Music of Iran


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Iran is a country characterized not only by its millenary civilization but by its ancient culture and by its refined Persian music and instruments.

Traditional Persian music and its instruments as a reflection of its heritage, has very deep roots in the country and highlights a particular disposition and taste for all the different periods of its history.

A classic image of Iranian figurative art is that of the man or woman musician, indifferently magnificently dressed in silk and brocades, crouched in a flower garden or on a splendid carpet, holding a musical instrument.

Representations of musical instruments are found in ancient archaeological evidence, a Susa, on the bronzes of the Lorestan, in Taq-e Bostan, as well as in the works of the great painters of the Qajar period.

Like poetry, Persian music is a distinctive trait of Persian culture, a symbol of a civilization that has extended over vast territories for centuries and whose influence has gone beyond the territorial boundaries of the empires that flourished under it. Through the history of the musical instruments it is possible to reconstruct the ties and contacts that civilizations have established between them; the ability of the craftsmen, of the great master luthiers, combines musical theories, philosophical thought, constructive techniques coming from different geographical and cultural spheres, modifying, refining and reworking influences that testify exchanges between cultures, mutual knowledge and individual evolutions.

Iran, located exactly in the geographical point of union between Europe, Africa and Asia, possessed a vast territory occupied by numerous ethnic groups and communities endowed with their own well-defined cultural identity and distinct from that represented by the properly Persian culture, in fact, there are Kurds, Azeris, Jews, Arabs, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Baluchi, and on the coasts of the Persian Gulf some groups of African origin.

To be considered also the not negligible presence of community Christian, Jewish, zeroastriane, Nestorian, Manichean and Buddhist, rooted in the territory for more than a millennium, which goes on to increase the index of heterogeneity.

History and musical traditions of Iran

Antonio Di Tommaso

Music in ancient Persia

There are numerous archaeological finds that inform us about the contexts and instruments of musical practice in ancient Persia and Persian music, and which provide concrete confirmation of the literary testimonies received by us through the writings of Greek authors such as Herodotus, Athenaeus and Xenophon, and by certain Muslim authors who lived in the Middle Ages, such as the Persian poet Firdousi, who drew their knowledge on ancient Persian music from sources of oral tradition.

Persia, Music and Islamic Civilization

The history of Persian music in Islamic civilization was characterized by the presence of an urban court music which seems to have maintained, in a period going from the 8th to the 16th century, a certain homogeneity of language, such as to allow us to speak of a single music classic, sponsored from time to time by the courts of the Abbasids, the Jalairids, the Timurids, the Ottomans and the Safavids.

Music theory

The Abbasid caliph al-MaMun founded in Baghdad in the 832 la Bayt al-hikma; o House of Wisdom, or a laboratory of Arab translators who for generations dealt with adapting Greek and Aramaic texts in Arabic, perpetuating the work of translating Greek knowledge already undertaken in the centuries before the Egira (622) by Syriacs and Nestorians.

Persian Classical Music The Safavid period

Reign of the Safavid kingdom marked a new period of splendor for the musical life of the court in the cities of Iran. Already with Shah Esrnàil I (1502-1524) the city of Tabriz became a rich musical center: this sovereign held in high regard the music of the Ashiq, or of the Azeri bards, and he himself delighted in writing verses about mystical love and the shah, and in playing the lute with the long handle SÀZ or QOPÙZ. It was also at this time that Persian musical practice definitely influenced the younger music of the Turkish-Ottoman courts, which housed numerous Persian musicians and singers in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Persian Classical Music The Qajar period

With the Afghan invasion and the fall of the Safavids in 1722, the rich musical tradition of Isfahan seems to have disappeared, with the movement of many masters to the courts of Turkey, Central Asia and Kashmir. During the brief reigns of the Afsharide and Zand dynasties (from the 1737 to the 1794) the Persian classical music definitely disappears from the historical scene, to reappear in the nineteenth century at the court of the Qajar. It is in this phase of transition between the Safavid and Qajar kingdoms that there is a clear separation between the three great Turkish-Ottoman, Iraqi and Persian musical traditions: from the 18th century onwards they will develop independently.

Persian Classical Music The radif

Despite being a set of musical units or Gushe-ha (plural of Gushe, which means "corner") with each of a title, the radif turns out to be a decidedly more complex entity than a simple repertoire-model, or a simple modal system. Its function is not only to allow the conservation and learning of a corpus of compositions and to provide models and common bases for execution (which is characterized by a high degree of extemporaneousness);

Performance and musical teaching

The execution of classical Persian music is, traditionally, reserved for private rooms strictly occupied by a very limited audience of connoisseurs: in houses, in gardens, once in the courts of sovereigns and music lovers. The performers are usually a singer accompanied by one, two or three instruments with a decidedly little voluminous tone; you sit on the floor in an environment decorated with showy carpets and the contact between musicians and listeners is practically colloquial.

The principle and the sense of melodic ornamentation in Persian music

As in most musical traditions belonging to the cultures of the East, Persian classical music is homophonic. Nevertheless it presents a high degree of sophistication, which is not given as much by the length and variety of the melodic lines and by the complexity of the rhythmic cycles, as it is for other rich oriental classical traditions, but from the principle of ornamentation, whose meaning is enclosed in the very simple “traditional” maxim reported by Dariouche Safvate: «what is played is not important, but How it is played ».

The traditions of poetry sung

The musical tradition of Iran, in urban as in rural contexts, is inextricably linked to poetry. Some medieval literary sources (Qutb al-Dìn Shirazi; Nezami) show us the importance that the poetry sung covered already in the Sassanid era: 360 were the "arias" called Dastan composed by Barbad, one for each day of the Zoroastrian year.

Persian Musical Instruments

The musical instrument is an object that faithfully records and reflects the evolution of a territory's civilization. Describing such a vast and complex subject in just a few lines, as it involves a multitude of aspects, requires identifying which are the ones that allow us to reconstruct the most evident traces in a path made of time and place. As the signs left by the performer and by time on the body of an instrument allow us to reconstruct the story as it is on the body of this instrument of Persian music which is the territory of Iran, the instruments are the signs of an ancient civilization capable of expanding in the neighboring territories its original features by virtue of a poetic and refined cultural domination.

What makes the topic of Persian music complex is the presence in the present Islamic Republic of Iran, of a great variety of ethnic groups and regions with very accentuated characteristics: the Persian official language, it is spoken by little more than half of the population and other languages ​​characterize strong cultural identities like those of Azerbaijan, Baluchistan, the Turkmen Plateau (Iranian), the Kurdistan (Iranian), the regions of the Persian Gulf, all regions whose ethnic groups cross territorial borders, making national membership more uncertain. ...

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Traditional music in Iran

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