World Literature and Music

Introduction

Table Summary

Table Summary of World Literature
Middle Eastern ancient Epic of Gilgamesh
Islamic Arabic Quran, Thousand and One Nights
Persian Ferdowsi (Shahnameh), Hafiz and Rumi (lyric poetry)
South Asian Vedic Sanskrit Vedas
Sanskrit epic poetry Mahabharata, Ramayana
lyric poetry and drama Kalidasa (The Recognition of Shakuntala)
East Asian Chinese philosophy Confucianism (Confucius), Daoism (Lao-tzu)
poetry Du Fu (lyric poetry)
novel four great novels
Japanese novel Murasaki (The Tale of Genji)
drama Zeami (noh drama)
poetry Basho (haiku)
Table Summary of World Music
art music tradition system
Islamic modes, with microtones
South Asian
East Asian pentatonic scales

Pre-Modern Literate Societies

Throughout history, every culture in every part of the world developed rich traditions of visual art. Essential Humanities' coverage of visual art therefore spans the entire globe (see World Art Overview).

Along with visual art, Essential Humanities is concerned with two other aesthetic fields: literature and music. To be precise, Essential Humanities focuses on written literature (as opposed to oral literature, aka folk literature) and art music (as opposed to folk music). (Traditions of folk literature and folk music have thrived in all societies, for time immemorial.)

While the difference between oral and written literature is clear, the distinction between folk and art music will be clarified here. Folk music features relatively simple structure/theory, and evolves naturally within a given culture (such that folk songs are typically described as "traditional", rather than being credited to specific composers). Art music, on the other hand, generally features relatively complex structure/theory, and is composed by dedicated professionals.

In order to produce written literature, a society must first possess the technology of writing, which historically tended to flourish only in large urban societies (for as societies grew, so did the need for written records of trade, law, treaties, and so on). Large urban societies also enabled fine-grained specialization of labour, such that talented scholars could devote themselves entirely to the art of writing; or, indeed, to the art of music.

The four great literate urban regions of the pre-modern world were Europe (and its colonial offshoots), the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia. Prior to the modern age, written literature and art music flourished chiefly in these four areas. (A fifth area, Southeast Asia, could be added to the list; for the broad purposes of Essential Humanities, however, this region is covered indirectly via South and East Asia, whose cultural influence across Southeast Asia was profound.)6

Common Features

Literature can be divided into three major types: prose ("ordinary language"), poetry (aesthetically structured language), and drama (literature intended for performance; drama may be composed in either prose or poetry). Each of the three types emerged in all four of the literate urban regions, albeit to varying extents.

A long story told in poetic form is known as an epic poem; a long story told in prose is known as a novel. Throughout most of history, poetry has generally been preferred to prose: epic poetry thus took precedence over novels, and drama was usually composed in poetic form. Only recently (since the nineteenth century) has the situation reversed, such that drama is now usually written in prose, and the novel flourishes as the primary literary vessel.

It should be noted that Essential Humanities focuses mainly on creative literature, as opposed to scholarly literature (e.g. philosophy, science, history). All four of the literate urban regions wrote prolifically on a wide range of scholarly matters. With regard to music, the four regions all produced bodies of music theory (including mathematical pitch theory), as well as philosophy attributing music with influence over human behaviour and the course of world events.6

Main Article

Middle Eastern Literature

The history of the Middle East can be divided into the pre-Islamic period (or ancient period, which lasted until ca. 650) and Islamic period (ca. 650-present).

In the ancient Middle East, literature flourished primarily in Mesopotamia (home of the world's oldest writing system) and Egypt (home of the second-oldest). The outstanding work of ancient Middle Eastern literature is the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem composed in the Akkadian language. This work recounts the adventures of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian warrior-king of Uruk, who struggles with various Mesopotamian deities and embarks on a doomed quest for immortality.

Table Summary of Middle Eastern Literature
Middle Eastern ancient Epic of Gilgamesh
Islamic Arabic Quran, Thousand and One Nights
Persian Ferdowsi (Shahnameh), Hafiz and Rumi (lyric poetry)

Since ca. 650, Islamic civilization has dominated the Middle East (see History of the Islamic Middle East). The Islamic culture sphere can be divided into two branches: Arabian and Persianate. The former branch is the original type of Islamic culture, which radiated from its homeland (the Arabian Peninsula) across much of Southwest Asia and northern Africa. The latter branch, which resulted from the fusion of Islamic culture with Persian culture, radiated from its homeland (Iran) to the west, north, and east.

