The Chinese orchestra is composed of about sixteen different types of percussion instruments and four kinds of wind and stringed instruments, whereas in European orchestras the ratio is exactly reversed. Their orchestras are placed at the back of the stage, European orchestras 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 Europeans consider it the most nearly perfect instrument existing.
The drum is the most primitive instrument known to man. If all knowledge of the Chinese were included in a simple list of their orchestral instruments, it should be recognized 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 must constitute the principal factor in that civilization.
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.
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. 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.
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. According to the Chinese 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.
Adapted from Critical & Historical Essays by Edward MacDowell, 2005
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