Modern Sociopolitical Structure of Iranian Music

  January 01, 2024   Read time 7 min
Modern Sociopolitical Structure of Iranian Music
Alinaqi Vaziri and Morteza Moshfeq Kazemi, the author of “Music and Theatre in Iran,” are of the same opinion in most cases. ‘Alinaqi Vaziri, too, believes that parts of Iranian music are saddening and detrimental to the human soul and morality; he considers the Iranian musician as an illiterate person because of his non-familiarity with west.

Prior to being implemented through governmental policies, musical modernization was initiated by the middle class and took place in two forms: teaching music, and the advent and expansion of gramophone records. It was also sparked by a musician named ‘Alinaqi Vaziri, who re-opened Tehran’s open school of music (Madraseh-ye ‘Ali-ye Musiqi) in 1924. This non-regular school was the first educational institution where both Iranian and European classical music were taught. A study of Vaziri’s life and thoughts shows that he was a product of the same ideas that played a crucial role in putting Reza Shah in power and in explaining the shah’s cultural policies during his reign.

‘Alinaqi Vaziri’s life (1886–1979) can be divided into two periods: before visiting Europe and after visiting Europe. He began to learn techniques of playing tar with his maternal uncle when he was 15 years old. He was a trainee of some of the abovementioned celebrated tar players of that period, including Aqa Hoseynqoli and Darvish Khan. At the age of 17 he joined the military service. His presence in the army proved quite fruitful as during this time he became further acquainted with European classical music. While learning violin and piano, he was introduced to European classical-music notation with the help of an army officer, which was followed by a deeper learning of European classical-music theory with a French priest in Tehran.

One of his important musical activities prior to travelling to Europe was the transcription of the Iranian musical repertoire on the basis of performances by Mirza ‘Abdollah.22 In addition to his musical activities, he was a political activist in the real sense of the word. He was in charge of the military committee of the Iranian Social-Democratic Party (Hezb-e Ejtema‘iyun-e ‘Ammiyun) during the post–Constitutional Revolution period.23 ‘Alinaqi Vaziri left the army in 1918 and went to Paris to continue his studies in music, theatre, and aesthetics. He then moved to Berlin to complete his studies. The years of ‘Alinaqi Vaziri’s stay in Berlin deserve a deeper consideration, as it was during this same period that he established connections with certain Iranian cultural and political activists residing in Berlin and became deeply influenced by ideas that provided the impetus for the majority of cultural policies of the Reza Shah period.

Hoseyn Kazemzadeh was the editor and publisher of the monthly magazine Iranshahr in Berlin during those years. Kazemzadeh had also founded a literary society where the main topics discussed included different aspects of politics and culture. ‘Alinaqi Vaziri established and maintained close relations with Kazemzadeh and his magazine during his stay in Berlin. Published from 1922 until 1927, Iranshahr was one of the magazines that promulgated the demands of the Tajaddod (Modernity) political party. Recruiting its members mainly from among young people educated in the West, the party was the main supporter of Reza Shah in his efforts to seize power, and most of its members such as ‘Ali Akbar Davar, ‘Abd al-Hoseyn Teymurtash, and ‘Ali Forughi became major political figures during his reign.

The subjects dealt with in Iranshahr, which had a relatively considerable influence in Iran and was distributed in 40 towns, can be categorized as follows: Of the total of 236 articles published in the journal, 73 stressed the importance of public and secular education, 45 emphasized the need to improve the status of women, 30 described – in favorable terms – pre-Islamic Iran, and 40 discussed aspects of modern technology and Western philosophy. Most of the ideas discussed in these articles were actually realized during the reign of Reza Shah. In addition, two other articles appeared in Iranshahr during ‘Alinaqi Vaziri’s stay in Berlin that specifically touched on Iranian art and music. One article, entitled “Sanaye‘-e Zarifeh” and addressing different aesthetic aspects of the art and the artist, was written by ‘Alinaqi Vaziri himself.

The second article, entitled “Music and Theatre in Iran,” was written by Morteza Moshfeq Kazemi, a student of sociology in Berlin, the contents of which indicate the opinions of Iranian music ‘Alinaqi Vaziri had been exposed to while in Berlin and provide a background for the musical modernization campaign he launched upon return to Iran. In parts of the article, the author introduces Iranian music as a saddening and boring music. When a group of Iranians reside for a while in Europe and gradually acquaint themselves with different aspects of European life, individually, they acquire certain information consistent with their approach and taste. If allowed, today, I am willing to give a description of European and Iranian theatre based on a comparison of the same. … Iran has destroyed her soul with her ruinous music, aimed at nothing but laziness. Music composed after having a pipe-full opium and some bottles of spirit, cannot think of arranging opera. … Having seen and heard several European operas and indeclinable music, I already dare to state my hatred towards the contemporary Iranian music. It is unfair to call it music when it brings nothing but crying and dozing for this sorrowful nation. … What should one say when Europeans, including the Germans, upon hearing the contemporary Iranian music verify that it is something defective, monotonous, and boring.

In another part of the article, the author complains of the impotence of Iranian music to raise national feelings and create such excitements: So far, the Iranian music has not arranged an exciting national anthem for us. If Iranians listen to the famous German hymn (Germany! Germany! Above all!) as a sample anthem reflecting the Germans’ national pride and self-importance, they will understand the real meaning of music. In still another part of the article the author equates musical literacy with knowledge of Western music, referring to Iranian musicians as a number of musically illiterate performers: With the exception of few Iranian musicians having completed their studies in Europe or at least in Tehran school of music (military music school), all contemporary Iranian musicians are far away from a real knowledge of music and cannot be changed for the better by way of encouragement because they know nothing of the principles of composing musical pieces.

From this intellectual context, which pushed for modernization in all aspects of social and cultural life in Iranian society, including music, ‘Alinaqi Vaziri returned to Iran and in the winter of 1924 – a few months after the appointment of Reza Shah as the prime minister – took the initial steps towards establishing his own school named Madreseh-ye ‘Ali-ye Musiqi in Tehran. In the same year, he established a musical society called the “Musical Club” (Klup-e Muzikal); most of the intellectuals and men of letters applied for membership. In addition to the performance of music by the orchestra of the musical school, in this musical club ‘Alinaqi Vaziri began to explain and elaborate on his ideas concerning art and music as well. A study of Vaziri’s lectures shows that he was under the influence of an intellectual trend that was supporting modernization in the form of opening Iranian society to the Western world.
On the necessity of modernization in Iranian music, ‘Alinaqi Vaziri suggests: In aesthetics (art) as a whole, change is a factor of progress. If change doesn’t take place, art becomes stagnant. Old people used to say: art imitates actual life, and takes it as an example. If this logic is considered as a principle and with a view to the changes taken place during the recent decade, our music has to go through a complete phase of change. In a lecture delivered in 1924, ‘Alinaqi Vaziri describes the situation of Iranian music prior to the establishment of the musical school as follows: Contemporary music consists of a series of shoddy musical compositions used as pishdaramad, tasnif, and reng (dance tunes). Song was already referred to as a kind of mourning.
That’s why our music has been restricted to the repetition of memoirs of misery plus a section of reng and tasnif, which is absolutely sensual and leads to nothing but immorality … Iranian music is founded on a very strong and extensive basis. However, as an inexpert mason will construct a very bad building despite using high-quality construction materials, the edifice of Iranian music during the recent decades, too, has been built by inexpert musicians. Why? The reason is that we couldn’t find expert and educated musical masters – particularly in most recent centuries that the world was taking huge strides along the path of progress – who could make the utmost use of such firm foundation and high-quality construction materials.

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