Ibn Sana´ al-Mulk´s Mysterious `Organ´ and the Well-Composed Muwashshah: Two Musical Problems in Dar al-Tiraz


by Dwight Reynolds, Univ. California


Of the passages in Dar al-Tiraz that refer to the performance of muwashshahat, the most baffling to modern scholars have been the two mentions of the urghun (usually translated `organ´) and the passage that refers to the difficulty of composing an appropriate musical setting for a muwashshah.


Seven different possible interpretations for the term urghun are surveyed by Lopez-Morillas (La Crónica Fall 1985: 40-54): pipe organ, portable lap organ, organistrum (“hurdy-gurdy”), a wind instrument, any string instrument, any instrument, and as a general metaphor for setting words to music. The author analyses the weaknesses of each and ultimately opts for the final metaphoric sense. In this paper I would like to present what I believe to be a far more convincing interpretation based on several different medieval texts and medieval musical iconography.


The second issue involves no philological problems, instead it is the practice to which it refers that has remained a mystery.  Ibn Sana´ al-Mulk states that in composing muwashshahat where the bayt and qufl are of noticeably different lengths, a newcomer would compose something impossible to perform because the instrumentalists would have to “change tones/retune” between the sections. But which instruments would need to retune in the middle of a performance and why, given that no modern Middle Eastern instruments do so? Here the proposed solution lies in combining an analysis of modern North African modulatory practices with our knowledge of medieval instruments.



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