Azerbaijan International

Winter 1997 (5.4)
Pages 32-33

Hypotheses of Early Azeri Scholars

by Zemfira Safarova

Much of Azerbaijan's long musical history has been passed down orally from one musician to another. Fortunately, some of these ideas about music were written down for posterity by a few Azerbaijani scholars. Their texts tell us that they theorized about the properties of sound, musical forms such as mugam and early instruments. In this way, musical scholars such as Urmavi, Maraghayi and Navvab laid a foundation for generations of musicians to come. Both Urmavi and Maraghayi take their names from cities in which they lived-Urmiya and Maragha-which today are located in the Azerbaijani part of Iran. Navvab lived in Shusha, a city in the Karabakh region of the Azerbaijan Republic, which has been military occupied by Armenians since 1992.

Safiyyaddin Abdulmomin ibn Yusif al Urmavi (13th century) was the author of two fundamental works in Arabic, "Kitab al-Advar" and "Sharafiyya," which were crucial to the theoretical and practical development of Azerbaijani music. These books deal with sound and its quality, intervals, reasons for dissonance, mugams and techniques for playing instruments with two strings.

Urmavi defined a tone as a sound continuing during a certain period of time at a certain high or low pitch to which a person feels naturally inclined. The pitch of a sound can only be understood if you compare it with another sound. Urmavi also wrote about how different pitches are created, based on the length of its strings or the space available for air inside a wind instrument.

Urmavi disagreed with earlier scholars who said that a musical sound is, by nature, pleasant to the ear. He countered, "It is not necessary for a musical sound to be pleasant to the ear. Sometimes we don't like a sound. But still it can be a musical tone. Suppose we hear two sounds. If we can differentiate between these two sounds according to pitch (e.g., one is half a tone or two tones higher than the other) or identify them as equal, then we can talk about musical tone." Urmavi pointed out that musicians needed to be careful with dissonant intervals, such as the augmented fourth: "C - F Sharp."

Urmavi organized the Eastern sound system into a scale of 17 keys. This was different from the 12-key chromatic scale founded by Al-Kindi and the 22-key scale created by Al-Farabi. Azerbaijani melodies were recorded in Urmavi's writings using the "ABJD" Arabic alphabetic notational system. "ABJD" (pronounced "abjad" which rhymes with "pad") are the first sequential letters of the Arabic script. Urmavi used this sequence of letters to indicate pitch. Duration of the note was indicated below that alphabetic symbol. There were 59 different notes designated. This score system was widely used up until the 16th century.

Urmavi was a composer himself and played the ud, a pear-shaped, stringed instrument. He also invented new music instruments such as "nuzha" and "mugni." The nuzha resembles a tar except that the two globes are connected and not separated like the tar's. The mugni is a percussion instrument made of wood which has 81 strings on a trapezoid-shaped base.

Abdulgadir Maraghayi (14-15th century) picked up where Urmavi left off. This composer, researcher, poet, singer and performer wrote an interpretation of Urmavi's "Kitab al-Advar" called "Sharhul al-Advar." Other works by Maraghayi included "Kanzul al-Alhan" (Treasury of Melodies), "Jame al-Alhan" (Collection of Melodies) and "Magasid al-Alhan" (Purpose of Melodies).

One of the questions that Maraghayi touched upon was the choice of repertoire by performers. He suggested that performers should choose songs that suit the spirit or nature of the audience. Suggested topics were love and separation, joy and grief, spring and Noruz (the holiday of Spring Solstice, March 20-21, which ushers in the New Year).

Maraghayi's unique contribution was his discovery of 24 "shobes" and their characteristics. A "shobe" is a section within a mugam piece. He also invented new musical instruments and rhythmic patterns. They were adjusted to fit the various poetic rhythms of Eastern poetry. Maraghayi was one of the first theorists to describe the unique characteristics of Near Eastern musical forms and genres.

