One Hundred Years of Persian Classical Music

One Hundred Years of Persian Classical Music

Table of Contents

Persian Classical Music has flourished and evolved in the past hundred years. Unique and endemic to Iran, it is a high art form that has become a central aspect of Iranian national identity. In the Pahlavi era it was promoted through radio and television broadcasting as an important cultural element in nation building. Initially banned after the Islamic Revolution, it is now widely enjoyed throughout the country. It is mainly cultivated in urban centers, though Iran’s various regions have contributed to its development. While deeply rooted in tradition, Persian classical music is also dynamic and reflects innovative contributions of different schools of thought. This article seeks to elucidate some of the main musical activities and creations of Persian classical music and identify some of the individuals who developed it.

Expansion and Development in the Past Hundred Years

During the past hundred years Persian classical music has expanded its audience and developed substantially in practice, performance, dissemination, and scholarship. It has never disappeared nor become a thing of the past. Moreover, the Iranian musical masterpieces of the past one hundred years are not mere revivals of the past. They are innovative, with various degrees of inspiration from the past, and the so-called revivalists of Persian classical music such as Ali-Naqi Vaziri, Borumand and Safvat aided in their development into new creations. 

In the last decades of the Qajar dynasty (1789-1925), the country’s music included urban art music performed by distinguished court musicians known as amaleh-ye tarab-e khāseh (‘exceptional music workers’), urban popular music, folk music of different regions, and ceremonial and religious music of a few minorities such as the Yārsān or Ahl-e Haqq (‘People of Truth’) of northwestern Iran. Every genre had musicians who would only practice that style. Those who performed at court did not know about music of many of the minorities, and the folklorists of Khorasan in northeastern Iran did not know the repertoire practiced at the imperial court in Tehran. There were very few scholars of Persian music who could transcribe it and there was little known about the music of previous periods. Within every genre in each region or city there was not much variety of style.

The situation today is vastly different. There are about a dozen styles of playing the main instruments (tar, setar, and santur), and students need more than a decade of intense practice to master just one or two. Musicians who are trained in Persian classical music also are knowledgeable of the regional folk music and most classical repertoires include folk music. Dozens of dissertations and theses have been written in several languages about the history, theory, practice, and culture of every genre of Persian music, whether classical, popular, ceremonial or folk. Several festivals in Iran and abroad, such as the annual Fajr Festival in Tehran and the Tirgan Festival in Toronto, showcase numerous individual and group performances. Most major cities in Iran have orchestras performing in a variety of styles from Western classical to Persian classical. Most are privately sponsored. Several private music magazines and music journals are publishing monthly or quarterly. The first book of instruction for an instrument was published only a hundred years ago; today, there are dozens of books and digital applications for learning every Iranian instrument. The compendium of classical melodies, known in Persian as the radif, has been recorded and transcribed by a number of masters and has been arranged and rearranged for all Iranian instruments. It has been taught in a few music faculties outside Iran. What led to this flowering of Iranian musical knowledge and variety?

The Role of Ali-Naqi Vaziri

Ali-Naqi Vaziri (1887-1979), perhaps the most influential musician and music educator of twentieth century Iran, promoted the idea of an Iranian national music. In doing so, he contributed in an important way to the development of an Iranian national identity. He published modern teaching manuals on traditional modality and published books of scores, music theory and many articles. He published the first music score in Iran in 1922 (Ta’limāt-e Musiqi: Dastur-e Tār, “Music Education: Methodology for playing the Tar”). The multi-instrumentalist Vaziri also studied Western music in Europe for five years and wrote orchestral compositions that combined Western instruments with Iranian instruments. He composed hundreds of pieces in a variety of forms from children’s songs to virtuoso etudes for solo tar. He was a tar virtuoso whose technical dexterity to this day is considered unique. Vaziri believed that centuries of invasions of Iran by Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and Timurids had left “scars and sadness on Iranian culture,” but a new vibrant music could help to remedy that (Chehabi 1999, 147). 

