Pipa, Chinese Classical Music
The pipa is a Chinese traditional musical instrument with four or five strings and is commonly referred to as a lute or Chinese guitar in English. A pipa is in the shape of half a pear with a short and bent neck with 30 frets extending onto the soundboard. A pipa can offer a wide range of 3.5 octaves.
History of the pipa
As per recorded, Pipa is one of the oldest Chinese musical instruments with a long history of over 2000 years. In the Han Dynasty, there were a lot of written texts about the pipa and pipa music, which inspired people to enthusiastically compose more Pipa music.
After the Tang Dynasty, the pipa became a very popular instrument. The pipa was widely played and appreciated both in solo and in performing with other instruments as an ensemble.
During the 1950s, silk strings of a traditional pipa developed into steel strings. Thus it became hard to use the nail, while a little plectrum or fake nail attached to each finger of the right hand is commonly used instead. The plectrums are usually made of turtle shell or special plastics.
Musical style of the pipa
The musical style of the pipa can be categorized as civil or martial. The civil style is generally lyrical and slow, typically describing love, sorrow or nature scenes. The martial style is more rhythmic and fast, often describing scenes of battles.
Playing techniques of the pipa
Playing techniques of the pipa are unique, artistic and focus on the dexterity of fingers. Finger techniques for playing the pipa are different for the left hand and right hand. Techniques for left hand fingers include pizzicato pressing and sweeping; and those for right hand fingers are picking, rolling, moving, touching and slapping.
The sound of the pipa could be mild, brisk or drastic so it's widely used in a variety of tone poems vividly expressing emotions or describing stories, battles and other exciting scenes. Here are som famous solo pipa pieces of music:
The most well-known civil style pieces of pipa are Zhaojun Outside the Frontier (Zhao Jun Chu Sai) and Flute and Drum at Sunset (Xi Yang Xiao Gu).
The most well-known martial style pieces of pipa are Ambushed from Ten Sides (Shi Mian Mai Fu) and The Warlord Takes off His Armour (Ba Wang Xie Jia).
The most well-known pipa pieces that combine the civil and martial style are Moonlit River in Spring (Chun Jiang Hua Yue Ye) and White Snow in Spring Sunlight (Yang Chun Bai Xue).
Pipa in Literature
Bai Juyi, a famous poet of Tang Dynasty wrote the most well-known poem about the pipa named Pi Pa Song or Pi Pa Xing. He specifically described his impressive experience of watching a wonderful pipa solo performance. The translation of parts of his poetry is as follow.
She lightly plucked, slowly stroked and twanged loud
With songs of the Rainbow Skirt and the Six Little Ones
The bold strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain
The fine strings hummed like lovers' whispers
Chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering
As pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall
The sweet melody recalls oriole singing among flowers
The sobbing music brings the gushing spring out of a glacier
The spring frozen, the strings ceased vibration
The water stopped flowing and silence set in
Suddenly a strain of notes burst out
Like water splattering out of a fallen vase
Or horsemen riding among a forest of spears
She struck the four strings all at once
As if the silk curtains were ripped with great force
With her plectrum sweeping over the string
The music came to an end with a crystal snap