From Page to Stage: Exploring Some Mysteries of Kunqu Music and its Melodic Characteristics
- CHINOPERL: Journal of Chinese Oral and Performing Literature
- University of Hawai'i Press
- Volume 32, Number 1, July 2013
- pp. 1-29
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FROM PAGE TO STAGE: EXPLORING SOME MYSTERIES OF KUNQU MUSIC AND ITS MELODIC CHARACTERISTICS LINDY LI MARK California State University, East Bay1 Before 1907, spoken drama was basically non-existent in China. Certainly all the written dramatic genres dating from the Song dynasty (960±1279) contained both spoken and singing parts. Indeed, but for music, what we now think of as traditional Chinese theater would just not exist. Yet, throughout Chinese history, the music in Chinese drama has typically been seen as subservient to the poetic script, and not appreciated for itself, despite the fact that it is music that informs and organizes almost everything that takes place on the traditional Chinese stage. Kunqu ò is generally regarded as the performance mode in traditional Chinese drama that most perfectly united words and music, and it is also arguably the performance mode that has been most studied and written about. But even in the case of Kunqu music there remain many mysteries and imperfectly understood elements. In this paper I will point out some of the former and try to improve our understanding of some of the latter. The libretti written or adapted for Kunqu performance can be said to be the most literary of all Chinese drama genres and many have been read as works of literature. But I believe that it is the music of Kunqu that has sustained these libretti over the centuries since they were written and that is also behind their renaissance on the stage in recent years. Because music is perhaps the most abstract and intangible of the performing arts, and thus less amenable to verbal description, and also because the music of Kunqu is more complex than in most traditional Chinese dramatic performance modes, scholarship on Kunqu in English has tended to concentrate on the libretti to the neglect of the music.2 In this essay I hope to try, to some extent, to redress this imbalance. We will see that in Kunqu the melody of the arias is much more than a mere ampli®cation of the poetic language of the libretti, or an attempt to make the text more comprehensible for the audience. In fact, the twists and turns of Kunqu music actually make the text even more dif®cult to understand. 1 I wish to express my thanks to the editor and the reviewers for their suggestions and help with this article. 2``Technical'' discussion of the relationship between music and words in Kunqu can be found in unpublished work such as Marjory Bong-Ray Liu's 1976 UCLA doctoral thesis, ``Tradition and Change in Kunqu Opera'' or Catherine Crutchfield Swatek's 1990 Columbia University doctoral thesis, ``Feng Menglong's Romantic Dream: Strategies of Containment in His Revision of The Peony Pavilion.'' CHINOPERL: Journal of Chinese Oral and Performing Literature 32.1 (July 2013): 1±29 # The Permanent Conference on Chinese Oral and Performing Literature, Inc. 2013 DOI: 10.1179/0193777413Z.0000000007 To provide context and to explain the traditional notion that music is subordinate to the words in Kunqu, I will begin by citing some orthodox historical pronouncements concerning the relationship of music to words that inform this kind of devaluation of music in Chinese culture both in terms of song in general and then speci®cally with regard to Kunqu. I will then show how this general subordination of music to words was intensi®ed by the gentri®cation of Kunqu during the sixteenth century by the musicians Wei Liangfu Oo (c. 1522±1572) and Liang Chenyu °Z (c. 1519?±1591). Then I will discuss the speci®c prosodic/musical form that the arias in Kunqu take: qupai òL (tune matrices), and from there move on to describe the intrinsic musical characteristics and aesthetics of Kunqu music and ®nally illustrate them with an analysis of what is surely the most famous aria in all of Kunqu. WORDS AND MUSIC: SOME ORTHODOX HISTORICAL VIEWS Chinese historical writings on music are replete with remarks extolling the human voice over the sound of musical instruments. Such remarks are found as early as the Jin dynasty (265±420). For example, in the biography of Meng Jia _ (296± 349) in the Jinshu Iø (History...