May 26, 2024

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Sweet Fingers • VAN Magazine


If Morteza Mahjoubi’s pianism is alive today, it is not out of devotion or praise for his person, but rather on account of something internal to his virtuosity: a sublime rubato that penetrates beneath the level of surface and releases melodies that cultivate and nourish the soul. Mahjoubi’s tone is so striking, its kinship to Persian poetry so clear, that it would be insensitive not to see in it a half-calculated, half-inspired homage to Rumi or Hafez. How influential his musicality was in his native Iran is a matter of fact. His stamp, felt there throughout the 20th century, is still pervasive at home and abroad, as the Persian piano undergoes a quiet revival. But what counts above all is the grace and subtlety of the playing itself, which can hardly be approached, let alone understood, without reference to the world from which it emerged.

Piano music, like poetry, is a product of historical development. Between the 13th and 15th centuries, the destruction unleashed by the Mongol Empire provided the backdrop and impetus for Persian poetry and the revolution in inner perception that it wrought. Entire cities were sacked, populations demolished, libraries looted. Empire building left its mark on the art of the time, which in turn bore the imprint of the atmosphere that shaped it. Hafez’s poetry reflected the instability of social life after the Mongol conquest. His ascetic mysticism absorbed the tumult of the present as readily as it aspired to experience as yet unclaimed. A similar, less bloody pattern applies to the emergence of the Persian piano. At the heart of this event is the forging of a Franco-Persian alliance aimed at deepening economic and military relations between the two powers in the early 19th century.

Where Genghis Khan had expanded westward on an unprecedented scale, conquering the Iranian plateau and extending his control to the Levant and the Danube, Napoleon reversed course. His eastward push was toward Russia and India, the conquest of which had been the emperor’s boyhood ambition, in the tradition of Alexander the Great. But Qajar Iran stood in the way. A little diplomacy would solve the problem. In 1807, the Treaty of Finckenstein was negotiated, guaranteeing the integrity of Fath Ali Shah Qajar’s empire in exchange for his declaration of war on Britain and the expulsion of its citizens from his territory. This paved the way for France to attack British possessions in the subcontinent, should it choose to do so. The gates were thrown open. Gifts flowed across the divide.

Legend has it that the first piano arrived in Iran as a prelude to such political intrigues. It was wrapped in Indian cloth and hidden among the portraits, furniture and clocks presented to the Shah by Napoleon’s envoy. This may or may not be true. What is certain is that Western instruments and the knowledge of how to play them had little or no precedent in Iran. The country’s musical culture, honed by centuries of practice and supported by a vast theoretical apparatus, were largely monophonic and performed on native instruments. On its turf, any claim to the superiority of foreign styles, no matter how advanced, could easily be countered with an equally sophisticated homecrafted composition.

The place of the piano in 19th-century Persian culture is inextricably linked to the arrival of French military advisors in Iran. Such visits laid the groundwork for the introduction of Western instruments—flute, clarinet, violin, piano—into the local culture. Musicians began to experiment with and appropriate them, transposing new sounds and textures into their improvisations that paid homage to and expanded upon their musical heritage. Force-fed marching band tunes by Verdi and Gounod, Bellini and Donizetti, they had no choice but to react. It was here, then, that counterpoint and the radif crossed paths, where the chromatic scale came into contact with the dastgāh. An understanding of Western harmony facilitated the transcription of classical Persian melodies. All this was crucial in that it would forever affect the course of local music. Collisions bear fruit: clashes and complexities that result in works that defy any prevailing notion of propriety and stand apart from what has gone before.

A confluence of talents and a patchwork of styles emerged from this milieu, along with a set of conflicting, often irreconcilable ideas about the piano’s place in Iranian culture and how it should be played. Disputes persist to this day. Yet few would dispute Morteza Mahjoubi’s supremacy in the field. He is its most advanced practitioner and its ripest fruit. His musical intelligence—his technical and artistic virtuosity—consists in having added to the piano a vast catalog of intensities that forced a reevaluation of the instrument’s capabilities. 


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Born in 1900 in Tehran to an upper-class family of music lovers, Mahjoubi was taught to play the piano by his mother and later took private lessons with Mahmoud Mofakham, a pioneer of Persian piano and its diffusion. Mahjoubi’s rapid mastery of the canonical Persian repertoire proceeded in lockstep with concert debuts and public acclaim. By the age of 13, he had earned a reputation for dexterous fingerwork, a skill that would later earn him the nickname Panjeh-ye Shirin: Sweet Fingers. 

All this was normal enough. What the young artist could not foresee was that the polished surfaces of the world he was born into would soon be turned upside down by a family rupture—his father fell in love with another woman, leaving his wife and 14 children without economic support—that signaled the end of his secondary education. This forced him to give private lessons and eke out a living as a freelance musician, a job that depended on the generosity of wealthy patrons who provided him with lodging, pianos, clothes, flowers, and high-grade opium. In Manjoubi’s appetites, both musical and terrestrial, one senses a taste for profligacy, a desire to indulge the senses at any cost, which threatens to annihilate its source but also serves as a platform for unbridled discovery.  