The Islamic World

The Arabian branch of Islamic culture penetrated the African continent more deeply than did the Arabic language; consequently, while most nations of this branch are Arabic-speaking (plain red), some are not (red with white dots). The equivalent is true of the Persianate branch, which features a Persian-speaking core (plain dark green) and Turkic-speaking periphery (dark green with white dots). In the light green nations, Persianate culture fused with older civilizations (especially Indian civilization, throughout South/Southeast Asia), such that they belong less firmly to the Persianate world.

The foremost literary tongues of the Arabian and Persianate regions are, respectively, Arabic and Persian. (Literature in the Persian language flourished across the entire Persianate world, and served as the model for literature in other native tongues of the region, including Turkic languages and Urdu.)1 Thus, in a broad overview of Islamic literature, these two languages are the primary focus.

While poetry and prose both thrived in the Islamic world, drama was not a major traditional form. One widely-shared trait of Islamic literature is the emphasis of individual parts rather than the overall whole; this can be observed, for instance, in Islamic poetry (which often features meticulously crafted verses, but no unifying story or theme) and history (which often features detailed coverage of many individual events, but no overall narrative). In terms of style, Islamic literature tends to embrace flowery, metaphor-laden language, thus paralleling Islamic visual art (which revels in rich, intricate patterns.)1

The supreme work of Islamic literature, in terms of both influence and reverence among Muslim peoples, is the Quran, the sacred text of Islam. Composed in Arabic, the Quran includes prayers, explications of the divine (e.g. the afterlife), and discussion of ethical matters (e.g. personal conduct, social institutions). The language of this book straddles the prose-poetry divide; it has alternately been described as "prose-like poetry" and "poetic prose". More than any other work, the form and content of the Quran have profoundly influenced literature throughout the Islamic world.1

Arabic is also the language of the most famous work of Islamic creative literature: Thousand and One Nights (aka Arabian Nights), a diverse collection of prose stories, including fairytales, parables, and realistic adventure. Thousand and One Nights is magnificently cosmopolitan, drawing upon traditional stories from all across the Middle East and South Asia. The most widely familiar names of the collection are likely Sinbad, Ali Baba, and Aladdin.1,9

The heart of Persian literature is poetry. Indeed, though Arabic literature features a rich poetic tradition, Persia gave rise to the most renowned Islamic authors of both epic poetry (which tells a story) and lyric poetry (which conveys feelings/ideas).1 The three outstanding names are Ferdowsi, Hafiz, and Rumi.

Ferdowsi penned the foremost Islamic epic poem, the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), which provides a sweeping legendary account of Persian history. Islamic lyric poetry culminated in the works of Hafiz and Rumi, who composed many poems on themes of love and spiritual reflection.1

South Asian Literature

The two most prominent ages of traditional South Asian literature are the Vedic period (ca. 1500-500 BC) and Indian kingdom age (ca. 500 BC-1200 AD). The Vedic period was the formative age of Indian culture (which became the cultural foundation of South Asia), while the Indian kingdom age witnessed the flourishing of mature Indian civilization (see History of South Asia).

The "Vedic period" is named after the oldest body of South Asian literature: the Vedas. Each "Veda" is a collection of hymns addressing various deities. The Vedas, which form the oldest layer of Hindu scripture, proved massively influential on subsequent South Asian literature.2

Table Summary of South Asian Literature
South Asian Vedic Sanskrit Vedas
Sanskrit epic poetry Mahabharata, Ramayana
lyric poetry and drama Kalidasa (The Recognition of Shakuntala)

From the Indian kingdom period onward, the scholarly tongue of South Asia was Sanskrit. (Sanskrit evolved from Vedic Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas, which served as the scholarly tongue of the Vedic period.) Sanskrit remains the ceremonial language of Hinduism to this day, just as Latin remains the ceremonial language of Roman Catholicism.2

Sanskrit literature, which spans prose, drama, and (especially) poetry, embodies the heart and culmination of South Asian literature. Work in other South Asian languages (e.g. Hindi, Pali, Tamil) was strongly influenced by Sanskrit writing, in both form (e.g. poetic structure) and content (e.g. stories, characters). Stylistically, South Asian literature tends to feature elaborate figurative language.2,3

The foremost works of South Asian poetry are two epics: the Mahabharata (the longest traditional poem ever written), which recounts a dynastic struggle over India; and the Ramayana, which tells of the exiled prince Rama's quest to rescue his abducted wife. Both epics include many side stories and philosophical explorations, touching upon a broad spectrum of religious and ethical issues.2,4

