“Majnoun Layla” suite

“Majnoun Layla” is a suite of 6 movements for Piano (and optional Req)

Music by Wajdi Abou Diab
Poems by Qays Ebn AL Moulawwah
Translated by Hanin Nakouzi
Cover and graphics by Mohammad Aloush
Dedicated to Kaiyin Huang

After being commissioned by the Taiwanese excellent pianist Kaiyin Huang, to write a solo piano piece (with optional percussion) based on an Arabic historical love story to be included in her upcoming album, I decided to write this solo piano suite (with optional Req) based on the amazing Love story of “Qays and Layla”.

Why this article?

The ultimate goal of music is to express human feelings that cannot be written, drawn, or photographed, and to convey the psychological state that the artist experiences to the player, and therefore to the listener, as music is the most abstract form of art with the best potential to express and communicate.

   After delving into the events of Majnoun Laila’s story, and analyzing its events and its human and social dimensions, I realized that it is more than just a historical story or a love story that was illustrated by the beauty of poetry, as it went beyond being a global myth of love, representing a journey of transformation from childish love to satisfactory love, to separation from reality and rebellion against customs and traditions, and the refusal to accept destiny, but rather make the torment of love destiny in itself.

   Through this article, I wanted to transfer that state of ecstasy of beauty and contemplation of life and destiny that I lived with every detail of this wonderful story, to every musician or listener who wants to perform or listen to this suite for piano.

   Knowing the author’s condition and the reasons that pushed him to write music in our modern era, is an integral part of understanding music and of good listening or performing, and thus living the full musical experience with all its aesthetic, philosophical, social, and expressive dimensions.

Part one – The piece’s background

Love in the Bedouin traditions of Najd

Love was known to the Arabs of the Badia as a likable act if secretly, and a disgrace if in public, so Arabs used to praise love stories and take pride in them if they were secret, and to stigmatize both lovers if their love was announced publicly.

   We see evidence of this in poems and hadiths that portray love as a dangerous act that only the brave and adventurous can afford, and that describes the lovers’ dates done secretly under the cover of the night or during the time of the tribe’s nap, and always in places far from witnesses.

    In Qais’s tribe, being a Bedouin tribe in Najd, love in public was considered a bad and offensive act for the lovers, and therefore their marriage was prohibited publicly, and the girl was often locked down to prevent any kind of contact with her beloved one, and sometimes forced to marry another man to avoid shame and scandal.

Love or inspiration?

 The suspicious thing here is that Qays was fully aware of these customs, and the dangers of mentioning the name of Layla in his poems, which was considered an act of declaring love according to the traditions of his tribe. This leads us to think about the reasons that led him to manifest his love without taking into consideration the consequences.

   Was the intention to challenge the accepted norm to try to change habits and make public love acceptable? Or was his goal to wander and savor the torment of the distance as fuel for his poems and as a bridge toward the beauty of poetry and literature? As it is clear that he never tried to heal the wounds of his love or to find an alternative to compensate him for the pain of separation. On the contrary, he determined to increase his longing at every opportunity given, to promise himself Laila, and to dwell on impossible dreams even after receiving the news of her marriage, and then the news of Her death.

About the Story

 Qays ibn al-Mulawwah ibn Muzahim was a Bedouin poet. He fell in love with Layla Al-Aamiriya, also known as Layla bint Mahdi ibn Sa’d, from the same tribe. He soon began composing poems about his love for her, mentioning her name often. When he asked for her hand in marriage her father refused as, according to Arab traditions, this would have meant a scandal for Layla and her family.

    Soon after, Layla married another man. When Qays heard of her marriage he fled the tribe camp and began wandering in the surrounding desert. His family eventually gave up on his return and left food for him in the wilderness. He could sometimes be seen reciting poetry to himself or writing in the sand with a stick.

  There were many minor incidents involving Qays following his descent into madness. Layla moved to present-day Iraq with her husband where she became ill and eventually died.

   Qays was later found dead in the wilderness near an unknown woman graven 688 A.D. On a rock near the grave, he had carved three verses of poetry which are the last three verses attributed to him.

Global Impact

The story of Qays and Layla and their poems, and the news and poetry attributed to them, made a great impact in Arabic literature, both poetry and prose, and its influence extended to Nabati and colloquial poetry in the Arab countries.

   This story was also adapted by Persian literature more than once, but the most prominent of which is the epic written by the poet Nizam Al-Kanjwi (d.599 AH), followed by poems by other poets such as Saadi Al-Shirazi, Amir Khusraw, Abdul Rahman Jami, Abdullah Hatfi, Al Maktabi, and others.

