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Story: Phan Thanh Nhat Minh
Photos: Hue Former Citadel Center for Heritage Preservation

An ancient form of Vietnamese court music is enjoying a revival.

Founded and affiliated with the first independent sovereign dynasties of Vietnam, elegant court music spans a thousand years of evolution. An invaluable heritage of our nation and mankind, this genre of music has been passed down for generations, connecting the past, the present and the future.

In the eighth century BCE, a monk from the Champa Kingdom (in present-day central and southern Vietnam) brought his native elegant court music and his Buddhist practices to Japan. He was held in high regard by the Japanese court, where the music he introduced was modified to become gagaku, traditional Japanese court music. More than a decade ago, a joint performance of Vietnamese court music and Japanese gagaku in the courtyard of Thai Hoa Palace in Hue left an enduring impression on those lucky enough to hear these two styles played together.

Despite its early roots, it was not until the Nguyen Dynasty that elegant court music evolved to its current form and served as an integral part of royal rites and activities. These included everything from coronations to New Year’s celebrations; birthday ceremonies for empress dowagers or crown princes (Heaven’s Longevity ceremonies); celebrations to open new palaces; sacrifices to Heaven, the ancestors, and nature gods; and funerary sacrifices for emperors, empresses and empress dowagers. It accompanied every royal festival or sacrifice.

The makeup of the orchestra for each genre was strictly regulated. According to Nguyen Dynasty accounts there were six types of orchestras: Elegant court music orchestras; Hung percussion music orchestras; light music (stringed and woodwind music orchestras); stone bell and chime music orchestras; and military music orchestras. All boasted a broad range of musical instruments.

Elegant court music reached its peak during the Nguyen Dynasty, playing a key role in royal rites and court festivals.

After falling into decline, Vietnam’s elegant court music was declared an Intangible and Oral Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Historical turbulence in the late 19th century and the loss of national sovereignty to French colonialists led to the deterioration of elegant court music. By the end of the 20th century, the genre was on the verge of oblivion. Authorities in Hue made great efforts to preserve this style, aided by the international community, in particular UNESCO. Slowly, they brought elegant court music back to life.

In 2003, UNESCO certified elegant court music as an Intangible and Oral Cultural Heritage of Humanity and it gained newfound popularity and renewed public interest.

From 2005 to 2009, a national program took place in the Hue Former Citadel to preserve and promote the values of elegant court music. The program included promotion and preservation, research and music collection, the revival of elegant court musical instruments and the training of young musicians.

Reaching beyond its original performance sphere, elegant court music is now being enjoyed at concerts, particularly at international cultural festivals and traditional craft festivals hosted periodically in the Hue Former Citadel. Youngsters are learning about this genre at school and at concerts held for pupils and students. Elegant court music is also being promoted to overseas audiences through a series of cultural exchange programs between the Hue Former Citadel and other countries and territories. In 2007, the Hue Elegant Court Orchestra was invited to perform at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan, creating a buzz in the international press. Ten years later, elegant court music was performed in the Hue Former Citadel to celebrate the visit of the emperor and empress of Japan, leaving a strong impression on these special guests.

Elegant court music is forming new links between Vietnam and other nations. But, most importantly, it is a bridge connecting us to our past.