Music blog

2 posts from June 2020

29 June 2020

Innovations in music notation in late medieval Syria: British Library manuscript Or. 13019

The Qatar Digital Library (QDL) is a collaboration between the British Library and the Qatar National Library, in which historical records from the former India Office are being catalogued and digitised, along with Arabic manuscripts on scientific topics from the British Library’s collection. Music theory has always been considered a scientific pursuit by Arabic scholars – as it had been by Plato and Pythagoras – on account of the mathematical nature of topics such as intervals, modes, rhythm, transposition, and tonal relationships.

Musical manuscripts digitised for the QDL so far include a copy of a commentary on an influential theoretical treatise, the Book of Cycles (Kitāb al-adwār) by Ṣafī al-Dīn al-Urmawī (d. 1294) (Add MS 7471, ff. 41v-92r), a work on the construction of musical instruments (Or. 9649), a cosmological treatise on music (Add MS 23494), and a recently-catalogued copy of the Kitāb al-inʻām bi-maʻrifat al-anghām (Book of Generosity on the Understanding of Melodies; Or. 13019) by the 16th-century music theorist Shams al-Dīn al-Ṣaydāwī. [Note that although this manuscript has been digitised it is not yet available to view on the Qatar Digital Library.]

The Kitāb al-inʻām is a short text in verse, remarkable for its presentation of an innovative and apparently unique system of music notation. It is also a feast for the eyes: both its text and its many diagrams are copied using a range of brightly-coloured inks which are not merely decorative, but rather an inherent aspect of this notation system. While several other copies of this text are known, the QDL’s high resolution, full-colour digitisation is a first, allowing its fundamental aesthetic and graphic features to be appreciated on an accessible digital platform for the first time.

Opening page of the treatise Or 13019 in Arabic script
Figure 1: Or 13019, f. 1v, opening of the treatise

Little is known about the author, although his name indicates origins in Ṣaydā (Sidon) in today’s Lebanon. His dates are uncertain, but he may have died in Damascus in 1506, which would mean that Or. 13019 – dated to 906 in the Islamic hijrī calendar (equivalent to 1501 CE) – was produced within his lifetime, as well as being the earliest known surviving copy. Ownership marks recorded on folio 1r indicate predominantly Syrian owners over the centuries. It was bought by the British Museum in 1966.

Following an introduction [fig. 1], al-Ṣaydāwī opens the treatise by outlining the four fundamental musical modes (called ‘uṣūl’) used in his time: Rāst, ʻIrāq, Zīrāfkand and Iṣfahān. Modes are constructed of sets of tetrachords which may be present within more than one of them, establishing complex familial relationships between them. From each of these four basic modes, two further ‘branch’ modes (furūʻ) are derived, which maintain a musical relationship with their ‘parents’. In addition to these groups of four and eight, al-Ṣaydāwī also enumerates six secondary modes called awāzāt, each of which is likewise related to two of the twelve fundamental and branch modes already outlined.

Or 13019, f. 9v, depicting the fundamental mode Rāst, and its branch modes Zankulā and `Ushshāq using a stave-like diagram of eight labelled parallel horizontal lines enclosed within a circular frame
Figure 2: Or 13019, f. 9v, depicting the fundamental mode Rāst, and its branch modes Zankulā and `Ushshāq

To present these modes and describe further aspects of their performance, al-Ṣaydāwī uses a stave-like diagram [fig. 2] of eight labelled parallel horizontal lines enclosed within a circular frame, representing the degrees of the scale (buḥūr). The lowest pitch is indicated on the bottom line, and the highest (an octave above) on the second-highest line (the uppermost line in each diagram is a framing device and not indicative of a note).

Or 13019, f. 7r, description of colours used in the stave diagram
Figure 3: Or 13019, f. 7r, description of colours used in the stave diagram

Al-Ṣaydāwī follows established convention in using Persian terms to describe these notes as yekgāh (first position), dūgāh (second position), etc. However, he innovates in additionally colour-coding each line, with the eighth line from the bottom the same colour as the lowest, as the notes represented are an octave apart (the uppermost line in the diagrams is only a frame). The specific colours are described in the introduction to the text [fig. 3].

Al-Ṣaydāwī goes on to outline a system for representing notes above and below the basic octave, independently of this graphic stave. To do this, a table [fig. 4] presents colour-coded Arabic alphanumeric abjad letters indicating microtonal intervals. These notes are paired with a ‘question’ and ‘response’ concept indicating further notes, at fixed intervals of separation totalling an octave, and allowing the total range of notation to be expanded.

Or 13019_f.13v, table of notation beyond the basic octave
Figure 4: Or 13019, f. 13v, table of notation beyond the basic octave

The second unique aspect of al-Ṣaydāwī’s work is a notational system applied to the stave diagram which, in combination with instructions in the text, indicates aspects of the performance of the mode [fig. 5]. The letter mīm (م), standing for ma’khadh (مأخذ, meaning ‘place from which one takes something’) is written on the starting note/line of the mode and in the same colour, on the left of the diagram. The mode’s final note – often also its tonal centre – is indicated with the word rakz (with the sense of ‘setting, fixing’), written on the corresponding line, to the right.

