Exhibit: Of Love and Madness
Photo: Layla and Majnun, the new production by Mark Morris Dance Group and the Silk Road Ensemble. At Power Center October 13-15, 2016.
Inside the Hatcher Graduate Library’s Special Collections, a set of display cases houses several manuscripts with gilded pages and splendidly illuminated text. These brilliant pages tell an age-old story of passion and divine love.
Layla and Majnun is an Persian romance ending in tragedy, not unlike Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In the story, the poet Qays (Majnun) falls in love with the beautiful Layla. The lovers’ parents forbid them to wed, and instead Layla is married to another. Majnun, whose name derives from an Arabian word for “mad”, goes crazy upon hearing this. He escapes to the wilderness, half-naked and starving, to write poems about his beloved.
Majnun’s father takes him on a holy pilgrimage to Mecca to cure his obsession, but Majnun prays only for his love and passion to intensify. Layla and Majnun finally meet again, but both perish before they can express their passionate love for each other.
Origins and Themes
While the legend’s exact origins are unclear, the earliest known versions of Layla and Majnun come from anecdotal sources passed down by oral and written tradition. However, the complete story exists in many poetic versions.
Authors would recreate the story to emulate their contemporaries’ versions and to emphasize different themes. Common themes include elements of mysticism the moral of a pure and idealized love based in religion. Through his madness, Majnun’s love transforms from simple affection for Layla to an unattainable love of the divine—in other words, a love of God.
Many scholars regard Nizami Ganjavi’s 12th century epic poem as most popular version of the Layla and Majnun story. Nizami’s rich narrative and psychological complexity inspired readers and poets alike. His contemporaries imitated his poetic meter, structure, and thematic emphasis for many years.
From Verse to Opera and Beyond
The 16th century poet Fuzuli composed his own version of the poem in 1536, incorporating rich allegory and mystical elements inspired by Nizami and the Persian poet Hatifi. The intensity, sincerity, and compelling narrative of Fuzuli’s work inspired the first Azerbaijani opera composed by Üzeyir Hacibäyli, which in turn inspired the production of this weekend’s performances by the Mark Morris Group and Silk Road Ensemble.
The exhibit is offered in conjunction with UMS and the Mark Morris Dance Group and Silk Road Ensemble’s production of Layla and Majnun, presented this weekend, October 13-15. Exhibit curator Evyn Kropf has taken great care to compile a collection of manuscripts and editions that show a rich literary history of a timeless story.
Be sure to visit the exhibit on the 7th floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library October 7, 2016 – February 22, 2017.
See Layla and Majnun at Power Center in Ann Arbor October 13-15, 2016.
The Story of Layla and Majnun: The Idealization of Love
Editor’s Note: This post is by Wali Ahmadi, Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of California, Berkeley. Ahmadi focuses on the musical history of Layla and Majnun, an Arabian love story which will come to life in Ann Arbor with a new production from Mark Morris Dance Group and The Silk Road Ensemble on October 13-15, 2017.
Layla and Majnun. Images from the Heritage Museum.
From my early youth I have been intrigued by the love story of Majnun and Layla, two young lovers from Bedouin Arabia. I remember very well that during long, cold winter nights in Kabul, in the 1970s, my mother would tell us the remarkable story of these two lovers, their intense, splendid romance, and their endless plights leading to their heartrending deaths.
Years later, as a student of literature, I read the Persian romance of Laili and Majnun by Nezami Ganjawi (1140-1209 CE) and then came across several reworkings of this amazing romance.
In brief, Qays ibn al-Mulawwah of the Banu ‘Amir tribe falls in love with his classmate Layla bint Sa‘d. As the two grow older, the intensity of their love increases. Although Layla, too, is truly smitten by love, it is Qays who publicly and unreservedly pronounces his obsessive passion in elegiac lyrics, thus earning the epithet Majnun (literally, “possessed” or “mad”).
