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Jeongga, songs for the upper class

#Sounds of Korea l 2023-01-26

Sounds of Korea

Jeongga, songs for the upper class

In the old times when one’s social position was paramount, it determined where you lived, what you ate and how you dressed. The same went for music. Music performed in the royal palace was different from that enjoyed by commoners. Even within the genre of court music, music played for important occasions like the Jongmyo ceremony was different from the celebratory music performed at birthday parties for a member of the royal family. Songs like gagok가곡, gasa가사, and sijo시조 belonged to the category of ‘jeongga정가,’ meaning the right music. Jeongga was enjoyed mostly by those who had the luxury of money and time. It wsa also called ‘pungryu풍류 music’ or music for appreciating the arts because such music was enjoyed while gentlemen entertained their friends with a cup of tea while writing a poem or working on a painting. Since jeongga songs were enjoyed in leisure by people with a lot of extra time in their hands, the songs were slower and less emotional compared to pansori or folksongs. They may sound even boring to people living in today’s fast-changing world. But, if you take time to listen to the songs carefully, like the noblemen in the old days used to, you may come to appreciate the harmony of elegant melodies and beautiful voices. Artists of late have written many songs inspired by jeongga and “Warm Light in Winter” performed by jeongga ensemble Soul Jigi is a fine example. 

Warm Light in Winter/ Sung by Soul Jigi

The song “Warm Light in Winter” is based on a poem that goes as follows.

To illuminate my beloved with the warm light in winter

To give my beloved the delectable taste of watercress

You may lack nothing, but I cannot forget my love. 

You can feel the warmth of tender love in the song. 

Next up is a modern gagok entitled “A Stroll,” a male gagok “Urak” rearranged in order to appeal to today’s listeners. “Urak” was a sijo poem that went like below. 

I lost my fishing pole while dozing, a rain cape while dancing. 

Don’t mock me for being senile.

Peach flowers have blossomed for miles around to make me merry. 

An old gentleman appears to have gone fishing in light spring rain. He was startled awake, realizing that he had lost his fishing rod while dozing off, only to find pink peach flowers all around him. He may have lost his fishing rod and not have caught any fish, but the flowery spring sight delighted him so much that he ended up dancing wildly, losing his rain cape in the process. That was when he spotted a crying bird, seemingly mocking him for acting silly. “A Stroll” was inspired by the first line of this song to depict a person out on a walk. Let’s listen to “A Stroll” sung by creative music group Modern Gagok.

A Stroll/ Sung by Modern Gagok

There are two types of gagok – one for male singers and another for females. Men tend to sing gagok in a rigid, loud manner, while women singers make the most of their high, lovely voices. Gagok songs tend to be very slow, which renders the lyrics almost unintelligible. So, when a female gagok is sung to the accompaniment of orchestral music, the voices seem to get lost in the sound of instruments. Next song in line is a gagok song that is sung only with a human voice without accompaniment music. It is based on a sijo poem about dreaming of searching for one’s love every night. It goes, “If I could have left marks on the road I traveled in my dreams, it would have worn down the stone steps in front of my house.” This poem was written by a woman named Lee Ok-bong이옥봉 who missed her dead husband. Let’s conclude this week’s Sounds of Korea with Jung Ma-ri singing “The Road Traveled in My Dreams.”    

The Road Traveled in My Dreams/ Sung by Jung Ma-ri

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