Iranian music during the Qajar period

In any review of Iranian music during the Qajar period, the Constitutional Revolution is invariably considered as a defining moment:1 one of the causes of this revolution was Iranian society’s growing contact and acquaintance with Western ideas, which was accelerated by the revolution itself and influenced all social and cultural aspects of Iranian society. Thus, at this point, we shall review Iranian music during the Qajar period and post-Constitutional Revolution period.

Iranian music during the Qajar period can be classified into the following categories:

  • 1 motrebi music
  • 2 classical music
  • 3 religious music
  • 4 military marches.

Motrebi music was a kind of urban folk music during the Qajar period that was specially used in popular rites and festivities. It used to be played in groups and was accompanied by dances. Musicians playing in such groups were called the motrebs. Since men and women attended separately held festivals, we find distinct motrebi bands consisting of either men or women in this genre of music. During the Qajar period, the women’s motrebi bands were always greater in number and enjoyed a much higher prestige than the men’s bands.2 They could perform in privately held women’s festivities, harem celebrations, and even in the presence of the shah. Men’s bands could only perform in men’s private parties and certain other public ceremonies. A limited amount of information on these bands can be found in travelogues of foreigners visiting Iran during the Qajar period. Eugene Flandin, the French traveller, describes how a men’s motrebi band performed during his visit:

Very wealthy Iranians have two-three motrebs perform while having lunch. One member of the band is a vocalist, who sings uninterruptedly in praise of love, wine, and gallantry. ... [T]he concert played with their instruments does not produce a melodious sound. Iranian music is far behind what one could expect, mainly for two reasons: Firstly, it is scientific rather that imitative; secondly, it is being used by ordinary and common people who can’t do anything else; that’s why it has not been given the value and place it deserves. There’re quite few people who figure out what the music means and how it is played.3

The classical-music musicians constitute another category of musicians who, contrary to motrebs, in most cases performed as solo players. These musicians used to play on occasions other than festivities and ceremonials, among which one might mention the private performance of music for the shah before he went to bed, as well as private gatherings of the elite groups.4

These musicians enjoyed a comparatively higher reputation than the less- respected motrebs.5 The classical musicians played a quite significant role in the protection and maintenance of the repertoire of the Iranian classical music (radif), which in its existing form mainly results from their activities during the reign of the Qajar dynasty.

The third category of musicians was mainly performing in the genre of religious music, playing different types of music according to the respective ceremony such as ta‘ziyeh (the Iranian passion play), nowheh (lamentation),

rowzeh (sermons), monajat (prayers to God), and azan (call to prayers). Religious music in Iran was generally a vocal music, since in the Shi‘ite clergy singing was not considered as religiously forbidden (haram) and was therefore much more respected than instrumental music, which was regarded as haram. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries most Iranian singers had experience in the genre of religious music and were not considered as musicians in the eyes of the society; therefore, the term motreb was not used in reference to them. This provided an appropriate context for the protection and promotion of Iranian music, because the singers, active in this field, were fully familiar with the structure of Iranian classical music.

Another group of musicians that was active played military marches. The first phase of modernization of Iranian music took place in this field and was marked by the establishment of a Military March Department (Sho‘beh-ye Muzik) at the Dar al-Fonun school in 1868.6 Since the military march was taught in its Western form by a French officer named Alfred Jean Baptiste Lemaire, the Dar al-Fonun served as a stepping stone for the acquaintance of Iranian students with the theory of Western music and the introduction of certain Western instruments to Iran.7

An outstanding effect of the Dar al-Fonun was the introduction and circulation of the French term musique in Iranian society as a substitute for the traditional expression of the naqqareh khaneh (the kettle-drum band) music, which was in use until the 1870s. Accordingly, those performing musique were labelled as muzikchi-ha (musicians) and local musicians, in contrast, as motrebs. In fact, all musicians active in the field of motrebi music as well as the classical-music performers were called the motrebs in the society at large.

During the reign of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar the division between ‘amaleh-ye tarab for the motrebs and ‘amaleh-ye tarab-e khasseh for the classical musicians was consolidated, and the terms served as a sort of evaluation of the two categories, since the ‘amaleh-ye tarab-e khasseh received a much higher degree of respect at the royal court. However, to what extent this distinction was common within Iranian society is doubtful. Hence, those members of the upper classes who decided to learn the art of music usually kept it secret.8

Upon becoming familiarized with the theory of Western music, students of the Dar al-Fonun tried to apply what they had learnt to Iranian music. Hoseyn Heng Afarin, one of these students, began to transcribe the Iranian classical-music repertoire, based on the performance of Mirza ‘Abdollah, a celebrated setar player of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the field of classical music.9 Within the abovementioned four categories of music during the Qajar period, the introduction of military music in its Western form represents the beginning of the modernization of Iranian music, which entered the next phase simultaneously with the Constitutional Revolution.

The most significant event in the history of Iranian music during the pre- and post-Constitutional Revolution era was the effort of musicians to separate from performing at the royal court. There are numerous examples of such attempts: Darvish Khan, for instance, a popular tar player during the first decades of the twentieth century, sought asylum in the British Embassy in Tehran to find release from the duty of serving Mozaffar al-Din Shah’s son.10 The musicians were able to leave the royal court service due to the development of a new economic basis produced by changing social conditions during the twentieth century. These new social conditions, such as the influence of the growing Iranian middle class, were among the most effective factors in the formation of the Constitutional Revolution itself.

