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Sijo, Korean poems set to music

#Sounds of Korea l 2021-03-31

Sounds of Korea

Sijo, Korean poems set to music

In pansori “Chunhyangga춘향가,” there is a passage called “Gwigokseong귀곡성,” where the cries of ghosts are imitated. Frightened to death in the cold and dark prison, Chunhyang could very well have imagined ghosts lurking in the shady corners of the dungeon. The sounds of the wind rustling the leaves or the owls hooting sadly in the night would have resembled the cries of vengeful spirits. Perhaps her resentment and dread could have amplified the fear factor of the sounds. It would have been crucial for pansori singers to play up the scary and grim atmosphere of this passage. 

In the late Joseon period, a magistrate of Jinju invited singer Song Heung-rok송흥록 renowned for his performance of Gwigokseong to sing at a late-night party. It was held at a gazebo located near the river, far away from the residential area. When the singer sang the pitiful situation of the poor girl, everyone at the party felt for her and cried with her. But just when the singer made an eerie sound of a wailing ghost, the candlelight went out all at once, throwing the entire party into a panicked frenzy. The first piece we have for you today is “Gwigokseong” from pansori “Chunhyangga” sung by Jo Sang-hyun. 

Gwigokseong from pansori Chunhyangga/ Sori by Jo Sang-hyun

One of King Sejong’s great-grandsons was Yi Dal이달, better known by his penname Byeokgyesu벽계수. He was known to be very learned in arts, especially in geomungo. He wanted to get to know Hwang Jin-yi황진이, the most famous gisaeng기생 of the time, but she wasn’t known to associate with just anyone. So Yi Dal asked a friend for advice and this was the advice he got: “Play the geomungo while drinking wine at the gazebo near Hwang Jin-yi’s house. She’ll surely come to the gazebo and sit beside you to listen to your geomungo. But be sure to ignore her and just leave on your horse. She’ll follow you then. Don’t look back at her until you cross the bridge. Only then will you be able to befriend her.” Byeokgyesu followed his friend’s advice and did as he was told. But she didn’t act as he had planned. Instead of following Byeokgyesu to the bridge, she stayed behind at the gazebo and recited a poem.

The clear water of Byeokgyesu, don’t boast of flowing rapidly.

Once you reach the wide sea, it would be difficult to return.

The bright moon is high above the mountain, so how about resting a while.

Here the word “Byeokgyesu” means both clear water and Yi Dal and “bright moon” refers to Hwang Jin-yi herself. The poem asks Byeokgyesu to stay and enjoy the time with her because it would be hard for him to come back once he goes away. Having heard this unexpectedly tempting poem, the gentleman looked back at her, against his friend’s advice, and fell down from his horse. Having seen the nobleman’s foolishness, Hwang Jin-yi laughed at him mockingly before returning to her house, according to the old tale. This famous poem of Hwang Jin-yi is preserved to this day in a song. Here’s Lee Yun-jin singing “Cheongsanni Byeokgyesu.”

Cheongsanni Byeokgyesu/ Sung by Lee Yun-jin

Joseon was invaded by China’s Qing Dynasty in 1637. Joseon ended up surrendering to China and Crown Prince Soheon소헌 and his younger brother Prince Bongnim봉림 were taken hostage to China. Imagine how miserable the young princes must have felt as they were dragged to the enemy nation in the middle of the freezing winter as their country lay in ruins. Prince Bongnim’s wretched emotional state was described in a poem, which in part goes, “Deliver to the king my woeful condition of being soaked in the cold rain and beaten by the cold northern winds.” Perhaps the prince wanted his father to make the country stronger and more prosperous so that no such tragedy would recur. This sad poem has been adapted into a song titled “Cheongseoknyeong청석령” which is mainly sung by male singers. Today’s version is sung by Lee Dong-gyu. 

Cheongseoknyeong/ Sung by Lee Dong-gyu

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