Music Among The Nations Of Remote Antiquity
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IN our historical search for the expression and practice of music we turn first of all to the cradle of the human race, southeastern Asia, inhabited by the Chinese, Japanese and Hindoos. These nations, though geographically allied and bearing a degree of mental resemblance to each other, pre-sent very striking contrasts. These contrasts are due in a measure to their different dispositions or "make-up," which may be ascribed, in part, to climatic conditions. The Chinese conception of the world and the great works of nature seems to us rather insipid and prosaic. Their imagination is limited; they live the practical, utilitarian life. Music originated with them, as with other nations of antiquity, in their religion, and has long been under state supervision in order to guard against the covert introduction of "tones" contrary to the ordinances. Such regulation is, of course, baneful to art and its progress. They consider music to exist for two purposes, recreation and theoretical investigation, and seem never to have realized that it is a language for the expression of emotion. Their theory of the origin of the tones of their scales is very interesting as showing how far pedantry will lead the mind astray. Their oldest musical scale was limited, but not more so than that of other nations whose musical utterance is quite artistic. In their music-system the tone which we call F is the center of all things. It represents and is called the Emperor, and each tone of their original five-tone (pentatonic) scale F, G, A, C, D has a fantastic name, referring usually to something political. In early times this five-tone scale was extended, for certain kinds of music, to the full octave, by the insertion of E and B, called "Leaders" and "Mediators," but the songs of the temple (in fact, all their ancient songs) are constructed on the pentatonic scale. Later they learned to divide the octave into twelve half-steps, and then the scale was called Lue (law), but F always remained the foundation-tone. They had some idea of harmony, or at least of the relationship existing between the principal tones of the scale, the fourth and fifth and tonic. Theoretically, they have 84 scales, all with philosophical significance, although few of them are in use. Their literature of music, so far as known, consists mostly of theoretical works which show considerable discriminative power, collections of songs being rare. From the theoretical works it is evident that they care little for the combination of sounds in harmony. Their melodies, excepting those of the older sacred music and the songs of the sailors and mountaineers, lack definite outline and seem to us vague and aim-less. The following three examples of Chinese melody were recorded by a Jesuit missionary. The first is a song in praise of the dead, which is very well known and much used, the Chinese being devout ancestor-worshippers.
In this melody we notice a decided element of rhythm, even though it is somewhat monotonous. Both of these melodies are constructed on the pentatonic scale.
The third example is a sort of antiphonal song between a ship's mate and his sailors :
The last illustration is of a decidedly higher type than the others, as are the songs of the mountaineers. Is this due, perhaps, to the fact that these people see more of the grandeur of nature? That the pentatonic scale of the Chinese is capable of much more than these simple melodies is evident from the many chaiining Scotch and Irish songs which also have it for their basis. As an example, we might cite "Auld Lang Syne" (in its original form, not as sometimes edited).
The accompaniment of their songs, which regularly includes a small drum, is quite similar in character to the drone of the bagpipe, a very primitive device common among most musically untutored nations. Their sense for rude rhythm is manifested by their predilection for instruments of percussion. In the average Chinese orchestra will be found many such instruments, consisting of drums of all kinds and sizes, bells, stones beaten with mallets, different kinds of cymbals, a row of suspended tuned copper plates or stones, wooden clappers, and even wooden tubs, beaten sometimes from the outside and sometimes from the inside. Wind-instruments are less common. Some of these, such as the Hiuen, which is similar to an ocarina, are made of clay; others, like flutes, are of wood or metal. Their most elaborate wind-instrument, and at the same time the most pleasing, is the Cheng. This is made from a hollowed gourd, in which are inserted a number of bamboo tubes of different lengths. The gourd acts as a sort of wind-chest into which the player blows through a tube, while the vents in the bamboos are stopped with the fingers. Their stringed instruments are but few in number and sparingly represented in the orchestra, where one lone fiddle with one or more silk strings often carries the melody. Their most popular musical instruments are the Kin, a primitive guitar, and the Che, a sort of large zither with twenty-five strings, both said to have been invented about 3000 B.C. In spite of its limitations in the matter of sustained tone, the Chinese regard their orchestral music as the best in the world, and that of a European orchestra as horrible.
