Persian Music from an Ancient to a Modern Narrative
The melodic rhythm of Persian music is sufficient to enchant the heart and ears of every listener and remind us that Persia is one of the world’s oldest civilizations that has enhanced the spiritual growth of mankind for centuries through the production of the finest art and literature. This mesmerizing music has a long history developed hand in hand with the history and politics of Persia that discloses the untold realities in the form of melody and sound. We can look at Persian music from two periods: pre-Islam and post-Islam.
As the Aryans moved toward the southern province of Fars, they got familiar with the Elamite, and Assyrian civilizations, leading to cultural and musical interchange. In this period, music was not an independent art, rather it was performed along with local hymns at military and religious ceremonies. Several gold and silver objects have been found from this era that is believed to be signal horns used for hunting and warfare.
Historical evidence confirmed that ancient Iranian has the richest musical culture and knowledge from the early time. This is supported by the bas-reliefs and other artifacts dating back to the Achaemenid period (559-331 B.C) that demonstrate a set of people playing trigonal harps, large tambourines, long-necked lutes, and double-flutes. It seemed that for the Achaemenians (559-331 B.C), music had a special position in different facets of their everyday life from entertainment and royal and national events to religious ceremonies and rituals. Epic Hymn was read aloud for arousing a sense of bravery and valor among soldiers.
At the time of Cyrus, the Great, trumpets and kettledrums were played to signal an attack on the battlefields. Training the brass instruments due to their prevalent use in warfare was strongly important. It was during this period some concepts from Greek music were introduced to Persia, but it seems that the influence of Persian music outweighed the Greek one. After the Achaemenid empire was overthrown by the Alexander of Macedonia, Greeks learned the kettledrum and Kus from Iranians. According to bas-reliefs found in Ilam, the most common instruments in this era were, namely tarp, tambourine, kettledrum, and trumpet.
The Sassanid empire is the last ruling monarch in Persia before the advent of Islam in Iran. Persian Music reached its culmination during the Sassanid period, and it is considered its golden age. Sassanid kings showed great enthusiasm for the promotion of Persian music. Musicians and players were called Konyagar and Rameshgar, which means minstrel, the former is a Pahlavi word, and the latter is a Persian word. It is narrated when Ardeshir Babakan classified the courtiers and elders into privileged classes, due to his passion for music, he promoted the status of Rameshgaran and Konyagaran so that they were considered equal to the courtiers.
Ardeshir Babakan categorized the government officials into seven categories, the special ministers of the king and the court were in the first row of this classification. After them, the great Zoroastrian cleric and the Chief Judge, and in the third row, important government officials, each of whom ruled in a certain territory of the country, along with their deputies, and in the next rank, singers and musicians, or anyone whose job was related to music. They were placed in a row where the highest officials of the government were placed.
At the time of Bahram Gure, a large number of minstrels from India were brought to Iran for his royal court. These minstrels that came to Iran were called Kawli or Kabuli and Lori or Loli (referring to the fact that they later settled in Lorestan). Also, at the time of Khosro Parviz, musicians were the highest class of the court and they played music and presented Persian poetry to the king at important ceremonies such as Mehregan and Nowruz.
Great musicians lived during this era such as Nima, Barbad, Sarkesh, Bamshad, Ramtin, and Azadeh. Barbad composed 360 banquet melodies for each day of 12 months of the Sassanian calendar, which is called 360 tones. His masterpiece is still sustained in the form of musical Dastgahs in Iran. Barbad’s Dastgahs, also known as Khosravani’s Hymn, is the first music modal system in the world.
Nakisa was another great musician, composer, harpist, and singer of the Sassanid Era, whose name is mentioned in the famous Iranian literary and history books such as Khosrow and Shirin by Nazemi, and Shirin and Khosrow by Amir Khosrow Dehlavi. The most popular instruments in the Sassanid period included the harp, Konar, Tanbour, Barbat, Ney, and Tombak. Some of them such as Tanbour, Barbat, Tombak, and Ney are still used in Persian music.