One of Vaziri’s exceptional contributions to Iranian music was to elevate in society the status of art and musicians. He believed musicians should not perform only at the private homes of music lovers, but instead perform on stage for broader audiences. Hence, he founded the “Music Club,” (Kelāb-e Muzikāl) and organized public concerts. He was the first to introduce music to public schools and provocatively included women in public music culture. From 1924-1934 Vaziri was the head of the “State Music School” (Madrese-ye Musiqi-ye Dowlati) and was able to broadly disseminate his musical ideas. Though Vaziri is often regarded as a “modernist,” in fact he maintained a balance between modernists such as Qolām Hoseyn Minbashian (1907-1978), who wanted to completely replace Iran’s classical music with Western art music, and traditionalists such as Aref Qazvini (1882-1934), who believed Vaziri’s innovations were too radical, harming the essence of Persian music. 

While Vaziri wrote orchestral music that imitated the harmonic structure of Western music, he was also one the first Iranian musicians to transcribe the radif, the classical repertoire of art music that is “the principal emblem and the heart of Persian music” (Nettl 1987, 3). Vaziri believed that as Iranian society was going through a transformation to develop a national identity like other modern nations, music had to develop into an essential component of Iranian nationalism. 

As a pioneer, Vaziri had no one to imitate, and in the process of invention and creation he made a few missteps.  For example, two of his major ideas that have not been accepted are the categorization of Persian art music into five dastgāhs (modal systems), and second, the adoption of a 24-quarter-tone scale. Iranian musicians perceive the radif to consist of seven dastgāhs and five āvāz (auxiliary dastgāh), a total of twelve. They still tune their instruments according to the flexible intervals.  Vaziri’s students, Ruhollah Khaleqi (1906-1965) and Abol-Hasan Saba (1902-1957) enhanced the balance of tradition with modernization while avoiding some of Vaziri’s inaccuracies. Hormoz Farhat, who wrote the first dissertation about Persian classical music, nonetheless regarded Vaziri as an “extraordinary figure, quite unique among Persian musicians of the twentieth century” (Farhat 2003).

Roots of Innovation Prior to Vaziri

Such innovations in Persian music did not start with Vaziri. Even without the knowledge of Western music, Iranian musicians of the later Qajar period recognized the need for change, most notably among them Aref Qazvini and Qolam Hoseyn Darvish. Darvish’s innovations in music are remarkable and in a variety of forms, from adding the sixth string to the tar (which his master did not approve but became the standard of the instrument nonetheless) to inventing new musical forms such as a prelude (pishdarāmad) for opening a program. His two dozen compositions that have survived are among the most performed and recorded pieces to the present day. Two highly distinguished ensembles of the past one hundred years, Payvar, directed by Faramarz Payvar, and Sheyda, directed by Mohammad Reza Lotfi, have recorded all of Darvish’s works.

Synthesis of Music Styles; Beyond Tradition and Modernity

By 1970 there had emerged several schools of musical thought, mostly sponsored by various state institutions. Continuous, sometimes heated dialogue among these schools of thought created numerous new styles in performance and composition. Particularly during the Pahlavi period, music students were often encouraged by their mentors to learn different styles of practice and performance so that some of the students were able to merge two or more styles and create new ones. Iranian musicians were not simply modernist or traditionalist:  rather than copying their teachers, talented students of every style added new elements or highlighted different components of previous styles. 

Two of Vazir’s best students, Ruhollah Khaleqi and Abol-Hasan Saba, were close friends and prolific composers who were unique in their creations and contributions. Saba in his short life published several instruction books for Iranian instruments and taught students who dominated Iranian music in the following decades. Among them were Hoseyn Tehrani (1912-1974), Ali Tajvidi (1919-2006), Hasan Kasaei (1928-2012), Homayun Khorram (1930-2013), Faramarz Payvar (1933-2009), Parviz Yahaghi (1935-2007), Rahmatollah Badi’i (b. 1936). Of those who practiced a more classical version of Persian music, Ali Akbar Shahnazi (1897-1985) and Ahmad Ebadi (1906-1993) continued to teach the methods of their fathers, Hoseyn-Qoli and Mirza Abdollah, respectively. Ebadi eventually departed from his father’s path and developed his own unique style and is credited for popularizing the setar by virtue of his marvellous style of performance.

