China, Spain celebrate an evening of ancient court music
It’s common these days to see Chinese and Western musicians work to create musical pieces that combine elements from both genres.
And while this type of musical collaboration was rare in the 17th century, it was not unheard of.
Yet, thanks to the efforts of Diego de Pantoja, a Spanish missionary who had been in China since the end of the 16th century and established cultural relations with the court of the Emperor Wanli (1563-1620) during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the practice was pioneered.
Pantoja brought with him the first foreign instrument with a keyboard to the Forbidden City and demonstrated to the court the musical art of playing the clavichord.
It was from this time on that Western instruments such as the clavichord, spinet, organ and harpsichord began to appear in the Chinese imperial court.
And as a tribute to Pantoja, a program of music composed during the 16th to 18th centuries was staged in Beijing recently.
The concert took place in a traditional Chinese wood-and-brick building in the style of a temple, located in a bustling hutong in the city’s Dongcheng district.
With its red pillars lining the interior, the building dates back to the Ming Dynasty and was once the site of an imperial printing workshop.
Seven Spanish musicians, with the women dressed in qipao and men in Chinese suits, played a program that blended the Western baroque style with traditional Chinese music.
The music was once played to the Chinese imperial court in the Forbidden City during the Ming and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties.
The musicians played Western orchestral instruments including the violin, harp and violone, alongside typical baroque instruments such as the lute and harpsichord — as well as the Chinese instruments, the erhu, dizi, sheng and guzheng.
The instruments mixed harmoniously and, in some pieces, the melody was accompanied by an aria, which was combined with the singing styles of traditional Chinese Kunqu Opera.
The musicians were from two separate bands. One is called Todos los Tonos y Ayres, which specializes in the research and interpretation of early Chinese music, as well as the musical relationship between Imperial China and the West.
According to Ruben Garcia Benito, one of its two musicians, the band took up ancient Chinese music in 2012 when they were living in Beijing. Since then, they have returned to China for a few weeks every year to learn more about Chinese instruments at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.
They wanted to popularize the music with Spanish people because little is known about China’s thousands of years of musical history in the country.
The other band taking part in the concert was the Iliber Ensemble, a chamber music group that specializes in performing baroque music using ancient instruments.
The two bands started working together on the project a year ago. According to Benito, the repertoire of the concert was designed to follow Pandoja’s path from Spain to Macao and then on to Beijing.
Most of the musical pieces were rediscovered at libraries and museums, among which, the sonata pieces by Teodorico Pedrini were found in the National Library of China.
Benito says that he has been looking into dozens of academic papers, not only about Pantoja, but also about the lives of missionaries in the Chinese imperial court.
The concert attempted to highlight the links and differences between the Chinese and Western styles of music. “The origins of producing music might have been the same, but then the Chinese and the West went off in two different directions, with uniquely beautiful results,” says Benito.
The concert, which was part of the 18th Meet In Beijing Arts Festival, was jointly held by the Cervantes Institute in Beijing and the Spanish embassy to China to commemorate the fourth centenary of the death of Pantoja.
In the early 17th century, he wrote a letter from Beijing to the Bishop of Toledo in Spain, giving a detailed introduction to life in China, including details of its geography and economy, as well as the country’s history, religion and politics.
The letter was believed to represent the most comprehensive and objective understanding about China by a European native at that time.
“Pantoja was a key figure in helping the Spanish to learn about Chinese culture,” says Alberto Carnero, the Spanish ambassador to China.
“It was due to his efforts that Spanish people began to develop a direct knowledge of China.” Carnero says.
Spanish musicians in Beijing give a concert that combines ancient Chinese music with Western baroque music.