Compilation of Joseon’s Encyclopedia of Music
In the Confucian kingdom of Joseon, music was valued as highly as propriety. It was believed that the right music would help edify people and therefore build a better world, while troubled music was attributable to the king’s misrule.
In reverence for the philosophy of Yeak(예악), in which propriety and music were put before punishment, the Joseon court established several state-run music institutes to nurture talented musicians.
The nation also made numerous musical instruments and held musical performances at various royal events, including memorial services for ancestors and banquets. It was Seong Hyeon who compiled Joseon’s encyclopedia of music, known as Akhak Gwebeom, in which lyrics were written in Hangeul and the theories, systems and forms of traditional court music were explained with drawings.
The Man Most Capable of Compiling [Akhak Gwebeom]
Born in 1439 as the son of Seong Yeom-jo(성염조), Seong Hyeon had been bright since he was a little child.
He passed the state civil service examination in 1462 at the age of 23. Four years later, he came in third in the special exam for incumbent civil and military officials to assume several key posts in the court.
Seong spent the last year in his 20s as a lecturer of Confucian classics for the king. While following his older brother Seong Im(성임) on a journey to the Ming Dynasty of China, he wrote a poem about his personal trip to showcase his literary talent.
Later on, Seong served in various high-ranking government posts, including the Minister of Rites in charge of good manners and court music, ancestral rites, banquets, diplomacy, education and the state exam. There is an episode of Seong when he was the governor of the Pyongan Province in 1488. He held a reception party for two Chinese envoys who brought a royal document with them. They were struck with admiration while exchanging poems with the Korean official.
Seong was a great scholar, fine writer and important court official. It came as no surprise that King Seongjong(성종), the 9th monarch of Joseon, selected Seong as the man most capable of compiling music of the early Joseon period to create [Akhak Gwebeom].
Contribution to Development of Joseon’s Music
Akhak was an institute in charge of music in early the Joseon era, and gwebeom literally means ‘canon.’ As the name [ Akhak Gwebeom] indicates, the book contains everything about performing arts of the Jeseon court.
The nine-volume treatise on music introduces music theories, the arrangement of musical instruments, the process of performance, instrument-making, technique, dances accompanied by music and relevant costumes and props.
In the [Musical Instruments] part, for example, forms of musical instruments, the size, color and material of different parts of the instruments, ways to tune strings as well as technique are written in great detail with drawings. When explaining particular dances, it elaborates how many musicians and dancers are necessary and where they should be positioned. It also expounds the process of dances.
It is worth mentioning that Seong created a new form of musical composition that combines existing musical scores with detailed technique. He also wrote about how to apply this to string instruments. As a result, anyone could play traditional music as long as he or she simply followed the directions and drawings of [Akhak Gwebeom], even though they were not taught by instructors.
Another Masterpiece, [Yongjae Chonghwa] (Writings of Yongjae)
[Akhak Gwebeom] served as the standard of practicing music and a practical guide to music in the Joseon era. Unfortunately, many Joseon musicians were killed or taken to Japan and a number of musical instruments and documents were burned during the Japanese invasion of Korea in the late 16th century. The Joseon court reprinted [Akhak Gwebeom] in 1610 to restore the nation’s music.
As an important historical record, it has been indispensable to the study of Korean language and literature, traditional dances, costumes, art performances and props. Even today, its systematic and comprehensive descriptions are deemed to be reliable.
In 1504, Seong wrote another masterpiece [Yongjae Chonghwa](용재총화), meaning ‘a collection of Yongjae’s writings.’ Yongjae is Seong’s penname. In the form of conversation, Seong expresses his view on political, social and ethical issues, including the duty of the king and his subjects and the keys to governing the country. The book also includes various episodes and funny stories about the royal family, noble families, poets and musicians from the Goryeo era to the years of King Seongjong of Joseon. It is valued as a crucial record to illustrate politics, society and culture of the early Joseon period.
Seong contributed greatly to passing down traditional culture. After he died in 1504, he was recommended as an ideal official of Joseon who combined such characteristics as the ability to administer state affairs, integrity, frugality, morality, respect and filial duty, and humanity and justice.