Matteo Ricci and the introduction of Italian music

di Paolo Sabbatini

in China during the Ming Dynasty.

Every air finds its source in the mind of man. Music is intimately connected with the essential relation of beings. Thus, to know sounds, without knowing airs, is to be like birds and beasts. To know airs, without knowing music, is the province of the vulgar herds of mankind. It is the province of the superior man alone to understand the principles of music.

From the Yueh Ch’i, Ancient Book of Rites, written prior to the 8th Century B.C.

The 24th Jan 1601, after many difficulties, Father Matteo Ricci arrived in Beijing at the imperial court, called by the Emperor Wanli to offer marvelous and precious gifts coming from Italy and Europe. Amongst all these presents there was a musical instrument, unknown by the Chinese, called “harpsichord” or “manichord” (more appropriately). Matteo Ricci knew very well the importance of music in expressing ideas and impressing the listener with emotions. He based the introduction of Christian ideas and values on music, as a formidable tool to impress the Chinese listeners.

Ricci was acquainted with music and had studied this discipline amongst the seven liberal arts at the “Collegio Romano” in Rome. He was capable of writing music, composing music and most probably singing relatively well. By all means he was capable of singing Gregorian songs and he based his religious ceremonies on the most important Gregorian prayers.

The Emperor never met Ricci personally: the acquaintance between the Son of Heaven and this “intellectual barbarian” was intermediated by four eunuchs. The Emperor was curious to know what kind of sounds and songs could be composed and played on that instrument. So Ricci composed eight songs in Chinese language, which in his intention would summarize the Christian values and could therefore be transmitted to the Emperor and the imperial court. According to the Confucian values, this would mean a transmission to the entire Chinese nation, in a musical form which therefore would be more effective.

When Ricci arrived in China, western music was unknown. As John Hazedel Levis, the great theoretician of music, explains in his work “Foundations of Chinese Music Art”, in China melody is traditionally constructed according to specific canons. This is a reflection of the structure of Chinese language, which in itself is fundamentally a musical expression, and can be perceived as music by the listeners thanks to the very nature of its tones and its words: monosyllabic characters, each one being considered as a musical note. Therefore, Chinese characters and tones already form a musical texture.

Since the difference between Chinese language and European language is huge and fundamental, in Europe the process is completely different: the primordial texture of music is based upon harmonic corrections between sounds, constructed on mathematic formulae. The melody is implanted successfully thereafter according to the emotions of the composer, who -acting as a experimental gardener- transplants new hybrid roses onto the root of a mother plant, which does not produce flowers but contains the strength to nuture transplantations.

Matteo Ricci genially understood that the Chinese language is a music in itself, and had to confront psychologically a situation in which the Chinese would consider every product of non-Chinese culture as barbarian or as a mere curiosity. He had to earn the respect of his Chinese counterparts, in this case no one less than the Emperor himself, for a cultural product of great value. Therefore the immense endeavor of Italian missionaries was to blend two complete different systems of music: the western system based on harmony and the Chinese system, based on melody.

Matteo Ricci was successful enough to impress the Emperor with the melodies of “The Eight Songs for Manichord”, even though these melodies have since long been forgotten (but can be reconstructed according to the tones of the Chinese characters).

He acted similarly to what he did in his masterpiece “the Art of Memory” of transplanting Christian values into the Confucian system or philosophy: concentrated more on the similarities than on the differences*.

He diplomatically combined Gregorian harmonies with compatible classical Chinese melodies, which were codified and very well-known since Tang Dynasty through a very complicated system of annotations based on Chinese characters.

The combination could not proceed without a painstaking effort to align the musical pitches. In Europe this effort had been already codified since the re-discovery of the seven-tone musical scale by Guido D’Arezzo. In China, the system of codification was far more complicated, and included many more musical tones and the tones, which differed from one instrument to another.

Matteo Ricci and the foreign missionaries, while studying Chinese music have also tried to align European pitches with Chinese pitches. Chinese contemporary music is based roughly on the so-called pentatonal scale, and is the result of this effort. The influence of western harmony was very important in the subsequent development of Chinese musical system until today.

Fonte:

ESTERICULT

7 giugno 2010