Or 13019, 10v, instructions for playing Zīrāfkand
Figure 5: Or 13019, 10v, instructions for playing Zīrāfkand

The instruction iṣʻad (اصعد, ‘ascend’) in red, denotes a transition to a higher pitch. Conversely, a yellow letter hāʼ (ھ, from the root هبط, ‘descent’) indicates a transition to a lower pitch. These ascents or descents must be performed note-by-note (bi-al-tartīb) if the letter ‘tā’’ (ت, in red) is written next to the note towards which the pitch ascends or descends, whereas the player should jump directly to that pitch if iṣʻad or hāʼ is written with a long ‘tail’. Other abbreviations indicate additional aspects of performance such as prolongation, staccato articulation, and trill-like ornamentation.

This work presents difficulties of interpretation due to the poetic text and some ambiguity in terminology. For example, yekgāh, meaning the first note of the scale, also indicates the particular mode which starts on that note, i.e. rāst, while buḥūr also has variant meanings. Similarly, while the word maqām these days means ‘mode’ in general, in al-Ṣaydāwī’s time it still retained a more literal meaning of ‘placement’. Furthermore, the meaning of some of the notational abbreviations is unclear; some of the diagrams in the extant copies appear unlabelled and unfinished; and Or. 13019 lacks at least one folio (between the present folios 11v and 12r).

Al-Ṣaydāwī’s musical notation remains a fascinating and enigmatic theoretical experiment, unique of its time. While it permitted a wide range of notes to be succinctly conveyed, their relationships to each other expressed, and an unprecedented level of codified performance detail to be indicated, no later texts are known to have developed this system further.

Jenny Norton-Wright

Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Project


Antar, Thérèse B. (translation and commentary), Exploitation de la couleur en musique: Livre de la connaissance des tons et leur explication. Mouhammad Chams al-Din al-Saydawi al-Dimachqi (Beirut: Presse Chemaly and Chemaly, 2001).

Ghrab, Anas, 'Livre de la générosite dans la connaisance des modes: Edition et traduction (Unpublished thesis submitted for the Diplôme d'études approfondies, Université Lumiere-Lyon, 2002).

Shiloah, A. and A. Berthier, 'A propos d’un "petit livre arabe de musique"', in Revue de musicologie, 71.1 (1985), pp. 164-77.


08 June 2020

Lockdown piano 2: a Robert Schumann manuscript online

In these socially distanced times, a concerto for one person alone could be just the thing…

“I think that your idea of a concerto is wonderfully in tune with the times (and one should always move with them), and I entirely approve… In my non-authoritative opinion as publisher, I should think that a short preface might be expedient, in which it would be made clear that this concerto was conceived for piano alone, if this cannot be expressed on the title page in a few words. The object is new, and should be seen as new and pace-setting.”

-- Publisher Tobias Haslinger to Robert Schumann, 13 June 18361

Having mastered the pedagogical piano works of Muzio Clementi featured in our last blog post, you might now be looking for a new pianistic challenge. Among the latest batch of digitised manuscripts to be made available online is the autograph manuscript of Robert Schumann’s Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 14 (Add MS 37056) – first published in 1836 as a Concert sans Orchestre (‘Concerto without orchestra’).

Actually, Schumann seems to have initially intended to give the piece the rather less novel title of ‘Sonata’. That word appears, crossed out, three times throughout the manuscript: once at the beginning (f. 3r), replaced by ‘Concert’, once in the middle of the last movement (f. 21r) and once (almost illegible) on the back of a frustratingly cropped slip of paper (f. 20r).

Handwritten titles, some crossed out, from Add MS 37056
Various titles from Add MS 37056

Bound at the beginning of the volume (f. 1r) is a title slip in Schumann’s hand that describes a ‘concerto for piano alone’ – a subtly different emphasis to the final published title (a concerto for piano alone, or a concerto without orchestra?). It is an interesting sub-genre, with other examples from J. S. Bach’s Italian Concerto and Charles Valentin Alkan’s 1857 Concerto for Solo Piano on one hand, through to 20th-century offerings by Kaikhosru Sorabji and Michael Finnissy on the other. Some of these attempt to evoke the effect of orchestra and soloist on a single instrument, while others give more a sense of a concerto through the grand, virtuosic rhetoric of the piano writing – which is perhaps the approach in this piece. 

But Schumann’s title didn’t stick anyway. Ignaz Moscheles, dedicatee of the first edition, was dismissive of the concerto idea and when the piece was published again in 1853, in a heavily revised second edition, it reverted to being a ‘Grande Sonate’.  (Incidentally, an autograph book that belonged to Moscheles is also in the British Library’s collections – Zweig MS 215 – it includes entries from both Robert and Clara Schumann).


