A Mongolian term for chordophone used to refer to bowed string instruments and jew's harps. The two-string spike fiddle is called huur by Horchins, Buryats, Dörbets and Hotons, morin huur by Central and Western Khalkhas, and hil huur by Chahar, Manchu and Sünit Mongols of Inner Mongolia. In 1933 Berlinsky noted that the instrument was called khil in Khalkha; the term huur became standard during the communist era. The classical Mongol term hugur has occurred in Mongolian texts from the 13th century onwards. Whether this term referred to a two-string spike fiddle played with horsehair bow is not clear, although bowed instruments of the huqin type were included in the court orchestra of Khubilai Khan. The instrument found among groups in west Mongolia is predominantly referred to as Ikil.
1. Spike fiddles.
Mongolian fiddles with the general name huur comprise a variety of spike box-, bowl- or tube-bodied lutes, sounded by bowing. These occur among all Mongol groups but their modes of construction, styles and tunings differ.
(i) Box-bodied huur.
Traditionally, this instrument is used primarily by Eastern Mongols, including Central and Western Khalkhas, to accompany urtyn duu(long-song) and by Western Mongols to accompany the biy-dance and to imitate natural phenomena and animals. The huur were inherited within families, usually by the youngest son, who also inherited the family home. Players learnt by imitation; special teaching did not occur.
The box-bodied huur is usually trapezoidal in shape with the lower width greater than the upper. Manchu fiddles, with a body frame that broadens to meet the neck of the instrument, are an exception. A wooden handle pierces the wooden frame of the body which traditionally supports a hide soundtable and sometimes complete hide bodies. Instruments with skin tables produce soft, muted sounds suitable for playing inside the tent. In Inner Mongolia, snakeskin is used for the table. Two horsehair strings run from the end of the spike at the base over a bridge on the body, and then over a smaller bridge on the neck to two lateral tuning pegs. The instrument is bowed underhand using an arched bow. Tension of bow hairs is regulated by the little finger of the bowing hand.
The Mongolian musicologist Erdenechimeg listed 12 traditional huur tunings, converting the intervals between strings into pitches of western European notation (Table 1). Traditionally, these pitches were variable.
Although West Mongolian tuning (hög) is referred to as ‘left-handed’ or ‘wrong’ tuning (solgoi hög) in this classification, the same string position was described by Emsheimer for the fiddles of Zakchin, Chahar and Edsen-Gol Mongols.
The term moriny tolgoitoi huur (fiddle with horse's head) is shortened in common usage to morin huur (horse's fiddle) and is used to refer to those box-bodied spike fiddles with a horse's head carved at the upper end of the pegbox (see fig.1). Whether this practice is ancient or relatively modern is debated. Those arguing an ancient origin, suggest it was originally a shamanic instrument; those who argue for relatively recent use stress that Mongols decorate instruments with symbols relevant to era, and suggest that earlier symbols included moon, sun, Garuda, swan, sea-serpent, and the mythical half sea-serpent, half bee (matarzögii) of Mongolian folktales. Among some Eastern Mongol groups, for instance Chahar Mongols, the head of a dragon or sea-serpent is carved below the horse-head. This is situated either immediately above the place where the strings emerge or appears to spew the strings from its gaping mouth. The necks of Borjigin Khalkha fiddles are traditionally constructed in a swooping arch, which facilitated hanging it from the roof-ring in the round felt tent (ger).
Traditionally, Khalkha craftsmen make the body of the instrument from pine and use the hide of suckling camel, sheep or goat for the hairtsagny nüür (literally box's face) or to wrap around the body. The two strings are made from strands of black – or, less commonly, white – horsehair which run parallel to each other, rather than being woven. The thicker, deeper-sounding string, situated on the right in frontal aspect, has about 130 hairs and is traditionally referred to as ‘male’ (er). The thinner one, left of the deep string in the same aspect, has 105 hairs and is called ‘female’ (em).
Every Khalkha family decorated their morin huur with a silk ritual-scarf and situated it respectfully in the north-west of the ger, facing the hearth. Any male guest coming to the ger had to take the instrument in hand, whether able to play or not, because it symbolized success in his life.
During the communist periods in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, the morin huur became promoted to the level of a ‘national’ instrument. It was standardized in size and provided with f-shaped soundholes in a lacquered wooden soundboard, a soundpost inside and a tailpiece. As Emsheimer (1943) described, in the traditional playing postion ‘[The instrumentalist] supports the instrument on the ground with his left hand between his thighs, allowing it to rest lightly against his left thigh with the deep string towards him’ (fig.2). The neck of the instrument often rested on the player's left shoulder. A new playing position was devised in which the player sat on a chair, gripped the body of the fiddle between two knees and held the neck of the instrument at an angle to the body.
During the period of the Mongolian People's Republic (1924–90), Soviet specialists were brought in to produce instruments considered to be ‘modern’ and ‘improved’ to enable them to be played in orchestras along with western European instruments. The pitch was raised by about an octave and the tone was brought close to that of the violoncello. The wooden body and straight bow changed the tone of the instrument and enabled production of louder sounds suitable for the theatre. The famous morinhuurch Jamiyan, working with the Russian musicologist Smirnov, was pivotal in introducing the national style into schools, higher educational institutions and the theatre.
