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ClassicsOnline Home » THAILAND Fong Naam, Vol. 5: The Mahori Orchestra
The History of Siamese Classical Music Vol. 5:
The Mahori Orchestra
 The Spirit of Unity Overture - Kwan Meuang
(The Small Mahori Ensemble)
This work is composed by the greatest composer of the Ratanakosin
Period, Phra Pradit Pairoh. It was probably composed during the latter part of
the reign of King Rama the Fourth (1851-1868) or the first part of the reign of
King Rama the Fifth. At that time Phra Pradit Pairoh was teaching a Mahori
Ensemble which was made up of women.
The group was to play in a musical competition among court
orchestras which was a popular form of entertainment. It so happened that Phra Pradit
Pairoh's younger brother, Kru Pheng, had just composed a new overture: Pama Wat
which was a virtuoso work appropriate for the Piphat Ensemble. (This piece is
performed in volume 3 of this series.) In the Kwan Meuang Overture, Phra Pradit
Pairoh takes the general melodic contours of Pama Wat and spins them into a
gentler fabric which emphasizes depth of musical thought and sensitive interpretation
and is thus appropriate for a Mahori orchestra made up of female musicians.
 Royal Elephant Lullaby - Glom Chang (Kap Mai Ensemble)
The appearance of an albino or white elephant has always
been considered to be most auspicious and the animal is thought of as being a
symbol of the glory of the king. There are, therefore, elaborate royal
ceremonies associated with the blessing of new white elephants that are
received into the royal palace. The song heard here is taken from these royal
ceremonies. The text explains how rare it is to discover a white elephant and
how it portends good fortune for the reigning king.
 The Jampanari Flower (The Mahori Ensemble of Four
This song is taken from one of the standard mahori suites
entitled Saming Thong. Originally the piece was part of an older and longer
suite (called "phleng reuang" in Thai) for the Piphat Ensemble
entitled Kaek Mon. It consisted of five sections. The version in the mahori
suite, however, contains on I y sections four and five of the older work.
 The Sad Nobleman - Phya Soak (Solo for Saw Sam Sai)
Originally a "song chan" piece, i.e. a piece where
the ching is heard on every beat (please refer to the notes in volume 3 for acomplete
explanation of the Thai rhythmic theory concerning the three levels). The work
was taken from the ancient suite or Phlang Reuang called Phya Soak. The version
heard here is in "sam chan" indicating that the ching is only heard
on every other beat. It is most probably an elaboration composed by Phra Pradit
Pairoh. It has become a standard solo work for almost every member of the Thai instrumentarium
not only because of the technical challenges connected with the performance of
its ever modulating melody, but also because of the rare and tragic atmosphere
 The Floating Moon - Bulan Loy Leuan
(The Mahori Ensemble of Eight Instruments)
The special history of this beautiful melody has made it one
of the most beloved tunes in all of Thai music. It was composed by King Rama The
Second (1809-1824) who was a very fine saw sam sai player. It came to him in a
dream one evening after he had been playing with a court mahori orchestra. In
his vision His Majesty saw a band of angels playing in a heavenly mahori
orchestra in the light of the full moon. His Majesty arose from his bed
immediately with the melody still ringing in his ears and picking up his own
instrument began bowing the song. The melody made such an impression on His
Majesty that he woke the royal musicians from their slumbers to memorize the
tune so as to insure that the melody would not fall back into the subconscious
with the break of day...
 The Lady Sea Serpent - Nang Nak
(The Mahori Ensemble of Six Instruments)
This work comes from a suite for mahori orchestra entitled Nang
Nak which most probably dates back to the Ayuthaya period. It is one of the
most often heard works in the mahori repertoire. It is often used in wedding
ceremonies during the time when friends and relatives of the bride and groom
pour waters of blessing over the hands of the newly married couple.
 Farewell Song: The Sun Behind the Clouds - Phra Artit
There are several standard farewell songs which were
originally used to close Sepha performances which have since become common to
repertoires of all the ensembles including the mahori. As a form the farewell
songs are characterised by alternating sections between the singer and the
ensemble and most especially passages where an instrument of the orchestra will
imitate quite precisely the ornaments employed by the singer. These types of
passages are referred to as "presenting the flowers". If one is familiar
enough with the text it can be imagined that the instrument is actually
"talking", echoing the words of the singer.
The nobleman, in whose employ the great Phra Pradit Pairoh
composed so many famous works, tired of the standard farewell songs and asked Phra
Pradit Pairoh to compose a new work. The title of this work refers to the image
seen on the coat of arms of this patron.
