‘Như cá với nước – Like fish and water’: An ethnographic study of instrumental music, timbre and sentiment in Vietnamese tuồng opera

Esbjorn Wettermark

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Tuồng opera is one of several traditional music theatre genres Vietnam. It is considered a ‘classical’ genre with close historical connections to the 19th century Nguyễn imperial court. It shares many visual characteristics to Chinese opera genres, especially Beijing opera, but it instrumental music is closely related to Vietnamese ceremonial music. In traditional Vietnamese music and theatre much attention is given to the notion of musical sentiment expressed through mode and instrumental timbre. In tuồng opera, this is articulated through the genre’s elaborate system of performance conventions where artists describe the relationship between music and drama as ‘fish and water’. This thesis highlights the importance of the instrumental music ensemble in tuồng and explores the close connections between music and dramatic expression. Through indepth ethnographic descriptions and music analysis the thesis widens the discussion on the role of music in traditional theatre by considering the social life of instruments and timbres both on and off the stage. Throughout, the thesis introduces the opera ensemble, its musicians, and the development of the contemporary tuồng milieu, both through ethnography and discussions on Vietnamese language sources. The main part of the thesis consists of an analysis and discussion of repertoire and music theory, and investigates the
importance of instrumental timbre to create an affective environment for tuồng
performance. The shawm (kèn), which is considered essential to create the core sentiment of ‘bi hùng’, or ‘the tragic-heroic’, is given particular consideration.
The structure of the thesis follows a trajectory moving from a general introduction
to tuồng, Vietnamese music, and methodology (introduction), through a discussion of the basic sound world and main instruments of tuồng (chapter 1), an overview of the present activities and history of states supported tuồng troupes (chapter 2), towards an in-depth discussion on the music system and modal sentiment sustained by the tuồng orchestra (chapter 3-5), an overview on previous ethnomusicological research in relation to music and sentiment (chapter 6), and finally, a look at how tuồng music has developed in more recent productions and in the context of music festivals (chapter 7).
Through its focus on the instrumental ensemble, timbre and sentiment, the thesis
provides new perspectives on the study of Asian music theatre in general and Vietnamese music and theatre in particular.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Ramnarine, Tina K., Supervisor
Award date1 May 2017
Publication statusUnpublished - 2017


  • Vietnam
  • Music
  • Traditional Opera
  • Musical Instrument
  • Mode

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