Kemangeh roumy, Egypt, 1750-1800, inv. 0225
Kemangeh roumy, Egypt, 1750-1800, inv. 0225
François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871)
Tuning of the kemangeh roumy (Fétis, Histoire générale de la musique, 1869)
Plate AA of Villoteau (in Description de l’Égypte. Planches, 1817), n° 14: Kemangeh roumy
Fétis buys a kemangeh roumy
When in 1878, Victor Mahillon (1841–1924), first curator of the Musée des instruments du Conservatoire in Brussels, inventoried the nearly 300 instruments then constituting the collection of the new museum, he categorized this instrument as a German viola d’amore. From a purely formal view this was not an illogical decision. Its morphology is that of a viola d’amore, a bowed chordophone with sympathetic strings, enjoying a certain success in the eighteenth century, especially in the German-speaking countries and in Italy.
However, we now know that the instrument inv. no. 0225 (fig.1a, 1b) came from Egypt. With the help of the Belgian government, François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871) (fig.2), director of the Brussels Conservatory and Kapellmeister to Leopold I, acquired in 1839 a collection of sixteen Arabic instruments from Étienne Zizinia (or Stephanos Tsitsinias, 1794-1868), a wealthy Greek shipping magnate, naturalized French, newly appointed Belgian consul in Alexandria.
Among the sixteen instruments which Zizinia acquired for Fétis in Alexandria - lutes, flutes, oboes, drums, lyres, zithers and viols - was this 'kemangeh roumy'. As said, this instrument exhibits the characteristics of the European viola d'amore: it has seven melodic strings and seven sympathetic strings (i.e. strings that vibrate sympathetically, without being touched by the musician). The sympathetic strings run under the fingerboard, which has no frets. The sound holes are in the shape of flames, a common characteristic on viole d'amore. The black varnish covering the instrument is a recurrent feature of bowed instruments built in Austria in the second half of the eighteenth century.
According to Fétis, one particularity that distinguishes the kemangeh roumy from the European viola d'amore is its tuning (fig.3). The tuning is reversed in comparison with western bowed instruments. But the general impression from an internal examination of the instrument is that the kemangeh roumy was made by a European or a violin maker trained in European techniques. Why then did Fétis add a retuned European viola d’amore to his wish list?
A migrating instrument
It should be noted that 40 years before Fétis, Guillaume André Villoteau (1759–1839), one of the savants who joined Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign (1799–1801), had depicted a similar kemangeh roumy in the famous Description de l’Égypte (fig.4). Fétis knew well Villoteau’s publication. He probably aspired to possess a similar Egyptian collection, which may explain why he put a kemangeh roumyon the list sent to Zizinia.
Villoteau’s and Fétis’ testimonies raise the question of whether, perhaps, the European viola d’amore was used by local musicians in late eighteenth-century Egypt. It is known that in de second half of the eighteenth century, viole d’amore was amongst the goods which were traded between Europe and the Ottoman Empire – of which the Viceroyalty Egypt was still a part. The first evidence of viole d’amore being played in Istanbul appeared in the 1760s. In his Mémoire sur les Turcs et les Tartares, Baron de Tott (1733–1793) describes a concert given by a Turkish chamber orchestra with a viola d’amore, called a ‘sine keman’ in Turkish (‘breast fiddle’). The sine kemanbecame one of the favourite instruments at the imperial court in Istanbul, replacing the kemançe spike fiddle of Persian origin.
In Egypt, the viola d’amore was called a ‘roumy’ viol or a ‘Greek violin’, to refer to its foreign, non-muslim origin. When Villoteau saw kemangeh roumysin Cairo at the end of the 1790s, he described and depicted one in his report, but considered it not interesting enough to take one with him to France. Apart from Villoteau’s illustration and Fétis’ instrument, no other Egyptian kemangeh roumysin the shape of a viola d’amore are known. Consequently, Fétis’ kemangeh roumymay well be the first (and only?) one brought to Europe. It may have been of Austrian production, and may have traveled from Vienna to Alexandria and then to Brussels.
After Fétis’ death in 1871 his sons Édouard and Adolphe sold his musical instruments to the Belgian State. In 1873 they were accommodated in the library of the Conservatoire royal de musique. In 1877, the collection, including the kemangeh roumy, became part of the Conservatoire’s new Musée instrumental.
Text: Saskia Willaert, Fañch Thoraval, Anne-Emmanuelle CeulemansFull research