Nha Nhac meaning “elegant music” refers to a broad range of musical and dance styles performed at the Vietnamese royal court from the fifteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Nha Nhac was generally featured at the opening and closing of ceremonies associated with anniversaries, celebrations, religious holidays, coronations, funerals and official receptions.
In Vietnamese traditional music heritage, Nha nhac plays an important role and is the core of the court affairs. Also, it serves the entertainment demand of the King, royal family and the court professional, classical and scholarly music. Nha nhac was considered as the official music of the country, of the authority and performed in the royal life, including the court and royal family. Therefore, it reflects the spirit and the will of the royal dynasty, such as culture, art, law, power, even the ideology, aesthetics and regional trend, etc.
Nha Nhac developed during the Le dynasty (1427-1788) and it only reached the peak at the Hue Court under the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945). It is believed that Nha nhac did not truly reach the pinnacle of its development until the Nguyen Dynasty, when it was synthesized. The Nguyễn emperors declared it as the official court music, and it became an essential part of the extensive rituals of the royal palace. Hue Court Music is the last vestige of Vietnamese Court Music. It contains all quintessence of Vietnamese Court Music trend that has been established and developed over 1,000 years; therefore Hue Court Music is identical with Vietnamese Court Music. For long, Nha Nhac, Vietnamese Court Song has been preserved. It has been introduced inside and outside Vietnam. Up to present, It has been enhanced and popularized to the world.
Instruments commonly used for nhã nhạc include kèn bầu (conical oboe), đàn tỳ bà (pear-shaped lute with four strings), đàn nguyệt (moon-shaped two-string lute), đàn tam (fretless lute with snakeskin-covered body and three strings), đàn nhị (two-stringed vertical fiddle), sáo (also called sáo trúc; a bamboo transverse flute), trống (drum played with sticks), and other percussion instruments.
Among the numerous musical genres that developed in Vietnam, only Nha Nhac can claim a nationwide scope and strong links with the traditions of other East Asian countries.
The different genres of the Hue Court Music include worshipping ritual music, court ritual music, court dances, chamber music and opera (royal classical opera – tuong).
In the former times, Hue Court Music consisted of various genres: Giao Nhac used in the sacrifice ceremony to the Heaven and the Earth. Mieu Nhac used in worshipping ceremonies at the temples of meritorious ancestors of the Nguyen clan, Confucius, Nguyen Dynasty’s literature doctors, national heroes; Ngu Tu Nhac used in Than Nong, Thanh Hoang, Xa Tac worshiping ceremonies; Dai Trieu Nhac used in great ceremonies or receptions of foreign ambassadors;Thuong Trieu Nhac used in ordinary court ceremonies; Yen Nhac used in great royal banquets; Cung Nhac (or Cung Trung Nhac) used inside the royal palaces.
Hue Court Music was created by the process of integrating and adopting Chinese and Champa culture and the influences of Buddhism and Confucian. It is the synthesis of the various art genres, instruments, rhythm, melody and ensemble forms and environment. Therefore, Court Music can bring audience good sense of both audio and vision generating different shades of emotions and inspirations.
The events that shook Vietnam in the twentieth century – especially the fall of the monarchy and the decades of war – seriously threatened the survival of Nha Nhac. Deprived of its court context, this musical tradition lost its original function. Nevertheless, the few surviving former court musicians continue to work to keep the tradition alive. Certain forms of Nha Nhac have been maintained in popular rituals and religious ceremonies and serve as a source of inspiration for contemporary Vietnamese music.
In Nov 2003 Hue Court Music was recognized as the oral and intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO. This recognition remarked the great progress of the culture preservation of Vietnam and its importance to the humanity’s art values.