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Musicological Writings from the Modern Arab “Renaissance” in Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth-Century Syria and Egypt


Historians designate the early decades of the nineteenth century as the beginning of the modern era in the Middle East, initiated by Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt and the subsequent European colonial presence that extended into the twentieth century. This was a period of intense self-reflection, especially in Egypt, as Egyptians responded to their experience with colonialism, Westernized modernization, and new forms of national identity. In this environment, discourse concerning preserving tradition and pursuing innovation brought these contested issues into musical as well as social and political contexts. By the late nineteenth century, Arab authors and journalists were referring to a new Arab “renaissance (al-nahḍa, “rising, awaking, revival, renaissance”).

In this dissertation, I examine four Arabic texts on music of this period, written between 1840 and 1936, by one Syrian and three Egyptian authors who contributed to the emergence of modern Arabic literature on music: Mikhā’īl Mashāqa, al-Risāla al-shihābiyya fī al-sinā‘a al-mūsīqiyya (The Shihābī Treatise on the Musical Art), 1840 (the only one of these texts translated into Western languages); Muḥammad ibn Ismā‘īl ibn ‘Umar Shihāb al-Dīn, Safīnat al-mulk wa-nafīsat al-fulk (The Ship of Royalty and the Boat’s Precious Gem), 1843; Muḥammad Kāmil al-Khula‘ī, Kitāb al-mūsīqī al-sharqī (The Book of Eastern Music), 1904/05; and Qusṭandī Rizq, al-Mūsīqā al-sharqiyya w’al-ghinā’ al-‘arabī (Eastern Music and Arab Song), 1936.

From these texts, we learn of the environments in the Ottoman provinces of Syria and Egypt in which these authors developed their interest in the music of their regions and their contributions to Arabic literature on music in the new Arab “renaissance.” The 1840 treatise by Mashāqa is highly significant for his presentation of his conceptualization of the modern Arab tonal system and its application to his documentation of melodic modes current in Syria in the first half of the nineteenth century. His contemporary in Egypt, Shihāb al-Dīn, is known for his extensive song-text collection and commentary on the poetic origins of many of the songs, with historical and anecdotal commentary on numerous poetic genres he discusses. While demonstrating considerable knowledge of the “science of music” derived from ancient Greek concepts, his lack of understanding of the twenty-four tone octave presented by Mashāqa is indicative of the early stages of its adoption in Egypt.

In their early-twentieth-century publications, Egyptians al-Khula‘ī and Rizq analyze the social and ideological dimensions of Arab music in the modernizing Arab world, demonstrating the need for integrating both old and new musical features, characteristic of Arab music throughout its history. Al-Khula‘ī stresses the need for understanding and preserving the heritage of traditional Arabic poetry as expressed in song, while explaining his interest in adopting Western models for Arab music, such as notation and recording devices, as a means for preserving the Arabs’ musical heritage. Rizq warns of the destructive dangers of “innovation” and “modernization” upon Arab music, while also defining acceptable adaptions of Western-style modernity for creating a modern Egyptian nation.

From their individual perspectives, these four authors demonstrate their common

concern with promoting the value of traditional Arab music as an essential element defining Arab identity, with the latter two stressing the need for preserving their musicsl heritage in a changing world by adapting it to inevitable processes of “innovation” and “progress” while retaining the traditional musical and poetic aesthetics.

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