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Origines Des Musique: Gagaku
Seeing the mallards
Crying on the pond of Iware for the last time today,
Shall I surely vanish into the clouds?

This was a death poem written in tears by Prince Otsu, minutes before he committed hara-kiri at the bank of Iware Pond in October 686 AD. Prince Otsu was a popular and a competent figure, a likely successor to his father, Emperor Temmu. However, this Japanese prince poet was forced to commit hara-kiri after false allegations of rebellion.

Inspired by a politically ostracised Japanese poet Shinogu Orikuchi, Prince Otsu contributed many of his works to the Man’yoshu form of poetry. Man’yoshu, a 20 volume piece of work and Japans’ oldest poetic anthology, was used to express both love by a poet who’d noticed any unknown angelic young woman and also ritual songs praising the beauty of the land. These forms of expression were worthy of being attributed to an emperor or even a court ritual. Court rituals were very popular in Japan and the most popular and oldest form was Gagaku.

Gagaku was sung at the Imperial Court of Japan in the early times. This musical form came to Japan from Korea and China during the 6th and 7th centuries. Popularly played by musicians from the same hereditary families or guilds, this old tradition was first documented during the 11th century and its interpretation changed along with society’s constant evolution.

Gagaku’s direct translation in English is ‘elegant music’, but also has a deeper connotation to it. In its truest sense, Gagaku in the Chinese language is termed as ‘Ya-Yueh’, which refers to ancient music intended for mediation with the ancestral spirits, and ensuring the continued balance of the elements of nature. Hence, sometimes this musical form is termed as Confucian ceremonial music, though Confucianism has never travelled to Japan, but has only been active in China.

Gagaku is based on 12 pitches as a foundation for seven-note scales, two scale structures ~ the Ryo and the Ritsu ~ and six modes. The rhythms are based on eight (Nobebyoshi), four (Hayabyoshi) and two (Osebyoshi) beats.

One of Asia’s strongest surviving traditions, this musical genre has three primary bodies. The first one being Saibara i.e. the native Shintoist religious music and folk songs. The second one is Komagaku, which is the Korean and Manchurian form. The third one is Togaku, which is the Chinese form. The Komagaku and the Togaku entered Japan during the 7th century in their Nara period, but only settled during the Heian period.

You can read the rest of our feature Origines Des Musique: Gagaku in the May 2007 issue of The Record Music Magazine available at your local newsagent.


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