Music and poetry

Francois Cheng [tooltip content= “Chinese Poetic Writing: With an Anthology of Tang Poetry (Indiana Univ Press, 1982)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]

Poetry was united to music in a particularly durable fashion in China. It should be recalled that the first two collections of poetry in Chinese literature, the Shih Ching (“Classic of Poetry”) and the Ch’u Tz’a (“Songs of Ch’u”), were both collections of songs, the one of songs of secular inspiration and the other of sacred. From the Han dynasty on, even when poetry acquired an autonomous status, the tradition of popular song, the yiieh-fu, was never interrupted, while on the other hand, all poems composed by poets, in whatever form or style, were chanted aloud. Toward the end of the T’ang, around the ninth century, the flourishing of the tz’fi (sung lyric poetry) genre made concrete once again the symbiosis of poetry and music. This genre has remained in vogue into our own time.

The deep relationship between poetry and music influenced the very vision of the ‘world by which each of the two arts was inspired. Poets tended toward a musical vision of the universe, and musicians in turn sought to produce a poetic vision. The importance of music in the education of the traditional man of letters is well known; a musical instrument was an indispensable element of such a person’s property. Numerous poets, among them Wang Wei and Wen T’ing-ytin of the T’ang and Li Ch’ing-chao and Chiang K’uei of the Sung, were refined musicians; others among the greatest poets, including Li Po, Tu Fu, Han Yi_i, Po Cha-i, Li Ho, and Su Tung-p’o, wrote famous poems to extol the playing of a musician, or to preserve the resonances created within themselves by a memorable concert. On the musicians’ side, many musical pieces were based on, and took their titles from, existing poems.

In addition to the general relationship between music and poetry, the musicality of the language itself, as a vehicle of poetry, should also be emphasized. The Chinese language, from a phonic point of view, is essentially monosyllabic, in the sense that each minimal word, or mo-neme, is composed of one syllable. Monosyllabism was favored, after a fashion, by the writing system itself, where ideograms, with identical and invariable dimensions, tend to have a minimal sound as well. The very fact that each syllable constitutes a living unity, a unity of sound and meaning, engenders specific phonic effects. In addition, in Chinese the number of differentiated syllables is limited (for example, in modern Chinese there are only four differentiated syllables), and therefore each syllable has a unique value. Each sound then has an autonomy and a resonance weighted with deep significance. This autonomy in turn permits an extremely dense rhythm (for example, the pentasyl-labic line) within which a contrastive play of the Essential Numbers (two and three, representing yin and yang) is established. Finally, each sound in Chinese may be marked by different tones, and the tonal system, which existed to help remove some of the ambiguity produced by homophony, was fully exploited in poetry in the form of tonal counterpoint. The ensemble of phonic traits inherent in the language thus created a very original musicality.

This musicality is eplored in greater detail elsewhere [link] ; here it should be sufficient to point out that it did have some influence on the conception of sound in music per se, and did have some bearing on musical interpretation.

Francois Cheng
Chinese Poetic Writing: With an Anthology of Tang Poetry
Indiana University Press, 1982