From the Chrysanthemum Pavilion

A biwa (lute). Part of an illustrated guide to playing the biwa, dating from around 1566. MS.Picken.157.
Copyright Cambridge University Library

Some of the most interesting and unusual items in the music collections are those that have been donated. These come from many sources, and cover all types of music. Some of the rarest material is in the Laurence Picken collection. Picken was a polymath, as one of his former pupils, Roger Scruton, recalled “[he was] a bachelor don of the old school, an established scholar in the fields of biochemistry, cytology, musicology, Chinese, Slavonic studies and ethnomusicology, world expert on Turkish musical instruments, Bach cantatas, ancient Chinese science and reproduction of cells.”

Picken became interested in Chinese music when he joined Joseph Needham’s scientific mission to China in 1944. During this mission he learned to play the 7-stringed zither, the qin, and was to become the first European member of the Chungking qin society. As the political situation in China deteriorated, Picken’s attentions turned more towards the west and to Turkish music, but following his departure from the post of Assistant Director of Research (Zoology) at Cambridge University in 1966 to his new post of Assistant Director of Research (Oriental Music), also at Cambridge, he became increasingly interested in the music of the Far East. Keen to study music dating from the Chinese Tang dynasty, Picken believed, somewhat controversially, that by studying the Togaku music of Japan he would be able to gain an insight into the music of the Tang period.

An illustration of flute fingerings from MS.Picken.157.
Copyright Cambridge University Library

In 1969 he received an important letter from the Harvard scholar, Elling Eide. Eide was in Kyoto, where he had made contact with a musician of the Imperial court. He wrote excitedly to Picken that he had acquired some manuscripts, and then continued:

“Here in Kyoto at the Shibunkaku they have a box … full of gagaku material …. the condition is poor with much chewing, but there is a terrific lot of material and it is 95 per cent legible.

Some water damage is apparent on this scroll. MS.Picken.178
Copyright Cambridge University Library

Unfortunately, it is too expensive for me to consider buying, but I thought you might be able to work out something. All together there are nine scrolls and fifty-four volumes. In general these materials also look to be about 100 or 200 years old, but sorting through hurriedly I did see a few earlier dates: 1566, 1670, and 1792….”

These volumes are the Kikutei scrolls and manuscripts that Picken acquired and which now form such an important part of his collection. They include instructional materials and other music for the Japanese lute (biwa) and flute, and the dako, a kind of drum. In spite of  Eide’s comments on their condition, they are generally of good quality, and were clearly made to a high standard. Many are on wafer-thin paper with traditional indigo bindings and ivory fastenings, while the scrolls are on a thicker paper and are enclosed in paulownia wood boxes.

The Kikutei manuscripts
Copyright Cambridge University Library

The Kikutei family were of a noble house in Kyoto, whose trade was music. Their family name was Imadegawa, but as they also grew chrysanthemums (kiku in Japanese) they became known as the Kikutei. Their library is now split between three libraries: Senshu University Library (Tokyo), Kyoto University Library, and Cambridge University Library. Rare and beautiful the Kikutei scrolls are a little known, but much loved part of the music collections. For more information on their background see Noboru Koyama’s introduction.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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