Our classical music is far more elaborate than the instinctive rural drumming and singing, and scholars usually divide it into six main categories, most of which are represented on the Folkways record. But I must not risk tiring you with too many strange names and will say only that these classical compositions are usually songs, ranging in theme and tone from simple lyrics to courtly measures eulogizing the king or the royal city and solemn chants composed in adoration of Lord Buddha.
One of the most important events in the history of Burmese music—and all Burmese culture for that matter— was the second conquest of Siam by King Hsinbyushin in 1767. It is pleasant to think that although our wars with Siam were generally motivated by the Siamese king's white elephants, we brought back something which was by no means a white elephant to us! Craftsmen, entertainers, musicians, dancers numbering many hundreds were imported from Siam to Burma, and they brought about a vast augmentation of our culture. New life and new forms were infused into our theater, our classical dance style is far closer to that of Siam than, say, to that of India, and a principal type of our classical song, the yodaya (Side I, Band 3 and Side II, Band 8), takes its name from Ayuthia, the old capital of Thailand.
In the years following this Thai "invasion," there lived a remarkable man named U Sa, a veritable Leonardo da Vinci, who was poet, musician, playwright, soldier, diplomat, and statesman all combined. In a long lifetime, he was constantly creating and adapting new literary, dramatic, and musical forms, and over two hundred of our finest songs are attributed to him. Another important school of classical music comes down to us from the Mons; their beautiful songs were long ago enshrined in a collection called the Mahagita.
Finally, some of the purest and oldest forms of our traditional music are preserved in the propitiatory rituals of rural Nat worship. As Dr. Htin Aung explains in his essay, these spirits from the old animist cults have been welcomed into Buddhism, and the country folk still honor them with wayside shrines, or by hanging a coconut turbaned with a piece of red and white cloth from the king post of the house, to which offerings of fruit or cooked rice are made with music and dancing.
Now what has been happening to Burmese music since the radio and the cinema have vastly magnified the influence of Western music upon us? For my purist taste, far too much! But, to speak for the other side — and I fear they are numerous — let me bring in the views of my much admired and musically learned friend Ko Thant of Mandalay.
Ko Thant is scornful of our Burmese instruments because they lack the precision of the Western ones. But does he stop to consider that, in a sense, their very precision has made a slave of the instrumentalist? Our Burmese players attain extraordinary virtuosity with their crude instruments — making them the slaves — and achieve the most subtle shadings in moving from one note to the next. And because they do not read from a written score, but play entirely from memory, our musicians create the music anew at each playing, with full scope for the expression of personal art.