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Music. Music, if that beautiful word must be allowed to fall so low as to denote the strummings and squealings of Orientals, is supposed to have existed in Japan ever since mythological times. But Japanese music as at present known—its lutes, flutes, drums, and fiddles of various sorts—came over from China, like most other things good and bad, in the train of Buddhism. The koto, a sort of lyre which is the most highly esteemed of modern instruments, was gradually evolved from earlier Chinese models, and perfected in the first half of the seventeenth century by Yatsuhashi, who has been styled the father of modern Japanese music. The samisen[1] or "three strings," now the favourite instrument of the singing-girls and of the lower classes generally, seems to have been introduced from Manila as recently as the year 1700.

The perfection of Japanese classical music may be heard at Tōkyō from the Band of Court Musicians attached to the Bureau of Rites. Having said that it may be heard, we hasten to add that it cannot be heard often by ordinary mortals. The easiest way to get a hearing of it is to attend one of the concerts given by the Musical Society of Japan (an association founded in 1886 for the cultivation alike of Japanese and European music), at which the Court Musicians occasionally perform. A more curious ceremony still is the performance by these same musicians, at certain Shintō festivals, of a silent concert. Both stringed and wind instruments are used in this concert; but it is held that the sanctity of the occasion would be profaned, were any sound to fall on unworthy ears. Therefore, though all the motions of playing are gone through, no strains are actually emitted! This is but one among many instances of the strange vagaries of the Japanese musical art, and of the extreme esoteric mystery in which the families hereditarily entrusted with the handing down of that art enshroud their knowledge.[2] The chanting of the Buddhist liturgy, also, at certain temple services is considered classical. This chanting has been held by some to resemble the Ambrosian and early Gregorian tones; but local colouring is sufficiently provided for, inasmuch as each per former utters the strain in the key that best suits the pitch of his own voice. For this classical music there exists a notation, a notation which is extremely complicated. There is none for the more popular instruments,—for the samisen and kokyū,—while that which exists for the koto is kept as an esoteric secret by the heads of the profession, the teachers of the teachers. An attempt to popularise it was made about the middle of the eighteenth century; but the teachers, deeming their authority threatened, success fully opposed the innovation, much as codification is opposed by English lawyers.

It may seem odd that so fundamental a question as the nature of the Japanese scale should still be a matter of debate. Yet so it is. According to Dr. Miiller, one of the earliest and most interesting writers on the subject, this scale consists, properly speaking, of five notes of the harmonic minor scale, the fourth and seventh being omitted, because, as there are five recognised colours, five planets, five elements, five viscera, and so on, there must also be five notes in music,—a method of reasoning which is only too familiar to students of Chinese and Japanese literature and which was not unknown to our own ancestors. Mr. Piggott believes the normal Japanese scale to agree with that of modern Europe, though he allows the prevalently pentatonic character of most of the tunes actually composed. But Drs. Knott and DuBois by no means agree with him, and Dr. Divers twits Mr. Piggott with setting aside the peculiarities that distinguish the Japanese from the European system, instead of accounting for them. The late Mr. Ellis's opinion on the subject will be found in his paper mentioned below. But Mr. Isawa, the greatest Japanese authority on music, says, in a private communication addressed to us, that Mr. Ellis was misled on some important points by his having given too much weight to the performances of an ignorant woman at the "Japanese Village" in London. As well, says Mr. Isawa, take a jinrikisha-man for referee on questions of grammar and diction, as such a woman for an authority on a matter so delicate as musical intervals. According to Mr. Isawa, the second, fourth, and sixth in the classical music of Japan are identical with the same intervals of the modern European scale, but the third (major third) is sharper, and the seventh flatter. The popular or samisen scale is different. Like the scale of mediæval Europe we still quote Mr. Isawa it has for its chief peculiarity a semitone above the tonic, which is one among various reasons for believing the samisen, together with its scale, to have found its way here from the Spaniards at Manila, and not from Luchu according to the current Japanese opinion. Mr. R. Dittrich, the latest investigator, diverges from all his predecessors, and establishes three separate scales, which are properly pentatonic, but sometimes made heptatonic through the addition of two auxiliary notes. These generally omitted notes are to our ears the most important of all, namely the third and the sixth.

