Hue is a peaceful and romantic city located alongside the banks of the Perfume River. The former capital of Vietnam has experienced various changes of national history. Various feudal dynasties chose Hue as the capital, which makes this city become one of the most famous destinations in Vietnam with hundreds of historical and religious architectural works including royal palaces and tombs.
Unbeknownst to many, Hue is also famous for charming rhythms which are played on small boats floating on the Perfume River. This kind of traditional Vietnamese music is Hue Royal Court Music, which was recognized as the masterpiece of oral tradition and Cultural Intangible World Heritage by UNESCO in 2003.
Introduction of Hue Royal Court Music
Beside various ancient objects which are kept in the museums so that people can recall and understand the past, music is also the perfect way for people to experience the history and culture of a nation. However, different from physical objects, music can’t be stored to pass to the next generation, traditional music is preserved by being played and listened from one to another generation.
Hue court music on Perfume River (Source: Google)
The Royal Refined Music of Hue is a form of orthodox music which is used in the sacred sacrifices or royal ceremonies in Vietnam. During any important ceremonies, this kind of music is always played from the beginning till the end. It participates in every stage of a ceremony and it’s also an essential factor to help people communicate with the spirit world. This type of Vietnamese traditional music was highly appreciated in the past, so it was developed to a national music as well as the symbol of the power and the stability of the dynasty.
The brief history of Hue Royal Refined Music
Nha nhac (the Royal Refined Music) of Hue has a long history of development in the national culture. After more than 100 years of the Chinese domination in Vietnam, in the beginning of the 10th century, Vietnam started its era of independence with the establishment of the monarchy and the division of social classes. It resulted in the formation and development of a type of music which was dedicated to the court’s rituals and the needs of the aristocracy.
In the Ly Dynasty (1010 – 1225), a department which was in charge of royal music and dance was established with more than 100 people. During this period, Vietnamese Royal Court music was influenced deeply by the music of China and Champa.
Musical instruments used in court music (Source: Google)
From 1225 to 1400 was the Tran Dynasty. During this time, Hue Refined Music became quite rich in form and style. Besides the traditional Vietnamese music for entertainment purpose, there were two orthodox music sections: Dai Nhac and Tieu Nhac. It was regulated that Dai Nhac was reserved for the King only. The Royal and functionaries could use it for big and important sacrifices. And, everyone could use Tieu Nhac.
It was not until the 15th century, Hue Royal Court music had significant changes. The Ho Dynasty (1400 – 1407) carried out various reforms in economy, culture and society. For court music, they officially introduced Hue refined music with some principles from China. However, this kind of traditional Vietnamese music was only completed under the Le Dynasty (1427-1788). At that time, Hue refined music was developed as a kind of orthodox music as well as the private property of the court. In contrast, folk music could be used by everyone. Thus, during this period, Vietnamese court music was separated from Vietnamese folk music. And, it existed independently with a unique style.
However, strict regulations of the court music were changed after a very short time. In the 16th and 17th century, the royal music gradually went in to recession. The musician in the orchestras were cut off. The court music and the folk music were no long clearly distinguished as before. There were some folk orchestras could perform for the King. Fortunately, this situation got better when another dynasty took over the country – the Nguyen Dynasty (1802 – 1945). In the first half of the 19th century, the stability of the economy, society and political facilitated the development of art. And, the court music gained lots of attention again. The court set out various kinds of music which were played in different ceremonies. For instance, the music to welcome the foreign ambassadors was different from the one for the celebration of longevity, etc.
Hue court music nowadays (Source: Google)
In the late of 19th century, the Nguyen Dynasty entered the recession. It resulted in the royal music and other traditional customs and activities were faded. Many songs were forgotten, many musical instruments were completely removes from the court orchestra. And, a part of royal court music were spread out to the folk.
By the time when Vietnamese feudal institution ended in 1945, Hue royal court music lost its position in the society, the original environment of performance. It degraded and was at risk of loss. It was not until the 20th century, this kind of Vietnamese traditional music was recovered. And, this time, it gained a new position when it became the Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Although we have experienced various kinds of music from all over the world, and Hue Royal Court music is no long popular as before, it still plays an important role in Vietnamese art as well as Vietnamese history in general.
For more insights into Vietnamese performing art:
- Lullabies and Their Value in Vietnam Ancient History
- A Spiritual Journey to Explore the Space of Gong Culture in the Central Highlands