The most important economic channels opened up to Iranian musicians in the early twentieth century can be classified as follows:

  • 1 possibility of gramophone recording
  • 2 possibility of holding public concerts
  • 3 expansion of teaching music
  • 4 possibility of performing in modern bars, cafes, and restaurants.

The beginning of commercial gramophone recording in Iran in 1906 should be considered as a turning point in the development of Iranian music, and this also had a considerable impact on the Iranian musicians’ way of life. When reviewing the period of the developing gramophone recording between 1906 and 1914, a full separation of musicians from the court can be observed, even though the first recordings of musical works in 1906 took place under the direct authorization of Mozaffar al-Din Shah Qajar.

Voice recording sessions, that began in January 1906 in Tehran, were organized by the Gramophone Company through the agency of the American Vice-Consul, who was obliged to get the king’s personal permission for such recording sessions, because a number of court-affiliated musicians were involved in this kind of recording.11

During the next decade, however, the recording companies entered into direct negotiations with the musicians. Thus, following the conclusion of a contract with the Gramophone Company, a group of eight Iranian performers managed to record a number of Iranian musical works in 1909. The recordings took place in London.12 Indeed, within a short period after the Constitutional Revolution, circumstances enabled musicians to directly enter into contracts with foreign companies.

The next factor that transformed the situation of Iranian music after the Constitutional Revolution was the holding of public concerts.

The typical performance of classical music in earlier times was at a private concert, attended perhaps by several dozen persons, at the court or in the garden of an aristocrat. ... Early in the twentieth century, public concerts were instituted in imitation of European practice. ... A concert arranged by Darvish Khan in 1906 under the aegis of a Sufi circle called Okhovvat is still frequently mentioned as a landmark.13

As Bruno Nettl explains, public concerts were created to emulate Western culture by both the musicians and the audience, which was mainly composed of a middle class interested in experiencing music in public concerts similar to those in Western societies. The new social conditions for the performance of music led to such development in Iranian music that some researchers believe that the formation of the pishdaramad (prelude) form originated from the new presentation of music in public concerts.14

Recording music, the sale of gramophone records, and public performances facilitated Iranian society’s further acquaintance with music and musicians, strengthening their relations. This, most probably, played a significant role in encouraging individuals to learn music. Teaching music was practiced even prior to the Constitutional Revolution as well. According to the documents available, most of the musicians performing in the field of classical music, such as Mirza ‘Abdollah (setar) and Aqa Hoseynqoli (tar), had been teaching music during the closing years of the reign of Naser al-Din Shah, though invariably facing a number of social restrictions.15 Conditions for teaching music improved following the Constitutional Revolution and changes in Iranian social conditions, which provided opportunities for the musicians who were looking for new channels of subsistence during the late Qajar period. A fact worth mentioning in connection with teaching music in Iran is that during the reign of the Qajar dynasty the government did not take any initiatives to promote teaching music other than the military march. Music education was only unofficially expanded and developed in Iran after the Constitutional Revolution.

In addition to the abovementioned three factors, performing in bars, cafes, restaurants, and hotels also provided a channel for musicians’ subsistence during the late Qajar period. European-style cafes were opened in Iran in the closing years of Qajar period; they mainly provided their services to clients from among the middle and upper classes of Iranian society. The first cafe- restaurant in Tehran and probably in Iran, called Leqante, was opened on the southern side of Baharestan Square; it was described as:

[a] picturesque place with lovely nature and weather and a bunch of befitting clients from among politicians and high-ranking individuals such as those having travelled to Europe, regular governmental staff members, writers, intellectuals and activists, more or less similar to European cafes, where they could enjoy light music in addition to being served an afternoon snack or supper.16

These cafes became the new places of activity and performance for the musicians. Most of the famous musicians including Reza Mahjubi (violinist), Morteza Mahjubi (pianist) - both coming from aristocratic families - and Darvish Khan used to perform in such cafes.17

The post-Constitutional Revolution social conditions of Iran left their mark on motrebi music as well. The most important outcome of the emerging social conditions was the collaboration between the motrebs and the actors in a dramatic species known as the ruhowzi. In fact, the formation of ruhowzi was the result of collaborations between motrebi bands and actors who played in ruhowzi bands, who consequently produced a joyful musical show.

The subject of ruhowzi show is the performance of music and show in festivities such as weddings and feasts of circumcision held at private homes and on planks covered with carpets on the water basins and used as stage.18

As previously stated, women’s musical bands had always enjoyed a much higher degree of importance in motrebi music, but this changed with the advent of ruhowzi bands, and men performers were given a higher rank. This is due to the fact that ruhowzi shows were performed in the courtyards of private houses to an audience of both sexes: men and women could attend and participate in such ceremonies. Whereas the public performance of music by women was not allowed in those days, the men’s bands took advantage of the situation and became the main players in performing ruhowzi music.19 The social origins of ruhowzi performance, like those of motrebi bands, were in the lower classes of Iranian society.

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