Centre for the Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music

In 1968, Dariush Safvat (1928-2013) established the Center for the Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music. Sponsored fully by Reza Qotbi (b. 1940), the director of National Iranian Radio and Television, the Center invited traditional masters such as Abdollah Davami (1891-1981), Yusof Forutan (1891-1977), Saeed Hormozi (1897-1976), Ali Akbar Shahnazi, Nur-Ali Borumand (1905-1977), Ali-Asqar Bahari (1905-1995), Qolam-Hoseyn Bigjehkhani (1918-1987) and Mahmud Karimi (1927-1984) to teach music to a group of select young and talented students.  The students of the Center became the architects of the classical music of post-revolutionary Iran, among them Mohammad Reza Lotfi (1947-2014), Majid Kiani (b. 1941), Hossein Alizadeh (b. 1951), Parviz Meshkatian (1955-2009), Jalal Zolfonun (1968-2012). Also, the prominent singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian (1940-2020) studied privately with the same masters at the Center and collaborated with the students there. These musicians were influenced by other styles of practice. For example, Hossein Alizadeh (b. 1951) learned the method of Vaziri at the Honarestān-e Musiqi (“Music Conservatoire”) and then studied the more classical styles of Qajar period under Nur-Ali Borumand and Ali Akbar Shahnazi. But he had also learned from Faramarz Payvar at the Honarestān-e Musiqi, whose creations and style were positioned between Vaziri and traditionalists. Alizadeh ultimately developed a unique style in composition and performance. The same unique style of creating music could be attributed to several students at the Center, notably Mohammad Reza Lotfi (1947-2014) and Parviz Meshkatian (1955-2009). 

National Iranian Radio and Television and Music

National Iranian Radio and Television (NIRT), Iran’s state broadcasting service during the Pahlavi period, played a significant role in the promotion and dissemination of Persian classical music. With Reza Qotbi as its director general, in the 1960s and 1970s, NIRT broadcast several programs that promoted classical Persian music and its musicians. The most significant were the Golha (“Flowers”) programs, founded by Davud Pirnia (1901-1971) and supported by Nosratollah Mo’iniyan (b. 1925), the director of the radio at the time. Programs included poetry recitation and literary commentary with a musical accompaniment. Most of the distinguished musicians, singers and literary critics of the time collaborated with Golhā. There were several different series of Golhā programs with slightly different content, such as Golhā-ye Jāvidān (“Immortal Flowers”), which was mostly a program for an elite and intellectual audience, and the widely popular Golhā-ye Rangārang (“Multi-coloured Flowers”), which had a more diverse repertoire and was designed for the general public. Golhā-ye Sahrā’i (“Desert Flowers”) was dedicated to folk songs of various regions. Other programs included Golhā-ye Tāzeh (“Fresh Flowers”), Barg-e Sabz (“Green Leaf”) and Yek Shākheh Gol (“One Single Flower”), which focused on a single theme for each program. Broadcast from 1956 to 1979, the Golha programs were especially influential in shaping the musical tastes of Iranians during the last Shah’s reign and for at least the first two decades after the revolution, too. In the past two decades, Jane Lewisohn has collected the programs and has made them available for public use in the Golha Project.

Indicative of its influence, Golhā became the standard for many amateur musicians across the country, who copied the music they heard on Golhā programs. Another significant contribution to the dissemination of musical knowledge was the monthly magazine Muzik-e Irān (“Music of Iran”), founded by Bahman Hirbod (1914-1974) and published from 1952 to 1965. A number of influential musicians and critics such as Abol-Hasan Saba, Ruhollah Khaleqi, Faramarz Payvar, Hoseyn Dehlavi, Dariush Safvat and Sasan Sepanta collaborated with the magazine. Those publications remain one of the most remarkable and informative archives of Iranian music of the past hundred years.