Kurdish literature was also influenced by the eternal Arabic love story. The most prominent example of this was what the Prince of Kurdish poetry, Ahmadine Khani, said in his epic “Mamu Zayn”.

   As for Turkish literature, the most prominent person who adapted this story was the poet Muhammad bin Suleiman, known by the title “Fuduli”, and Dr. Juban Khader Haydar who has research entitled “Layla and the Majnoun in Turkish Literature.” In his research, he mentioned 29 Turkish poets who wrote poems about Layla and the Majnoun, among them: Aderni Shahidi, Ahmed Pasha, Wali al-Din bin Elias, Ali Sher Nawi, Bahshti Ahmad Sinan, Hamdi Hamd Allah Ibn Sheikh Aq Shams al-Din, Khalil Badr al-Din, Ahmad Radwan, and Hayati Fatih Chalabi.

   As for other world literature, the French poet Louis Argon who wrote ” Majnoun Elsa” along the lines of Majnoun Layla, and the French orientalist André Michael, the director of the Institute for the Languages ​​of India, East, and North Africa at the University of Paris, who said: “Coincidences and a passion for the literature of world love led me to interest in the Arabic legend of Majnoun Layla,” and he wrote his book “Majnoun Layla and Tristan” about this story, and another famous legend in the West, entitled Tristan and ISO.

   Abdullah al-Ghwail says: “Perhaps the story of Majnoun Layla is one of the most prominent stories adapted by writers from Western literature, and it’s very easy to see its influence clearly on the poets of the troubadours, and on many contemporary European poets and writers.” And a legend that is one of the most beautiful legends of the West in the medieval era, is the poem Majnoun Elsa, inspired by the original Arabic legend Majnoun Layla.

Part Two – Performer’s notes

All parts that are played with the Arabic percussion should be strict in rhythm. Traditionally, we don’t use any ritardando or rallentir in Arabic music except at the end of the movement, but never in the middle.

    If the performance does not include a percussion accompaniment, this gives the pianist more freedom in taking a longer breath between phrases.

   Using the pedal should be as written, and total respect for silence should be taken into consideration, especially between phrases and parts. A full silence when written and played strictly, will help the listener separate the phrases, understand the music easily, and will give him a break without receiving new sounds.

   Understanding the music as storytelling for “Majnoun Layla” life will help a lot in connecting the parts and in finding the right character for every movement.

   I used 4 Makams in this piece, all originated from the Arabian Peninsula, where the story happened.

The Makams are:

First movement

تَعَلَّقتُ لَيلى وَهيَ غِرٌّ صَغيرَةٌ

وَلَم يَبدُ لِلأَترابِ مِن ثَديِها حَجمُ

صَغيرَينِ نَرعى البَهمَ يا لَيتَ أَنَّنا

إِلى اليَومِ لَم نَكبَر وَلَم تَكبَرِ البَهمُ

Leila was attached, and she was the one with amulets around her neck
She had no beauty yet to show
We were still young, and looking after the cattle
To this day, we wish we never grew older, and neither did our desires

The first movement starts as a memory of two kids, Qays and Layla, who went every day together to look after the cattle, and day after day they grew up and fell in love.

   After an introduction of 8 measures, the tempo becomes strict. Here, the percussion plays the “Wehda Kabira” rhythm which has the following pattern

And this rhythm was used traditionally as an accompaniment for the Mawwal (which is an improvised solo melody by the main singer) and in the slow emotional singing and Tarab.

   Mainly the second dotted croche should be emphasized, and the left-hand rhythm should be maintained steady till the end of the movement. The rhythm has a weighty and moving-forward feeling.

Second movement

أَرى أَهلَ لَيلى أَورَثوني صَبابَةً

               وَمالي سِوى لَيلى الغَداةَ طَبيبُ

إِذا ما رَأَوني أَظهَروا لي مَوَدَّةً

                         وَمِثلُ سُيوفِ الهِندِ حينَ أَغيبُ

I see Leila’s parents have gifted me with the heat of longing
And, I shall have none but Leila to heal my pain
When they greet me, I am met with cordiality
But as I leave, I am cursed and rejected

   The second movement announces the beginning of the sad story: The parents of Layla locked her up so that she can’t meet Qays anymore.   In the middle part, the memory of the two children comes back, but in a sad mood.

   This movement uses a rhythm called “Maksoum”, it’s an Egyptian dance rhythm that usually makes the audience clap! This is the pattern of the rhythm:

Usually played with an accent on the second croche.

   The melody in the second movement moves against the rhythm by emphasizing every time a different beat from the measure. All these small motives work together to help the listener imagine the desert where ََQays and Layla lived and the harsh and extreme climate change there.