Majnun’s incessant poetic expression of Layla’s beauty and his astonishingly outrageous public conduct alarm Layla’s parents. Concerned about their daughter’s reputation as well as the honor and standing of the tribe, her parents ensure that the lovers are kept apart. When Qays’s father asks for Layla’s hand in marriage to his beloved son, Layla’s family flatly refuses the proposal, a response that seems harsh but, in the light of Majnun’s scandalous conduct, not necessarily unreasonable.
As Majnun continues wandering aimlessly through the desert, bonding with wild beasts, living an ascetic life, and composing verses about his obsession with Layla, his father lures him into visiting the holiest of Muslim sites, the Ka‘ba, in the hope of curing him of his obsessive love. There, Majnun pleads to Allah to make him “a hundred-fold” more “possessed” in his love for Layla.
In the meantime, Layla’s father gives her in marriage, against her will, to an affluent, but shallow, man named Ibn Salam. The marriage never consummates as Layla insists on preserving her chastity. She remains faithful to her true love, Majnun, until Ibn Salam dies of rejection, disillusionment, and grief.
A number of times, Majnun is offered the chance to visit his beloved, to speak with her in person. Towards the end of the story, when Layla, through the inter-mediation of a young, faithful devotee of Majnun, appears to him, he still refuses to have physical (or sexual) contact with her. Majnun strives to realize “perfect love” in Layla, a love that transcends sensual contact with the beloved, a love that is free from selfish intentions, lust, and earthly desires.
An Allegory? Profanity?
Precisely for this reason, many commentators have interpreted Nezami’s Laili and Majnun as a Sufi (Islamic mystical) allegorical narrative, where the lover seeks ultimate union with, as well as annihilation in, the Beloved (i.e. the Divine or the Truth). Majnun’s harsh life in the desert, then, has been compared to the ascetic life of Muslim mystics who rejected earthly pleasures and renounced worldly affinities.
Accordingly, his excessive devotion to Layla represents his unique and steadfast devotion to Ideal Love, the Divine—which explains why, in spite of his incessant yearning for his beloved Layla, he is incapable of physical intimacy with her. It is with the idealized image of the beloved—in the person of Layla—that Majnun is infatuated. When Layla falls mortally ill and passes away, Majnun, too, loses his one and only purpose in life, his sole means towards the realization of True Love. When he learns about the death of his beloved, he at once seeks her gravesite. Weeping and moaning, he presses himself against her gravestone and breaths his final gasps, and dies. The lovers ultimately unite, but only in death.
Nezami’s romance of Laili and Majnun is a multilayered, complex text, which makes it open to contrasting, and perhaps contradictory, readings. While a Sufi (mystical) reading of it is plausible, one can justifiably read it as a conventional, yet immensely rich and enthralling, love-story. Despite the abundance of mystical motifs and metaphors, the profane dimensions of the poem cannot be overlooked.
Nezami’s unparalleled narrative proved considerably influential during the subsequent centuries. While allusions and references to Layla and Majnun can be readily found in divans (collections) of poets before Nezami’s time, his version led several noted poets, in a host of languages, to compose original texts modeled after Nezami’s work. In Persian alone, one should mention Amir Khusraw Dehlawi’s masterpiece Majnun and Laili (completed c. 1299) and ‘Abd al-Rahman Jami’s Laili and Majnun (composed c. 1485). Other notable renderings of the story are by Maktabi Shirazi, Hatefi, and, more notably, Fuzuli. The latter became considerably influential in Ottoman Turkey. The romance of Layla and Majnun has also been made into several popular films and movies in Hindi, Turkish, Arabic, and Persian.
Wali Ahmadi is an associate professor of Persian literature at the University of California, Berkeley. His publications include Modern Persian Literature in Afghanistan: Anomalous Visions of History and Form (2008) and Converging Zones: Persian Literary Tradition and the Writing of History (2012). He is currently working on the cultural politics of modern Persian poetics and aesthetics.
