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Sufi Music from Iran: Persian National Music Ensemble

Music and Dance in Persian Art
Persian music comes to life in paintings of religious rituals, court life, romantic legends, and major battle scenes dating after the fourteenth century. More than a dozen musical instruments are depicted, including a now-extinct harp (chang) as well as many others still in common use, such as the setar (lute), qanun (plucked zither), ney (flute), kamanche (fiddle), and doira (large tambourine).

Instruments represented:

  • chang (ancient harp)
  • setar (long-neck lute)
  • barbat (bent-neck lute)
  • kamanche (fiddle)
  • qanun (plucked zither)
  • ney (end-blown flute)
  • surna (double reed, shawm)
  • karna (long trumpet)
  • long curved trumpet
  • short curved horn
  • doira (large tambourine)
  • daff (frame drum)
  • zarb (hour-glass drum)
  • barrel drum
  • tabira (kettle drums)

Religious Life
Sufi rituals with music and dance are depicted in a number of artworks from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In one painting, five Sufi dancers (two dressed as horned animals) move in a circle, joined by a percussion ensemble of zarb, doira, and barrel drum. In a six-volume collection of poetry and philosophy by the great Sufi writer Rumi (1207–1273), five dancers move to the music of ney and doiras, while a prince is enthroned. A mystical treatise known as the "Effulgences [radiant splendors] of Light" depicts two allegorical court scenes; one features a setar accompanied by doira, the other has a doira and perhaps two singers. In a manuscript of the Shanama (Book of kings), two angels seem to be dancing to the music of qanun doiras. An ink-and-color drawing shows a single Sufi devotee blowing a curved horn. The prophet Solomon ascends to heaven to the sound of angels playing ney, doira, barbat, and karna in the only painting in our online collection that combines quiet court instruments with loud battle instruments. A very different sort of image from the fifteenth century, influenced by Chinese and Central Asian styles, shows a demon playing the kamanche (fiddle).

Court Life and Legends
In the context of music, perhaps the most important Persian king was the Sassanian ruler Khusraw Parviz, who reigned from 590–628. His chief court musician, Barbad, is credited with organizing Persian classical music into seven royal modes, thirty melody types, and three hundred sixty melodies. Two paintings from the Shanama (Book of kings) show Khusraw hosting the legendary hero Rustaw. In a fourteenth-century image, the two are entertained by music on barbat, chang, and perhaps ney. In a late fifteenth-century rendering, they are serenaded by barbat and daff. Two paintings show musicians in the context of Khusraw's legendary romance with the Armenian princess Shirin. In one, the two are entertained by dancers and chang music. In another, they feast at a desert encampment while serenaded on chang and doira. A similar chang appears in a bowl from the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, rendered in a Chinese manner.

The fifth-century king Bahram Gur, a renowned predecessor of Khusraw, is the subject of numerous images with musical content. According to legend, he had seven castles, each painted a different color and housing a different royal mistress. Each also seems to have provided a different music ensemble for the king and his princess to enjoy. In three paintings from a 1548 manuscript, his yellow pavilion houses musicians on qanun and kamenche. His red pavilion features music on the kamenche alone. His turquoise-blue castle comes with a setar soloist. In each castle, the soloists are accompanied by doira. Two slightly later paintings show the red pavilion with musicians on qanun, kamanche, chang, and daff, while his black castle has kamanche and doira as well as dancers and possibly singers. Two unrelated paintings of Bahram Gur show him being entertained by barbat players, one of them female.

Various other court scenes, unrelated to Khusraw or Bahram Gur, provide further evidence of music's central place in court life. An especially clear rendering is a late sixteenth-century painting showing an ensemble of barbat, chang, ney, qanun, and doira. A musician playing setar is depicted in the border surrounding a seated princess. It may show that music is among her hallucinatory visions induced by wine. Instruments are smaller or less clear in several other court paintings, including those of a father and son, a ruler in a garden pavilion, and a prince and his attendants.

Battle and Sport Scenes
Like scenes of religious and court life, depictions of battles usually include musical instruments. Paramount among these very loud instruments are the karna (long trumpet) and the tabira (kettle drums), but also depicted are the surna (double reed) and curved trumpets. An especially dramatic image of the karna is from a late fifteenth-century Shanama (Book of kings). Other clear images of karna and tabira are sixteenth-century depictions of such ancient battles as Alexander's assault on the Zangis, a battle against the Byzantines for Aleppo, and Kushraw's conflict with and victory over Bahram Chubina. An unnamed battle scene from a Shanama (Book of kings) features black musicians. The curved trumpet and surna are depicted in a battle from the legend of Majnun and Layla and in another folio from a Book of kings.

The only other settings in which these loud instruments are seen are a polo match, with sorna and tabira, and the depiction of the prophet Solomon's ascent to heaven, referenced earlier. Solomon's ascent is the only painting in our online collection in which quiet court instruments and loud battle music appear together.

Compiled by Michael Wilpers, performing arts programmer, with assistance from Moonsil Lee Kim.

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