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Making The Great Book of Songs pdf download

Book Title Making The Great Book Of Songs
Book AuthorHilary Kilpatrick
Total Pages449
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Making The Great Book of Songs – Compilation and the author’s craft in Abu l-Faraj al-Isbahani’s Kitab al-aghani by Hilary Kilpatrick


Book preface

Around 1990 Syrian State Television screened a series entitled “Al-mughannun” (The Singers). The scripts were based on the accounts of Umayyad and ‘Abbasid singers in Abu l-Faraj al-Isbahani’s Kitab al-aghani (Book of Songs), a fourth/tenth-century monument of Arabic literature.

The scriptwriters did not have to decipher manuscripts or ferret in archives; the Kitab al-aghani is available today in at least five different printed editions, not to speak of nine or more abridgments.

It has not suddenly come into vogue in this century, as the manuscript tradition and the frequent abridgments in the pre-modern period show.

From the time of its composition until now, the Aghani has been both popular and generally recognized as one of the masterpieces of Arabic literature.

The paucity of studies of the Aghani as a literary work (rather than as a source for social history, musical life, poetic criticism, diglossia, and a number of other topics) is all the more surprising. I believe there are three main reasons for this.

First, it is a large book, running to some two dozen volumes in modern editions. Its size is off-putting. Second, it disconcerts the modern reader in a number of ways. It mixes prose and poetry.

 It includes a great variety of genres, such as bald statements of information, anecdotes of all kinds, jokes, heroic tales, excerpts from histories, and controversies on poetic and musical matters.

(This mixture of genres is a characteristic of medieval Arabic compilations of belles-lettres.) And with all this, it consistently employs the scholarly techniques of the time.

Third, the Aghani’s reason d’être, the songs, have fallen silent; the absence of a notation in the period when the book was written and subsequent changes in Arabic music mean that the melodies cannot be reconstructed.

Serious research into older Arabic literature cannot merely ignore books as important as the Aghani. It presents a challenge that scholars have to take up.

And a better understanding of this book is bound to increase insight into the corpus of adab (belles-lettres) texts, one of the main branches of medieval Arabic literature.

The present study is intended as a contribution to research on the Aghani and more generally on medieval Arabic belles-lettres.

The study begins with a survey of the research carried out up till now on the Aghani in the Arab world, Europe and North America, as far as it has been accessible to me.

There follows a concise presentation of Abu l-Faraj’s life, times, and works, focussed on aspects relevant for the understanding of the Aghani.

From the study of the other extant works, it becomes clear that the Aghani’s title has to be taken seriously; Abu l-Faraj was not given to choosing fancy names for his books, and the designations he gives correspond to the contents.

Like it or not, the modern researcher is dealing with a Book of Songs Fallen Silent, but a Book of Songs all the same.

One way to approach a book far removed from modern aesthetic expectations is to examine what the author himself says about it.

The student of the Aghani is well provided for in this respect; there are hundreds of observations by Abu l-Faraj, covering all kinds of topics, scattered through the book.

In the first of the two main parts of this study I have collected his asides and discussed them under the headings of remarks bearing on songs and singers, remarks about poetry and poets, and remarks about prose and the selection and arrangement of material. (I have worked his rare allusions to his own times and contemporaries into the section on his life.)

The discussion of the asides throws much light on questions such as how the compiler worked, what attitude he had to his material, and to what extent he conceived of the book as a whole.

Any book as large as the Aghani will be organized on various levels. Between the Book of Songs as a whole and the individual akhbar (reports or anecdotes), there are two intermediate levels.

There is a division into three parts according to which songs are used to introduce the material – song collections, songs by royal musicians, or Abu l-Faraj’s own choice.

But much more prominent is the organization of material into sections, or “articles”, as I shall term them, devoted usually to a poet or a singer, but sometimes to a historical event, a relationship between two people, or a song and its history.

It is possible to read the Aghani simply as an enormous collection of discrete anecdotes and quotations of poetry. But Abu l-Faraj’s consistent division of the material into articles shows that he attached great importance to this intermediate level of organization.

The second major aim of this study is to examine the ways in which articles are organized, taking account of the kind of material available (and the quantity of it, as far as can be judged), and the main topics treated.

First, the articles with a narrow thematic focus, those on songs, relationships, and events, are discussed.

The insights thus gained into Abu l-Faraj’s approach to compilation are drawn on in the subsequent investigation of the much larger and more diverse category of articles on poets and singers.

A further chapter focuses on elements frequently encountered throughout the book.

They include songs and poems which are often quoted, major figures of Arabic culture and early Islamic history who reappear as principal or secondary characters, recurrent motifs, issues such as the permissibility of listening to music, and themes, for instance, the inevitability of death and the immortality of poetry and music.

These elements, drawn from a common fund of material about pre-and early Islamic culture, create connections between the different articles and contribute a certain unity to the book.

In the final chapter, the framework of songs and the ordering of the articles are examined. First, the three main parts of the book are indicated, based on the song collections, the list of royal musicians, and the compiler’s own choice of songs.

Then smaller groups of articles, devoted, for instance, to different members of a family or a literary circle, are distinguished, as is the phenomenon of articles close to each other both treating the same subject or linked through some other unusual feature.

And lastly, some reasons are advanced for the fact that what starts as a book of songs should turn out to cover so many different aspects of early Arabic culture. The epilogue points to areas for further research.

When I embarked on this research, it was not only with a sense of duty and of responding to a challenge but also with the knowledge that the Aghani is a fantastic read.

It is said that when Pope Paul VI asked Louis Armstrong and his wife, who was attending a Vatican reception if they had any children, the musician replied, “No, but we had a lot of fun trying.” I do not know how this study will be judged, but I have certainly had a lot of fun doing the research for it.

And I hope at least to have suggested to the reader some ways of approaching medieval Arabic compilations and to have conveyed a little of the riches and the fascination of this treasure of Arabic and world literature.

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