Nizar Mruweh Offers Candid Thoughts
on Lebanese and Arab Music
About Lebanese Arab Music and the Rahbani Theater Musicals (in Arabic)
By Nizar Mruweh, edited by Mohammed Dakroub
Beirut :Dar Al-Farabi, 1998
If the Lebanese critic Nizar Mruweh was among us now, it is unlikely that he would initiate a collection of his writings on music into one book. He was scarce in writing, disinclined towards publishing, and wrote only for himself in response to pressure from his friends. We, therefore, owe it to Mohammed Dakroub’s efforts in preparing and publishing Mruweh’s collection that this unique heritage of musical criticism is not lost.
Nizar Mruweh died in 1992 at age 60, but none of his close friends would have given him that age. In their minds, he was the son of scholar and noted intellectual Hussein Mruweh, whose motto in life was “I was born a man, I will die a child.” Also, Nizar’s modern outlook on music–the art form to which he was fundamentally inclined–and his interest in the works of young musicians, lent him the youthful spirit that remained with him to his last days. In the variety of its articles, this book, “About Lebanese Arabic Music and the Rahbani Theater Musicals” (in Arabic), published by Dar Al-Farabi, Beirut, 1998, further clarifies that the author of these essays possessed the curiosity and stubborn innocence of a child.
Mruweh was uncompromising in his choices. Although he kept a close look at all new phenomena in Arab music for more than four decades, his preferences remained few: Sayyid Darwish, Walid Gholmieh, the great Rahbani brothers and Marcel Khalife. Most of the studies included in this book, therefore, revolve around these musicians, with particular focus on Asi and Mansour Rahbani as well as Fayruz, thus the book’s subtitle.
Mruweh’s great appreciation of Rahbani music originated in the early 1950s when he first heard their operetta “Raje’oun” [We Shall Return], which remained, until Khalife’s “Ahmad al-Arabi,” the best lyrical composition about the Palestinians. In both works, Mruweh’s first interest was the artistic character, though he did not exclude ideology and politics from his reviews and essays.
The operetta “Raje’oun” remained a reference point in Mruweh’s discussion of vocal music, for he wrote about it when it first appeared and on its 30-year anniversary. He also talked about it numerous times in panel discussions–for him, it was a distinguished national form of art. Mruweh wrote about “Raje’oun”: “I consider it an important work in itself. It constitutes an important point in the history of Rahbani music, and of Arab music in Lebanon. It is the first composition of its kind in Lebanon with respect to size, musical value and humanistic content... ‘Raje’oun' rose above all forms of Arab music in its familiar moaning, some of which remains popular to date. Musically, it dealt successfully with the difficult combination of orchestration, solo voice and chorus, both in the aesthetic sense and in the functional sense.”
Thus, “Raje’oun ” had opened Mruweh’s eyes to the Rahbani works and moved his otherwise reluctant pen to write about Rahbani theater from that point. His writings about the “artistic balance in ‘Bayah al-Khawatem’ [the Rings Vendor],” or the whole theater in “Hala wa al-Malek ” [Hala and the King], or Fayruz, whom he considered “a memory of a homeland and a people,” all reveal an unprecedented knowledge and accuracy in critical writing on Rahbani music. The Rahbani heritage occupies almost one quarter of the book, and is cited throughout as an authoritative reference point.
The book also includes an interview by Mruweh with Tawfiq al-Basha on the “Peace Symphony” which he wrote in the mid 1950s. Mruweh concludes his interview by saying, “I personally support Tawfiq al-Basha and his likes who chose the difficult path of retraining the common listener. We are betting on a future time when serious music takes its place in the hearts of our audiences.”
Walid Gholmieh comes second on Mruweh’s list of favorites. The two men were friends, and Mruweh was one of the few who followed Gholmieh’s compositions even in their early stages. This is supported by the fact that Mruweh’s reviews indulge in technical details only when discussing Gholmieh’s music, especially his symphonies such as “Al-Qadisiyyah,” “The Green Train,” and “Al-Mutanabbi.” In Mruweh’s eyes, the latter work represents a forward leap because Gholmieh’s approach became more dialectic and extended further into the human experience. His harmonies were also broader and free of all traces of formal counterpoint.
Mruweh’s classical mind, his passion for large compositions, and his support for the Rahbani and Gholmieh classics did not prevent him from appreciating the “new song,” which he valued partly due to political affiliation, as well as sincere admiration of a promising trend. This we find in his writings on the early days of Marcel Khalife and Ziyad Rahbani. With the release of Khalife’s “Ahmad al-Arabi,” the critic held a discussion panel in which Waleed Gholmieh, director Ya’coub al-Shadrawi, and Marcel Khalife were participants. In this important panel, the difficult issues of composition in Arab music, its relationship to poetry, language and current events were discussed.
The book ends with an interview with Mruweh conducted by Marcel Khalife, wherein the former elaborates on his career in criticism, and clearly states his preferences. In the book’s introduction, therefore, the editor Mohammed Dakroub comments: “Mruweh, who would not trust any constancy in art or artistic criticism, possessed a critical vision of a constant foundation. His deepest interest as a critic was to examine what constitutes a piece of art (whether music, poetry or theater) with regard to novelty, originality, and ability to set a foundation and grow, thus his interest in technical details and his dramatic view of the world through music.”
The book comes as a reminder of the extent to which Arab music is in need of good criticism, and a remembrance of this important critic whose death went relatively unnoticed.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 5, no. 25 (Winter 1999)
Translated from the Arabic by Manal Swairjo
Translation copyright © by Al Jadid (1999)