A Short History of the String Ensemble in Thai Classical Music
No one knows for sure just how long the instruments of the String Ensemble have been in use in Thailand. It is most likely that the saw duang is based on the Chinese two-stringed fiddle known as the huqin and that the Siamese saw u is modelled after the Chinese huhu (er-hu). These Chinese fiddles first appear in the court of the Ming dynasty at about the time the Chinese Emperor was making official contacts with the court of Ayudhya in the late Fourteenth Century. Historical chronicles of the Ming Dynasty such as the Ming Shilu mention, among other things, a six-legged turtle presented to the Chinese court in 1370 by a Thai envoy from the court of Ayudhya.
The story of the Thai zither called the jakay is quite different. It can be traced to the Mon people who are located in Burma and with whom the Thais had early contact. It was, along with the saw duang and the saw u, a favourite instrument among the common people. So much so that the first actual document we have referring to the instruments of the string ensemble is a royal edict in the reign of King Trailok (1431-1488) forbidding the playing of these instruments in the vicinity of the royal palace. Evidently the instruments had become so popular that there was a noise pollution problem. Noteworthy too is the fact that the court felt it had jurisdiction over aural space.
The instrumentation of the String Ensemble was not standardized until quite late since these instruments were part of the folk tradition outside the formal strictures of the court orchestras. Often men played these fiddles as opposed to women who played exclusively in the royal Mahori Ensembles. (Mahori Ensembles, unlike the String Ensemble, combined melodic percussion instruments with the strings and the stringed instruments used were of a different kind from the Chinese related fiddle of the String Ensemble.)
All of this changed with a royal decree by King Rama the Fourth (1854-1864) allowing women to perform outside the palace for the first time. This meant that as the court orchestras were depleted since so many women began performing in public that men were allowed to substitute for the female musicians. And they brought with them their preferred saw duangs and saw u’s. Thus these fiddles were eventually introduced into the Mahori Ensemble and the String Ensemble gradually evolved from a folk activity into a standard orchestra of the classical instrumentarium.
1. Rako Overture for String Ensemble with Javanese oboe
The form of this overture can be divided into three major sections. First, there is the melody known as Rako which was composed by Montri Tramoj in 1931. It is actually an extended variation on the old tune Rako which dates back to the Ayudhya Period. The second section features a solo on the Javanese oboe which consists of two melodies: Sarama and Plaeng. At the conclusion of this virtuoso solo the ensemble performs the third and final section by playing in various melodic and rhythmic modes which are actually parodies of the musical styles of some of Thailand’s neighbours such as India, Laos, and Cambodia. The coda is marked by a return to Plaeng played on the solo Javanese oboe.
The Javanese oboe which is featured here was introduced into Thailand along with the Glawng Kaek in the Ayudhya Period. The instrument may have its origins in Persia and migrated to India and from India to Java in the Fifteenth Century with the influx of Islam. Curiously enough, Mr. Tiep Khonglaitong, the legendary master of the Thai oboe, for whom Mr. Tramoj composed this overture and who is also the father of Mr. Peep Khonglaitong who performs the work here, made the strange discovery on a trip to Java that the Javanese refer to this oboe as the Thai oboe.
The standard Ton / Ramana drum pair is replaced by the larger Glawng Kaek or Indian Drums. They are usually associated with the Javanese oboe and are used to accompany Thai boxing matches and various types of theatre performances such as the famous Javanese epic, Inao.