Yen Chi

I still remember autumn 2002 when an international symposium on the preservation of Vietnam’s elegant court music was hosted in Hue. At that time, researchers were still debating the nature of Vietnam’s elegant court music. At the time, this genre was virtually extinct and public awareness was low. Even many musical experts didn’t know much about this genre. Since then, elegant court music has enjoyed a revival. This genre is once again performed and cherished by the community.

Elegant court music performance

Vietnamese royal music dates back centuries. It was initiated during the Ly Dynasty and formalised in the Le Dynasty. But it was not until the Nguyen Dynasty that this genre was truly perfected and institutionalised. Elegant court music was in fact ceremonial music, yet as a formal musical genre of the nation, it boasted a grand scale and high professional quality on one hand, and richness and diversity on the other in terms of its categories, instruments, musical timbres, repertoires, orchestral structure, types of performances and the concert environment, etc. This genre is highly improvised and flexible without losing its academic virtues.

As soon as Vietnam’s elegant court music was acknowledged by UNESCO on November 7, 2003, the Hue Former Citadel’s authorities initiated and implemented a National Action Plan on the preservation and promotion of elegant court music – Vietnamese royal music – an ambitious project partly sponsored by UNESCO. The project was carried out in three ways: surveying, researching, collecting and accounting for everything related to elegant court music; reviving several ancient musical instruments and honing the skills of young musicians; and promoting elegant court music, particularly delivering this musical genre to local, national and international communities.

After over three years of implementation (2005-

2008), the project achieved outstanding outcomes and was ranked by UNESCO as one of the best preservation campaigns in Asia – Pacific. Through this project, a series of key repertoires of elegant court music were collected and digitalised and several old musical instruments were successfully revived, notably sets of bronze bells and chimes, which totally vanished from the orchestral landscape over 100 years ago.

Elegant court musicians

However, the most crucial task was to find and entice elegant court musicians to return to performing and to pass their skills on to youngsters. It was these musicians who retained a passion for this art and passed their love down to younger generations. Artisans and their offspring were offered opportunities to return to work at palaces and devote their days to elegant court music. Established artisans such as Tran Kich and Le Huu Thi reaped tremendous admiration and respect from local and overseas audiences. In the Hue Theatre of royal Arts, artisan Lu Huu Thi and four generations of his family all took part in performing elegant court music. The eldest player was 105!

In the World Heritage Site of Hue, elegant court music was resurrected right in its birthplace. This genre is performed on a daily basis in the royal Theatre, the  courtyard of Thai Hoa Palace, the courtyard of the royal Ancestral Temple, Minh Khiem Theatre and the Water Pavilion in Tu Duc Tomb. During traditional festivals such as Heavenly Sacrifices, New Year Sacrifices, raising Nêu trees, Lowering Nêu trees and Memorial Days of the Nguyen dynasty, elegant court music has long played a dominant role and conjures up the soul of these ceremonies. During annual arts and cultural festivals and traditional craft festivals in the former citadel, elegant court music also garners much attention and respect. Elegant court musicians receive invitations to perform both domestically and abroad. They have even played in Japan’s royal Palace. Arguably, elegant court music has emerged as an ambassador of Hue and Vietnam and represents our cultural integration into the global mainstream.

Elegant court musicians in Hue Citadel

Locally, elegant court music has been adopted in schools and delights young audiences, particularly introductory and training sessions hosted by Professor Tran Van Khe and local musicians. Elegant court music forms a bridge between posterity and our ancestors.

I still remember a remark by an audience member after an elegant court music show in the royal Theatre: “What a proud and special heritage you’ve got! Elegant court music gives us a glimpse into the Vietnamese character and soul!”

It’s true that this genre is living anew and shining.