Sijo (1900)


  • 10
  • Soprano and Percussion

Program Notes

This work is a setting of a poem by Song Sammun (1418-1456). He was one of the scholars commissioned by Korea’s famous king Sejong to devise the Korean alphabet. He was also a great loyalist who was put to death by the usurping king Sejo for attempting to replace the ousted boy king Tanjong on the throne. In his book The Bamboo Grove (University of California Press, 1971), Korean scholar Richard Rutt writes: “It (the poem) makes a statement . . which is essentially symbolic, based on the oriental cliché of the pine tree as a symbol of the upright heart. The subject of the poem is not, as the western reader might suppose, a declaration of a belief in immortality, but a protestation of loyalty, a declaration that the poet’s steadfastness will be remembered forever as an inspiring example.” The Mt. Pongnae or Pongnae-san refered to in the poem has two meanings – the name refers to the the traditional oriental fairyland Pongnae, and it is also the name given to the the famous and spectacular Diamond Mountains of Korea in the summer, because the meaning of Pongnae-san suggests abundant foliage. Rutt writes “The use of “white snow” at the beginning of the last line is, therefore a dramatic change from the category of summer images to that of winter hardship, while the final pine-tree image, though appropriate to winter (as an evergreen), retains the tree imagery implied in the name of Pongnae-san.”

The sijo (pronounced “shee-jo” or in the International Phonetic Alphabet, Si dJo) is a traditional Korean lyric of three lines or verses, each line made up of four phrase-groupings with a major pause after each grouping. Extremely elastic in form, the sijo differs from Chinese and Japanese verse forms in that it does not adhere to a strict syllable count. The theme is stated in the first line, developed in the second and an anti-theme or twist is introduced in the third, which rounds off the whole in terms of resolution. The word sijo consists of two Sino-Korean characters meanting “time” or “period” and “rhythm” or “harmony.” The term sijo refers not only to a poetic form but also to a type of vocal art music, with the singer accompanied by a changgo or hourglass drum.

This work was written while I was living and teaching music in Korea (1983-85). Rather than being an attempt to write Korean music for western performers, Sijo is more a reflection of my own experiences with Korean music, and with it I have tried to capture a bit of the spirit of Korea’s rich musical tradition.