Music in the Post-revolution of 1979

Following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, the new regime put a halt to musical activities for about a decade, except for a very few activities in support of the regime’s ideologies. Many musicians were banned from the stage and music schools. A number of musicians left the country and continued their activities abroad, particularly those who were active in popular genres or were from minorities that the revolutionary regime persecuted for practicing their faith. Female singers to the present day have not been able to perform solo on stage except for female audiences. 

After the revolution, National Iranian Radio and Television became the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Many Iranian musicians have criticized it for what they consider low-quality music programing, for not showing the instruments being played, and for lacking educational programming that would support art and artists. 

Despite the Islamic Republic’s discouragement of music, the post-revolution era has not been simply a period of decline and deterioration. Many outstanding musical works were recorded in private spaces during the first decade following the revolution. Notable examples are Homāyunmasnavi (Mohammad Reza Shajarian and Mansur Saremi) and two of Shajarian’s most celebrated albums, Eshq Dānad with M. R. Lotfi and Āstān-e Jānān with Parviz Meshkatian and Naser Farhangfar. They were recorded live at the German and Italian embassies, respectively, during this period in Tehran. The albums Eshq Dānad, Sepideh, Neynavā, Āstān-e Jānān, Bidād, Dastān, Shurangiz, Gol-e Sadbarg were created in the first decade after the revolution. Such classical music masterpieces inspired thousands of youths to study music despite the absolute lack of support from the government. Although the Islamic Republic cut music from public school curriculums, it flourished in private schools. 

Political songs dominated the musicscape during this period, but musicians continued to develop new classical styles. At this time, the main medium for disseminating music changed from radio to cassette albums, and their two 30-minute sides gradually dictated the format of musical programing. Outstanding music continued to be produced, nonetheless. The Chavosh Center for Arts and Culture, established in the 1970s by Mohammad Reza Lotfi and Hasan Kamkar (1923-1992), produced twelve music albums, and the ensembles Sheyda, Aref, Dastan and Kamkars were formed. The work of these and other musicians is a strong argument against the tendency, common in some scholarly writing, to view the period after the 1979 revolution as one of unrelieved artistic decline and decay. 

Folk music, too, has gained substantial visibility compared to the Pahlavi period and has developed considerably since 1979. Popular dance music was banned but the vitality of secular and folk music gradually was absorbed into art music. Programs have included more rhythmic pieces, and more percussion instruments are utilized in ensembles. Musicians trained in art music incorporated many elements from folk songs and groups such as Kamkars and Rastak gained popularity at home and abroad. The government supports folk music to reinforce traditional values and to oppose Western influenced genres (Lucas 2006, 81) but appears not to realize that some folk songs, such as Larzān from Kurdistan and Balāl Balālom from Fars that have been performed by multiple groups, are secular and erotic in essence. 

Iranian musical creativity has bypassed many of the restrictions of the cultural transformation of the 1979 revolution. As soon as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader who banned music, issued a fatwā in 1989 that authorized the purchase and sale of instruments, people flooded private music schools. Music classes were so much in demand that some instructors minimized their lessons to 12-15 minutes so as to accept the maximum number of students.

That said, some music scholars in Iran argue that the continuing restrictions and lack of support from the government have diminished the quality of music despite a substantial increase in the number of musicians compared to the Pahlavi period. Tehran University Professor Hooman Asadi has called it a ‘Crucifixion of Tradition’ (Asadi 2007) because a certain obsession on ‘tradition’ has been overly stressed without understanding its creativeness.

Mohammad Jamal Samavati, a master musician and a reputable critic, has criticized the domination of the music community by a handful of people. He warns that creativity will be significantly lost if only that handful are allowed to present their works and regulate the expression of the younger generation. Samavati also has criticized the increase in music recordings without regard for the necessary quality and for a reliance on digital editing at the expense of workmanship (Samavati 1991). In both cases, they mainly fault non-governmental institutions and individuals. 

But the last two decades have not been fruitless. Many composers, soloists, ensembles, and orchestras have been working in a great variety of styles, and a number of initiatives and innovations stand out in comparison to previous music activities of the past hundred years. Among the outstanding innovations are the music creations of Ardavan Kamkar, Mohammad Reza Fayaz and Navid Afghah. A genre called “New Classical,” theorized by ethnomusicologists Sasan Fatemi and Jean During, borrows the rhythm and forms from the music style that was practiced during Safavid period.

