Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: The Cello in Arabic Orchestras

Cellists in Umm Kulthum's firqa (orchestra) photo ca 1965

This week’s installment of the Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello will focus on the cello in Arabic Orchestras.

Stringed instruments have long been part of Middle Eastern art ensembles.  Whether the kamancheh, djoze, rebab, or eventually the Western violin, bowed strings have nearly always played an integral role in the sound of the ensembles from that region.  Once western instruments, especially the violin, were introduced many of the folk instruments began being replaced by the violin.

By the 20th century, and especially after the first Cairo Congress of Arab Music (1932) the rest of the Western strings began to be incorporated into the traditional art music ensembles of the the Middle East (due to the influence of Muhammad Fathi) and eventually larger orchestras started to develop and composers from the region started writing music for these larger forces while also adapting some Western composition techniques and music ideas and fusing them with the indigenous art music traditions.

The difficulty with incorporating Western strings into the Arabic Orchestra has nothing to do with the instruments themselves, per se, but with the tunings and scales (maqamat) and the standardization of ornamentation for a whole section of strings rather than one string soloist in a smaller takht ensemble.

Arabic oudist, Saed Muhssin, lays out some of the fundamental differences in tuning at his blog post, The Arabic String Section.  The primary difference for the cello is the A would be tuned to a G which gives the four string tuning CGDG rather than CGDA.  While it is possible to play Arabic music with a Western tuning, which I generally do since I prefer not to retune my instrument much, as he notes

While it is possible to play the notes in the alternate tuning, the resonance of the instrument is different. Furthermore, from string players who’ve done the switch after trying to play in western tuning, the fingering of some maqams is a lot more cumbersome in western tuning, and Arabic tuning lends itself to playing Arabic music.

he is correct in that the Arabic tuning is far less cumbersome for a lot of the maqams.  Once I get any of my spare  cellos set up for playing I will likely leave one in Arabic tuning specifically for my performances of Arabic music.

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