Posted in For Project 1 Examples

Example 2 research, Part 1: Temple blocks and Jeux d’eau

Temple blocks come from Far East: in China they are known as muyu, in Japan mokugyo and in Korea moktak, meaning wooden fish. (Holland, 2005: 50) Traditionally, they are made of camphor wood (Fig. 1), hollowed out through a shaped slit representing the open mouth of a fish, the body is lacquered red and gold, and occasionally a small movable ball is carved inside a cavity, ornamenting the upper part of the instrument. (Blades, 1992: 391) They can also have a stem, being shaped like a fish tale, and often the craftsman’s initials are engraved on the side. As fish never sleeps, it represents a man’s full attention in religion: his soul has to stay awake and his body has to remain full of energy. (Volker, 1950: 118)


Fig. 1. Traditional temple blocks

As Boo Eng (2014: 54) writes, there is an interesting legend explaining the origin of this instrument:

“A Chinese Buddhist went to India for scriptures. On his way, he was blocked by a wide flooded river with no bridge or boat nearby. At that moment, a big fish swam up to carry the Buddhist across the river. When they reached the middle of the river, the fish said: “Because I have committed a crime, I have been sentenced to live in this river for many years. I am told that you will spare no efforts to go to India for scriptures, so I have come here to help you to atone my misdeeds. Should you meet Shakyamuni, please ask him when I can become Bodhisattva”.

Being anxious to cross the river, the Buddhist accepted the fish’s proposal without hesitation. Having spent 17 years in India, the Buddhist went back to China, taking the scriptures with him. On his way back, he once again came to the former river, which was dangerously flooded. As he was worrying about his predicament, the big fish appeared once again to give him a hand. In the middle of the river, it asked the Buddhist: “You have been in India for many years. Did you ask Sakyamuni when I could become Bodhisattva?” The Buddhist replied, “Ah, sorry! I forgot.” Hearing this, the fish got angry and bumped the Buddhist and his scriptures into the water. A fisherman who happened to be passing nearly helped the Buddhist out of the river, but, unfortunately, his books were ruined.

The Buddhist came home, full of anger. He said to himself: “It is the fish that made my 17 years of efforts wasted.” He then had a statue of a fish’s head carved from wood. Recalling his misfortune, the Buddhist beat the wooden fish with a wooden hammer. To his surprise, each time he beat the fish, the fish opened its mouth and produced a Chinese character. The Buddhist became ecstatic and beat the wooden fish frequently. A few years later, character by character, he was able to retrieve what he had lost in water from the wooden fish’s mouth.”

Beside religious use, like that in baojuan, today, they are also employed in Beijing Opera with the rhythms played being mostly regular rhythms. (Toussaint, 2013: 257) There is also a genre called ‘wooden fish songs’ or ‘wooden fish stories’ that date to the end of the Ming and Qing dynasties, although, while the name suggests that at some point this instrument was used for performance tradition, any connection to this style is unclear. (Mair, 2001: 1026) This version of the instrument has a sound like a muffled tom-tom. (Holland, 2005: 50)

In Western orchestras, temple blocks often come in sets of five often tuned approximately to pentatonic scale, and are suspended from a stand. (Fig. 2) They are often made of wood and are darker in timbre than woodblocks. They can also often be combined with woodblocks. (Solomon, 2002: 173-174) As Holland (2005: 50) mentions they are increasingly made of unbreakable synthetic material with slight difference in tone quality. He continues that still rare, some also produce chromatic sets, and there are cases in repertoire where a bigger range is used, for example, Hanze’s Requiem that requires one and half octaves C4 to C5.


Fig. 2. Western temple blocks used in orchestral settings

Since I chose temple blocks, I could now explore melodic lines for a bit, although in a very limited way with 5 tones present in their octave of pentatonic scale which is also their range – the only version Sibelius offers. Even though I titled my example Le petit jeux d’eau, because of the limitations, there simply can’t be anything even remote to Liszt’s or Ravel’s piano masterpieces.

Liszt’s Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa D’este dates from the summer of 1877. I was really surprised to find out about his mental state around this time, as I’ve often read about him being a pianist that “exuded a sense of limitless energy, often outpacing his friends and younger students.” (Lewis, 2010: 188) Liszt had entered a state of depression and was on the edge of a nervous collapse and even suicide. Walker (1996: 369) mentions that the initial symptom was melancholia, as Liszt himself described: “Sometimes sadness envelops my soul like a shroud.” In spring of 1877 it was so deep he was unable to bring himself to work. Walker continues that once, he even “spent two whole days in bed for no other reason than that he saw no point in getting up.” His apathy by June 15 had become worse as is seen in his letter to Princess Carolyne: “My difficulty in writing is increasing and is becoming excessive – as is my weariness of living.” (Lewis, 2010: 402)

In this psychological state of mind he returned to Villa d’Este at the end of August 1877, as Walker (1996: 369-370) describes: “He used to sit throughout the warm summer nights, contemplating the great cypresses and listening to the play of the fountains.” This experience “brought him closer to the nature” and “helped to calm his troubled spirits”. As “Liszt used to sit for hours gazing at the fountains, spellbound by the play of their cascading waters. The result was a piece of musical impressionism, so advanced for its time that for thirty years it had no successor until Ravel composed his own Jeux d’eau.” (1996: 372)

With the endless suggestive passages (Fig 3, 4 and 5 being among them), it’s no wonder that Busoni noted about the whole Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa D’este being “the model for all musical fountains which have flowed since then.” (Roberts, 196) Liszt transcended from this musical painting and turned his streaming fountains into mystical symbols (Walker, 1996:  ) This he has done by associating them with the verse from the Gospel According to St.John 4:14, which he quotes in Latin in the score: “Sed aqua quam ego dabo ei, fiet in eo fons aquae salientis in vitam aeternam”.