   The middle part is a memory from the first movement, and after this part end, the tempo doesn’t get back to primo (stays 80 bpm).

Third movement

أمر على الديار ديار ليلي

              أقبل ذا الجدارَ وذا الجدارَ

وما حب الديار شغفن قلبي

              ولكن حب من سكن الديارَ

I pass by the house, Leila’s house
I am faced with a wall and then another
Believe me, it is not the residence that holds my heart
Rather the resident inside it

   The third movement discusses how Qays misses Layla deeply, and how he is not able to forget her, but instead, his love continued to grow more and more, as his sadness did.

   This movement has the same rhythm as the famous Mouwashah “Lama Badda yatathanna”, which is “Samai Thakil”, and it’s a heavy and steady rhythm with the following pattern:

  It’s important in Measures 3 and 4 (as for measures 13 – 14), that we listen to the intervals at the end alone and clearly.

   All the staccato notes ending the measures should be very sharp and secco (Measures 6-7-9-10-16-17)

Fourth movement

جُنِنتُ بِلَيلى وَالجُنونُ يَسيرُ

            عَلى حُبِّها عَقلي يَكادُ يَطيرُ

 وَما بِيَ إِلا حُبُّ لَيلى كِفايَةٌ

                  جُنوناً وَإِنّي في الغَرامِ أَسيرُ

I am mad about Leila, and my madness trails along
Only her love can induce my mind to fly
And only her love can fulfill my madness
And on the path of love I shall trail

   The fourth movement describes how Qays gradually becomes insane, especially after the marriage of Layla, and how he accepts the situation as a result of his great love. And how his madness causes him great pain and depression and reflects his great effort to fight his destiny in his hopeless love, and finally he becomes incapable to understand others or even to communicate with them.

The rhythm used in this movement is called “Aksak 5/4”, which has the following pattern:

The final repetition is a slow fade out, which becomes slower. heavier and quieter, always emphasizing the dialog between the accents of the left and right hand, which will be a transition to the fifth movement.

   Every time the tempo slows down, the rhythm becomes heavier more and more (especially in the left-hand patterns), and the accents take more space and preparation.

   Note that these two movements should be played without stopping in between (attaca)

Fifth movement

ألست وعدتني ياقلبُ أنّي

          اذا ماتُبتُ عن ليلى تتوبُ

فها أنا تائبٌ عن حُبِ ليلى

          فما لك كلما ذُكرت تذوبُ

O heart, did you not promise to repent Leila
if I were to repent her?
I have rued her love
So why is it that whenever her name is called you still jump?

  The fifth movement talks about a stage when Qays loses his hope to be with Layla, after her death, and tries to forget her, but isn’t able even after many years of suffering.

   The introduction should be half slower (croche = 60), than the speed after (noir = 60).

   This is the darkest movement, we know that the end is near, and the death of Qays will happen soon. It should be calm, sad, depressing, painful, and hopeless.

   The performer should let the chords resonate, and make a full silence between phrases, without connecting the parts with the pedal.

Sixth movement (“The big funeral”)

تَوَسَّدَ أحجارَ المهامِهِ والقفرِ

              وماتَ جريح القلبِ مندملَ الصدر

فياليت هذا الحِبَّ يعشقُ مرة

                        فيعلمَ ما يلقى المُحِبُّ من الهجرِ

He found his solace in between the desert and stones
He died, wounded in the heart
His chest was still aching from the blow
O if only his lover were to love once!
So, as to understand the solitude that lovers must endure

   After Qays was found dead alone in the desert, fighting for his hopeless love, the sixth and last movement comes as a funeral, not for Qays’ death, but for his sadness. It’s a transformation of a sad story to a legendary one about love and fidelity.

   It’s a long progression, growing up slowly, mixing the motives of the previous movements, and collecting the painful events in the story to transform them into a legendary story about love and fidelity. It’s a trip for the soul of Qays from his miserable life to his glorious afterlife where he meets Layla again.

   Exaggerating the dynamics helps build this long progression.

   The coda is the beginning of a new story, this time a story of love instead of suffering and pain.

   The rhythm used is called “Awiss”, which has the following pattern:

Traditionally used in the “Nawbeh” which is an Arabic ritual music played during funerals in the desert, which is characterized by a heavy and slow rhythm, with space between the strong beats.

    It’s very important to play the pedal as written and to give time for the listener by playing a complete silence between the phrases.

Published by wajdiaboudiab

Wajdi Abou Diab is a composer of classical contemporary music, musicologist, educator, and conductor who believes in music as a way to build our cultural future while keeping us connected to our cultural history.

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