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#Sounds of Korea l 2023-02-02
The following is a poem written by a mid-Joseon scholar named Shin Heum신흠.
The royal foxglove tree retains its melodies even when a thousand years old,
And plum blossoms never lose their scent even when they live in the cold.
The moon does not change in its substance even when it wanes and waxes for a thousand times,
And the willow sprouts new branches even when they are broken a hundred times.
Seonbi선비 scholars in the old days favor the royal foxglove tree because it is known as the home of the phoenix, but also because its light and resonant lumber is used to make Korean string instruments such as gayageum or geomungo. Plum blossoms, fragrant even when covered in snow, were often likened to seonbi scholars’ elegance. The moon changes shape every day but it is fulfilling its role of waxing and waning. Most tree branches die when they are broken off of the trunk, but willow branches sprout roots when they are planted in the ground. The royal foxglove trees and plum blossoms were touted for their unchanging faithfulness while the moon and willow trees for their tendency to retain their essence. The season of plum blossoms has returned once again. The graceful flowers seem to ask us what values we try to adhere to throughout our lives. Today’s first song is “Plum Blossom Song” by Song So-hee.
Plum Blossom Song/ Sung by Song So-hee
Plum blossoms seem to evoke different sentiments. Seonbi scholars are reminded of fidelity while some of their loved ones. Since plum blossoms elicit many different responses, they make a great subject matter for various songs. For instance, a gasa song titled “Maehwaga매화가” begins with the following lines.
Dear plum blossom, spring came back to the old stump.
Flowers could have bloomed on the old branches,
But they might not have for the spring snow still covers the ground.
It is said that this poem was written by a gisaeng named Maehwa매화, meaning plum blossom. Chunseol춘설, meaning the snow that comes in early spring, was said to be another gisaeng. Maehwa, being an old gisaeng, was being forgotten while the young and beautiful Chunseol was being admired by everyone. This poem-song describes Maehwa’s woeful heart that worries about whether she would regain her popularity when Chunseol is so adored. Here’s the student jeongga정가 choir Ahri singing “Maehwaga.”
Maehwaga/ Sung by jeongga choir Ahri
Plum blossoms bloom before the leaves sprout. The way the tiny, delicate flowers adorn the dry, thin branches appear quite fragile and pitiful. In contrast to their tender appearance, however, these dainty white flowers withstand the cold winds of early spring, a trait that inspired respect and fondness among the seonbi scholars of the old days. Yi Hwang이황, a renowned Confucian scholar of the mid-Joseon period, told his family to water the plum tree outside of his room before his death. Perhaps he wanted the scent of plum blossoms to last long after he passed away. As plum blossoms engender different sentiments as mentioned previously, the following song is about a woman bemoaning her broken heart as she watches falling plum blossoms. Gyemyeon Isudaeyeob계면 이수대엽, lyric song cycles sung by only female vocalists, is one of the slowest songs even among the traditional songs. Its lyrics describe a woman longing for her love who had promised to come back to her when plum blossoms bloom. When her love doesn’t come even after all the flowers have fallen, she worries whether she would wither away just like the flowers. But then a magpie cries, suggesting the arrival of a welcome guest, which causes the woman to hope for her lover’s return and sit in front of a mirror to spruce up herself. This song is performed very slowly like a long sigh. Let’s conclude this week’s Sounds of Korea with Jo Soon-ja singing “Promise,” a part of Gyemyeon Isudaeyeob song.
Promise/ Sung by Jo Soon-ja