The best-known excerpt from a South Asian epic is the Bhagavadgita, a section of the Mahabharata in which Krishna (an incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu) engages in a wide-ranging philosophical discussion with a prince on the eve of a great battle. The Bhagavadgita is often considered the most revered and beautiful Hindu text.2

While epic poetry (including the two epics noted above) was the literary glory of the first half of the Indian kingdom age, the second half witnessed the flowering of Sanskrit lyric poetry and drama. Both culminated in the works of Kalidasa, the foremost South Asian poet and dramatist, and the leading name in all of South Asian literature. His masterpiece, the drama Abhijnanashakuntala ("The Recognition of Shakuntala"), tells of the marriage of a king and a nymph, their separation by an evil curse, and their eventual reunion.7

The Indian kingdom age was succeeded by the Islamic age of South Asia (ca. 1200-1800), during which large parts of the region fell under Islamic rule. Many aspects of Indian civilization were subjected to Islamic influence, resulting in a hybrid "Indo-Islamic" culture. South Asian literature was, to varying extents, subject to this cultural merge.

East Asian Literature

Throughout East Asia, all three major types of literature flourished: prose, poetry, and drama. The two primary cultural forces of East Asia are China (which provided the cultural foundation of the region) and Japan; consequently, the most prominent literary languages are Chinese and Japanese. Stylistically, East Asian writing tends to strive for clear, concise expression.6

Table Summary of East Asian Literature
East Asian Chinese philosophy Confucianism (Confucius), Daoism (Lao-tzu)
poetry Du Fu (lyric poetry)
novel four great novels
Japanese novel Murasaki (The Tale of Genji)
drama Zeami (noh drama)
poetry Basho (haiku)

Traditional Chinese history can be divided into three ages (see History of East Asia). Ancient China (ca. 2000 BC-500 AD) was ruled by the Shang, Western Zhou, and Han dynasties; medieval China (ca. 500-1400) by the Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasties; and early modern China (ca. 1400-WWI) by the Ming and Qing dynasties. The ancient period was the formative age of Chinese culture, which flourished in its mature form from the medieval period onward.

Throughout history, civilizations have usually sought guidance in ethical matters from religion; in China, however, various schools of philosophy fulfilled this role instead (see Religion). By far the most important of these schools (both historically and today) is Confucianism, a body of thought that emphasizes maintenance of social order. The next-most prominent school is Daoism, which stresses attainment of harmony with the natural flow of the universe.

Together, Confucianist and Daoist literature encompass the culmination of Chinese philosophy. These bodies of work date to the ancient period of China. The founders of each school were, respectively, Confucius and Lao-tzu.

The next genre of Chinese literature to flower was poetry, during the Tang/Song period. (The Tang/Song period, known as the golden age of Chinese culture, also featured the culmination of Chinese pottery and painting.) East Asian poets focused mainly on lyric works; epic poetry never became a major form. Du Fu, who penned lyric poems on a wide range of subjects, is often considered the foremost of all Chinese poets.6,8

The third primary genre of traditional Chinese writing was the novel, which blossomed in early modern China (the Ming/Qing period).8 East Asia was the only region outside Europe where the novel (a long prose story) emerged as a major literary form. Four novels are widely identified as the greatest in Chinese: All Men are Brothers (about a large band of heroic thieves), Romance of the Three Kingdoms (about China's post-Han feudal struggles), Journey to the West (about the pilgrimage of a Buddhist monk to India), and Dream of the Red Chamber (about the decline of a noble family; this work is considered the greatest Chinese novel).

Meanwhile, poetry and novels also flourished in Japanese. Though no philosophical school in Japan would approach the influence of Confucianism or Daoism, this is offset by drama, which holds an especially prominent position in Japanese literature.

Traditional Japanese history can be divided into three parts (see History of East Asia). During the age of Yamato rule (ca. 500-800), the region was governed by the Yamato clan, whose chief held the title of "emperor". During the Heian age (ca. 800-1200), Japan was ruled by the Fujiwara clan, whose members fractured Japan into semi-independent regions. Then came the shogunate period (ca. 1200-1870), during which Japan was governed by military captains and their soldiers.

Literacy spread to Japan from China, and Chinese served as the chief literary language of Japan for centuries. The dominance of Chinese faded gradually throughout the Heian age, during which Japanese civilization matured, and uniquely Japanese art and literature (including poetry and prose) blossomed. The masterpiece of the age is Murasaki's novel The Tale of Genji, which recounts the love affairs of the nobleman Genji. This book, often considered the the world's first realistic novel (featuring "real-life" characters, conversation, events, etc.) and the greatest novel in Japanese, provides a vivid account of life in the Heian court.10,11,12

Following the initial brilliance of the Heian age, Japanese arts and literature continued to flourish throughout the long shogunate period.

