Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Sweet Music of the Ralbag

I was discussing the m'qomot of the Ralbag with RS this past Shabbat. An interesting connection occurred to me that I believe adds greatly to the understanding of the m'qomot. Sephardim refer to the different modes of chazzanut as maqam. This has its source in the Arabic musical tradition.

Maqam is the Arabic equivalent of the Hebew maqom.

The following description of maqam is given in wikepedia.

Arabic maqām (Arabic: مقام; pl. maqāmāt مقامات or maqams) is the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music, which is mainly melodic. The word maqam in Arabic means place, location or rank. The Arabic maqam is a melody type. Each maqam is built on a scale, and carries a tradition that defines its habitual phrases, important notes, melodic development and modulation. Both compositions and improvisations in traditional Arabic music are based on the maqam system. Maqams can be realized with either vocal or instrumental music, and do not include a rhythmic component.

This article includes a list - according to Al-Farabi - of the different kinds of maqam.

"So what?", you may ask. I believe the following story about Al-Farabi (you might remember him being compared to fine flour by the Rambam (thanks to Matt for a translation of the letter in which he says this on his blog)) will reveal the usefulness of this connection.

Al-Farabi happens to be one of the greatest figures, not only in Arabic philosophy, but in the science of music.

There are many versions of this story floating around but this is the earliest written record I could find (January 1, 1318, to be exact) of the famous story about Al-Farabi (Nizam ad-din Awliya: morals for the heart : conversations of Shaykh Nizam ad-din Awliya recorded by Amir Hasan Sijzi; by Niẓāmuddīn Auliyā, Bruce B. Lawrence, Ḥasan Dihlavī; Translated by Bruce B. Lawrence; Published by Paulist Press, 1992; p. 272)

He then told a brief story about PHILOSOPHERS. "Farabi was a philosopher, " he noted. "One day he came into the assembly of the Caliph dressed in a short cloak and simple clothes, for he was of Turkish origin. Farabi began to play his cymbal and to sing. Now there were three kinds of music, according to this philosopher. One made people laugh, another made them cry, and a third put them to sleep or rendered them unconscious. In short, when Farabi began to play the cymbal, at first the whole assembly erupted in laughter. The when he began to sing, they all fell to crying, "Ah! Ah!" Then when he kept on singing, they all became unconscious. Writing these words on the wall, he left:

Farabi did indeed appear here, but then he disappeared.

When the members of the assembly regained consciousness and read what he had written, they said to themselves: 'This Farabi was indeed a philosopher; alas we did not recognize him as such!'"

In a future post I will fully elaborate what maqam reveals about maqom.