Ancient Persia, as one of the biggest empires of classical antiquity and one of the oldest civilizations in history, gave rise to a culture as rich and fines as its gold-inlaid hand-woven carpets. Different Iranian ethnicities unified under the rule of Cyrus the Great, lived and flourished, each adding a hue to the cultural tapestry of their country. Craftsmen, artists and others of their ilk created wondrous works of infinite beauty and finesse, thus laying the basis for the towering figures of Iranian culture in the following ages. Literature and music were two spheres that drew riches from this bottomless cultural well.
Persian literature spans two and a half millennia, though much of the pre-Islamic material has been lost. Its sources have been within historical Persia including present-day Iran as well as regions of Central Asia where the Persian language has been the national language through history.
As one of the great literatures of mankind the Persian literature has its roots in surviving works in Old Persian or Middle Persian dating back as far as 522 BCE, the date of the earliest surviving Achaemenid inscription, the Bisotun Inscription. The bulk of the surviving Persian literature, however, comes from the times following the Islamic conquest of Persia circa 650 CE. After the Abbasids came to power (750 CE), the Persians became the scribes and bureaucrats of the Islamic empire and, increasingly, also its writers and poets.
Iranian traditional music is a message, a call from the artist’s innermost consciousness. Deeply intertwined with Iran’s age-old history and culture, it is an expression of the joys, loves, sorrows, efforts and struggles, all the many victories and defeats that the peoples of Western Asia have experienced over the millennia. It is something of a miracle that these people have kept their music intact despite numerous, murderous foreign invasions – in fact, imposing their own art, lifestyle and generous view of the world on their invaders.
Iranian classical music is modal and monophonic. The most serious interpretations generally consist of a melodic soloist (or sometimes, a duet) and often a percussion accompanist. Orchestral combinations are becoming popular. There are twelve basic modes: seven primary modes (dastgah-s) and five secondary modes (avaz-s). Each avaz is derived from a specific dastgah, but it is also able to stand by itself. Performance is based on the idea of a “suite” in a single mode, in which the artist will choose items to make a finished composition. Actual performances generally proceed largely as improvisations, incorporating and culminating in the chosen melodic patterns. Part of the artistry is to make smooth transitions between elements of the suite.
The standard melodic patterns of Iranian classical music are codified in something called the Radif, written down from oral sources at the beginning of this century. The Radif consists of a large number of melodies or sequences (gushe-s) grouped by mode. Some dastgah-s have more gushe-s than others. To form a suite, the artists will select appropriate gushe-s, along with classical poetry, improvised elements or original compositions. Some gushe-s are always present in a classical rendition, whereas others are less common; the order within the suite is also pre-determined, to some extent. Some gushe-s and compositions have specific rhythms, while others do not. When there is a percussion accompanist, he will take part in some sections but not in others. Finally, there are different versions of the Radif that different artists will use, especially for different instruments.