Persian classical music | Persian Music

Afshin Ardalan. (2012, Spring).Persian Music Meets West


We do not know very much about the earliest Persian civilization music. Great music scholars like Farabi (tenth century), Ebne-Sina (eleventh century) and Sa- fioddin Armavi have left us very important musical knowledge, but there is not any credible document before Farabi. The Persian Empire of Achamenean dynasty (550-331 B.C.) has revealed almost nothing about their music. But Greek histori- ans have written some about Persian classical music; as Herodotus mentioned the religious rituals of Zoroastrians which involved a chanting of sacred hymns and Xenophon in his Cyropedia speaks about the martial and ceremonial music of the Persian Empire. The first documents from the Persian music which have come to us are from the Sassanian Period (A.D. 226 642). In the court of Sassanian they hired musicians such as Barbod, Nakisa, Ramtin and… Barbod the most illustrious musician in the court of Chosrous 2. Numerous stories have been told about his skills as a per- former and composer, he organized a musical system containing seven modal structures known as Royal tones (Xosrovani), thirty derivative modes (Lahn) and three hundred and sixty melodies ( Dastan). The numbers correspond with the number of days in a week, a month and a year. (Farhat 1990, 3) After the Arab invasion of Persia, for almost six centuries Persia was nominally in the framework of the vast Islam Empire; Arabs found a more advanced culture compared with that of their own. Persian musicians were imported to any corner of the Islam world. When the seat of the Caliphate moved from Damascus to Baghdad, within the former Persian territory, Persian musicians and scholars in all fields became the dominant figure in the formation and development of Islamic culture. (Farhat 1990, 3)


From the sixteenth century to almost the beginning of the twentieth century, mu- sical scholarship seems to have suffered a decline. During the period of Shiite as- cendancy, however, the musical performance was patronized by the imperial court and by the nobility both in the Safavid dynasty (1501-1722) and the Qajar dynasty (1785-1925). In fact the twelve Dastgah were presented in the Qajar period, but on the other hand musicians were isolated and the Persian music was under a cloud of suspi- cion. British orientalist writer, Edward Brown, has written: Sultan Ibrahim-Mirza was a poet, industrialist, calligrapher and musician who was killed by his brother Shah Ismaeil second Safavi in the year 1976. (Farhat 1990, 17) ( Khaleqi 1955, 18) At the time of Nasereddin Shah (1264H.GH), Amir-kabir who was the prime min- ster of Persia, established the Darolfonun School. When Amir-kabir knew about the academic education system in Europe he decided to improve the education system in Persia and to study new sciences like engineering math and new medi- cal sciences in order to train specialists in these categories as well as army offic- ers. He hired teachers from Austria and France. Unfortunately he was fired from his job by the conspiracy of the courtiers, sent to the Kashan and killed there. An- yway, some years later, when there was a need for the military bands, the music school in Darolfonun was established. In this school they hired a French musi- cian: Jean Babtiste Lemire and two Austrian musicians. The aim of this school was to train wind musical instrument players for military bands and trainers to manage these bands. In this time the first music theory book was published for the students, translated from Lemire’s lessons to Persian with the original French texts. Later more European teachers were hired to teach Solfege and theory. It should be mentioned that Jean Babtiste Lemire for the first time, wrote some Persian songs for Piano, at the period of Mozaffar-eddin Shah. This music school had been a part of the Darolfonun School but later it worked under the culture minister and gained the name: Music School which was the first academic organization in musical education. (Khaleghi 1955, 164) In the beginning of the twentieth century, during Pahlavi’s dynasty (1925-1979), modernization and westernization led such musical happenings as establishing the Tehran conservatoire and symphony orchestra besides traditional music concerts. After World War II musical life in Tehran in particular was comparable to that in large European cities; a very active opera company, a fine symphony orchestra, a ballet company, chamber music groups, music festivals and concerts by visiting international artists provided a crowded musical life for the capital. Since the revolution of 1979, music has been placed once more in a position of disfavour. Only a certain amount of Persian music activities which are in the service of the state’s ideology promotion is being encouraged. (Khaleghi 1955, 170) (Farhat 1990, 17)

Persian Music Types

In fact there are two main distinct types of Persian classical music: rural folk music and urban art music. The folk music of Persia has a great variety because of its population and diverse ethnic groups, and the Traditional Persian Music is a body of pieces which have been transmitted from generation to generation by the memory of a limited number of musicians and it included 12 Dastgah. These are modes and they have nuclear melodies which the performers perform and modulations, so called Gushe, which any performer can freely improvise through. For sure the folk Persian music of different parts of Persia is also subjected to definition by the Dastgah concept, but it consists of particular songs, like any other kind of folk music. 3.1 Persian folk music Iran is such a vast country with many ethnic tribes of people who live in different parts of the country and each ethnic group has its own culture and music. The music of each part of Iran varies with the language and dialect of the area. Persian folk music consisted of certain songs which could be used in weddings, funerals, religious events, harvest, fishing or….it can only be sung by a singer or played on an instrument or in an ensemble depending on the situation.(Farhat 1990, 2) Among the folk Persian music types we can name for example Azeri, Kurdi, Ba- luchi, lori, Gilaki, Mazani, Khorasani, Qashqai, Torkman, folk music of southern Iran and more. It is very easy to find the roots of rural classical Iranian music in the folk music. In fact musicians have gathered the Dastgahs by collecting Maqami music from different parts of Persia. There are a great amount of very beautiful tunes in Persian folk music which some Persian and non-Persian composers have used in their compositions, and which musicians have arranged some nice melodies for different instruments, singers and other ensembles, including traditional Persian or other western ensembles.

3.2 Traditional art music in Persia The tradition of Persian classical music embodies in twelve modes: so called Dastgahs. Each Dastgah contains some certain melodies which a musician can perform en- tirely, improvise around them or compose some music based on the character of the Dastgah. Each Dastgah contains some melodies known as Gusheh from which it is possible to do a modulation to the other ones. In Persian music any performer represents skeletal melodies with great variation, depending on the freedom and his personal interpretation. Within the modal restraints the music is fluid, subjective and highly improvisatory. Therefore the wealth of this music is not in complex rhythmical patterns, nor in polyphony which it does not employ, but in the many modal pos- sibilities and the cultivation of embellished melodies in a very illusive and per- sonal way. Each Datstgah has its own proper name and it opens with an introduc- tory piece; a so-called: Daramad(entry). Twelve Persian music Dastgahs are: Shur, Segah, Chahargah, Homayun, Näva and Rast-Pandjgah. Four of the five remaining are classified as Derivatives of Shur: Dashti and Abuata, and the last one is derivative of Homayun: Bäyate-Efahan The pieces which have been collected to represent the skeletal melodies of Iranian classical music Dastgahs are called Radif. The pieces, other than Daramad, in each Dastgah are Gusheh in which, as already mentioned, it is possible to modulate to other Dasdtgahs. Other Persian music pieces’ terms which are frequently used are: Pish-Daramad(overture), Chahrmezrab(four strokes, rhythmic instrumental piece), Zarbi(Rhythmic), Reng(Dance), Tasnif (Ballad).(Farhat 1990, 2)

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