Fig.  3. Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa D’este, bar 1-5


Fig 4. Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa D’este, bar 68-71


Fig. 5. Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa D’este, bar 137-144

As Hamilton (2005: ) points out, the composition is very different from Liszt’s forms in general: it consists of series of variations without the sharp contrast of key areas normally found in his compositions; Harmony is rich, yet vague and continually changes without a strong sense of modulating away from the tonal center. It is in the key of F sharp major, which not only brings the effect of light sparkling through jets of water, but from a spiritual side, which I was really excited to find out, this tonality brings us Liszt’s heavenly realms. The musical analysis by Hamilton, I have compiled in a slideshow below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Not only the title of Ravel’s Jeux d’eau derives from Liszt, but also his technical virtuosity, harmonic experimentation and water-figurations are clearly influenced by him. (Rowland: 192) As Kaminsky notes, parallels are seen on the level of musical texture, Ravel also chose to also evoke the play of water through rapidly shifting motifs characterized by a varied configuration of short rhythmic values, however, what separates his piece is the tendency to focus on rhythmically intricate figuration independently of a melody and decorative accompaniment texture through a structural emphasis on ornament. As Burnett-James says in other words: “the decorations appear as essential ingredients rather than superimposed protrusions.” Ravel’s score also bears a quotation, but unlike Liszt’s and his religious source, Ravel chose a poem by Henri de Regnier “Fete d’eau”: “Dieu fluvial riant de l’eau qui le chatouille” 

There is also another earlier piece of water music by Liszt, Au bord d’une source, “whose cascading rivulets feed the d’Este fountains as well, had a profound effect on Ravel.” As Mawer (2000: 77) points out, the elements like the “three layered texture with stylized rippling arpeggios at the top, a slower-moving pentatonic melody in the middle and a bass line descending slowly stepwise to the tonic,” also show the influence of gamelan music – Ravel listened to it at the Expositions Universelle, as the second page of Jeux d’eau confirms. Gamelan’s uniquely resonant tone, also plays a part in this piece. As Bellman (1998: 262-263) mentions, Ravel used the similar idea Debussy had about piano appearing as an instrument “sans marteaux” (without hammers) by recommending this piece be played with copious use of sustaining pedal in the upper register to emphasize, in Ravel’s own words: “the hazy impression of vibrations in the air.” This is present in the finest examples of gamelan music, where “the players miraculously manage to create mellifluous effects, even in virtuoso passages, in spite of the need to strike every single note with a hand-held mallet.” Look at the analysis by Orenstein (Fig. 6):

Jeux d'eau.PNG

For the structure of my example, see the next blog post.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. Traditional temple blocks

Fig. 2. Western temple blocks used in orchestral settings

Fig.  3. Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa D’este, bar 1-5

Fig 4. Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa D’este, bar 68-71

Fig. 5. Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa D’este, bar 137-144


Blades, J. (1992) Percussion Instruments and Their History. (4th ed.) Westport, Conn.: Bold Strummer Ltd.

Holland, J. (2005) Practical Percussion: A Guide to the Instruments and Their Sources. Landam, Md. : Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Volker, T. (1950) The Animal in Far Eastern Art: And Especially in the Art of the Japanese Netzsuke, with References to Chinese Origins, Traditions, Legends, and Art. Leiden: Brill

Boo Eng, Khoo (2014) A Simple Approach To Taoism: Festivals, Worship and Rituals. Singapore: Partridge Singapore

Toussaint, Godfried T. (2013) The Geometry of Musical Rhythm: What Makes a “Good’ Rhythm Good?. Taylor & Francis Group

Mair, Victor H. (ed.) (2001) The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. New York, Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press

Solomon, Samuel Z. (2016) How to Write for Percussion: Comprehensive Guide to Percussion Composition. Oxford University Press

Lewis, Joseph W. (2010) What Killed the Great and Not So Great Composers? Bloomington: Author House

Walker, Alan (1996) Franz Liszt: The Final Years, 1861-1886. New York: Knopf

Roberts, Helen Heffron (1926) Ancient Hawaiian Music. Dover Publications

Hamilton, Kenneth (2005) The Cambridge Companion to Liszt. Cambridge University Press

Rowland, David (ed.) (1998) The Cambridge Companion to the Piano. Cambridge University Press

Mawer, Deborah (ed.) (2000) The Cambridge Companion to Ravel. Cambridge University Press

Bellman, Jonathon (ed.) (1998) The Exotic in Western Music. Boston: UPNE- Northeastern University Press


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