Finished in the year 1021, this first novel and masterpiece of world literature, provides many evocative examples of period music in old Kyoto. The following excerpts specifically mention the period flute in context, beginning with the chapter named "The Flute":
Chapter 37—The Flute
She gave him a flute as he left.
“It is said to have a rich past. I would hate to have it lost among these tangles of wormwood. You must play on it as you leave and drown out the calls of your runners. That would give me great pleasure.”
“Far too valuable an addition to my retinue.”
It did indeed have a rich past. It had been Kashiwagi’s favorite. Yūgiri had heard him say more than once that it had possibilities he had never done justice to, and that he wanted it to have an owner more worthy of it. Near tears once more, he blew a few notes in the banjiki mode, but did not finish the melody he had begun.
“My inept pluckings on the koto may perhaps be excused as a kind of memorial, but this flute leaves me feeling quite helpless, wholly inadequate.”
The old lady sent out a poem:
“The voices of insects are unchanged this autumn,
Rank though the grasses be round my dewy lodging.”
He sent back:
“The melody is as it always was.
The voices that mourn are inexhaustible.”
He blew a soft strain on his new flute. And what would the princess be thinking in the wake of their interview? Would she indeed, as he had requested, leave the koto and the other instruments in the same tuning? Her mother was said to be very good on the Japanese koto.
He dozed off and dreamed that Kashiwagi was beside him, dressed as on their last meeting. He had taken up the flute. How unsettling, Yūgiri said to himself, still dreaming, that his friend should still be after the flute.
“If it matters not which wind sounds the bamboo flute,
Then let its note be forever with my children.
“I did not mean it for you.”
Yūgiri went on thinking about the dream. The flute was threatening to raise difficulties. Kashiwagi was still attached to it, and so perhaps it should have stayed at Ichijō. It should not, in any case, have been passed on to Yūgiri by a woman. But what had Kashiwagi meant, and what would he be thinking now? Because of the regret and the longing he must wander in stubborn darkness, worrying about trifles. One did well to avoid such entanglements.
He had services read on Mount Otagi and at a temple favored by Kashiwagi. But what to do about the flute? It had a rich history, the old lady had said. Offered immediately to a temple it might do a little toward the repose of Kashiwagi’s soul. Yet he hesitated.
The moment seemed ripe. Coming a little closer, he described his dream. Genji listened in silence and was not quick to answer. It did of course mean something to him.
“Yes, there are reasons why I should have the flute. It belonged to the Yōzei emperor and was much prized by the late Prince Shikibu. Remarking upon Kashiwagi’s skills, the prince gave it to him one day when we had gathered to admire the hagi. I should imagine that the princess’s mother did not quite know what she was doing when she gave it to you.”
I need not speak of his accomplishments in the compulsory subjects, the classics and the like. When it came to music his flute and koto made the heavens echo — but to recount all his virtues would, I fear, give rise to a suspicion that I distort the truth.
On evenings when there was music, he would play the flute to her koto and so communicate something of his longing, and take some comfort from her voice, soft through the curtains.
He proceeded briskly to the veranda and took a seat near the gate and looked up at the moon for a time. The chrysanthemums were at their best, very slightly touched by the frost, and the red leaves were beautiful in the autumn wind. He took out a flute and played a tune on it, and sang’The Well of Asuka’ and several other songs. Blending nicely with the flute came the mellow tones of a japanese koto. It had been tuned in advance, apparently, and was waiting. The ritsu scale had a pleasant modern sound to it, right for a soft, womanly touch from behind blinds, and right for the clear moonlight too. I can assure you that the effect was not at all unpleasant.
“‘Excuse me for asking. You must not be parsimonious with your music. You have a by no means indifferent listener.’
“He was very playful indeed. The woman’s voice, when she offered a verse of her own, was suggestive and equally playful.
“‘No match the leaves for the angry winter winds.
Am I to detain the flute that joins those winds?’
