Catalogue of the Festival of Oriental Music,
University of Durham, UK
The artistic gift of the Persian people has produced a staggering literary heritage, an exquisite tradition of decorative arts and handicrafts, a superb legacy in architecture, and a refined musical culture whose influence is evidence as far away as Spain and Japan.
The history of musical development in Iran [Persia] dates back to the prehistoric era. The great legendary king, Jamshid, is credited with the "invention" of music. Fragmentary documents from various periods of
the country's history establish that the ancient Persians possessed an elaborate musical culture. The Sassanian period (A.D. 226-651), in particular, has left us ample evidence pointing to the existence of a
lively musical life in Persia. The names of some important musicians such as Barbod, Nakissa and Ramtin, and titles of some of their works have
With the advent of Islam in the 7th century A.D., Persian music, as well as other Persian cultural traints, became the main formative element in what
has, ever since, been known as "Islamic civilization". Persian musicians and musicologists overwhelmingly dominated the musical life of the Eastern Moslem
Empire. Farabi (d. 950), Ebne Sina (d. 1037), Razi (d. 1209), Ormavi (d. 1294), Shirazi (d. 1310), and Maraqi (d. 1432) are but a few among the array of outstanding Persian musical scholars in the early Islamic period.
In the 16th century, a new "golden age" of Persian civilization dawned under the rule of the Safavid dynasty (1499-1746). However, from that time until the third decade of the 20th century Persian music became gradually relegated to a mere decorative and interpretive art, where neither creative growth, nor
scholarly research found much room to flourish.
Since the early 20's, once again, Persian music began to find broader dimensions. An urge to create rather than merely perpetuate the known tradition, and an interest to investigate the structural elements, has
emerged. Fundamentally, however, what can be still
recognized as the national music of Iran [Persia] is the tradition of the past with marked imprints of 19th century performance practices.
This traditional or classical music represents a highly ornate and sophisticated art whose protagonists are professional city musicians. Prior to the present
century, such musicians were patronized by the nobility. Today, in a progressively modernizing society, they are generally engaged by broad casting and television media. They are also active as teachers both privately and at the various scholars and conservatories of music.
Perpetuated through an oral tradition, the classical repertoire encompasses a body of ancient pieces collectively known as the "radif" of Persian music.
These pieces are organized into twelve groupings, seven of which are known as basic modal structures and are called the seven "dastgah" (systems). They are :
Shur, Homayun, Segah, Chahargah, Mahur, Rast-Panjgah, and Nava. The remaining five are commonly accepted as secondary or derivative dastgahs. Four of them: Abuata, Dashti, Bayat-e Tork and Afshari are considered to be derivatives of Shur; and , Bayat-e Esfahan is regarded to be a sub-dastgah of Homayun. The individual pieces in each of the twelve groupings
are generally called "gushe", but each gushe has a specific and often descriptive title. A gushe is not a clearly defined musical composition; rather, it represents modal, melodic, and occasionally rhythmic skeletal formulae upon which the performer is expected to improvise. Thus, the radif submits an
infinite source of musical expression. The flexibility of the basic material and the extent of the improvisatory freedom is such that a piece played
twice by the same performer, at the same sitting, will be different in melodic composition, form, duration and emotional impact.
The principle involved in the construction of Persian modes is based on the concept of conjunct and disjunct tetrachords comparable to the ancient Greek system. Chromaticism is not used and an octave never contains more or less than seven principal tones. Contrary to a persistent popular notion no such a thing as a quartertone exists in Persian [Iranian] music.