November 24, 2001

The pipa and the Han Dynasty of China grew up together. When a king calling himself Shi Huangdi or First Emperor came to power around 221 B. C. he feared barbarian hordes from the north and began a crash building program, erecting a series of protective walls that would soon merge to form the Great Wall. Needless to say, he did none of the labor himself, leaving the grunt work to the peasants. A later Chinese scholar would write, "When the people suffered from being forced to build the Great Wall, they played the instrument to express their resentment". Looking somewhat like the Western lute, the pipa has a shallow, pear-shaped body and a long neck supporting 3 or 4 strings. It's played with a wooden plectrum, or pick, with the "pi" sound made on the downstroke and the "pa" on the return. Sort of like the "plink-plunk" sound we make vocally today to simulate a banjo. The instrument grew in popularity, with various rival schools established around China to further develop both instrument and repertoire. It's outlasted all succeeding dynasties and in descendent forms remains probably the most popular instrument in the country today.

Speaking of succeeding dynasties, you know what they say about the best laid plans. While the emperor was guarding the front door against the barbarians, with his enormous public works project, younger rivals sneaked in the back door. A series of battles ensued, with a rebel named Liu Pang coming out on top around 202 B. C., and establishing the Han Dynasty.

Some of the earliest pieces written for the pipa have survived and are still being played. One of these, the martial "Ambushed on Ten Sides", mimics the progress of one of the early battles. The names of the segment suggests the intensity of the piece - Setting up Camp, Beating Drums, Sounding Horns, Firing Cannon, Calling the Rosters, Manoeuvering Troops, Laying Ambush, The Skirmish, The Major Battle, Farewell to Concubine Yu, The Suicide, and The Rout. A critic from the Tang Dynasty describes it, "... as if thousands of warriors and horses are roaring on the battle field, as if the earth is torn and the sky is falling". A contemporary describes how, "... The thicker strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain, the thinner ones hummed like a hushed whisper. Together they shaped strands of melody, like larger and smaller pearls falling on a jade plate."

Listeners here in the West have often had trouble getting used to Chinese music, with its five-tone scale that makes the melodic line secondary to the quality of individual notes. When a San Francisco newspaper editor went to a Chinese concert in November of 1869, if he heard a band version of something like "Ambushed on Ten Sides" he would have agreed that the music was originally written to express resentment. He may never been in battle but he drew head pictures of his own. He wrote, "Imagine yourself in a boiler manufactory when four hundred men are putting in rivets, a mammoth tin­shop next door on one side, and a forty-stamp quartz mill upon the other, with a drunken charivari party with six hundred instruments in front, four thousand enraged cats on the roof, and a faint idea will be conveyed of the performance of a first-class Chinese band of music."

For Classical 91.5 and 90-point-3, this is David Minor


Those who know me pretty well might be forgiven for suspecting I wrote the above script primarily to be able to use the final quote.

© 2001 David Minor / Eagles Byte


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