On the music of Layla and Majnun: Into the Divine
Editor’s Note: This post is by Aida Huseynova, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Huseynova focuses on the musical history of Layla and Majnun, an Arabian love story which will come to life in Ann Arbor with a new production from Mark Morris Dance Group and The Silk Road Ensemble on October 13-15, 2017.
Photo: Singers Alim Qasimov and Fergana Qasimova. Photo courtesy of the artist.
At the age of 23, the composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli (1885–1948) put Azerbaijan—and himself—on the map of music history with his Leyli and Majnun. This opera was the first piece of composed music created in Azerbaijan, premiering in 1908 in Baku (then part of the Russian Empire, now the capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan). Azerbaijanis have revered their first national composer and his work ever since. For decades, every season at the Azerbaijan State Opera and Ballet Theater has opened with Leyli and Majnun. Each Azerbaijani singer appreciates the honor and responsibility of participating in these productions, and audiences throughout the country enjoy broadcasts of the performances.
Nearly a century after the Baku premiere, Hajibeyli’s opera found a new life half a world away thanks to the Silk Road Ensemble under the artistic direction of Yo-Yo Ma. In 2007, the group created a chamber arrangement of Hajibeyli’s work that was entitled Layla and Majnun, following the pronunciation of the heroine’s name in Arabic culture, in which this ancient legend had originated. From 2007 to 2009, the arrangement was a highlight of the ensemble’s repertoire, delighting large audiences around the world.
The rich multicultural potential of Hajibeyli’s opera perfectly resonates with Silkroad, the cultural organization Yo-Yo Ma founded to house the Silk Road Ensemble. Silkroad envisions music as a global phenomenon, with musical forms, genres, and styles serving as bridges across time and between cultures. Azerbaijani opera offers many possibilities for such musical and cultural synthesis. In Leyli and Majnun, Hajibeyli combined Western opera with two artistic treasures of Central Asia and the Middle East: the story of Layla and Majnun and the genre of mugham.
Diverse genres and cultural traditions
Musical interpretations of the legend of Layla and Majnun appear in diverse genres and national traditions, attesting to the tale’s enduring popularity. Hajibeyli’s opera—the first piece of composed music to set this ancient story—was based on mugham, the quintessential genre of traditional Azerbaijani music. Mugham is a branch of the large maqam tradition cultivated in the Middle East and Central Asia, historically performed by a mugham trio that consists of a singer playing gaval (frame drum) and two instrumentalists playing tar (lute) and kamancheh (spike fiddle). Since the early 20th century, mugham has become the main source of creative inspiration and experimentation for Azerbaijani composers. In 1977, Azerbaijani mugham was one of the 27 musical selections put in Voyagers I and II. Sent beyond our solar system, these American spacecraft carried this music as a testament to the emotional life of human beings. In 2003, UNESCO recognized Azerbaijani mugham as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
In the interpretation of the Silk Road Ensemble, the story of Layla and Majnun is presented in a condensed version: the three-and-a-half-hour-long opera is compressed into an hour-long chamber piece. Hajibeyli’s five acts are rearranged into six parts. These changes have resulted in a reordering and even an omission of many operatic episodes. Ultimately, the Silk Road Ensemble’s alterations highlight the story’s time-honored messages. The legend of Layla and Majnun has a strong Sufi component, with the love between a man and a woman being seen as a reflection of love for God. The death resulting from separation from one’s beloved is a supreme fulfillment, as it takes the individual into the divine. In Hajibeyli’s opera, this idea was conveyed through the chorus “Night of Separation,” which opens and concludes the work. Reconstituting the Chorus as a cello solo, both at the beginning and at the end of the piece, is one of the new arrangement’s most insightful interpretations: the lonely melody of the cello sounds as the voice of eternity.
The new arrangement of Hajibeyli’s opera has created a different balance between Western and Eastern traits. In Hajibeyli’s opera, these two components mostly are kept separate: the symphony orchestra plays all episodes of composed music and remains silent during the mughams. Only the tar and kamancheh accompany singers during mugham episodes. In the new version, however, the role of the ensemble—with tar and kamancheh included—is crucial throughout the entire piece, and both the improvised and written parts of the composition are firmly integrated.