One of the musical instruments he invented was the "Chini sazi kasat." This was a set of 76 bowls of many different sizes filled with different levels of water. The bowls were arranged in gradations from large to small, the larger bowls producing lower pitches. Another instrument was the "Sazi elvah," which consisted of 46 copper slats and which was played much like a xylophone.

On the night before the beginning of Ramadan, January 11, 1377, Maraghayi attended a conference in Tabriz in Sultan Hussein's palace. The topic was the most complicated form found in Eastern music, "Novbati Murattab." The scholars there stated that composing a piece in this particular form required great skill and talent. Maraghayi boasted that he could write one such piece each day during the month of Ramadan. Sultan Hussein challenged him. The words, rhythmic patterns and mugams were given to him only one day in advance. The prize was 100,000 dinars. On the 30th day, they had to admit that Maraghayi was the successful winner.

Mir Mohsun Navvab (1833-1918) lived in Shusha, a city in Karabakh, an area known as the cradle of music and poetry of Azerbaijan. Shusha has been called "The Conservatory of the Caucasus" because so many musicians have come from there. Unfortunately, because of the military occupation of Karabakh by Armenians, Azerbaijanis had to flee in 1992 and still have not been able to return to their city.

Navvab established a library as well as a printing house in Shusha where the works of well-known Azerbaijani poets were printed. But more importantly, he organized a music school, which offered basic music education. Topics included the aesthetics of music, performance and choice of poetry for mugam settings. Students such as Mashadi Jamil Amirov, the father of the famous composer, Fikrat Amirov, studied music theory there.

In 1884, Navvab wrote "Vuzuhul-argam" (The Interpretation of Numbers in Music). This was the only work about music written in the Azerbaijani language (Arabic script). Navvab deals with topics such as: the origin of music, problems of aesthetics, the acoustics of sound and the interpretation of numbers in mugams.

Navvab based his theories about numbers on those of earlier Greek and Arabic scholars, stating that the 4 "souts" (main tones) corresponded to 4 elements (water, air, fire, earth). The 7 "perdes" (keys) referred to 7 celestial bodies. The interval between the 4 main tones was in 3 tones. Multiplying 4 by 3, we get 12, which corresponds to 12 mugams.

In his book, Navvab touches on the relationship between music and medicine, anticipating the modern profession of musical therapy. He wrote "All diseases are based on either cold or fever. If a disease is caused by cold, then joyous and merry music will help cure it since merriment brings warmth to the body. However, if the illness is based on fever, sad and quiet music would be appropriate, since sadness and pessimism cools the body."

Navvab also used his book as a platform for ideas about the proper positioning of an audience during a performance. "It is important that there be distance between the performers and the audience. The air between the audience and the performers will catch all unnecessary elements of music and pass on the very essence, the most wonderful part of it to the audience."

Acoustics fulfill a spiritual purpose, according to Navvab "It is also important that the performer should sit lower and the audience higher, since music is spiritual and its center is high in the heavens."

Likewise, Navvab was aware of the importance of the appearance of the performer. He wrote: "It is important that the performer be good looking. Otherwise, the audience will not enjoy the performance. If the performer is not good looking, he should cover his face with a veil."

Urmavi, Maraghayi and Navvab were not the only Azerbaijani musical scholars, but they are the ones most often named as the three masters of this discipline. Any student who wants to understand some of the early history of Azerbaijani music must become familiar with the ideas and works mentioned above. By attempting to approach music scientifically, these scholars began to articulate and define some of the fundamentals upon which Azerbaijani music is based today.

Zemfira Safarova wrote her Ph.D. thesis on "Azerbaijan's Music Science from the 13th-19th Century." She has published the following books on the subject- Safiyyaddin Urmavi (1995) and Abdulgadir Maraghayi (1997). She is currently preparing the reprinting of "Vuzuhul Argam" by Mir Mohsun Navvab.

From Azerbaijan International (5.4) Winter 1997
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All Rights Reserved.

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