June 22, 2016
Persian classical recordings such as this might seem beguiling to the uninitiated. On the one hand, they could put some listeners in a familiar musical vicinity, with the recognizable, hallowed sounds of a solo piano performance. Yet, on the other hand, what’s being played on the piano is not a Chopin prelude.
This June 1933 recording was one of the closing recordings made in Tehran until after World War II. Some of you might remember another from these sessions that I posted ages ago. These releases were a combined effort by The Gramophone Company (HMV) and the Columbia Graphophone Company, both ubiquitous, international recording companies that had headquarters in London. These labels had actually merged in 1931 as a result of the Great Depression, yet they operated somewhat independently. According to historian Michael Kinnear however, the ’31 merger created a surplus of engineers who were laid off, and the remaining engineers often traveled to sessions across the globe recording for both companies. In 1933, a man named Horace Frank Chown recorded 275 discs’ worth of music in Tehran for both HMV and Columbia. He’d just finished recording in Baghdad.
The discs sold poorly, and apparently this was a near 30-year trend. Again, according to Kinnear, all the companies active in Iran during these years were not local (a pretty common situation for the times), and had difficulties establishing themselves. Still according to early Persian music historian Amir Mansour, over 3200 disc sides of Persian music were recorded prior to World War II, thus middling sales were only part of the reason for this break in onsite recording in Tehran until the late 40s.
Moshir Habibollah Homayoun Shahrdar (often spelled in several variants) was born into a wealthy merchant family in 1886. He is widely credited as being the first Iranian pianist, and judging by his appearance as a frequent accompanist on 78s (credited and uncredited), the Persian repertoire greatly benefited from his expertise. It looks like he made his earliest recordings in London in 1909, although if that is true, he was credited under the name Habibollah Khan. Outside of his classical musicianship he apparently had a checkered career, of which one can read about in-depth only in a wildly unsourced Wikipedia article (thus perhaps in part apocryphal?), which states that he was the mayor of Shiraz, the Chief of Police in Tehran, that he was the CEO for a steel company contracted by the Shah to build a railroad line for the Nazis, and later escaped to Shiraz in fear of Russian retribution.
This performance is merely titled by its modal system, or dastgāh – in this case, dastgāh Rāst-Panjgāh, which is one of the 12 primary dastgāhs of the radif. The radif is a complex system of over 400 classical melodies (gusheh) in a structure which I could hardly explain properly, except that these gusheh define a performance in a given dastgāh. There is documentation stating that early Persian pianos were retuned to better reflect the sound of the santur, the hammered dulcimer of Iran. Conversely, the santur was apparently rebuilt to better reflect the performance of a piano.
In any case, this is both sides of a lovely 12″ disc featuring Homayoun, who is noted as “Colonel” in the Gramophone Company ledgers. A digital copy of this is floating around, but I believe this is a far better transfer.
Issue Number: PPX 1
Matrix Number: 0X-9-1 / 0X-10-1
April 13, 2009
Iran is the first of several upcoming countries and regions that are new to Excavated Shellac, and today’s post, for those who might be unfamiliar, is a fine example of Persian Musiqi-e assil, or Persian classical music. I realize it might come as a shock to some regular followers of this site to actually hear the refined sounds of a modern piano, but the musical and vocal traditions in Persian classical music are positively ancient. Not only that, but the hammered strings of a piano seem an almost logical progression from the traditional hammered dulcimer of Persia, the santur. This recording was made in June of 1933 by engineer Horace Frank Chown, and released in Iran on a 12″ disc – it was the last time a gramophone company would record in Tehran until after World War II.
I can claim no expertise in Persian classical music, but I’ll attempt a humble and basic rundown, particularly as it pertains to today’s track. The body of traditional melodies in Persian music is known as the radīf. The radīf, which some say was developed between the 3rd and 7th centuries CE, is organized into a musical framework called the dastgāh – in fact, quite literally, as dastgāh itself means ‘system’ or ‘framework’ in English. Radīf is memorized entirely by ear, with a student learning the repetoire of his teacher, the ostād. The twelve dastgāh structure organizes the radīf into groups of individual pieces, and those pieces are known as gūshe. The gūshe are modal progressions by which the singer can build his improvisation around, in a similar fashion to the maqam in Arabic music, or the raga in India. The rhythms are often based on poetry – the rhythm of the human voice. And the human voice, in Persian music, is most often metaphorically linked to the nightingale. This piece is performed in the Chāhār Gāh dastgāh, and as the title implies, it features two gūshe, Hesar and Mokhalef.
Rezagholi Mirza Zelli was born in 1906 and was considered a masterful singer during his career, which ended with his early death in 1945. His teacher was the famous singer and poet Abolqassem Aref Ghazvini (1882-1934). Moshir Homayoon, the pianist, accompanies him.
Issue Number: G.P.X. 5
Matrix Number: WOX-26-2
Thank you to Martik Martirossian for help with translation and to Amir Mansour for information.