Lute music from a 17th century traveller to Japan

Engelbert Kaempfer (1651 – 1716) led a life of adventurous travel and science. He was born in Germany and, after initial studies in his home country, graduated in languages, history and medicine in Poland. Then he travelled to Sweden, Russia and Persia. He joined the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and went to India, Indonesia and, in 1690, to Japan. The VOC had a trading post on the artificial island of Deshima in the harbour of Nagasaki. Kaempfer was appointed doctor here. Twice he travelled with the trading delegation to Shōgun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi in Edo (modern day Tōkyō). After a stay of two years in Japan he returned to Europe, not to leave it again. After his death, his manuscripts were bought by the English collector Hans Sloane. The Sloane collection was later bequeathed to the British government as the nucleus of what was to become the British Museum. One of the papers Sloane bought was the manuscript version of his major work on Japan, which was first published in an English translation as The History of Japan in 1727. Subsequently it was published in French, Dutch and German. For many years this book has been the main source of information on Japan outside this closed country. But in Japan it did not go unnoticed either, as a Japanese translation was made from the Dutch edition in the 19th century.

There is another interesting manuscript from Engelbert Kaempfer which found its way to the Sloane collection. It is catalogued as Sloane MS 2923 and has the following entries:

folios 3v-36:
Tablature for baroque lute: dance tunes. Written by Kaempfer.
folio 37:
Inscription on an iron plate, worn round the neck by an Arab.
folios 38-49:
Miscellaneous notes relative to the natural productions, arts, history and government of Persia.
folios 50-100:
Diary of a journey from Astrakhan through the Caspian Sea, into Persia; with views of towns.
folios 103r-115r:
Tablature for baroque lute: dance tunes by amongst others Gaultier and Duffaut. In a different hand from the first section of tablature.
folios 116-153:
Diary kept by Kaempfer of his journey from Stockholm to Moscow, and China to Astrakhan in 1683.

The two sections with music in tablature are written in different hands. One of the composers frequently mentioned in the first section is JAK, possibly Engelbert’s brother Johann Andreas Kaempfer (1658 – 1743), who travelled with him part of the way to Sweden in 1680. The last pieces in the first section have been identified as compositions by Hans (Hinrich) Niewerth, lutenist to the Swedish court between 1666 and 1699. These are duet pieces, so they might well have been written for Kaempfer to play with Niewerth during his stay in Sweden. Here Engelbert was appointed secretary of a Swedish embassy to the Persian court of Ishafan, which fits well with the inclusion of notes on Persia and his travel diary on the following pages.

There is also a connection with a Polish lutenist, as there are remarks written in Polish above a number of the pieces in the first section of tablature. One explanation might be that the book was already in Engelbert’s (or Johann’s?) possession during his student days in Poland. Or are the remarks written by a later teacher, the same person who included the pieces in the second section with music in the manuscript? The remarks are comments on the compositions: on folio7r it says ‘not interesting’, on 7v ‘nothing of good’; and on 20r ‘nothing nice’. Only the prelude on folio 12r did find a kind reception, as here is written ‘good’. So perhaps the music in the second section was meant to serve as an example to help a lute student develop a better taste than the music in the first section shows. With pieces by Gaultier and Duffaut, that should be no problem!

We don’t know if Kaempfer brought a lute to Japan. There is no record of it, but it is not impossible. The Dutchmen on Deshima were cut off from the outside world and had not much to do during the long periods between the arrivals of their trading vessels. Playing his lute would have been an ideal way of passing the time. Or did he pick up the shamisen? The Japanese girls visiting Deshima played shamisen, as we know from Dutch diaries. And as I know from personal experience, it is very tempting for a lute player to try his hand at this related but at the same time so very different instrument. Once a year a delegation from the trading post had to visit the Shōgun in Edo to show allegiance. During the audience they also had to perform, sing Dutch songs and dance Dutch dances and the like. If Kaempfer had brought a lute, there would have been a record of him playing at the Japanese court, but there is none. What is recorded however, is that Kaempfer danced and sang a German ballad during what he called the ‘real clowning’, when the official part of the audience had ended and the ladies of the court had joined the Shōgun to watch these kōmōjin or red-haired people perform.

Kaempfer dancing and singingKaempfer dancing and singing for the Shōgun in Edo.

What we do have a record of, however, is what Kaempfer thought of Japanese music, or at least of the music he heard during festivals and as it was played by beggars and iterant musicians that roamed the streets of Japan in the 17th century. The music he heard in festivals was not to his liking. This is what he wrote in his History of Japan (1727), describing a group of musicians playing flutes and drums:

The music is unimpressive and poor: it may serve the gods better than the musically trained ear. Also the text is howled slowly by unseasoned throats in a simple tune […].

(Translation from the modern edition by Beatrice M. Bodart-Bailey, entitled Kaempfer’s Japan. University of Hawai‘i Press, 1999)

Reception hall of the imperial palace in Edo (modern day Tōkyō), surrounded by a collection of Japanese instruments. This plate is only to be found in the Dutch translation of Kaempfer’s History of Japan. Although the instruments are idetified by letters, no names are given. In stead the reader is referred to Kaempfer’s book on Persia with the motivation that these instruments are all the same anyway:

Organs, violins, clocks, flutes, trumpets, drums and other Japanese musical instruments, as they are to be found in their own books. Many of these are in common with other Indian peoples.

(from the Dutch translation of 1733)

I have edited a Praelude and Allemande for baroque lute from the Sloane MS 2923 manuscript. Course 9 has to be tuned to E-flat and course 12 to B-flat. In the manuscript is written dobre, Polish for ‘good’, on the page with the Prälude. Above the Allemande is written JAK, possibly meaning Engelbert Kaempfer’s brother Johann Andreas.

David van Ooijen

I want to thank Bernd Haegemann for bringing this manuscript to my attention and for helping with translating the Polish texts.

For more, if not all, on Engelbert Kaempfer go to these pages of the Univeristy of Kyūshū.

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