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Royal Court Music

#Sounds of Korea l 2019-04-03

Sounds of Korea

In Korea it was believed that politics was founded on “ye예” or propriety and “ak악” or music. It’s called “yeak예악 ideology.” You may wonder what propriety and music have to do with politics, but Confucianism teaches that propriety comes from acknowledging differences. Respect comes from accepting the differences and propriety or etiquette is an expression of respect. And music is inspired by heartfelt emotions and has the power to bring different ideas together. Countless different people live in this world. Some enjoy high social standing and some belong to the bottom tier of society. Some are so rich that they practically throw away money and some are so poor that they can barely find something to eat. The ye’ak ideology states that propriety builds order and music brings harmony among different genders, ideas, and cultures. This is why music was an important part of the Joseon Dynasty. Of all the royal court music pieces that have survived to this day, “Sujecheon수제천” is considered the most exceptional one. “Sujecheon” means that lifespan runs parallel to heaven, which indicates our wish to live long, healthy lives. You will feel yourself breathing more deeply and slowly as you listen to its super slow melody. Here’s the first movement of “Sujecheon” performed by the Court Music Orchestra of the National Gugak Center.

Music 1: 1st Movement of “Sujecheon”/ Performed by Court Music Orchestra

After hearing this music, foreign music experts reportedly said that it was like the sound of heaven had come down to the world of man and that it was a refreshing change that erased the grimes of the industrialized West. You may not go that far in admiring this piece, but it certainly was different from what foreigners were used to. 

As music and propriety were the basis of governance in Joseon, there were several Joseon kings who demonstrated special musical talent. One of those musically talented kings was none other than King Sejong, who personally composed Jongmyo ceremonial music inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Another royal family member that used music to lead the nation was Crown Prince Hyomyeong효명 in the late Joseon period. He was the son of King Sunjo순조 but had to rule in stead of his father at age 18 when the king fell ill. 

At the time, the king’s maternal relatives had the real power over the royal court, so it wasn’t easy for the crown prince to govern. But he tried to recruit new talents and bring warring political sects together with music. Crown Prince Hyomyeong even unveiled his own music compositions and dance choreography at a party held for his parents. “Chunaengjeon춘앵전” was an example of his dance creations. It was written to celebrate his mother’s 40th birthday. 

Portraying a cuckoo flying between willow trees in the spring, “Chunaengjeon” is a solo dance performed on a small bamboo mat in a yellow outfit. The upcoming piece is the instrumental accompaniment of “Chunaengjeon” with Chung Jae-guk at the piri, Park Yong-ho at the daegeum, Jung Soo-nyun at the haegeum, and Kim Gwang-seop at the janggu. 

Music 2: Instrumental accompaniment of “Chunaengjeon”/ Piri by Chung Jae-guk, daegeum by Park Yong-ho, haegeum by Jung Soo-nyun, janggu by Kim Gwang-seop 

“Chunaengjeon” is the only solo royal dance. Since its dance moves are confined to the area of a floor mat, its moves are not large or flashy, but still very elegant. Joseon kings could not venture outside the palace that often, but when they did, they were always accompanied by music. Musicians usually played percussion and wind instruments because they had to play while marching in the royal procession. 

“Daechwita대취타” is the most widely known royal procession music, comprised of a gong, drums, janggus, and horns. These instruments produced simple yet majestic sounds. Today’s episode of Sounds of Korea concludes with “Daechwita” performed by traditional band Puri.

Music 3: Daechwita/ Performed by Puri

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