“The composer requests the safekeeping of the manuscript, which also contains other pieces”

Note from Robert Schumann circled on manuscript page
Note from Robert Schumann requesting the safe keeping of the manuscript (Add MS 37056, f. 2r).

The title is just one of several puzzles encapsulated in the manuscript. The ‘other pieces’ referred to by Schumann in his note above are two extra movements that would have been included in the original idea of the piece as a five-movement sonata. Those two movements, along with two variations from the middle movement, and the first page of a different last movement are crossed through in this manuscript, all dropped for the first edition. One of those two completed movements was reinstated in the second edition; the other was not published until 1866, after Schumann’s death.

Original version of the last movement, crossed through
Original version of the last movement, crossed through (Add MS 37056, f. 17v)

Subsequent editors, and indeed performers of the work, have had to tackle the question of what exactly is the definitive form of the piece. Linda Correll Roesner undertook an almost archaeological study of the manuscript in 19752, using paper and ink colour as evidence of the convoluted chronology, not just of the bigger changes such as the withdrawn movements, but also of the smaller-scale (but nonetheless significant) additions, subtractions, changes and alterations of details. Some of these made it into the first edition, others into the second, while others again did not appear in either! Most the corrections are added in different ink, but some are found on other parts of the page, some are in the form of notes to the engraver and some completely revised passages are on pasted-over slips of paper.

Folio 8 pasted onto larger sheet of paper
From the first movement - f. 9, with a pasted on amendment at the bottom (Add MS 37056, f. 8).

You might notice as you browse through the images on Digitised Manuscripts that there sometimes appear to be duplicates, despite being labelled with different folio numbers. This usually happens when extra bits of paper have been pasted onto the main folio, often where a composer is correcting or amending a passage (such as folio 8 in the image above, stuck onto the bottom of the page). Elsewhere in this manuscript the paste-overs have been separated, allowing us to see Schumann’s original intentions underneath (folio 20 for example, which was originally glued to the edge of folio 19v).


“Mr Schönwälder, proceed immediately with this concerto"

Publisher note
Note from Tobias Haslinger to the engraver (Add MS 37056, f. 2r).

Another layer of annotation on the manuscript relates to more prosaic activities. The note above is from publisher Tobias Haslinger to the engraver ‘Mr Schönwälder’ asking him to make a start on work on 17 June 1836. Markings in pencil throughout show Mr Schönwälder at work, including a note of the planned plate number for the edition and intended line and page breaks.


“... I wrote a concerto for you – and if this does not make clear my love for you, this one sole cry of the heart for you in which, incidentally you did not even realise how many guises your theme assumed (forgive me, it is the composer speaking) – truly you have much to make up for and will have to love me even more in the future!”

-- extract of a letter from Robert Schumann to Clara Wieck, 12 February 18383.

Andantino de Clara Wieck
'Andantino de Clara Wieck', (Add MS 37056, f. 15r).

Finally, from the material to the poetic. The piece, like much of Schumann’s music, comes with various aspects of autobiography almost encoded into it. Its composition coincided with a period in which Robert was forcibly separated from the love of his life and future wife, Clara Wieck. The theme he refers to appears in full in the slow movement (and can be seen in the image above), although it has not yet been identified from any of Clara’s known compositions. It could be seen as a very public declaration of the connection between the two musicians who continued to inspire each other in the years to come. The five descending notes of the theme went on to become something of an obsession for both Robert and, later, Johannes Brahms, and versions of this idea appear in a number of other compositions by them.4 The theme, or suggestions of it, appears throughout this piece too though, including as the dramatic opening gesture of the whole work – a launch pad into the turbulent and passionate first movement.

Opening of the first movement, with the 'Clara theme' appearing in the first bar
Opening of the first movement, with the 'Clara theme' appearing in the first bar (Add MS 37056, f. 3r).

There is a lot in this manuscript, both in the notation and beyond, in layers of evidence and ambiguity. Like many of Robert Schumann's manuscripts (see his later set of piano pieces, for example his Waldszenen in the BnF collections) it is like a graphic realisation of the romantic idea of the wild, turbulent moments of inspiration and creation – whilst at the same time being tempered by reminders of a more prosaic reality.

Chris Scobie

Lead Curator, Music Manuscripts



1. Quoted in the preface to the edition by Ernst Herttrich, published by G. Henle Verlag (2008). 

2. Linda Correll Roesner, ‘The Autograph of Schumann’s Piano Sonata in F Minor, Opus 14’, in The Musical Quarterly, 61/1. Jan 1975, pp. 98-130.

3. Quoted in Herttrich, preface. 

4. Judith Chernaik, 'Brahms's Clara themes revisited', in The Musical Times, Winter 2019.