Enlightenment culture was fascinated by the possibility of a different kind of music outside of Europe and eagerly embraced such transcriptions of folk songs from distant cultures. In fact, the educational purpose of this arrangement is underlined at various points in the book: the author emphasizes on the cover page that these songs are "original" Chinese, and inside he vouches again for the authenticity of the songs:

The following songs were brought to England by a Gentleman of the late Embassy to China, who took them down on the Spot. Their Originality, therefore, may be depended upon, and Mr Kambra is offering them to the Public, with the Addition of a Bass, flatters himself to have made them more agreeable to the English Ear.

This statement betrays a curious double bind that is characteristic of the period. On the one hand, transcriptions such as this were made in full faith of the transmission of music by means of Western notation, which reflects a firm belief in an underlying universal quality, as was typical of Enlightenment thought. Only few thinkers, chief among them the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, cast doubt on the potential of notation to accurately represent the music of distant cultures. On the other hand, the circumstance that they had to be presented in a manner that was "more agreeable to the English Ear" betrayed a tendency to smooth over differences. Without the added bass, it seems, the tune might be in danger of not being recognized by western listeners as "music" in the fullest sense.

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Olivia Lucas, soprano

Find out more about:

Enlightenment Views of China: Voltaire (Jennifer Tsien)

Rousseau, du Halde, and the Air Chinois (Nathan Martin)

More on transcription

Chinese Music (Meredith Schweig)

See the Harmonization


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