The emergence of Islam in Iran brings about the integration of the music of Arabs and Persians. The integration of these two musical styles has always brought the question that which music has influenced the other one. This confluence lasted for two centuries till the flourishing period of the Abbasid caliphate at Baghdad. It seems that while caliphs were considering the theological disputes regarding musical activity, eagerly favored music in the royal court. Even, a few caliphs were musicians themselves. Ibrahim al-Mausili (d.804) and his son Ishaq al-Mausili were the most appreciated Iranian musicians in the court of the Abbasid caliphs.
During the Islamic period great Islamic music theorists such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Safi al-Din, greatly contributed to the body of knowledge on Persian music. Al-Kindi is considered the foremost Islamic music theorist, whose treatises are the first notation about music found in Arab sources. It is narrated that he added a fifth string to the Oud instrument. Al-Farabi is called the second master after Aristotle, who was known as the first master, his book Kitab al-Musiqa al-Kabir (Grand Book on Music) is also a great masterpiece in the Islamic period in which every aspect of music is described.
The Mongol occupation of the Abbasid Caliphate terminated the Islamic period. Two paradoxical features of the Mongol rulers need to be pointed out. On one hand, the Mongol rulers at Samarkand royal court paid special attention to the promotion of art and culture by motivating the men of letters and artists. On the other hand, to hold their empire, Mongol rulers attacked the cities and destroyed all important places such as mosques, palaces, and more importantly the great libraries. Hundreds of thousands of priceless manuscripts and books were thrown into the river. With this situation, the legacy of Persian music during this period remained undocumented.
Although Iranian architecture and fine arts reached their peak during the Safavid dynasty, it seems that Persian music experienced its lowest point and this is due to the religious atmosphere ruling the country. Safavid rulers recognized the Shia branch of Islam as the official religion of the country to bring unity to the whole society. As a result, music lost its position in society and became the profession of illiterate entertainers.
Qajar and Pahlavi periods
During the Qajar period, Persian music started to be revitalized and got back its social respect and approval. The Activity of musicians in the royal court resumed. During the reign of Nasir ed-Din Shah (1848-1896), Western music was introduced into Iran, a school of music was founded in Tehran, and many French musicians such as Alfred J. B. Lemaire were employed to train military band players and music instructors. Mirza Abdullah Farahani (d. 1917) and Ali Naqi Vaziri (b. 1886) are two prominent figures of these periods who took outstanding measures in a way that Persian music firmly established its glorious status despite the rise and fall of history. Mirza Abdullah Farahani collected and categorized all the melodies and assembled a large repertoire of traditional pieces. This assemblage is named Radif which is the basis of Iranian classical music known in Persian as Musiqi-e Sonnati.
The classical Persian music system includes Radif, Gusheh, and dastgahs. Radif, meaning “series” or “row” in Persian languages, involves a repertoire of all Iranian classic melodies. This repertoire, by itself, is consisted of 400 short pieces known as Gusheh, meaning “corner” in the Persian language, which is differentiated based on their characteristics. All these Gusheh are categorized into 12 Dastgahs, meaning systems in the Persian language.
During the Pahlavi period, Ali Naqi Vaziri also contributed to Persian music greatly. Ali Naqi Vaziri started to modernize Persian music. He established a conservatory to instruct Persian music based on the notation and styles of western music. For the first time in Iran, he held music classes for women and also organized an orchestra including the violin, cello, flute, piano, and tar. In the late 1970s, despite the widespread production of Iranian National Television and Radio to promote Iranian classical music, this genre of Persian music did not gain that much interest from people, and all the cabarets of Tehran were overwhelmed with Western-Iranian Pop music.
Persian Music after the 1979 revolution
After the Islamic revolution of 1979, Islamic ideologies and doctrine were inspiring the country, and there was a prevalent belief that anything inspired by western ideologies should be eliminated from Iranian society. So, non-classical music such as Pop music experienced a great decline. Many musicians and university professors immigrated to other countries and the music department at Tehran University got closed. On the other hand, after 1988, Iranian classical music again witnessed considerable growth. Many great musicians and singers such as Mohammad Reza Shajarian, Mohammad Reza Lotfi, Hossein Alizadeh, and Faramarz Payvar, among others, appeared and flourished on the path of Classical music.