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Mahjoubi cut a complex figure. The thoughtful silence he cultivated could be shattered by his erratic moods; his sober, urbane appearance—he was almost always photographed in a dark suit—belied a wild soul given to flights of rapture. Not unlike the kharābāti—social outcasts who drank, smoked and relished their solitude—whose company he sought, his adult life was lived on the margins, from door to door, financed by aristocrats and nobles but at odds with their ways. And fundamentally so. At the height of his career, he lived without a piano. After moving his household more than ten times, he chose to compose on a violin or setār instead, as his instrument was too cumbersome to lug around. Equally scandalous, from a bourgeois point of view, was his decision to sell what little property he had accumulated in his late years to buy opium: childless and having lost his beloved wife, the thought of living out his final years without the substance was unbearable.   

None of this would matter if it did not reflect the oppositional cast of Mahjoubi’s artistic genius. Like all great heretics, his pianistic procedures were conservative in the generative sense of the word: he advanced a musical tradition by carrying its entire formal system on his back, rather than serenely administering it for posterity. The radif was transmitted orally from teacher to student before the widespread adoption of Western notation in Iran in the early 20th century. Mahjoubi opposed such modernization, arguing that it stifled creativity. Nevertheless, he developed his own system—a structured syntax based on the Persian alphabet, supplemented with numerals and special symbols to indicate tempo—which he often jotted down on cigarette packs, in newspaper margins, and on scraps of paper distributed to students. The more one studies these artifacts, the more their idiosyncratic mode of presentation seems tied to the tenebrous movement of their creator’s mind. The scores, if we can call them that, remap the content of ancient musical forms as inexorably as their refusal of any kind of foreign interference preserves the cultural and spiritual value of their original source.

Morteza Mahjoubi Photo Public Domain

Sound is the object of this conversion. Regeneration through renewal on a higher acoustic plane. Persian classical music is realized through improvisation; its motifs expand their tonal range through a fluid line in which melodies and their corresponding modes are selectively interwoven within a formal structure. Mahjoubi’s playing, a lyrical descant anchored in musical and poetic sources from distant times, elevates these features to an unheard-of pitch. That such a declamation does not seem at all anachronistic is a source of its alchemy and, indeed, its power over us. 


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Adventurousness, suggests the philosopher Stanley Cavell, is the interpretation of a story that allows it to go on being told while further defining its premises. From the outset, the Persian piano demanded the creation of a new sound that would be tempered to its surroundings, an adventure in and of expression that would respond to the historical conditions of the instrument’s reception, as well as to those of Persian classical music. Mahjoubi didn’t hesitate in the face of novelty. Rather, he created the conditions for the continuation of a heritage by selectively transforming his instrument, exploiting the unpredictable flows of modern world history.

His predecessors had already accomplished a great feat: tuning the piano to match other local instruments such as the setār and santur. This furnished the microtonal intervals that allowed traditional melodies to be played on the piano in the first place, broadening its palette while giving Persian music a new berth. Mahjoubi himself was a master tuner. He was known to carry around a tuning lever that he would use during a performance or studio session to temper the piano to his liking. This was done by ear. His sense of pitch was so accurate that he was said to be able to tune the piano to any instrument or vocalist in a flash. But the hallmark of his virtuosity, the element that set him apart from all his predecessors, is his mellifluous, instantly recognizable tone, adorned with the most subtle use of the damper pedal and devoid of any kind of showmanship. 

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Where earlier pianists cultivated a style akin to the drier, metallic sounds of the santur, Mahjoubi’s approach harvested the piano’s fullness to recreate the delicate elaborations and elevated states of Persian music, its grace as fully as its sensuousness.  

Petrof or Schimmel were Mahjoubi’s preferred pianos. We hear him in his element on a series of stunning recordings aired on Golha, a radio program that survived from 1956 until the 1979 revolution and contains some 847 hours of some of the finest Persian music and poetry ever broadcast. Mahjoubi, who visited Golha’s studios in the mornings, unwittingly produced many of these recordings, as the sound technician was ordered to record the maestro’s improvisations without his knowledge. All the better for us. They capture something exalted yet disconcerting⎯a flash of another realm, not quite enchantment, but something close to it. The piano has become a kaleidoscope that presents us with figures of beauty, its gossamer tones on the edge of vanishing as they are conjured.  

These ghostly refrains are the fruit of Mahjoubi’s classical inheritance as well as his gift to us today. With them an entire history is opened up for experience. The drift of this breakthrough is toward something monstrous: the recreation of a tradition beyond itself.  ¶

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