Persian Music Publications

Music publications have developed considerably. For example, before the revolution there was one method of santur playing as shown in fewer than a dozen books. Today, there are some twenty books on the santur published by Faramarz Payvar, and dozens of publications for solo, duet and ensemble performances that include one or several santurs. If we include transcriptions for other instruments, the count exceeds hundreds, including digital publications. Except for a very few, all have been self-published without any support from governmental institutions.

Persian Music Scholarship 

Music scholarship in Iran has a long history going back to the writings of Abu-Nasr Farabi (872-950) and Abolfaraj Esfahani (896-966). During the Pahlavi period music scholarship gained momentum due to several non-Iranians and Iranians who were primarily trained in Western art music. They conducted fieldwork in Iran during the 1960s and 1970s and subsequently produced books, articles, and theses in English, French, and German. Among the most prominent are Hormoz Farhat, Ella Zonis, Tsuge Gen’ichi, Bruno Nettl, Jean During, Khatchi and Stephen Blum (Blum focused on folk music). 

Music scholarship in foreign languages declined after the 1979 Revolution, as it was difficult for Europeans and particularly Americans to travel to Iran and conduct fieldwork. Also, the new regime maintained a cultural policy of resistance to the West’s so-called “cultural invasion.”  However, Iranian musicians and scholars inside Iran re-examined their approach toward Iranian musicology, partly to react to socio-political circumstances and to find a methodology rooted in their own culture and history. They believe the academic Western methodology’s focus on ‘rationality’ does not sufficiently explain artistic works that had been created within the Persianate world, which places a large emphasis on “intuition” (Movahed 2003, 105). Coincidentally this movement was in accord with some Western ethnomusicologists who had been reviewing their intellectual foundations to “dehegemonize” Western ethnomusicology (Blacking 1973, Nettl 1983, Agawu 1992, Turino 2000). In about two decades no fewer than fifteen books were published (Movahed 2003, 86) in Iran by Iranian musicians expressing their understanding of the music they had mastered from theoretical analysis to defining its aesthetics, ethos, and philosophy. Ethnomusicology, the study of music in culture, was applied in Iran by the German-trained Mohammad Taghi Massoudieh (1927-1999) who taught it at University of Tehran before the revolution. Today some of his students are teaching at the same university, offering courses toward a master’s degree. 

Contemporary Period: Development of Persian Music Beyond Politics and Restrictions

Several music publications have been covering various issues in Iranian music. There is the monthly Honar-e Musiqi (“The Art of Music”), the first music magazine published after the revolution, and the Mahoor Quarterly, a peer-reviewed journal in Persian that started in 1998 and has gained international recognition. Several other print or online publications focus on music news, music criticism or scholarly writings. There are also institutions that focus on a single school of music such as the Maktab-e Saba (“School of Saba”), which publishes articles on various topics of music as well as offering courses online in teaching music in the style of Saba in practice and composition. 

The Islamic Republic’s cultural policies, along with eight years of war with Iraq, caused a decline in music scholarship. Accessibility to Iranian music was severely reduced for American scholars such as Nettl and Blum, who were no longer able to travel to Iran. Young Iranian scholars of Persian music faced many obstacles in studying abroad as well as finding academic positions in Iran. Many preferred to stay abroad after graduation, greatly reducing the dialogue between Iranian and non-Iranian scholars. At the same time, several non-musician scholars in Western academia have written about the sociological, anthropological, and historical aspects of Iranian music without any in-depth analysis about the modes, melodies and instruments which are vital in understanding the essence of any musical piece. Their analyses focus on what is ‘around’ a music work rather than ‘within it.’  Also, some academics tend to focus on the political aspects of Iranian music rather than its artistic creativity. Although some musicians had compositions related to socio-political circumstances, most have continued to create works without any association to post-revolutionary cultural transformations. 