This island people, neighbors of and racially allied to the Chinese, are more active and energetic, mentally and physically, than their continental kinsfolk. Although they revere music very highly, they have, artistically, fallen below even Chinese standards. Many of their instruments, especially the percussives, resemble those of the Chinese; they also have the Kin and the Cheng. We note a new instrument, however, made out of a sea-shell, with a tube inserted therein, used somewhat like a trumpet. They have many stringed instruments somewhat like the mandolin and the lute, the most popular of which, used for accompanying songs, is the Samisen, played with a plectrum (pick) like that used in playing the mandolin. An old picture of a Japanese orchestra (and a family orchestra, at that) shows three men and four women, whose instruments are a flute, a very large drum (played at both ends), two bell-rattles, two wooden clappers and two small drums, the flute sustaining the melody above all these instruments of percussion. Their melodies resemble those of the Chinese, having the pentatonic scale for their basis, but their musicians are not so much addicted to theoretical discussion. That they have realized the comparative poverty of their music is evidenced by the fact that in 1879 the Japanese government engaged an American, Luther Whiting Mason, to establish the ideas and methods of occidental music in their schools.
Here we have a people endowed with a most vivid imagination. Living in a climate nearly tropical, and in a country rich in verdure and teeming with the gifts of nature, their out-look upon life is decidedly different from that of the nations mentioned before. Among them the origin of music is again found in their religion, it being considered as derived directly from the gods. Sarasvati, the wife of Brahma, is revered as the donor of the Vina, the national musical instrument. She is considered the guardian of music, with a special god, Nareda, as a sort of prime minister. One of the great books of the Brahmins, the Rig-Veda (1500 B.C.), contains many hymns whose melodies are ascribed to the gods. Some of these melodies, called Ragas, were supposed to be capable of extraordinary effects. One of them, the Raga of Fire, was said to possess the power of calling fire from heaven, and legend tells of a popular singer, who, wishing to try the effect of this Raga, immersed himself up to his neck in a river, where he perished because the water began to boil. Another Raga was supposed to have the power of calling down rain and thus saving the country from drought; while still another could eclipse the sun's rays, all because of the effect of the melody. The Hindoo scale, like that of the other ancient nations, was at first pentatonic, but later was expanded to seven tones and still later throughout three octaves. Their subdivision of the octave is very curious, the whole steps being divided sometimes into four and sometimes into three equal parts, while the half-steps are divided into two quarter-steps, making a division of twenty-two tones to the octave. It is evident that this series of twenty-two tones was not practicable for singers or players in any one melody, although the quarter-steps were used in certain portions of a scale for the purpose of forming a new one. Theoretically, they had sixteen thousand scales, mythologically explained in the story of the sixteen thousand Gopis (beautiful maidens), each of whom, in her efforts to secure the love of Krishna, invented her own scale, hoping by a new form of melody to win his favor. In time the number of scales was reduced by the theorists to nine hundred and sixty, then to thirty-six, and even as low as twenty-three, but the thirty-six were generally retained. Their most important scale was the Sriraga, corresponding to our A-major scale.
Hindoo poetry is of varying rhythm and meter, and the melodies of the songs correspond. Their music is very difficult of notation because of numerous rules for the guidance of the artists and the many licenses and liberties allowed them. While their more modern music may not be much like that of past ages, their oldest songs, which were memorized and chanted, are still in common use. Below will be found a typical Hindustanee melody.
Their characteristic national instrument, the Vina, consists of a tube some three feet in length, having a gourd-like hollow sphere attached underneath at each end. It has nineteen movable bridges and seven strings, which, by shifting the bridges, are capable of producing a chromatic scale. Another of their stringed instruments is the Serinda, a sort of violin shaped like a mandolin, but with indented sides, allowing it to be played with a bow. The percussives and wind-instruments resemble those of the Chinese, but their use is less universal. Their poetry is of a high order, and many of their dramas were produced with music. Notable among these is the one telling the story of Krishna's quarrel with the gods, which contains both songs and choruses. All in all, the Hindoos were further advanced in instrumental music, as well as in musical form, than the other nations of remote antiquity.
THE EGYPTIANS, AFRICANS AND WESTERN ASIATICS.
