string ensemble


string ensemble
(Xiansuo)
Traditional music genre
In the strictest sense of the term, Xiansuo refers to the instrumental accompaniment for northern sung-narratives (quyi) and vocal music derived from regional opera. This is often played on the sanxian (long-necked three-stringed plucked lute), but the erhu (formerly referred to as huqin), pipa and/or zheng (zither) are also used. Before the eighteenth century, there had developed an ensemble with these four string instruments at the core, and it became identified with the performance of a chamber music repertory called Xiansuo shisantao (Thirteen Suites for Strings), which was favoured by the Manchu and Mongol aristocracy who made up the Qing-dynasty literati in Beijing. The nineteenth-century handbook, Xiansuo beikao, written and compiled by Rong Zhai, a Mongol nobleman, includes notes on and a score of the thirteen suites, and shows some of the melodies to be similar or related to pieces in the southern pipa repertories of the Jiangsu and Zhejiang schools. According to this source, in practice the string ensemble was occasionally augmented by a secondary ensemble of reed and bamboo instruments, such as the xiao and dizi bamboo flutes and the sheng mouth-organ, thus leading it to resemble a sizhu (Silk and Bamboo) ensemble to some extent. The handbook also mentions that this music was known to the blind street musicians of Beijing, and one of them in particular, Zhao Debi, excelled in performing all thirteen suites on the sanxian. With the fall of the Qing in 1911, the northern xiansuo tradition has since ceased to exist and hardly any musician today knows the entire repertory. However, some of the pieces survive in the active repertoires of two major contemporary string ensemble genres, Henan bantou and Chaozhou xiyue, and their related solo zheng traditions.
Henan bantou (also known as Zhongzhou guyue) is typically performed as a prelude to the local singing narrative tradition of Henan province called Henan quzi. It can be performed by a string ensemble or by just one person on either pipa or zheng. Henan bantou pieces formerly had texts and could be sung prior to the performance of Henan quzi or completely independent from them. There also used to be the practice of composing poems especially for bantou melodies, but perhaps because of their high literary style and content, the resulting textualized bantou did not catch on and gradually declined. By contrast, the purely instrumental bantou music continues to be performed today.
Chaozhou xiyue is a genre of music performed on a more intimate and scaled-down version of the Chaozhou-Hakka sixian (also known as xianshi) ensemble that consists of a zheng, a pipa and a small sanxian. As with xianshi, Chaozhou xiyue is performed within the context of Chaozhou amateur music clubs for entertainment, often following the performance of a succession of xianshi pieces in the form of taoqu (sets of variations based on a melody), by which time it is already late in the evening. Musicians will then switch to the softer and mellower-sounding Chaozhou xiyue, performing short stock melodies (qupai) from the Hakka sixian repertoire in the highly refined style associated with that regional music tradition.
MERCEDES M.DUJUNCO

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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