Layla and Majnun is a constantly changing and developing project. Every performance is unique, and it is impossible to take a snapshot of this work. Yo-Yo Ma called this a “part of the thrill” and described the project as “perhaps the finest example of group intelligence at work” (New York Times, March 1, 2009). A reviewer of a performance by the Silk Road Ensemble noted, “Layla and Majnun was the apex of the program. Classical music making rarely achieves this combination of spontaneity and superb craftsmanship” (Washington Post, March 14, 2009).
Indeed, this composition is a result of collective effort and is imbued with the spirit of improvisation. Hajibeyli was aware of the large cultural span of his project, in terms of its musical and literary contents. However, Hajibeyli limited the cultural, aesthetic, and stylistic scope of the opera to the context of his native culture. In so doing, he reflected the social and cultural expectations of early 20th-century Azerbaijan as well as his own professional experience (or rather, its absence, as Leyli and Majnun was Hajibeyli’s first work). The Silk Road Ensemble has expanded the cultural reach of Azerbaijani opera deep into the Middle East and Central Asia. No less importantly, they have increased the Western elements in Hajibeyli’s score, creating a work of global East-West significance. The new musical arrangement of Layla and Majnun is a respectful and highly artistic transformation of Hajibeyli’s “mugham” opera, now shaped by creative energies coming from diverse cultural, stylistic, and temporal sources.
Aida Huseynova has a PhD in musicology and teaches at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Her publications include Music of Azerbaijan: From Mugham to Opera (Indiana University Press, 2016). Huseynova also serves as a research advisor for Silkroad under the artistic direction of Yo-Yo Ma. Her numerous awards include an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant (2016) and a Fulbright scholarship (2007-08).
Student Spotlight: Claire Crause at Mark Morris Dance Group
Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of reflections from students who are part of UMS’s 21st Century Student Internship program. As parts of the paid internship program, students spend several weeks with a company that’s part of UMS’s seasons. U-M Dance student Claire Crause was with Mark Morris Dance Group. The company performs in Ann Arbor October 13-15, 2016.
Left: NYC skyline from across the reservoir in Central Park. Taken during one of my post-work runs. Right: View from one of my walks across the Brooklyn Bridge. The Statue of Liberty can be seen in the distance.
This summer was one of such profound gratitude. I never pictured myself in Brooklyn interning for Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG). Yet there I was, and it was better than a dream. Within nine short weeks my heart had virtually exploded with pure joy and fulfillment. I learned so much and experienced incredible opportunities. I found myself in the right place and time for miraculous things to occur. I know my words will not do justice to my summer, but if there is anything I learned in New York it’s that doing anything with full confidence is never a fruitless endeavor. So here I go.
Left: The Mark Morris Dance Center! My daily destination from Harlem to Brooklyn. Right: MMDG dancers perform a work by Mark Morris for students during the Summer Intensive.
I threw myself headfirst into MMDG. My first two weeks I did nothing but dance from 9 am – 5 pm in the MMDG Summer Intensive. I took class with and from company members, learned MMDG repertory, and had the occasional class or coaching from choreographer Mark Morris himself. The training I received in the intensive was excellent, and I especially loved learning excerpts of Mark Morris’s choreography. I was grateful to physically experience the work before delving into the administrative side of the company. As the majority of my time with MMDG was spent interning in the office, I was excited for my first interactions with the company to be in the dance studio, the place where I feel most at home. Connecting with the MMDG dancers and getting to know them as people also made my office work more relevant. I now had faces and personalities to pair with the names I would eventually enter into documents.
Left: Pictured here with Derek Crescenti, an alumni from the University of Michigan Dance Department. Derek and I met for the first time during the Summer Intensive. Right: View of my office on the third floor of the Mark Morris Dance Center. My desk is behind the middle dividing-wall.
