CASE 6:  Pipa as a Window on Chinese Music

If the development of the pipa follows the unique course of Chinese cultural history, it also parallels musical developments in other parts of the world. As a matter of fact, the history of the guitar, one of the most widely used musical instruments in the contemporary world, shows striking commonalities with that of the pipa. The early history of the guitar is also vague and raises questions that have yet to be answered definitively, such as whether the guitar developed indigenously in Europe or whether it was one of the many instruments that Arabs introduced to medieval Europe. Until the six-course guitar emerged in Spain sometime before 1780 and led to the rise of a relatively standardized version in the early 19th century, the instrument showed significant variations in its size, shape, decoration and number of strings. In the 19th century, composers, performers, and theorists began to build a guitar tradition through the creation of idiomatic compositions, frequent performances, and published anthologies of notated music and performance methods, but prior to that the guitar was mostly used as a vernacular instrument to accompany singing and dancing. It was only through the artistry of 20th-century masters like Andres Segovia, who actively promoted the instrument, that the guitar has achieved its current status as a concert instrument. And as the guitar has passed through diverse peoples and cultures, it has served the needs of both professional and amateur musicians, elite and non-elite, and it has acquired multiple meanings that are integrally related to specific cultures and histories, just as pipa has in China.


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