Egypt has been named " the land of monuments," and the Egyptians "the monumental people of history." In examining the music of this interesting people we are instantly re-minded of its disadvantages, as compared with the plastic arts, in the matter of records. A sound is, after all, the creation of a moment, and then vanishes. Even when records were made on papyrus, they were easy of destruction as compared with the pyramids. Music took a leading part in the temple worship of the Egyptians, and its origin was attributed by them to the goddess Isis. Plato, after his travels in Egypt, said that he believed their sacred songs to be not less than ten thousand years old, and that they must have emanated from the gods or from god-like men, because of their power to exalt and ennoble mankind. The Egyptians also ascribe the origin of some of their primitive melodies to the gods. The "mighty Ptah" alluded to in Verdi's Aida is represented as a player on the harp. A curious similarity between the mythology of the Egyptians and the Greeks is noticeable, Osiris, the Egyptian patron of music, being represented accompanied by nine female singers, like Phoebus-Apollo with the nine Muses among the Greeks. The division of the people into castes bred a conservatism which was intensified by lack of intercourse with the rest of the world, made difficult because the land is virtually an oasis in the desert. The poetry of the Egyptians is so lofty in conception that if their music was at all commensurate in expression, it must indeed have been sublime and of great effect.
We have little information regarding their tonal system. Walls of temples and tombs furnish us with representations of musical instruments and processions of musicians, but with no idea of the actual quality of their music. However, in view of the fact that they have been exceedingly tenacious in the continuation of their religious ceremonial and philosophic ideals, we may reasonably assume that many of the melodies in use among the common people of to-day are handed down from remote antiquity. If this assumption be correct, their scale was even more limited than that of other ancient nations, in that it had but four tones, like the tetrachord of the Greeks. Their far-removed ancestors, the Abyssinians, used the same four-tone diatonic scale in their melodies. Architecture was, in point of fact, the predominant art of the Egyptians, for even their sculpture is in a measure architectural, being limited by unchangeable lines. Because of their conservatism, their music was probably equally limited. Musical investigation, however, proves that even the tetra-chordal scale is capable of great variety, and that its use often gives the character of grandeur. Mozart used it in The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni; Gluck in his Alceste; while Verdi gives a fine example in Aida. William Edward Lane, in his book on "Egypt and Its Customs," presents the following examples of ancient Egyptian melodies.
What especially interests us in these melodies is their form (the idea of repetition of certain phrases making for unity), and the fact that they lie within the tetrachord. It is possible that, unlike other nations, they had an appreciation of harmony, for the pictures of groups of musicians in the tombs display a series of various musical instruments, such as large harps with many strings, small harp's, instruments like the guitar, lyres, and flutes of different lengths. Since the harp-players are represented as using both hands together, some-thing hardly necessary for the performance of their limited melodies, they may have furnished harmonic support. The harp was apparently their most important instrument, for it appears (pictorially) to have been of many sizes and kinds, and played in various manners — over the shoulder, standing and kneeling, with many strings and with few. The lyre they used is a modification of an Asiatic instrument. The Kern-Kern (the Sistrum of the Hebrews) consisted of a bronze frame crossed by four metal bars with jingling appendages, and was used for the purpose of attracting attention during some portion of their temple worship, like the bell at Mass in the Catholic Church. We find the same instrument again, under another naine, in the idol-worship of the Romans, where it is called the "Isis clapper," the name proving its Egyptian origin. The Egyptians ascribed to this instrument the power to drive away evil, as well as the power of intimidation, and therefore used it in battle to frighten their enemies.
Prolonged investigation has revealed the fact that the music of the Egyptians was in many respects closely allied to that of the Greeks, the Hebrews, the Phoenicians, and also to that of the Ethiopians, their nearest neighbors. The Ethiopians have many instruments in common with them, such as the Sistrum, lyres, drums and harps, and the relationship is especially noticeable in their melodies, even though they are more primitive. Following is an Ethiopian melody:
The inhabitants of western Asia form a great contrast to the Egyptians. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Chaldeans, Lydians, Phrygians, Medes and Persians exhibit in their music decided differences in their conception of the art as well as in their methods of performance. Their music was used mostly in idolatrous praise of their despotic rulers. Among their instruments we notice the smaller portable harp played with a plectrum, the Kinnor (the triangular harp of the He-brews), and the Dulcimer, a square wooden box strung with metal strings which were struck with a hammer — one of the great-great-grandfathers of the piano. Religious music among these nations was for the most part superficial and effeminate, despite their otherwise warlike spirit.
While, as we have seen, nearly all these nations of antiquity believed music to be of divine origin, none of them so thoroughly realized this conception as did the Hebrews, whose efforts we are next to consider.