Sunthrawathin - Saw Sam Sai (Three-Stringed Fiddle) in tracks 3, 5, 6, 7.
Arunrat - Saw Sam Sai in track 4.
Phuakthongkham-Renat Ek (Soprano Xylophone) in tracks l, 5, 7.
Gaston-Khong Wong Glang (Middle Gong Circle) in tracks l, 7, and the Glass Renat
in tracks 5.
Wongwirojruk-Jakay (Three-Stringed Zither) in tracks l, 7, and the Grajapi
(Lute) in tracks 3, 5, 6.
6. Peep Konglaithong-Khlui
(Fipple Flute) in tracks l, 5, 6, 7.
Pumani-Saw Sam Sai in track 1.
Narkong-Thon, Ramana (Pair of Drums) in tracks l, 7, and Khong Wong Glang in
9. Phin Ruangnon-Thon,
Ramana in track 4.
10. Silipi Tramoj-Saw
Sam Sai in track 2.
11. Siriporn Wacharothai-Bantaw
(Shiva's Drum) in track 2.
12. Lerkiat Mahawinichaimontri-Saw
Duang (Soprano Fiddle) in track 1, and Thon, Ramana in tracks 3, 6, and Grajapi
in track 7.
13. Anuwat Prabnarong-Saw
U (Alto Fiddle) in track 1, and Thon, Ramana in track 5.
Klaiseethong singing in track 2.
Tapporn singing in tracks 5, 7.
Shivakanon singing in tracks 3, 6.
Drawings of the
Instrument Mahori Ensemble
- Finger Cymbals
Wong - Gong Circle
Puang - Noise Maker
Ek - Soprano Xylophone
Sam Sai - Three-Stringed Fiddle
Kaew - Glass Xylophone
Duang - Soprano Fiddle
- Finger Cymbals
Wong - Gong Circle
U - Alto Fiddle
Puang - Noise Maker
7. Thon-Ramana - Drums
8. Renat Ek - Soprano Xylophone
9. Saw Sam Sai - Three-Stringed Fiddle
10. Jakay - Zither
Kap Mai Ensemble
1. Saw Sam Sai - Three-Stringed Fiddle
2. Bantoh Drum - Shiva's Drum
History of the Mahori Orchestra
The Mahori Ensembles have, since the earliest times, been
associated with the royal courts. The sweet sounds of the strings blending with
plucked instruments and percussion created a pleasant harmony appropriate for
accompanying gentle melodies sung in the cool of the evening to grace the
atmosphere of the palace as members of the royal family retired to their
bed-chambers. Thus, if one were to characterize the nature of the Mahori
repertoire in general, it could be thought of as a tradition of sophisticated
lullabies first used in the courts of ancient Siam.
The original meaning of the word Mahori has been much
discussed and as yet no one has been able to verify where the word comes from
or what it refers to. At present it is used by musicians as a technical term
denoting an ensemble in which all four of the sound gestures are represented.
As has been pointed out earlier in this series, classical Thai music theory
categorizes its instruments according to four basic actions used to produce
sound: plucking, bowing, hitting and blowing. The various standard orchestral
combinations grow out of this conception of instrumental families and may be
divided into three main groups. First, the Piphat Ensembles, used for sacred
rituals and theatre, employ percussion and winds exclusively. The String
Ensembles, however, are made up of a different pair of gestures: bowing and
blowing. Finally, the Mahori group of ensembles is made up of instruments
coming from all four types of sound- producing movements.
Where did this idea of an orchestra which contains all four
of the instrumental families come from? Certainly, it was not an impulse toward
the symphonic idea, as occurred in the history of western orchestral music. To
find parallels of that nature one would have to look to the orchestras of the Sepha
tradition as discussed in volume 4 (Marco Polo 8.223200) of this series.
Perhaps the association of the Mahori with courtly lullabies prevented its
development along the lines of an orchestra as an unique and ever varying blend
of colours which could achieve an aesthetic value of its own, independent of the
voice it traditionally accompanied.