After two blissful weeks of dance training I was honestly bracing myself for office work to be a slight disappointment. I’m glad to say that I was very wrong. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed working with the management team. I would always rather be dancing, but the work I did at my desk was fulfilling in its own way. I worked under Nancy Umanoff, the company executive director, Jen Rossi, the company manager, and Huong Hoang, the general manager. Julia Weber, the management assistant, was my desk buddy and accomplice. We became quick friends and worked side-by-side on similar projects.
Left: Snapshot of my desk while I researched Layla and Majnun. Right: View of the studio where I took class from Mark Morris.
I worked primarily on tasks relevant to MMDG’s upcoming tour of Layla and Majnun, a new work Mark Morris has choreographed to music by the Silk Road Ensemble. (The performance will be in Ann Arbor October 13-15, 2016.) I organized information relating to ancillary activities for each city on the tour, contacted co-commissioners about these activities, organized flight information, conducted interviews with dancers and a violinist, and created a Brooklyn “welcome” directory for the Silk Road Ensemble, which they will use during their rehearsals with MMDG at the Mark Morris Dance Center. (And, yes, I also made the daily trips to Starbucks and neighboring restaurants to pick up coffee and lunch for Mark Morris.) I’m looking forward to seeing my work come into fruition when MMDG and the Silk Road Ensemble come to Ann Arbor.
The company took a field trip to the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs, where Mark Morris was recently inducted into the Dance Hall of Fame. The museum included an exhibition on Mark Morris and his life’s achievements.
My experience suddenly shifted remarkably during my last three weeks. With Mark Morris’s permission I began taking the morning ballet class he teaches for his dancers. Most of my workdays now began at the ballet barre, surrounded by MMDG dancers, breathing in Mark Morris’s insightful words. I was intimidated at first. I was dancing in a room full of beautiful professional dancers and receiving corrections from Mark Morris. The same Mark Morris I had learned about in my dance history and dance composition classes. Was this even real life? I quickly discovered that yes, it was real, and that it was also quite amazing. The dancers were so generous and kind and treated me as an equal. They grew to joke with me and playfully tease me along with Mark Morris. I felt my dancing grow as I became inspired by the talent of everyone around me. After class I would thank Mark, take his lunch order, and proceed back to the office with a mind full of sandwich toppings and fresh perspectives on ballet.
Left: Lincoln Center at night after the performance of American Ballet Theater’s Sleeping Beauty. Aside from seeing performances I occasionally went to Lincoln Square for some peaceful relaxation time. Right: Daily breakfast at Music and Mentoring House, prepared by Lauren Flanigan. We all ate breakfast together in the mornings before parting for our busy days.
By the end of July I had formed close friendships with the office staff and the dancers. I had also made a home in Harlem at Music and Mentoring House, the house where I stayed with opera singer Lauren Flanigan. Lauren was a lovely host, mentor, and friend. Those of us young artists staying with Lauren this summer became fast friends, and the welcoming atmosphere inside the house was a true gift. Returning back to my Michigan home at the end of the summer was bittersweet.
At school it is easy to become narrow-minded and trapped within the confines of a schedule flooded with exams and rehearsals. Sometimes, it can be hard to remember why I love art. In New York, all of that melted away and I was able to live.
As much as I learned at the desk, I also found ways to become nourished as an artist. I attended performances each week (dance companies, operas, Broadway musicals – although I’m still resenting never having won the Hamilton lottery), went to a variety of dance classes and auditions, rented studio space and improvised alone, visited museum galleries, had many inspiring conversations with Lauren Flanigan, and listened to what the urban rhythms of the New York streets had to offer me each moment.
I carried around a small notebook everywhere I went and constantly scribbled down choreography inspiration for my upcoming senior concert. The world of performing arts moved a little more into focus everyday. It was insane; I walked down the streets smiling like a fool because I was just so happy to be alive. I have no more words other than thank you. Thank you UMS, thank you Mark Morris Dance Group. From my smiling heart to you, thank you so much.
See Mark Morris Dance Group in Ann Arbor on October 13-15, 2016.