Be the scale what it may, the effect of Japanese music is, not to soothe, but to exasperate beyond all endurance the European breast. Miss Bacon, in her charming book entitled Japanese Girls and Women, demurely remarks: "It seems to me quite fortunate that the musical art is not more generally practised." That is what every one thinks, though most Europeans of the sterner sex would use considerably stronger expressions to relieve their feelings on the matter. Japanese music employs only common time. Harmony it has none. It knows nothing of our distinction of modes, and therefore, as a writer on the subject has pointed out, it lacks alike the vigour and majesty of the major mode, the plaintive tenderness of the minor, and the marvellous effects of light and shade which arise from the alternations of the two. Perhaps this is the reason why the Japanese themselves are so indifferent to the subject. One never hears a party of Japanese talking seriously about music; musical questions are never, discussed in the newspapers; no one goes to a temple service

"Not for the doctrine, but the music there;"

a Japanese Bayreuth is unthinkable. Men on the spree send for singing-girls chiefly in order to ogle and chaff them, and to help along the entertainment by a little noise. To ask the name of the composer of any tune the girls are singing, is a thing that would never enter their heads. Still, of course pathology is as legitimate a study as physiology. Those, therefore, who wish to investigate more minutely the ways and means whereby injury is inflicted on sensitive ears should consult the authorities enumerated below, especially Mr. Piggott's book, where will be found capital illustrations of Japanese musical instruments, together with specimens of tunes transcribed into the European notation, so far—for that is one of the points in dispute—as such transcription is possible.

Dislikes are apt to be mutual. Of all the elements of Europeanisation, European music is the one for which the Japanese have been slowest to evince any taste. Bands do now, it is true, sometimes parade the streets,—alas! In fact, an English band-master was engaged by one of the departments of the government as far back as the early seventies, and his successor, a German, harmonised the national anthem which was considered a necessary item of Japan's new outfit;—for, as each modern nation of Europe possesses a national anthem, it followed logically that Japan could not remain without one. Eifteen or twenty years later, a Miss Kōda was sent to Germany to study the violin, and returned as an admirable executant. Her younger sister following her example, was placed under Joachim's personal care.[3] Other efforts were made, an academy of music was founded at Tōkyō, and towards the close of the nineteenth century passed under the direction of Prof. A. Junker, who, in the brief space of five or six years, has done marvels, evolving a pleasing chorus of some eighty singers out of a chaos of disagreeable, nasal voices, producing too a respectable orchestra of forty executants and two hundred and fifty pupils who possess a considerable amount of theoretical knowledge. First some of the Imperial Princesses, now also the Empress herself and the Crown Princess have taken the matter up, and the pupils of the academy, aided by foreign amateurs, occasionally give concerts at which over a thousand persons attend. It is to be presumed that most do so out of curiosity, and some bring infants who accompany the performance with their squalls. Still a beginning has been made, and we know that sometimes a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. May this happen here before another century elapses, and then may all the samisens, kotos, and other native instruments of music be turned into firewood to warm the poor, when if at no previous period of their existence they will subserve a purpose indisputably useful!

Books recommended. The Music and Musical Instruments of Japan, by F. T. Piggott (an expansion, beautifully illustrated, of his paper in the "Asiatic Transactions "mentioned below).—On the Musical Scales of Various Nations, by A. J. Ellis, F. R. S., printed in the "Journal of the Society of Arts" for the 27th March. 1885.—Some Japanese Musical Intervals, by Rev. Dr. Veeder, in Vol. VII. Part II. of the "Asiatic Transactions." Various papers by F. T. Piggott, Dr. F. DuBois, and Dr. C. G. Knott, in Vol. XIX. Part II. of the "Asiatic Transactions."—Einige Notizen ūber die Japanische Musik, by Dr. Müller, in Vol. I. of the "German Asiatic Transactions," and R. Dittrich's excellent paper in Part 58 of the same.—For specimens of Japanese music transcribed into the European musical notation, and with the words of the songs in Roman letters, see a small book published in 1888 by the Tōkyō Academy of Music, and entitled Collection of Japanese Koto Music. The most delicate-minded need not fear having their morals tainted by strumming through this little volume, as the editors make a point of telling us in their preface that in this edition of the old Koto music, "for those words and tunes occurring therein, which are liable to offend the public feelings on account of their vulgarity and meanness, pure and elegant ones have been substituted, thus preventing their baneful effects upon the social character." At the same time, the few entirely new compositions of their own, which the compilers have ventured to add, have all "been prepared with a care not to injure that virtue which is inherent in our old Koto music." Historical accuracy is thus as perfectly safe guarded as taste and morals.

  1. More often pronounced shamisen; but samisen is considered correct.
  2. The existence of these "silent concerts" was set in doubt by a critic of the first edition of this work. Never having heard, or rather seen, any ourselves, we describe them on the authority of Mr. Isawa, who, in a private communication on the subject, reminds us that such esoteric mysteries would not willingly be alluded to by their old-fashioned possessors, least of all in reply to the scientific enquiries cf a foreigner, and that the very explanations given—supposing any to be given—would probably be couched in ambiguous language. We may add that some mystery is made about certain tunes for such common instruments as the koto and samisen, only those persons being allowed to play them who have studied and paid money to receive diplomas.
  3. This Kōda family is a distinguished one, one brother being the eminent novelist who writes under the pseudonym Rohan, while the other, Lieut. Gunji, of the Imperial Japanese Navy, has made a name for himself by his adventurous life in the Kurile Islands.