“Naturally unaware of resentment so near at hand, she changed to a Chinese koto in an elegant banjiki. Though I had to admit that she had talent, I was very annoyed. It is amusing enough, if you let things go no further, to exchange jokes from time to time with fickle and frivolous ladies; but as a place to take seriously, even for an occasional visit, matters here seemed to have gone too far. I made the events of that evening my excuse for leaving her.
They took seats on the moss below the rocks and wine was brought out.1t was a pleasant spot, beside cascading waters. Tō no Chūjō took out a flute, and one of his brothers, marking time with a fan, sang “To the West of the Toyora Temple.” They were handsome young men, all of them, but it was the ailing Genji whom everyone was looking at, so handsome a figure as he leaned against a rock that he brought a shudder of apprehension. Always in such a company there is an adept at the flageolet, and a fancier of the shō pipes as well.
The bishop brought out a seven-stringed Chinese koto and pressed Genji to play it. “Just one tune, to give our mountain birds a pleasant surprise.”
Getting into the same carriage, they played on their flutes as they made their way under a pleasantly misted moon to the Sanjō mansion. Having no outrunners, they were able to pull in at a secluded gallery without attracting attention. There they sent for court dress. Taking up their flutes again, they proceeded to the main hall as if they had just come from court. The minister, eager as always for a concert, joined in with a Korean flute. He was a fine musician, and soon the more accomplished of the ladies within the blinds had joined them on lutes.
Indeed the house quite rang with music, and flute and flageolet sounded proud and high as seldom before. Sometimes one of them would even bring a drum up from the garden and pound at it on the veranda. With all these exciting matters to occupy him, Genji had time for only the most necessary visits; and so autumn came to a close.
The forty men in the flutists’ circle played most marvelously. The sound of their flutes, mingled with the sighing of the pines, was like a wind coming down from deep mountains. “Waves of the Blue Ocean,” among falling leaves of countless hues, had about it an almost frightening beauty.
Rumpled and wild-haired, he played a soft strain on a flute as he came into Murasaki’s room
After plucking a few notes to see that it was in tune, he pushed it toward her. No longer able to be angry, she played for him, briefly and very competently. He thought her delightful as she leaned forward to press a string with her left hand. He took out a flute and she had a music lesson. Very quick, she could repeat a difficult melody after but a single hearing. Yes, he thought, she was bright and amiable, everything he could have wished for. “Hosoroguseri” made a pretty duet, despite its outlandish name.
He had brought gifts from the city, both elegant and practical. Genji gave him in return a black pony, a proper gift for a traveler.
“Considering its origins, you may fear that it will bring bad luck; but you will find that it neighs into the northern winds.”
It was a fine beast.
“To remember me by,” said Tō no Chūjō, giving in return what was recognized to be a very fine flute. The situation demanded a certain reticence in the giving of gifts.
It was winter, and the snowy skies were wild. He beguiled the tedium with music, playing the koto himself and setting Koremitsu to the flute, with Yoshikiyo to sing for them. When he lost himself in a particularly moving strain the others would fall silent, tears in their eyes.
Genji played on in a reverie, a flood of memories of concerts over the years, of this gentleman and that lady on flute and koto, of voices raised in song, of times when he and they had been the center of attention, recipients of praise and favors from the emperor himself. Sending to the house on the hill for a lute and a thirteen-stringed koto, the old man now seemed to change roles and become one of these priestly mendicants who make their living by the lute. He played a most interesting and affecting strain. Genji played a few notes on the thirteen-stringed koto which the old man pressed on him and was thought an uncommonly impressive performer on both sorts of koto. Even the most ordinary music can seem remarkable if the time and place are right; and here on the wide seacoast, open far into the distance, the groves seemed to come alive in colors richer than the bloom of spring or the change of autumn, and the calls of the water rails were as if they were pounding on the door and demanding to be admitted.
