Date of Degree


Document Type


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Stephen Blum

Committee Members

Zdravko Belazekovic

Peter Manuel

Eckhard Neubauer


Persian music, courtesan culture, modal system, rhythmic cycles


The primary question in this study is how the long-established maqāmmodulatory schemes evolved into a set of seven or twelve large-scale performance formats (dastgāhs) and what socio-cultural forces were behind this development. In doing so, this dissertation draws on a variety of sources including musical treatises, song-text collections, court chronicles, travel accounts, biographies, paintings, nineteenth-century albums of photographs and the early Persian 78 rpm records.

The first chapter provides a background on the role of courtesans and their accompanying instrumentalists in Iran between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. The influence of upper-class courtesans on the urban musical milieu was particularly strong throughout the seventeenth century. While they were always under control and supervision by the authorities,courtesansprovided a large amount of tax revenue for the government. Toward the end of the seventeenth century performance practice of art music found aprecarious position in Isfahan, mostly due to the association of music with courtesan culture. Hence the Safavid rulers frequently issued royal decrees forbidding performance of music along with drinking of wine, gambling, and activities of courtesan salons. In the second half of the eighteenth century a red-light district was established in Shiraz where a large number of urban and provincial courtesans were gathered catering to the refined taste of the nobility and military commanders. These courtesans were famous for their beauty, seductive manners, polished etiquette (adab), witty conversation and, above all, they were accomplished singers, instrumentalists and dancers.

With the establishment of the Qajar dynasty, Tehran became the capital in 1775. The first two Qajar rulers brought a large number of courtesans mainly from Isfahan and Shiraz to Tehran together with their male accompanists, who primarily served as their teachers and composers. These professional male and female musicians still carried the vestiges of maqāmmusic in this period. Among them, Bābā Makhmur Esfahāni was the most prominent court singer who later became responsible for combining modal entitiesand arranging them into twelve sequences of dastgāhs. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the court music came to be dominated by professional male musicians and entertainers who performed mostly at various male court gatherings while a small number of female musicians still performed in the indoor ceremonies of the harem. Discussing the social organization of musicians and their sources of patronage, the second chapter also looks at the urban ensembles in the capital and theirconnection with the royal court.

The third chapter first outlines the major sources that were written on the Persian modal system between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries. It further shows that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the modal system of Persian music was theoretically defined as three sets of modes including twelve maqāms, six āvāzs, and twenty four sho‘bes that were rendered in the form of modulatory schemes. Toward the end of the sixteenth century when the capital shifted to Isfahan, court repertoire began burgeoning and incorporating elements of regional and rural music in the form of a new modal entity called gusheh. In the second half of the eighteenth century the modal nomenclature among musicians began to change significantly. The terms maqāmand sho‘begradually became eclipsed by the term āvāz, while the concept of dastgāhreferred to a modulatory scheme including a number of āvāzs interspersed with vocal and instrumental compositions. In the second half of the nineteenth century,two stylistic schools with different arrangements of modulatory schemes and performance formats (dastgāhs) were prevailing at the Qajar court. The first school was associated with the family of Mohammad Sādeq Khan, a celebrated santurplayer known for his innovative improvisational technique and the second schoolwas associated with Mirzā ‘Abdollāh and his brother Āqā Ḥosayn-Qoli who developed a fixed repertoire of free-rhythmic pieces known as the radif.

Chapters four and five survey the development of rhythmic cycles (oṣuls) and musical genresbetween the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the decline of compositional genres, long rhythmic cycles were no longer recognized, nor was the term oṣulin the vocabulary used by musicians. However, in the late nineteenth century, vocal compositions could be still categorized in various forms and largely performed in the cycles of four or six beats.