When the Nguyễn lords emerged victorious from the conflicts at the end of the 18th century and established a new dynasty, the new national capital of Huế became the most popular venue for creating and performing Vietnamese music. Classic court music, in tandem with tuồng theater, reached the peak of its development during the long reign of Tự Đức (1848 – 1883). After his death and the French takeover, the court’s music naturally fell into decline. And with the abolition of the monarchy in 1945, performances ceased indefinitely.
However, although the monarchy was laid to bed, musicians, singers, and dancers kept the memory of court music alive and well after 1945. During this time, the governing body in Saigon sponsored two Huế ensembles to play at government reception parties and international art festivals. Unfortunately, after 1975, Huế court music suffered yet another period of neglect until the mid-90’s, when the government in Hanoi sponsored its revival. Two new ensembles came into existence: the Huế Traditional Art Company and the Huế Royal Theater. The revival’s success is owed largely to tourist interest, as foreigners regularly attend performances at the theater in Huế’s citadel. The revival’s success in the 90’s didn’t go unnoticed by the international music scene as, on 9 November of 2009, UNESCO listed Huế court music as one of 28 traditions to be declared the world’s most intangible cultural heritages.
The UNESCO citation called the music “elegant and refined,” and noted that the music is played on both religious and secular occasions. The uniqueness of Hue court music has enabled it to expand on a range of styles and melodies. The Huế music tradition specifically includes a type of chamber music (đờn ca Huế) where the musicians improvise within a set musical framework, playing their own instruments according to the progress of the tune. Huế music absorbed the traditional sounds of court music in Thăng Long, but developed differently due to the influence of Chăm music and the instruments and tunes of the highland minorities in the south.