“Father was tutor for all of us, but I thought he took himself seriously only when you were his pupil. There was poetry, of course, and there was music, the flute and the koto. Painting seemed less study than play, something you let your brush have its way with when poetry had worn you out. And now see the results. See all of our professionals running off and hiding their faces.”
As moonlight flooded the scene the music was more bois- terous, dominated by the flute, there being several fine flutists in the company. The stringed instruments were quieter, only the Japanese koto and the lute. The flute is an autumn instrument, at its best in the autumn breezes. Every detail of the riverbank rose clear and high and clean in the moonlight. A new party arrived from the palace, from the royal presence itself, indeed. The emperor had been much disappointed that Genji had not called at the end of the week-long retreat from which the court had just emerged. There was music once more, and surely, thought the emperor, Genji would appear.
“How very nice,” said Tō no Chūjō, motioning him to a place at the girl’s curtains. “We do not see as much of you these days as we would like. You are so fearfully deep in your studies. Your father knows as well as I do that too much learning is not always a good thing, but I suppose he has his reasons. Still it seems a pity that you should be in solitary confinement. You should allow yourself diversions from time to time. Music too has a proper and venerable tradition, you know.” He offered Yūgiri a flute.
Prince Hotaru filled the emperor’s cup and offered this poem:
“The tone of the flute is as it always has been,
Nor do I detect a change in the song of the warbler.”
It was very thoughtful and tactful of him to suggest that not all was decline.
With awesome dignity, the emperor replied:
“The warbler laments as it flies from tree to tree —
For blossoms whose hue is paler than once it was?”
They went from the main palace to the Suzaku Palace of the retired emperor and thence to Rokujō. The way being a long one, it was dawn when they arrived. A moon hung in a cloudless sky and a light fall of snow set the garden off to weirdly delicate effect. Everyone wanted to be his best when he came to Rokujō. It was an age well provided with fine musicians, and the sound of flute rang high through the grounds.
It was night, and they seemed indefatigable. Flares having been put out in the garden, they were invited to the moss carpet below the verandas, and the princes and high courtiers had places above with the kotos and flutes in which they took such pride. The most accomplished of the professional flutists struck up a melody in the sōjō mode, in which the courtiers joined most brilliantly with their kotos, and as they moved on to “How Grand the Day” even the most ignorant of the footmen off among the horses and carriages seemed to respond. The sky and the music, the spring modes and echoes, all seemed better here — no one could fail to see the difference. The night was passed in music. With “Joy of Spring” the mode shifted to an intimate minor. Prince Hotaru twice sang “Green Willow,” in very good voice. Genji occasionally
“You wish me to go?” But someone in the other wing had taken up a flute, someone who knew how to play, and there was a Chinese koto too. “Yūgiri is at it again with those inseparable companions of his. This one will be Kashiwagi.” He listened for a time. “There is no mistaking Kashiwagi.”
He sent over to say that the light of the flares, cool and hospitable, had kept him on. Yūgiri and two friends came immediately.
“I felt the autumn wind in your flute and had to ask you to join me.”
His touch on the koto was soft and delicate, and Yūgiri’s flute, in the banjiki mode, was wonderfully resonant. Kashiwagi could not be persuaded to sing for them.
“You must not keep us waiting.”
His brother, less shy, sang a strain and repeated it, keeping time with his fan, and one might have taken the low, rich tones for a bell cricket
It was the eve of the ceremony. The stewards’ offices had brought musical instruments for a rehearsal. Guests had gathered in large numbers and flute and koto echoed through all the galleries. Kashiwagi, Kōbai, and Tō no Chūjō‘s other sons stopped by with formal greetings. Genji insisted that they join the concert. For Prince Hotaru there was a lute, for Genji a thirteen-stringed koto, for Kashiwagi, who had a quick, lively touch, a Japanese koto. Yūgiri took up a flute, and the high, clear strains, appropriate to the season, could scarcely have been improved upon. Beating time with a fan, Kōbai was in magnificent voice as he sang “A Branch of Plum.” Genji and Prince Hotaru joined him at the climax. It was Kōbai who, still a court page, had sung “Takasago” at the rhyme-guessing contest so many years before. Everyone agreed that though informal it was an excellent concert.
