“Any deep and strong indescribable pleasure is felt by a conductor as he leads a good orchestra.” This is how Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky began part 19 of his dairies. It included a critical reading of how the Russians and the world received his musical work and opera. He also criticized Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No.1 which critics described as an extension of Beethoven and which was dubbed Beethoven’s tenth. Tchaikovsky voiced his anger and complained: “They are highly praising Brahms in Germany and I see nothing attractive about him.” Tchaikovsky said Brahms’ music is full of pretension because it’s deep when it’s not. He then commended the progress of French musicians during his era and held Richard Wagner responsible for the deterioration of German music. Tchaikovsky then addressed music’s relation with politics, arts, philosophy and ideas.
Tchaikovsky recorded the history of opera and symphonies according to the development of nature and the indulgence of music in conversing with the land, water, illusions and dreams. He recorded this at the peak of his fame and managed to pave way for criticizing musical works since the Baroque era in the 16th century and up until the Romantic era and the struggles of the opera with all its arts and magic.
This shows the tragic difference when compared with how Arabs address the history of music. Most of the time, they address this history by separating it from political and religious influences. The history of music is thus recorded via individuals and their relations. This is what George al-Khoury did in his book about Mohammed Abdulwahab and what Adnan Khouj did in his thesis about Talal Maddah and what Hazam Saghiyeh did in his book about Um Kulthoum. What’s really important is to study the development of music by addressing its activity within political and social relations. Ali al-Shouk mastered this in his study The Secrets of Music and Salim Sahhab also mastered this in a study entitled The School of Egyptian Music and Singing during the 19th Century. Sahhab documented the history of music by starting with the beginner Al-Sha'biya school and the role of Ahmad al-Qabbani (1786-1962) in establishing it and developing it from illiteracy. He also touches on the sheikh who learnt in Al-Azhar, Mohammed Abdelraheem al-Masloub, who is a founder and a pioneer in Egyptian music.
Sahhab talks about the role of another sheikh, Mohammed al-Shlshlamoni, in the development of Egyptian music. He’s the one who discovered Salama Hijazi, the genius of the Arab music theatre, and Youssef al-Menylawi.
The point is that history is important to music, within the latter’s religious, economic, scientific and political manifestations. Music is a world that is involved in all fields, even the fields of physics. Physicists have benefitted from musical terms like the case is in the Superstring Theory. Albert Einstein believed that music helped solve what physicists could not find a solution for in their studies and research.
Shaher Obeid discussed and summed up Peter Crossley’s research, which is about the history of Arabic music. Crossley addressed the role of music and its relation with religious rituals in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago. The examples he provides are about religious chanting of the Sumerians. Music developed during the era of Babylon and Ashur. The people then linked between the rhythm of music and the universe’s harmony. He also documented the history of music in Hejaz during the first eras of Islam and documented the history of music throughout all phases up until the Umayyad era when the Islamic empire established for interest in music. He also talked about music during the Abbasid and Andalusian eras when music greatly developed and was a matter of huge interest. Crossley monitored the entire phases of creating the Oud.
Each musical instrument is linked to a history of struggle, blending and interlacement. Ali al-Shawk quotes Curt Sachs as saying during a lecture about the history of the piano: “All our musical instruments came from the East and were then transferred to Europe via different routes. The only instrument which Europe bragged that it innovated was the piano but it’s been proven that this instrument’s source is Andalusia.”
In his book The Rational and Social Foundations of Music, Max Weber documented the history of the piano and said it was invented by monks in the beginning of the Middle Ages and wrote: “The unshakable modern position of the piano rests upon the universality of its usefulness for domestic appropriation of almost all treasures of music literature, upon the immeasurable fullness of its own literature, and finally on its quality as a universal accompanying and schooling instrument.”
The history of music has been linked to the transformations of the big nations and to individual changes in philosophical fields. Shawk notes that “Nietzsche who seemed impressed by Richard Wagner’s opera ended despising him and became more attached to the Dionysian emotional aspect of music’s ideological Apollonian angle. Towards the end of his life, he favored the opera Carmen for Georges Bizet over all of Wagner’s operas.”
This is the movement of music. The position of music in society is bigger than a hall in which people gather. It’s part of the ideological, sentimental, emotional and mental development of humans since ancient times. Perhaps those who are now speaking out about reconciliation with music are reading the ancient history that reveals the deep roots of music on human heritage.
In his early years, Poet Abdulrahman Badawi once wrote letters to a mysterious woman he was in love with. In one of the letters he wrote her while in Paris, he said: “There is salvation in art – even from the anxiety of big cities.”
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.
Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Alarabiya.net, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.