By Rachel Beckles Willson
The second oud in Europe whose journey we know about arrived thanks to the Belgian musician and scholar François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871). Thanks to the note he made in his Histoire Generale de la Musique we can trace how it happened. Led by his ambition to understand music from all over the world, Fétis asked for help from the Belgian consul in Alexandria, Étienne Zizinia (1794 – 1868). Zizinia was obliging, so that in 1839 Fétis became the owner of a substantial assembly of instruments. Of course it included an oud.
In the year after his death Fétis’ son Edouard sold the instruments – including the oud – to the Belgian state. They were foundations for the musical instrument collection established in 1877 at the Brussels Royal Music Conservatory. This Museum of Musical Instruments is the home of Fétis’ oud, which can be seen in a glass display case. It is the oldest oud we know about in Europe. It may be the very oldest surviving oud.
From Fétis’ writings we understand that the oud had to be accommodated into the racist European thinking of the time. Music from other continents was thought to lag behind European music (just as people from other continents were assumed to be on a lower level of development than European people). So for Fétis the underlying interest in the oud (and other non-European instruments) was its potential to reveal the cultural production in an earlier stage of humanity.
This did not prevent him, however, from publishing his study of the instrument within Volume 2 of his Histoire Generale de la Musique, which was published in a series between 1869 and 1876. His presentation was primarily a comparison between a Latin translation of writing by Muslim philosopher Abu Nasr Muhammad b. Muhammad Farabi (872-950/51), and the oud he had in his hands. He had no knowledge, it seems, of more detailed sources on ouds by writers such as Ishaq al Kindi (d. 866), or the Ikhwan as-Safa (early 12th century).
From al Farabi he learned about a 4-single-course oud, which gave rise to 16 diatonic notes in addition to open strings, once four fingers were placed on them. He also learned about an oud with 7 frets that al Farabi attributed to Persians and that generated a 28-note scale of smaller intervals; and about an oud with an additional (5th) bass string that resonated on la. As Fetis noticed, the oud he had received was extremely large. It had double courses. And the neck was unfretted, unlike the instruments described by al Farabi.
Presumably the oud was strung when he received it, although the tuning of courses that he described was essentially a reproduction of work already published by others. Thus he stated that the lowest pitch (la) was on the right side of the neck and could be arranged in corresponding order on a staff:
Fétis used this tuning and al Farabi’s text to develop a ‘tablature’ for the oud on the staff, mapping three fingers (index, middle and ring) onto each of the strings. He noted that some players used their fifth finger as well, and produced a perfect fourth from the open string that way.
The dimensions of the oud he provided in his book were those described by Villoteau. However, those of his own oud, kindly provided by Joris De Valck of the museum in Brussels, were substantially larger:
Vibrating String Length – 637mm
Sound board Width – 401mm
Sound board Length – 516mm
Neck Length – 224mm
Top of Rosette to Bottom of Sound board – 358mm
Front of the Bridge to Bottom of Sound board – 98mm
Depth of the body at its maximum point – 235mm
Diameter of the rosette – 117mm and 33mm for the small rosettes
Approx. weight – 1025g
In a separate section of Volume 2 Fetis compared the Arab oud with the oud played by Persians, noting only inflections in tuning and a greater number of frets in the latter type. He noted that travellers’ accounts reveal the oud disappearing in Persia at the start of the 18th century, and attributed this to the difficulty it posed to players, in comparison with instruments such as tambourah and tanbour bouzourk.
Thanks to Saskia Willaert of the Museum of Musical Instruments in Brussels for sharing her valuable sources about the journey of this instrument.
And thanks to David San Millán for the beautiful photographs. For more about a related instrument that is now missing, read ‘Egypt to France c.1800‘.