Kashiwagi recited this poem as he poured for Yūgiri:
“Sound your bamboo flute all through the night
And shake the plum branch where the warbler sleeps.”
Genji gave the chamberlain a fine Korean flute and specimens of Chinese patchwork in a beautifully wrought aloeswood box.
He was unsurpassed on the flute. Among the courtiers who serenaded the emperors from below the stairs Kōbai had the finest voice. It was cause for general rejoicing that the two houses should be so close.
The musicians took their places in early afternoon. There were dances which one is not often privileged to see, “Myriad Years” and “The Royal Deer,” and, as sunset neared, the Korean dragon dance, to flute and drum. Yūgiri and Kashiwagi went out to dance the closing steps. The image of the two of them under the autumn leaves seemed to linger on long afterwards.
Genji gave Tō no Chūjō a fine Japanese koto, a Korean flute that was among his particular favorites, and a sandalwood book chest filled with Japanese and Chinese manuscripts. They were taken out to Tō no Chūjō‘s carriage as he prepared to leave. There was a Korean dance by officials of the Right Stables to signify grateful acceptance of the horses.
The familiar eastern music seemed friendlier than the more subtle Chinese and Korean music. Against the sea winds and waves, flutes joined the breeze through the high pines of the famous grove with a grandeur that could only belong to Sumiyoshi. The quiet clapping that went with the koto was more moving than the solemn beat of the drums. The bamboo of the flutes had been stained to a deeper green, to blend with the green of the pines.
Out near the veranda were two little boys charged with setting the pitch, Tamakazura’s elder son on the shō pipes and Yūgiri’s eldest on the flute. Genji’s ladies were behind blinds with their much-prized instruments set out before them in fine indigo covers, a lute for the Akashi lady, a Japanese koto for Murasaki, a thirteen-stringed Chinese koto for the Akashi princess. Worried lest the Third Princess seem inadequate, Genji himself tuned her seven-stringed koto for her.
“It is true,” replied Yūgiri, “that on an autumn night there is sometimes not a trace of a shadow over the moon and the sound of a koto or a flute can seem as high and clear as the night itself. But the sky can have a sort of put-on look about it, like an artificial setting for a concert, and the autumn flowers insist on being gazed at. It is all too pat, too perfect. But in the spring — the moon comes through a haze and a quiet sound of flute joins it in a way that is not possible in the autumn. No, a flute is not really its purest on an autumn night. It has long been said that it is the spring night to which the lady is susceptible, and I am inclined to accept the statement. The spring night is the one that brings out the quiet harmonies.”
A flute, a very fine Korean one, was pushed towards him from beneath the Third Princess’s curtains. He smiled as he played a few notes. The guests were beginning to leave, but Yūgiri took up his son’s flute and played a strain marvelous in its clean strength. They were all his very own pupils, thought Genji, to whom he had taught his very own secrets, and they were all accomplished musicians. He knew of course that he had had superior material to work with.
But it did indeed seem that the end might be near. There were repeated crises, each of which could have been the last. Genji no longer saw the Third Princess. Music had lost all interest and koto and flute were put away. Most of the Rokujō household moved to Nijō. At Rokujō, where only women remained, it was as if the fires had gone out. One saw how much of the old life had depended on a single lady.
It was late and the moon was high, and the young men played this and that air on their flutes as the spirit moved them. It was an unobtrusively elegant progress.
The shutters were drawn and the grounds were deserted save for the moon, which had quite taken possession of the garden waters. He thought how Kashiwagi’s flute would have echoed through these same grounds on such a night.
“No shadows now of them whom once I knew.
Only the autumn moon to guard the waters.”
All across the garden cherries were a delicate veil through spring mists, and bird songs rose numberless, as if to outdo the flutes.
