the imperial bell for each dynasty. Several methods have been used to determine the absolute pitch of a dynasty's huangzhong. One method requires the length of the tuning pipe to correspond to 90 grains of well-harvested millet laid end to end. So the basic pitch of the huangzhong for each dynasty is affected by the quality of its best harvest, not unlike the emphasis placed on vintage for identifying the quality of wine. The philosophical dictate of this mystical musical theory decrees that the music of the 12 months of the year should employ modes based, in turn, on each of the 12 notes of the dodecaphonic lu.
>From antiquity, the notion of absolute pitch has been central to Chinese music, and since the Origin Qin Emperor (Qin
Shihuangdi r. 221-210 B.C.), the first unifying Emperor of China, the imperial office of rites (li) has assumed the responsibility of standardization of pitch as well as the supervision of the musical life of the newly unified empire. The dodecaphonic lu (12-note scale) is never used as a chromatic scale. A choice is made from among the 12 notes to provide the constituent notes of the various pentatonic (5-note) scales used for composition. The 5 notes of the pentatonic scale are mystically held to correspond to wu'hang (the 5 elements): metal, wood, water, fire and earth. They are also held to correspond to the 5 levels of feudal hierarchy: dukes (gong), marquis (hou), earls (bo), viscount (zhi) and baron (nan). In Western music, the diabolus in musica, the "devil in music", a name given to the tritone composed of 3 whole tones (the interval between F and B), considered innately as peculiarly ugly and to be avoided at all cost, is comparable to the Chinese concept of an ill-chosen huangzhong. Its choice is a collective tour de force in a culture for reaching a starting point of taste discrimination, the foundation of artistic criticism. Li Shi'min, the late Genesis Emperor (Taizong), during his reign of 23 years, ordered the composition of Music for Breaking the Defensive Line (Po Zhen Yue), choreographed with 120 armoured male dancers, to celebrate his military victories. He also composed Celebrating Grace Music (Qing Shan Yue), after the eponymous pavilion in which he was born. It was choreographed with 64 dancers with purple robes and broad sleeves, shellacked hairdos and leather boots. Li Zhi, the late High Heritage Emperor (Gaozong), and Wu Zhao, then as Empress Wu, jointly composed Holy Longevity Music (Sheng Shou Yue). It was to be accompanied by a new Holy Longevity Dance choreographed a decade after with 1,000 dancers with gold crowns, 5-color costumes, and the dance formations depicted words appropriate to the occasion, in 16 consecutive characters before ending. The music had been intended for enhancing the precarious longevity of the then ailing High Heritage Emperor, but alas, not no visible effect. Wu Zhao would also compose Heaven Deliverance Music (Tianshou Yue) 2 years hence, to herald the reign of Heaven Deliverance (Tianshou), in 690 and Longevity Music (Changshou Yue) to herald the reign of Longevity (Changshou) in 692. Her most ambitious composition would be Bird-song Long Live Music (Lineage Wanshui Yue) which would be sung by trained parrots sent from Lingnan (modern-day Guangzhou) in the south. Attempts on ornithological music would not be exclusively Chinese. Richard Wagner (1813-1882) would have a similar idea in his opera, Siegfried, the 3rd in the 4-opera series of Der Ring des Nibelungen. The hero of the Wagnerian music drama, Siegfried, is born of an incestious encounter between Siegmund and Selinde, children of Woton, leader of the gods in Valhalla. After tasting the blood of the dragon he slew, Siegfried is enlightened with the ability to understand the language of bird-songs in the forest. The bird-songs tell him of the power of the magic tarnhelm which allows him to change shape, and of the power of the ring which would gives him the ability to see through lies. They also tell him of the secret of walking through fire unharmed to wake and win the sleeping Brunnhilde, the beautiful Valkyrie who, for having followed her heart and disobeyed the order of Wotan, her godly father in Valhalla, is being punished in a long sleep on a mountaintop, protectively surrounded by a ring of magic fire that only a man like Siegfried who does not know the meaning of fear, can cross unharmed. The uniqueness of the ornithological composition by Wu Zhao, the ruling Celestial Empress (Huang Tai'hou): Holy Mother Divine Emperor (Shengmu Shenhuang), lies in its actual performance by trained birds imitating human voices rather than mere human imitation of bird sounds.

Henry C.K. Liu

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