Traditional Music and Theater



Traditional Music and Theater

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Vietnam has a long and rich heritage of music and theater, combining both indigenous and foreign influences. Its repertoire of musical traditions plays an intrinsic role in the country’s many theater forms, and includes folk songs, classical music, imperial compositions, and the unique court ship melodies of various ethnic minorities. This multifaceted legacy is deeply rooted in Vietnamese culture and forms an integral part of all celebrations and festivals.

Music in Vietnam

Vietnamese traditional music comprises several genres, including court, religious, ceremonial, chamber, folk, and theater music. Foreign influences have left their mark, with the adoption of operatic traditions from China as well as Indian rhythms through contact with the Cham Empire – all modified to create a distinctive Vietnamese style of music. Another aspect is the use of a five-tone scale in contrast to the eight-tone scale usually used in Western music.

Hat Chau Van uses rhythmic singing and dancing to induce a state of trance in a person who is believed to be estranged from the spirits. This art form originated in  the 16th century as an incantation during religious rituals.

Quan Ho are singing contests that originated in the 13th century and are an important part of  spring festivals. This popular folk art features groups of young men and women who take turns to sing, alternately challenging and responding to each other in a traditional courtship ritual.

Ca Tru (Hat A Dao) or singing for reward is a form of chamber music. In this form of entertainment, women sing and play a phach for well-off men. This 15th-century art form suffered a fall in popularity during the communist era. In 2009, it was included in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

Nhac Tai Tu is a form of chamber music that accompanies cai luong theater. Instruments in the picture above are the dan tranh (left), a sixteen-stringed zither, the dan nguyet (center), and the flute (right).

Musical Instruments

The Vietnamese have a diverse range of indigenous musical instruments made from natural materials such as wood, animal horn, bamboo, stone, and reed. Among the most commonly used are the dan bau, in which a single string is stretched over a sound box and plucked by a wooden pick; the dan nguyet or moon-shaped lute, used in Vietnam since the 11th century; dan trung, a bamboo xylophone; broh, a two-stringed bamboo lute; dan ty ba, a pear-shaped guitar; and many types of gong (cong chien) and drum (trong).

Theater Styles

Vietnam has a remarkable tradition of performing-arts genres, with music, singing, and dance as an essential aspect of all theater forms. The presentations vary in style and intended audience – cheo is a popular style of theater that traditionally provided moral instruction for rural communities, while roi nuoc (water puppetry) delivers spectacular entertainment at the end of the harvest season. Tuong or hat boi, a more classical form of theater, was developed as entertainment for the king and his court, and cai luong, a modernized form of tuong, was created for urban intellectuals.

Roi nuoc is a unique art that uses water as a stage. Colorful puppets, guided  by hidden puppeteers, enact tales from folk- lore, mythology, history, and everyday life,  accompanied by a musical ensemble, drum rolls, and exploding firecrackers.

Tuong (Hat Boi), influenced by Chinese opera, uses stylized gestures and symbolism to rep- resent emotion and character. It celebrates  Confucian virtues of courage, virtue, and filial piety, and explores themes of loyalty to the king and good overcoming evil.

Elaborate tuong make-up, costumes, and stage settings rely on traditional theatrical convent ions. For example, make­up helps to define a character. Hence, a face painted red symbolizes loyalty and bravery, while a white face stands for cruelty and villainy.

Cai Luong (Reformed Theater) emerged in south Vietnam in the early 20th century, and incorporates elements of French theater in the form of spoken scenes. Less stylized than traditional theater, cai luong tackles social issues such as corruption, alcoholism, and gambling.

Cheo (Popular Theater) originated among the rice farmers of the Red River Delta. Perform ances are usually held outside the villagecommunal house and combine singing, dancing, poetry, and improvization.

Royal Music and Dance

Entertainment for Vietnam’s royal audiences found its main inspiration from the music of the Chinese Imperial Court. Nha nhac or court music was introduced in the 13th century and reached its pinnacle under the Nguyen Dynasty. Performances of this elegant music, accompanied by dances, were held at royal ceremonies, such as coronations and funerals, as well as on religious events and special occasions. With the fall of the monarchy in Vietnam, nha nhac was forgotten, but has been revived in recent years. In 1996, it was added to the syllabus of Hue College of Art, and in 2003, it was recognised as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage by UNESCO.

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