Similarly, at the onset of the Cultural Revolution in Inner Mongolia in 1966 changes in construction and tunings were made to adapt the horse-head fiddle to a western European sound-ideal. This included a reversal of the positions of the two strings and changes in finger technique for stopping strings (from using the inside of the finger to using the outside of the finger). In both Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, notes are now produced predominantly by a combination of lateral string-stopping, usually by the index and middle fingers, and stopping them from above by the annular and little fingers. The thumb is also used. Playing styles vary. Eastern Mongols, including Borjigins, Khalkhas and Darigangas, follow the vocal line of the urtyn duu and replicate its style.
In contemporary Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, the morin huur has developed a solo instrumental repertory.
(ii) Ladle-bodied huur.
Although the two-string ladle fiddle, shanagan huur, is often cited as an ancestor of the morin huur, its construction is quite different. Distributed mainly among Central Khalkhas during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the body of the shanagan huur was made from a single piece of wood in the shape of the large ladle used to stir mare's milk during the fermentation process with a skin table. In Sain Noyon Khan aimag (province), a type of shanagan huur was used called hunt huur (swan huur). The instrument represented a swan with the back of the body carved in the shape of a swan's wings and the neck of the instrument representing its neck. An instrument transmitted by several generations of a family in Arhangai aimag, central Mongolia, has the head of a dragon or sea-serpent (matar) carved at the upper end of the neck (fig.3). A two-string dragon-headed instrument sounded by a horsehair bow is described in the 14th-century Yüan shih. The contemporary instrument is made for use by folk ensembles in theatres and at folk festivals.
(iii) Tube-bodied huur.
Found predominantly in southern and Inner Mongolia, the tube-bodied four-string spike fiddle is played by males to accompany praise-songs (magtaal) and tales (üliger, holboo). The instrument's primary function is to accompany the vocal line but it also expresses musically the events and characters in the story. Texts, and consequently the music, are improvised to suit the occasion. The instrument was therefore never incorporated into folk-ensemble orchestras of the communist period.
The instrument is known by a variety of names: dörvön chihtei huur (literally four-eared fiddle) by Gobi Mongols, biwa (with bladder for body) by 18th-century Kalmyks, bisaanz by Baits, hyalgasan huur (literally horsehaired fiddle) by Darhats, hiil by Khalkhas and aralt huur (literally fiddle with an axle) by south-east Mongol groups. In some parts of Inner Mongolia, it is called huur or (when the hairs of the bow are not threaded through the strings) choor. It is also called ‘grandfather’ (övög etseg) of the huur.
Sometimes decorated with a horse's head, the instrument's four gutstrings are tuned in unison pairs, a 5th apart. The first, high string, on the right in frontal aspect, is paired with the third string, the second and fourth being paired bass strings. The strings pass over a small bridge – standing on a skin table – to four rear-inserted tuning-pegs at the top of the instrument; the neck, having traversed the body, protrudes at the bottom. As with the Huuchir, a string loop and metal ring, midway between pegs and body, pull the strings towards the neck. The cylindrical, octagonal or hexagonal body is wooden. Horsehairs of the curved bamboo bow are divided into two sections and threaded between the strings.
The musician uses the inside of the top knuckles, as well as the fleshy tips of the fingers, to produce a full, rich sound (hüngeneh, literally to make a hollow sound), and flicking or pizzicato-like (nyaslalt) actions that produce sounds similar to that of topshuur.
2. Jew's harps.
In contemporary Mongolia, the aman huur (literally mouth huur) is made either from bamboo (huls) or from cast and forged iron (tömör) and hence called hulsan huur or tömör huur (for the latter, see Pallas 1776). When it is decorated with a many-coloured tassel, it is called tsatsagt huur (tasselled huur). Dörbets of west Mongolia refer to it as aman topshuur (mouth topshuur). Manuscript references suggest that the aman huur was also constructed with bone and horsehair. In 1990 a metal jew's harp was discovered in one of 24 burial sites of the Hun era (3rd century bce – 1st century ce) close to Morin Tolgoi, Töv aimag in Central Mongolia.
In order to produce melodies, the player grasps the metal or wooden frame between the jaws, so that the lamella or ‘tongue’ is free to vibrate between the teeth. The oral cavity amplifies one of the harmonics produced by this action. On the bamboo instrument (see Jew's harp, figs.2 and 3), the lamella is a strip cut in and framed by a piece of bamboo. It is made to vibrate by jerking at a thin cord attached to the end of the base of the lamella. The lamella of the ‘forged’ metal jew's-harp is plucked with the finger and produces a louder sound than the ‘cut out’ bamboo type but is less rich in harmonics.
Occasions of performance vary. Among Southern Khalkhas, the aman huur is played in domestic celebrations instead of the morin huur, whereas among Dörbets of west Mongolia, the instrument is played within the tent but never in a celebration. It may be played while simultaneously enunciating the text of a yerööl (wish-prayer).
The aman huur is one of the few instruments played in secular and religious contexts by both men and women in all groups. It is frequently women who teach children to play. In southern Khalkha areas, where the playing-style is distinctive because of the influence of dance tunes (tatlaga), children learn by exciting the lamella in imitation of the gait of horses or movements of camels. Shamans play the jew's harp in a variety of contexts (see Mongol music, §5).
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