They had delighted her one last time with flute and koto. Some had meant more to her than others. She gazed intently at the most distant of them and thought that she could never have enough of those who had been her companions at music and the other pleasures of the seasons. There had been rivalries, of course, but they had been fond of one another. All of them would soon be gone, making their way down the unknown road, and she must make her lonely way ahead of them.
Kaoru was always in Niou’s apartments, and music echoed through the halls and galleries as their rivalry moved on to flute and koto.
Soon the high, clear tone of a flute was echoing through Rokujō, that place of delights for the four seasons, outdoing, one sometimes thought, all the many paradises.
He gave the boy a message for the daughter at court. “I cannot be with you this evening. You must do without me. Perhaps you can say that I am not feeling well.” That business out of the way, he smiled and turned to other business. “Bring your flute with you one of these days. It may be what your sister here needs to encourage her. Do you ever play for His Majesty? And do you please him, in your infantile way?”
He set the boy to a strain in the sōjō mode, which he managed very commendably.
“Good, very good. I can see that you have profited from our little musicales. And now you must join him,” he said to the princess.
“What a remarkable flutist that is,” said the prince to himself. “Who might it be? Genji played an interesting flute, a most charming flute; but this is somehow different. It puts me in mind of the music we used to hear at the old chancellor’s, bold and clear, and maybe just a little haughty. It has been a very long time indeed since I myself took part in such a concert. The months and the years have gone by like waking dead!”
Music and other exciting sounds came from the boat as it was poled up and down the river. The young women went to the bank for a closer look. They could not make out the figure of the prince himself, but the boat, roofed with scarlet leaves, was like a gorgeous brocade, and the music, as members of the party joined their flutes in this impromptu offering and the next one, came in upon the wind so clearly that it was almost startling.
Then there was the flute that had been the source of a revelation in a dream, memento of a man long dead, which the emperor had on an earlier occasion pronounced to be of unexcelled tone: thinking there would not be another affair so brilliant, it would seem, its owner had it brought out. The emperor gave a Japanese koto to Yūgiri and a lute to Niou. Kaoru quite outdid himself on the flute.
The captain heaved a sigh, perhaps because other worries had crossed his mind. Taking out a flute, he played a muted tune upon it, and when he had finished he intoned softly, as if to himself:”‘The call of the hart disturbs the autumn night.’” He did appear to be a man of taste. “I seem to have come all this way just to be tormented by memories,” he said, getting up to leave, “and I fear that my new friend will not be much comfort. No, your retreat does not seem to lie along my ‘mountain path away from the world.’”
The nun was reluctant to see even the flute go. She sought to detain him with a verse, though not a very clever one:
“A stranger to the late-night moon in its glory
That he now disdains our house at the mountain ridge?”
The old nun, the bishop’s mother, had caught a dim echo of a flute. She tottered eagerly forward, coughing and sputtering, her voice tremulous as she made her wishes known. Though she should have been overwhelmed by memories, she said nothing of the old days. Perhaps she did not recognize their guest.
“Play, play! Play on flute and koto. Oh, but a person does want a flute on a moonlit night. Come on, you over there. Bring out a koto.”
Not much in vogue these days, the seven-stringed koto had its own charm. The wind blew a counterpoint through the pines, and the flute seemed to be urging the moon to new splendors. Delighted, the old nun was prepared to stay up until dawn.
The captain set out for the city, his flute coming in rich and full on the wind from the mountain. There was no sleep at the nunnery that night.
Early in the morning a note was delivered: “It was because of all my troubles that I took my leave so early.
“Ancient things came back, I wept aloud
At koto and flute and a lady’s haughty ways.
“Do teach her a little, if you will, of the art of sympathy. If I were able to endure in silence, would I thus be serenading you?”
Sadder and sadder, thought the nun, on the edge of tears as she composed her reply:
“With the voice of your flute came thoughts of long ago,
And tears wet my sleeve, and sped you on your way.”