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Autumn Songs

#Sounds of Korea l 2021-10-13

Sounds of Korea

Autumn Songs

Chrysanthemums are in their peak around this time of the year. The mums are favored not only for their lovely blossoms but also for their subtle scent. A Chinese poet known for his fondness for chrysanthemums wrote the following poem.

When the autumn chrysanthemums are at their most beautiful 

Dewy blossoms are picked and floated on this wine that removes all troubles

To intensify the desire to leave behind the secular world.

Floating a mum flower on clear rice wine may not seem like much, but it can give off a special vibe. If you are not a drinker, a chrysanthemum on a cup of hot water would add a special touch to that mundane beverage. There is also a Korean sijo poem in which chrysanthemums play an important role.

I planted chrysanthemums outside the window and buried a wine urn under the mums.

The moon rises when the wine matures, when the flowers bloom and when a friend visits.

Child, play the geomungo. We’re going to make merry all night.

The poem hints that the poet took great care to plant the mums and store wine under the flowers. When the mums began to bloom, the poet drank the wine with his friend under the moonlight, using all his senses to appreciate the moment – seeing the flowers with his eyes, smelling the mum scent with his nose, listening to music with his ears and tasting the wine with his tongue. This is what true pungryu풍류 or taste for arts and entertainment was like for Korean gentlemen in the old days. Now let’s listen to a sijo piece titled “Planting Chrysanthemums Outside the Window” sung by Kim Yong-woo.

Planting Chrysanthemums Outside the Window / Sung by Kim Yong-woo

Sijo songs were usually accompanied by wind instruments such as daegeum대금, haegeum해금 and danso단소. They were folksy songs that could be sung even without any instrument unlike gagok가곡 pieces that should strictly follow a certain format with a full set of string and wind instruments. 

Tomorrow is September 9th by the lunar calendar. Dates with two odd numbers were regarded as auspicious in the old days. So, January 1st was Seol설 or the lunar New Year’s Day; March 3rd was regarded as the first day of the new spring, the day when swallows return from the south; May 5th is Dano단오 when women washed their hair in water infused with irises and men held wrestling matches; July 7th is Chilseok칠석 when Gyeonwu견우 and Jiknyeo직녀 of Heaven meet once a year; and finally September 9th is the end of the harvest season when swallows fly back to the south. Around that time of the year people would go up to the mountain to eat mum pancakes and mum-infused wine while reciting poems or admiring nature. Next song is a southern folk song called “Heung Taryeong” sung by Kim Su-yeon.

Heung Taryeong / Sung by Kim Su-yeon

The last part of “Heung Taryeong” goes something like, “It’s a dream, only a dream. Everything is a dream, and you and I are in a dream. I wake up from a dream only to find myself still in a dream. It is futile to live a life that was born of a dream, to live in a dream and to die in a dream. What is the use of dreaming when all I do is trying to wake up from a dream?” It is a rather depressing song as even our lives are rendered meaningless. Such sentiment seems to describe our feeling as we approach the end of the year, and we realize how fast the months have gone by like in a dream. Let’s wrap up this episode of Sounds of Korea with “The Autumn River Is” by Choi Yun-young. It’s a song about the lonely sentiments of an autumn night. 

The Autumn River Is / Sung by Choi Yun-young

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