The early shogunate period witnessed the development of Noh theatre. Noh "actors" could more accurately be described as storytellers; instead of enacting events directly, they subtly communicate the story via speech, song, and mime. The actors are supported by two choruses: one instrumental, one vocal. Zeami, Japan's foremost dramatist, was by far the chief contributor to the standard repertoire of Noh plays.13,14

The most famous descendant of Noh is Kabuki theatre, which emerged in the later shogunate period. Kabuki was essentially a transformation of Noh theatre (which flourished primarily among the upper classes) to appeal to popular tastes. Whereas the narrative, dance, and costumes of Noh are subtle and refined, these elements in Kabuki are overt and extravagant.15

The general approach of Japanese drama (telling a story via narration, song, and stylized mime) also flourished in China. The current dominant form of traditional Chinese drama, Beijing opera, emerged under the Qing dynasty.

The late shogunate period also witnessed the invention of the most famous Japanese poetry form: haiku. This form was perfected by Basho, often considered Japan's greatest poet.

Non-Western Art Music

The most striking contrast between Western art music and all other musical traditions (including the art music traditions of the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia) is the absence of harmony in the latter. Traditional Western music usually features multiple lines of music that harmonize to form chords. Other musical traditions, however, are primarily monophonic; that is, they feature a lone, unharmonized melody line (see Musical Texture).1,2,6

Usually, this melody line takes the form of the human voice, since vocal music (as opposed to instrumental music) is generally the primary type in non-Western traditions (and was indeed the primary type of Western art music up until the Classical period). Sometimes the melody line is reinforced by multiple voices/instruments performing the melody in unison; if the voices/instruments each vary slightly from one another (instead of performing in exact unison), the result is a variation of monophony called heterophony. Other common methods of "filling out" monophonic music include the drone note (often performed on a bowed instrument) and ostinato (repeated melodic fragment), as well as rhythmic accompaniment on percussion instruments (pitched and/or unpitched).1,2,6

Given that the melody stands alone in monophonic music (as opposed to being wrapped up in harmonic texture), subtle changes in tone, pitch, and rhythm are more apparent and important than in traditional Western music. Monophonic music also lends itself readily to improvisation.1,2,6

Islamic and South Asian art music have much in common. To begin with, both feature complex systems of modes. Like a scale, a mode contains a set of "standard notes" from which a musical work is composed; yet a mode goes further, incorporating other "standard features" into the music (e.g. preferred notes, rhythmic patterns, melodic fragments). In some cases, the rules of a given mode vary according to the season or time of day.1,2

Perhaps the most immediately distinctive feature of Islamic and South Asian music is the microtone. In traditional Western art music, the octave is divided into twelve tones: A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, and G#. While a piano is restricted to these twelve tones, many Western instruments (such as the violin) are capable of playing notes between two adjacent tones (e.g. between A and A#); nonetheless, Western composers rarely exploited this possibility. The art music traditions of the Middle East and South Asia, on the other hand, routinely feature microtonal melodies.1,2

Finally, Islamic and South Asian art music both tend to feature elaborate, highly ornamented melodies, as well as large amounts of improvisation.1,2

Table Summary of World Music
art music tradition system
Islamic modes, with microtones
South Asian
East Asian pentatonic scales

East Asian art music, on the other hand, parallels Western art music in two important ways: it divides the octave into twelve tones (rather than microtones) and employs scales (rather than modes). Whereas the standard major/minor scales of Western music have seven notes, however, East Asian scales usually have five. Five-note scales, known as pentatonic scales, are also found in many of the world's folk music traditions, as well as much popular music.6

1 - "Islamic arts", Encyclopedia Britannica.
2 - "South Asian arts", Encyclopedia Britannica.
3 - "Sanskrit literature", Columbia Encyclopedia.
4 - "Ramayana", Columbia Encyclopedia.
5 - "Indian music", Oxford Grove Music Encyclopedia.
6 - "East Asian arts", Encyclopedia Britannica.
7 - "Kalidasa", Encyclopedia Britannica.
8 - "Chinese literature", Columbia Encyclopedia.
9 - "Thousand and One Nights", Encyclopedia Britannica.
10 - "Japanese literature", Columbia Encyclopedia.
11 - "The Tale of Genji", Encyclopedia Britannica.
12 - "Japanese literature", Encyclopedia Britannica.
13 - "Noh theatre", Encyclopedia Britannica.
14 - "Zeami", Encyclopedia Britannica.
15 - "Kabuki", Encyclopedia Britannica.