Persia/Chapter 43

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We are not acquainted with the origin and theory of the music of the Persians: it is to be presumed that they derived the science from India, but so much is certain that they communicated it to the Arabs and the Turks. The airs most admired at Constantinople are chiefly Persian. The theory, being connected with the mathematical sciences, has been treated of by several eminent philosophers, whose works have not yet been noticed in Europe, though some of them are to be found in our libraries.

Avicenna divides music into two parts; the talif or music considered in the melody of the sounds; and the ica, which is the measured cessation of the melody. The tones are called awaz, and the semi-tones nim. These semi-tones are more numerous than ours, for the Persians divide the intervals into very small parts. The transition from one tone to another, by a series of progressions too minute for the system of our music, constitutes the principal charm and merit of theirs. The modes are written in circles; hence music is termed the science of circles. The spaces are called kiah, place: thus yek-kiah signifies the first space, dow-kiah, the second space, and so on as far as seven.

The Persian gamut exactly corresponds with ours. It consists of eight spaces; for in this gamut, the lines are not counted but only the spaces, the last of which answers to our octave. A very singular custom is that of assigning to each space a particular colour: thus, the yek-kiah is invariably green; the dow-kiah, rose-colour, and so on.

The Orientals have no notes, properly so called; but they employ letters, which they place between the lines, to indicate to the musician the interval in which he is to begin, the different tones which he has to run through, the duration of the sounds, the pauses, the time, and lastly the tone with which he is to finish. But the Persians do not always follow this practice. Their music is composed of modes or harmonious phrases, which take their names from persons or places, and serve as moulds for the productions of the imagination of their artists. These modes are either fundamental, to the number of four; or derived, eight in number; or compound, which vary to infinity. He is the most skilful musician who knows the most modes and the most airs; for then he avoids plagiarism, a charge which destroys the best-established reputation. The zenkeleh is the most melodious mode. The ecchac is appropriated to war and love. The histories of the Shah Nameh are sung to the rast. Love-songs, elegies and hymns for the dead, are composed in the puzurk, the zyr-afkend and the rahavi. Zer-kechi, or cloth of old, denotes the richness or beauty of the mode which bears that denomination.

This want of notes is one of the great obstacles that must check the progress of music among the Persians. They have, it is true, some means of supplying the deficiency, such as the different names given to the tones and semi-tones, and the measure, which is divided like ours into perfect and imperfect time. At every concert, this measure is beaten by a musician placed in the first row, on his knees, or on a pair of small kettle-drums, called naccareh: in this manner he indicates the notes which we write down, and directs the orchestra. But a skilful master, without deviating from the measure, varies it by so many flourishes of art, sweet modulations, and imperceptible gradations, that it is sometimes impossible to be recognised.

There is a species of harmonious music, the theory of which is extremely simple, which affects the senses alone without reaching the heart, and produces only more or less pleasing sensations. There is another, which expresses all the passions, and which requires a profound study of the human heart, and of the springs by which it may be moved. To this last, the Persians are utter strangers; but on the other hand, they are very successful in harmonious music: with them, it delights, affects, and moves perhaps more than any other.

"We have heard," says M. Olivier, "military songs and airs which animated and powerfully excited the auditors; and we have heard others that awakened the most voluptuous ideas." The Persian songs, according to Mr. Scott Waxing, are sweet and touching; but the great defect of this music is monotony: the impressions being constantly the same, they at length become wearisome and heavy, how pleasing soever they may have been at first. The Persian musician knows nothing of the rules of proportions, in the assortment of sounds; he has no idea of music in different parts, of the tone, divided into third, fifth, and octave; nor of what constitutes our counterpoint: hence, in a Persian concert there is neither bass, tenor, nor alt—all the instruments are in unison.

The instruments are very numerous, and may be divided into three classes, each distinguished by a generic name. To the first belong the stringed instruments, aoud; to the second, the wind instruments, nefir; and to the third, the instruments which are beaten, thabl. We shall confine our descriptions to the instruments which are most commonly used:—

The baglama or tamboura, which has but three strings, two of steel and one of brass. Round the handle are fastened catgut-strings, to render the sounds sharper.

The tchehizdeh, which, according to Kämpfer, has sometimes eight and at other nine strings, which accord together, two and two; but when there are nine, the last three agree. The shape of this instrument is very remarkable.

The kemantcheh, likewise called rebab, has sometimes three or four strings, though most frequently but two, one of which is set a third higher than the other. When well played, this instrument gives the sweetest sounds of any: it is played with a bow furnished with horse-hair. The handle is a cone, of elegant shape and carefully wrought, having as many pegs as there are strings. The body is circular, and about a span a diameter: it supports a bridge, and terminates in an iron style, a palm and a half in length. The instrument, including the handle and the foot, is about five palms long.

The tchartar has four strings, and is likewise played with a bow: the handle is short and narrow; the body oblong, very broad, and open at the upper end; the lower is much smaller, round, and closed by a little wooden bridge.

The tchenk is a kind of dulcimer with six strings, very common in Persia. The tchenk is touched with small curved sticks or feathers.

Wind Instruments.

The nefir, which has given its name to the instruments of this class, is a sort of straight trumpet, an ell in length, the sound of which is tolerably sweet.

The carhana is another kind of trumpet, of great length; the shortest being longer, according to Chardin, than the height of an ordinary man; some measure seven or eight feet. They are made of copper or brass, and are of unequal bulk; for the tube is very narrow to the distance of a foot from the mouth, which is from two to four inches in diameter. Thence downward it gradually increases in size, till at the base it is sometimes four feet in circumference. This trumpet cannot be played, unless it be supported for the musician.; the sound which it gives corresponds with the dimensions of the instrument. When heard alone, it is harsh; but when accompanied by other instruments, it serves for a bass, and produces a pleasing effect.

The shak-nefir, or curved trumpet, is of copper and very large.

The musicar is nothing but the horn made by our tinmen.

Instruments of the class called Thabl.

The Persians have several kinds of drums:

The dembal, a kind of long drum which seems to have come from India.

The dohol resembles our military drum.

The kous is a large copper drum, about five feet high and nine or ten in circumference. It is used only in the army, and in caravans, to give the signal for departure.

The naccareh, a pair of kettle-drums joined together. The body of the naccareh is of copper. We have already observed, that this instrument is employed to beat the time.

The thabli-baz, or falcon drum, is so called because it is used in sporting to call back falcons which have been slipped. People of distinction, not excepting the king himself, carry them on the left side of the saddle. The thabli-baz is of copper.

There is also a kind of drum used by the inhabitants of Multan. It is of an oblong shape, and the body is made of wood. It is beaten at both ends, with the hands, and not with sticks.

The dombek is a drum used by the country people. It is a kind of erthen pot, having a foot by which the instrument is held under the arm: the head is covered with a stretched bladder or skin.

Tabors are called def, when furnished with rings, and daireh, when they have little bells. The latter are commonly four or five spans in circumference, and have foul or five little copper bells which turn on an axis.

Sindi, or cymbals, are also used by the Persians; and a little bell, resembling the bells attached to horses' heads in the western parts of England.