Be that as it may, Phya Damrong Rachanupap, the famous Thai
historian, has suggested that the concept of the Mahori as a complete
combination of four families of instruments probably developed by mixing the
ancient Kap Mai Ensemble with a folk instrument found both in Thailand and Cambodia
known as the Phin Nam Tao. Phin means harp or lute while the word Nam Tao
refers to a type of resonating gourd which is used in a way not unrelated to
certain Indian models. The instrument itself consists of one or sometimes two
strings stretched across a piece of wood. The unusual playing style requires
that the resonator, which is a gourd cut in half and attached to the stick, be
placed on the breast of a male player whose body then becomes a resonating
chamber as he accompanies his own singing. The Kap Mai Ensemble was always
connected with royal ceremonies, especially ritualized lullabies such as the
lullaby for an elephant used in the ceremonies connected with the discovery of
a white elephant which, according to traditional Thai beliefs, is considered to
be a very sacred animal, or the formal lullabies sung for a newly born child of
the king. This ensemble consists of three members only: singer, a Saw Sam Sai
(three-stringed fiddle) and the bantaw drum known as Shiva's drum.
When these two traditions merged, there came into being the
earliest of the Mahori Ensembles called the Four Instrument Ensemble. In this
group of instruments the Grajapi, another lute-like instrument, was substituted
for the Phin Nam Tao, which was too soft to balance with other instruments.
Also, the Thon or Tap (one-sided drum) replaced the Bantao Drum since it was
able to play more complete rhythmic patterns than the single pitched Bantao
drum. The Saw Sam Sai and a noise-maker called a Grap Puang completed the
quartet of four instruments. Later, this ensemble was expanded to the so-called
Six Instrument Ensemble by adding a second fiat hand-drum called the Ramana and
a bamboo fipple flute named the Khlui Piang Aw.
During the reign of King Rama the First (1782-1809) further
development of the Mahori orchestra resulted in the unusual Eight Instrument
Ensemble. Besides the instruments mentioned already there were added to this Mahori
group two other renats. The first was simply a smaller version of the renat ek
or soprano xylophone. This miniature sized renat was thought to blend more
happily with the delicate sound of the strings than the louder, larger
instrument used in the Piphat Ensembles. The second renat added to this
orchestra was the Glass Renat. Perhaps influenced by the glass gamelan which
appeared in Java in this period probably owing to the presence of the Dutch and
their blue glass, the Thais were experimenting with glass at the same time that
Mozart was composing his beautiful works for Benjamin Franklin's glass
harmonica. There is some ambiguity over the number eight since authorities
suggest that the Gong Circle was also employed in this ensemble. In our own
experience this certainly seems plausible since the longer resonating time of
the gongs helps to support the otherwise "too-dry" sound of the
glass. Was the Grap Puang just not counted? Could a parallel be drawn between
the Grap Puang and the uncounted Ching of the Five Instrument Piphat mentioned
in album number one of this series (Marco Polo 8.223197)? These can only be
matters for speculation since the Eight Instrument Mahori fell into disuse for
over 175 years until it was revived by Fong Naam who made an exact replica of
the only remaining instrument, which is kept in the National Museum and is
presently unplayable. This rare orchestral combination was heard again for the
first time in a concert given for HRH Princess Sirinthorn at the Tap Kwan Palace,
Nakorn Pathom, in January 1990.
In more recent times there have been other ever more
elaborate combinations of instruments for the Mahori. In general the Grajapi
has fallen out of use and has been replaced by the louder zither-like
instrument called the Jakay which had always formed the core of the Kreuang Sai
or String Ensembles. Other instruments from the Kreuang Sai such as the Saw Duang
(Soprano Fiddle) and the Saw U (Alto Fiddle) came into the Mahori ensembles
during the reign of King. Rama the Fourth probably with the "return"
of men to the Mahori orchestras. Originally, the Kap Mai Trios used for
accompanying royal ceremonies were played by men exclusively. During the Ayuthya
Period a royal decree prohibited female performers to appear in public
theatrical productions. Their talents were to be reserved for the eyes of the
king alone. Women were thus encouraged to take up instruments of the Mahori
ensemble instead of dancing and these orchestras gradually became the domain of
women only. When King Rama the Fourth lifted this ban on women taking part in
public theatre performances, men once again began to appear in the Mahori
groups to fill in the gaps created by the many women who went into theatre to
perform as dancers and singers. Be that as it may, in the court itself, a Mahori
ensemble comprised exclusively of women was maintained up into the modem era. Jaroenjai
Sunthrawathin, who plays the three-stringed fiddle in several of the works
heard here, was a member of the last official royal Mahori orchestra which was
disbanded in 1932 by HM King Rama VII when the country changed from an absolute
monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.
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THAILAND Fong Naam, Vol. 5: The Mahori Orchestra