People don’t read books or poems out loud these days unless it’s a special occasion. But in the old days reading was considered something done out loud rather than quietly. When a story or a poem is read aloud for a long time, it becomes rhythmical, and almost sounds like a song. In pansori “Chunhyangga춘향가,” there is a passage in which Lee Mong-ryong, the leading male character, recites a book like a love song. Lee falls in love with Chunhyang at first sight and vows to visit her house late at night. He has to finish his studies, but he can’t focus because all his thoughts are on the lovely girl. So, he tries to concentrate by reading a book out loud, but after a while the words coming out of his mouth are no longer deep philosophical discussions from the book, but his longing for Chunhyang. That’s the passage we’re going to listen to right now, sung by Sung Woo-hyang.
Music 1: Aria from “Chunhyangga”/ Sung by Sung Woo-hyang
Each word he recited demonstrated his affection for Chunhyang. The book he read became a totally different piece of work, but judging from his improvisational skills, he must have completely understood what the words and sentences in the book meant. So, it’s not surprising that he passed the government exam with flying colors at such a young age. This passage indicates that Lee Mong-ryong was not just a young man blinded by love, but also a really smart, capable scholar. Since Korean scholars in the old days were able to sing songs about philosophical content, they would have found singing poems a piece of cake. Adding a melody and beats to a Chinese poem was called “sichang시창,” which literally means singing a poem.
Coming up next is a sichang piece called “Gwansanyungma관산융마,” which was written by a Joseon-era scholar named Shin Gwang-su신광수. This poem won second place in the national examination administered to select government officials. It later became a favorite song of gisaeng기생 or female entertainers based in Pyongyang. Later, Shin left the following record about the song.
When I was staying in Seoju서주 with Moran모란, we climbed up to the beautiful pavilion by the Daedong대동 River and enjoyed rides on a boat adorned with paintings. We also spent time together in front of a lamp, under the moon. Whenever Moran sang my poem “Gwansanyungma,” her voice made the passing clouds stop and listen.
Music 2: “Gwansanyungma”/ Sung by Kim Wol-ha
That was “Gwansanyungma” sung by Kim Wol-ha. Now let’s listen to the sound of story recitation. Singing a story in the style of the Seoul and Gyeonggi Province regions is called “songseo송서.” Among all the songseo pieces, Samseolgi삼설기, a collection of short stories, was most well-known. One of the stories involved three Confucian scholars who were mistakenly taken to the underworld. Admitting to his mistake, the god of the underworld promised the scholars whatever they wanted in their next lives. One said he wanted to become a great hero and another wanted to become a high-ranking government official. The problem was the last scholar. His wish wasn’t a grand one. He just wanted to be born into a good family, get a good education, be good to his parents, have loving children, and live in comfort for a long, long time without getting sick. His wish didn’t sound like much, but the god became furious at the man’s simple desire. Today’s Sounds of Korea will conclude with Lee Moon-won singing “Samseolgi.”
Music 3: Samseolgi/ Sung by Lee Moon-won