Finely illustrated scroll on paper in brush and color, 270 x 8670 mm., silk brocade endpapers.
Finely illustrated scroll on paper in brush and color, 270 x 8670 mm., silk brocade endpapers.

Biwa Lessons

Finely illustrated scroll on paper in brush and color, 270 x 8670 mm., silk brocade endpapers.

[Japan]: at end: “copied in summer of 1805 by Ikai.”

Our beautifully illustrated scroll depicts the preparations and actual instruction session for the emperor or prince on the biwa, a plucked lute brought to Japan from China in the late 7th century. Pear-shaped and generally with four or five strings, the biwa immediately became one of the most important musical instruments of gagaku, the traditional court music of Japan.

The beginning of this scroll depicts the procession of a member of the royal family (quite possibly the emperor himself or a prince) and his entourage on his way for instruction on the biwa with a music teacher. Various members of different ranks wearing very formal attire are part of this procession. Sixteen members precede the royal member who is being carried in his curtained tagoshi (a litter), carried by nine men, and followed by more members of the royal member’s staff.

The next scene depicts more of the procession but here we see the actual biwa being carried by four men. There is a caption above the biwa, which is concealed by a drape, explaining this is a royal and precious instrument (gyobutsu or gomotsu, “the emperor’s collection”). There are another ten men, including four archers, following the biwa. Then we see another, less elaborate, tagoshi, carried by six men and followed by nine men.

Then there is manuscript text in a fine hand, describing what will next take place. We see the biwa, wrapped in fine fabric, being take out of its travelling case. This is followed by text, again in a fine formal hand, stating that the royal member and the biwa teacher both arrived with an account of the forthcoming activities (breakfast, order of entering and seating for the lesson, who handles the actual biwa as it makes it entrance into the practice room, and tuning the biwa and plucking it seven times. After all this, the teacher leaves the room and the royal family member enters. This is followed with a description of what will follow: this fine instrument has been part of the royal collection for 1000 years and the royal family member and teacher will now meet.

Now we see the royal member receiving instruction from the teacher. Both are holding biwa and the royal family member is seated on a platform, facing the teacher (but, of course, we do not see his actual face!). This scene is framed on either side by delicate blue clouds.

At the end, there is a poem with explanatory text. There is a list of musicians, their ranks, and their instruments, listing first the emperor or prince (called denka).

The final text states this was copied in the summer of 1805 by Ikai. This was Masakoku (?) Ikai, who was a cabinet member of the Tatsuno fiefdom in Hyogo Prefecture (whose head was Yasutada Wakisaka).

The last emperor to play the biwa with considerable skill was Kokaku (reigned 1779-1817) and we believe this scroll describes his musical activities.

Minor worming, carefully mended. Otherwise in fine and fresh condition.

Price: $6,000.00

Item ID: 5773