Our Music Our Selves

Commentaries, 14 Safar1436 (December 6, 2014) — al-Mursalaat // Suggested Listening: Tone Poems

Posted in Miscellaneous Essays by Lester Knibbs on the December 6th, 2014

In the Spirit of the Gracious and Compassionate
Creator of the Heavens and the Earth

As-Salaam alaikum! Peace!

I bear witness that there is nothing and no one
worthy of our devotion and service except Allah,

and I bear witness that Muhammad
is the servant and the messenger of Allah.

The final internet radio program of Our Music Our Selves on American Muslim Blogtalk Radio was on the 29th of Dhul-Hijjah 1435, the last Thursday of the Hijrah year (also known as October 23, 2014). Our Music Our Selves is continuing (Allah willing) as a blog, and possibly in other forums. Hopefully, you will enjoy and benefit from our commentaries and suggestions.

Our Music Our Selves is an exploration of the symphonic structure and message of the Qur’an and an exploration of the symphonic structure and message of our serious music, and of the role of both in shaping our human history and identity.


Symphonic Qur’an:

077 al-Mursalaat

Soorat-al-Mursalaat — the 77th soorah (chapter) of the Qur’an — displays two of the three essential characteristics of ancient, traditional and modern African music and of African-American music: riff, and refrain.

This soorah opens – after “bismil-Laah-ir-Rahmaan -ir-Raheem– with five aayaat (verses) in an ancient rhythmic pattern — a riff — fundamental to African and African American music. I call it the chaconne (after its Afro-Cuban form, which was carried to Europe, where it became a musical form and a fundamental aspect of symphonic music).

The refrain (the repeated passage) in this soorah is one ayat (one verse) — “Wailun yauma-‘idhin lil-mukadhdhibeen” — repeated as the 15th, 19th, 24th, 28th, 34th, 37th, 40th, 45th, 47th, and 49th aayaat.

The third essential characteristic is response — often called “call-and-response” — which is found elsewhere in the Qur’an. These three chacteristics — RIFF, RESPONSE, and REFRAIN — found both in the Qur’an and in traditional African and African-American music, are also fundamental methods of education.

These are the most effective methods of learning. And there they are, in the Qur’an. Allah knows best, doesn’t he?

I call on my fellow Muslims to read/recite the Qur’an (which is in Arabic and only in Arabic) rhythmically, regularly and often.


Symphonic Listening — Tone Poems

According to Wikipedia:

A symphonic poem or tone poem is a piece of orchestral or concert band music, usually in a single continuous section (a movement) that illustrates or evokes the content of a poem, short story, novel, painting, landscape, or other (non-musical) source. Hungarian composer Franz Liszt first applied the term to his 13 works in this vein. In its aesthetic objectives, the symphonic poem is in some ways related to opera. Whilst it does not use a sung text, it seeks, like opera, a union of music and drama.

While many symphonic poems may compare in size and scale to symphonic movements (or even reach the length of an entire symphony), they are unlike traditional classical symphonic movements in that their music is intended to inspire listeners to imagine or consider scenes, images, specific ideas or moods, and not to focus on following traditional patterns of musical form (e.g. sonata form). This intention to inspire listeners was a direct consequence of Romanticism, which encouraged literary, pictorial and dramatic associations in music. Musical works that attempt to inspire listeners in this way are often referred to as program music, while music that has no such direct associations may be called absolute music.

For our purposes, tone poems are convenient listening, in that they are normally one-movement pieces that are not as lengthy or complex as a traditional symphony. In my opinion, a good tone poem needs no explanation. You can enjoy listening to it without knowing what the programmatic idea behind the music is. The programmatic idea may be helpful, but it is not necessary. For the tone poems listed below, I have included links both to performances available on YouTube (click on the duration) and to reference articles in Wikipedia (click on the title). It is your choice whether you listen with or without knowing the programmatic idea. (In the list below, the number of stars indicates how highly I recommend them for your listening. It is not an estimate of how good I think they are. For one thing, the tone poems of Richard Strauss tend to be rather long. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is in the list only for the opening theme, which was used for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. I don’t find the rest of it particularly interesting.)


I continue to suggest that you listen to at least one symphony every week. The later symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, any of the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, Schubert’s eighth or ninth, Mendelssohn’s third or fourth, Tchaikovsky’s fourth, fifth or sixth, Borodin’s second, or Franck’s only symphony. There are others we might suggest. If you are ambitious, you might listen to Mahler’s second, fifth or sixth. Dvorak’s seventh, eighth and ninth are also excellent.


I also suggest that most of us become familiar with one or two symphonies in particular, so that they becomes a sort of common currency. I suggest, first and foremost, Beethoven’s fifth symphony — perhaps the most famous symphony ever composed. The first movement is fairly compact, for a symphonic movement, and exciting. If you are not familiar with listening to symphonic music, this might be a good start. Dvorak’s ninth symphony (“From the New World”) is another symphony that we all might become familiar with — especially since it is influenced by African American themes.

Good listening!


Dear Brothers and Sisters, please check out my other blogs from time to time. They are:

Doctor Hakeem: African-American Commentaries


Word-to-Word: A Comparative Study of the Bible and the Qur’an


Take it easy.

As-Salaamu alaikum! Peace!

Brother Lester

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