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Chapter Six: Song and Yuan dynasties 1  
Xu Jian, Introductory History of the Qin, pp. 95-7
第六章﹕宋,元
許健,琴史初編,第95-7頁

6.B.1. Qin Melodies : Melody Introductions 2  

1. Song of Chu (Chu Ge) 3  

琴曲﹕琴曲介紹

楚歌  

This melody is based on the sort of story found in history books. When (in the 3rd century BCE the soldiers of) Xiang Yu were surrounded by (the soldiers of) Liu Bang at Gaixia, at night they heard the Han army from all sides singing songs of Chu. The military spirit of the Chu army was broken. Xiang Yu was very much alarmed. He realized that his great strength was already gone, so he sang a sad song and said farewell to (his concubine) Yu Ji. This is a very moving story, over the millennia spread broadly among the people, and many artistic forms have creations using this theme, all expressing pity and sympathy for Xiang Yu's defeat. Xiang Yu had originally continued Chen She's revolt against the Qin dynasty, for a while receiving great popular sentiment. Thus he was able within a short period of time to develop an overwhelmingly powerful army, and in a battle at Julu destroy the power of the Qin army. However, after this he made quite a few tactical errors, became separated from the masses, finally commiting suicide at Wujiang, defeated by the Han army.

The melody title Song of Chu is earliest seen in the Northern Song melody lists in Qinqu Pulu and Qinyuan Yaolu.4 Quite a few Ming dynasty handbooks include (tablature for) this melody (see chart). The section titles for earliest of these, in Shen Qi Mi Pu (1425), are as follows,

1. Recalling his departure from Jiangdong (his home)
2. His spirit wants to consume the Qin rulers
3. At night he hears an iron di flute
4. His 8,000 soldiers are scattered
5. His brave spirit is dissipated
6. He cries at having to leave Yu Ji
7. He loses his way at Yin Ling (in Anhui)
8. He will not cross the Wu river.

From looking at these section titles, the melody unfolds according to the orderly sequence of the original story.

Chu Ge is somewhat different from standard qin pieces (in that) its music structure and tonal style are rather close to that of the qin piece Zhaojun Yuan, and perhaps they were transplanted from people's narrative songs.5 The whole piece has two outstanding melodic themes.

One is a melody expressing "thinking of having to leave" and "crying at having to leave"; it seems very much as though it was borrowed from the famous departure song Yang Guan San Die. Thus first section uses a harmonics passage as follows:

Staff notation example 1: omitted.6

The repeated short opening phrase often appears in other parts of the piece, especially at the end of Section Seven, which (twice) inserts the note "bianzhi" (fa or fa sharp, either of which would be non-pentatonic),7 thus adding to the sadness of the original mode (qiliang, meaning "misery").8

Staff notation example 2: omitted.9

Another melodic theme seems to express the end of the road for a hero, with feelings of a demoralized will and spirit. This musical phrase is used at the beginning of the second, third, fourth and fifth sections respectively, with different versions in each section. Thus (at the beginning of) the second section there is this:

Staff notation example 3: omitted.10

The eighth section continues by using bianzhi such as had appeared at the end of the seventh section, so that the melody changes even more, pushing the whole piece towards a tragic climax.11

The tuning method of Song of Chu is "tighten the second and fifth strings". The relative tuning of the strings is thus re, fa, sol, la, do, re, mi. Since the whole melody is in the style of shang mode, and what is performed is Song of Chu, the tuning is called "chushang". Also, because it expressing the qiliang (miserable) emotions of the Overlord leaving his Concubine, the mode is also called "qiliang" (according to Yuwu Qinpu, quoting "Zixiadong Pu" 12).

 
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Chapter 6 covers these dynasties (dates, capital city [modern name]):

Northern Song (960-1126; Dongjing [Kaifeng])
Liao (907-1125; Dading Fu [Daning?])
Southern Song (1127-1280; Linan Fu [Hangzhou])
Jin (1115-1260; Zhongdu [Beijing])
Yuan (1206-1280-1368; Dadu [Beijing])
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2. Translation by JT.
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3. Song of Chu (Chu Ge 楚歌)
More information as well as links to further references are included with my own separate page on Chu Ge.
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4. Early occurrences of the melody title Song of Chu
Chu Ge indeed appears in the Northern Song melody list called Qinqu Pulu. However, I cannot find it in Qinyuan Yaolu. For the early occurrence of related titles see under Chu Ge.
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5. Peoples' narrative songs 民間的敘事歌曲
I don't know on what Xu Jian bases this opinion.
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6. Staff notation example 1
This is certainly a possible interpretation of this motif. However, to my mind it expresses the song sung by the Han soldiers at Gaixia.
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7. Bianzhi 變徵
36974.126 says this is 五音之一 one of the five tones; .127 變徵之聲 "the sound of bianzhi" gives as its reference the biography of 荊軻 Jing Ke in Chapter 86 (Assassin-Retainers) of the Shi Ji (see GSR VII/331, where Jing Ke sings along with 高漸離 Gao Jianli as the latter plays on his 筑 zhu a melody in the "sound of bianzhi". This then causes all the listeners to weep. (He then plays something in 羽聲 the sound of yu, causing them to glare and their hair to bristle.)

Zhi is generally considered as sol; bian zhi ("altered zhi") classically means altered a half-step downward, making it fa sharp. At at end of Chu Ge Section 7, however, the note is actually fa natural, which is a whole tone below sol. Because in my experience fa sharp is much more rare than fa, perhaps in common parlance fa can be called "bianzhi", especially as here, where Xu Jian wishes to suggest the aim of this note is to express sadness. (N.B.: With the development of notes through the cycle of fifths from do, fa sharp comes seventh, while fa is last [or one before the first, gong])
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8. Qiliang 淒涼
The mode here is called 楚商 chushang, but it uses the same tuning as qiliang, which literally means something like "cold with misery".
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9. Staff notation example 2
According to my interpretation the glissando in this section represents Xiang Yu's concubine Yu Ji committing suicide by slitting her throat. She is said to have done this so that Xiang Yu would not worry about her in his desperate struggle. The passage after that includes fa within an otherwise pentatonic section. I am not sure if this is to what Xu Jian refers, as I don't know how that would be considered zhi mode.
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10. Staff notation example 3
Each of these sections begins with a 拂 fu - upwards glissano. To me these are more likely to show that Xiang Yu is still trying to fight on, rather than that he is coming to the end of the road.
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11. Bianzhi (fa)
See comment above. As in Section 7, fa appears twice in Section 8. However, these notes are much more striking here, forming dissonances which do have an effect such as that described to Xu Jian.
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12. Chushang Mode
Yuwu Qinpu (1589) does not include Chu Ge. However, in its preface before the Qiliang modal prelude (QQJC VI/90) it says that according to a study of Zixiadong, qiliang is also called "chushang"
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