The music sheet of Thien Thai, reprinted in 1955 by Tinh Hoa Publishing House with Van Cao’s autograph
In 1986, in a letter to artists in Hue, he wrote: “Hue was my inspiration in the 1940s. My poetry and music started from there. Perhaps the history and scenery of the ancient capital inspired me. For that place, one has to think a lot not only about history, but also about a culture. Hue people live with pride and creativity. Perhaps their creativity helped me compose music and poetry.”
In 1940 Van Cao came to Hue and sailed on the Perfume River in an autumn night. (“The moon is slowly setting; the breeze is soft".) The atmosphere on the river that night haunted the poet-musician deeply. Right on that boat trip on the Perfume River that year, his first poem was born: A Cold Music Night on the River of Hue.
This is one of the excellent poems about the Perfume River and Ca Hue (Hue singing.) In the dense misty atmosphere, echoes from his soulmate appeared: "As Tu Ky listens to Ba Nha’s music / You are listening to me playing the autumn of the old days.”
In such a space, the passionate artist from the North fell in love with the love song by a Hue girl: “Giong hat sau chi phan nu oi/ Tung canh troi diem mot sao roi/ Ta trang lan hiu gio/ Anh lua chai xa thap thoang troi…” (“Why is your voice so sad, girl/ counting the falling stars/ The moon is slowly setting; the breeze is soft/ Light from the fishing boat is drifting...” The poem ends with the two most beautiful and romantic lines about Hue: “Mot dem dan lanh tren song Hue/ Oi nho nhung hoai vat ao xanh.” (“Playing the instrument in a cold night on the river of Hue/ How I miss the blue ao dai forever.”)
With the magic feelings from that night on the Perfume River, the artist went to Saigon and composed the song On the Perfume River. One day in 1941, while sailing on the river of Phi Liet in Hai Phong listening to Ca Tru (type of traditional singing in the north) echoing on the lonely river, his feelings on the Perfume River suddenly arose and the song Thien Thai was born. (The song was signed by Van Cao and Hoang Thoai. According to Pham Duy, Hoang Thoai is the pen name of Do Huu Ich, Van Cao’s friend.)
According to the musician Truong Quang Luc, Thien Thai was originally the song On the Perfume River composed by Van Cao in Saigon and was performed there, but it was not a success. In 1941, when he returned to Hai Phong, he revised both the music and the lyrics and renamed it Thien Thai.
Thien Thai is both a song and a picture painted with soaring melodies, the pure essence of poetry and the color of mythology. It is the Perfume River in his heart that created a virgin and pure space for Luu Nguyen and Van Cao to immerse themselves in and sublimate.
Thien Thai was published by Tinh Hoa Publishing House in 1944. It was then reprinted in 1955 with Van Cao’s autograph. Van Cao identified himself as a man of Ngu River. “Thien Thai is like Van Cao's dreamland. We cannot enter that forbidden garden. That is the private realm of Van Cao, the man of Ngu River,” said Pham Duy.
Later masterpieces by Van Cao such as Suoi Mo and Truong Chi composed between 1941-1943 were all inspired by the mossy fairy-tale citadel in Hue, the drifting Perfume River, and the charming figure of a Hue shy girl in her ao dai.
In 1987 the man of Ngu River had the opportunity to return to Hue. The musician was invited by Hue poets to get on the boat to recollect the old echoes of "A Cold Night on the River of Hue.” It was a rainy autumn day. The autumn rain in Hue is nostalgic. It makes people think about their memories of old days. In that context, Van Cao wrote the poem Ancient Hue:
“Coming back to ancient Hue
Streets in lengthened rain
Coming back to old streets
Streets and people
Drops of parting
Drops of love
People arrive with the rain
Sounds of pouring rain
Coming back to ancient Hue
Looking at old streets
Huong River covered with rain”
Before, he had been haunted by a girl singing in an autumn night on the Perfume River. This time when coming back, he was haunted by drops of rain with his memories while his heart was free. The melody of the poem was no longer as high as the song Thien Thai, nor as calm as Suoi Mo. The rhythm is now as slow as the footsteps of a traveler in harmony with the sad rain, but his heart is drifting back to the past.
With each raindrop of nostalgia, each raindrop of remembrance, are the imperial city experiences, the manifestations of sad separation, the helplessness of regrets that are following the pouring rain...
Leaving the imperial city, the man of Ngu River was invited to taste the speciality wine of Chuon Village. The wine made Van Cao drunk, giving him exciting moments.
He also had the opportunity to drink with fishermen on the lagoon until very drunk to write the poem “Night on Tam Giang Lagoon" with “windy” verses.
“I’m sleeping on the net
Lots of wind coming in
Dreaming a strange dream”
The following lines are very “Van Cao”:
“I grasp the net
The net is the last thing
That throws me into the sea”
Van Cao is a musician and poet of Ngu River, but his works about Hue are invaluable.
Story and photo: HA NGUYEN