Faramarz Payvar, one of the most prolific musicians of the past hundred years, exemplifies the continuity of creation before and after the revolution. It is almost impossible to find a difference between his works prior to or after the revolution. In fact, the complexity and richness of his compositions continued to increase after the revolution, as did the work of musicians like Jalil Shahnaz (1921-2013), Hasan Kasaei (1928-2012), Farhang Sharif (1931-2016), and Parviz Yahaghi (1935-2007). These names very rarely appear in socio-political writings about Iranian music that focus on political aspects rather than the creativity and vitality of Iranian musicians.

Persian Music Scholarship Abroad 

Iranian music scholarship outside Iran has progressed in the past two decades despite the obstacles to travel and study there, with compelling works by Owen Wright (2009), Rob Simms and Amir Koushkani (2012), and Laudan Nooshin (2015) and Ann Lucas (2019). A few music faculties in North America offer courses in Iranian music such as at the University of California, Los Angeles, and York University in Toronto. There is a lack of funding from either the Iranian government or private sectors, despite the significant number of successful Iranian businesses and entrepreneurs. Nonetheless, the emergence of first-generation immigrant scholars who can conveniently travel to and conduct fieldwork in Iran has strengthened the dialogue between Iranian and non-Iranian scholars, ensuring that this field of study will continue to flourish in the coming decades.

Despite the Islamic Republic’s ambiguous cultural policies, the practice, performance, dissemination, and scholarship of Iranian music remain unabated. Today, in every city there are private schools teaching both Iranian and non-Iranian instruments. Shiraz, the fifth-most-populous city of Iran with 1.5 million residents, has over fifty registered private music schools. Several private publications by the younger generations continue to offer innovative methods in teaching, performing and research such as the Khonyāgar Publication by Shahāb Menā, with over two dozen publications of books and music albums. New music festivals such as the Tehran Contemporary Music Festival, with Western classical music, and Shab-e Sāz-e Irāni (“Night of the Iranian Instrument”), in Persian classical music, continue to emerge and showcase the creativity of new generations in various genres.  Private music schools such as Kāmkārs and Nahoft in Tehran and Roudaki in Tabriz have been meticulously training young musicians of dazzling virtuosity.

Development of Instrument Making

Instrument making has developed extensively in the past hundred years. A century ago, even in the capital city of Tehran only a handful of instrument makers could be found, most of them from Armenian and Jewish communities. Today there are hundreds of instrument makers across Iran following the traditional styles or designing new instruments. Hovanes Abkarian (1875-1920), known as Yahya, made a name for himself in tar making and his instruments are the most expensive to the present day. Mehdi Nazemi (1905-1997) developed the standard nine-bridge santur. Instruments by Yahya and Nazemi are considered national treasures. A generation of innovators appeared during the Pahlavi period, chief among them Ebrahim Qanbari Mehr (b. 1928), who contributed extensively toward innovations for tar, setar, santur, kamancheh, and barbat. His violins were admired and played by Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, and several Iranian violinist virtuosos. 

In the post-revolutionary period, the eminent singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian produced a dozen new instruments and toured across the globe with the Shahnaz ensemble playing those instruments. Several young instrument makers have collaborated with master musicians to develop Iranian instruments, such as Davud Gholami with his new santur tuning system. Others have continued traditional instrument making such as Mohammad Reza Jaleh with his tars, and Ramin Jazayeri and Sadegh Mohammad with their setars.

Last Word

In all these endeavors Iranians have attempted to maintain a balance between tradition and modernity and have integrated them, producing a synthesis of old and new ideas. Despite—or, perhaps, because of—the political and social vicissitudes of Iran during the past century, Iranian musicians and musicologists are acquiring more confidence in their creativity and modes of perception and expression. Aided by the new digital media, these musicians are redefining their Iranian identity in a rapidly changing world.


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Ethnomusicologist | + posts

Mehdi Rezania is an ethnomusicology expert and a professional Santur player. He co-founded Baarbad Music and has worked as a music advisor for Iranian Heritage Day at the Royal Ontario Museum and an artistic advisor for the Tirgan Festival. His work for the Iran1400 Project focuses on the evolution of music in Iran during the last century and the impact of politics, migration, and globalization on its performance, composition, and dissemination. 

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