(a legendary supernatural bird in Persian literature)
Ferdowsi’s poetic opus, the Shahnameh, is not only one of the most extraordinary works in Persian literature – it ranks among the masterpieces of the world’s literary treasures. In sheer magnitude, with over fifty thousand verses, our national epic comprises more than twice the number of verses of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad and twenty times more than the German epic, Nibelungensage.
The Shahnameh is indeed unequalled as a literary work. And if we look at other Persian poets who have explored the themes of love, despair, envy and zeal, we find that while Ferdowsi deals with the same themes, he also unveils the science of Iranian epic history and legends and leads the reader deep into the spirit of his characters, probing a vast array of human feeling. He carries the reader with him to the battlefields and the feasts. He paints these scenes masterfully, giving the stories vibrant, tangible expression for his readers.
The difficulty of using musical narration to portray Ferdowsi’s epic stories lies herein. Music as an art form is particularly adept at conveying such depictions of love, hatred and remorse. But when it comes to musically conveying any of the dynamic narrative scenes, the musical task becomes much more problematic.
While composers have a freer hand in portraying feelings such as envy through the use of certain musical modes called “dastgahs” or through special melodies, this is not feasible for the musical narration of a scene in the Shahnameh like the one that follows:
As the arrow kissed the tip of his finger
It passed through his spinal cord
Keshani passed straight away
It is as if he had never been born
Recreating such a scene would only be possible through art of Cinema. In creating a musical piece, another challenge lies in the fluidity and continuity of the Shahnameh’s verses. When a composer works with the poems of such poets as Hafez, Rumi and Saadi, selections from all these poets’ works can be used harmoniously with one another. But when a composer tackles the Shahnameh, it isn’t conceivable to juxtapose the poetry of another poet with Ferdowsi’s. Nor is it possible to mix and combine poems found in different stories of the Shahnameh itself. It is not even possible to replace one verse with another in any one of the epic story’s poems.
Besides the complexity of the Shahnameh’s structure, the lack of a longstanding core tradition of orchestration and musical polyphony is another major difficulty facing the Iranian musical composer. Apart from the fact that Iranian musical instruments are meant to be used as solo instruments, we must unfortunately admit that the history of the science of music in our country is less than a hundred years old and has witnessed many ups and downs. It is for this reason that the creation and composition of musical pieces based on Persian poetry have been more compatible with symphonic and philharmonic orchestration. The compositions of “Bizhan and Manizhe” by Amir Hossain Dehlavi or “Rostam and Sohraab” by Loris Cheknevarian are outstanding examples of this. Needless to say, there is not a long history of orchestration and polyphony involving Iranian musical instruments. The number of musical pieces composed in this field is very limited.
An Iranian musician composing a piece based on the Shahnameh is precisely in need of a vast rainbow of musical melodies that can be invoked and combined to convey the characters’ emotions and paint the individual scenes of the story. The difficulty in creating such scenes has thus far prevented composers from considering the Shahnameh as a source of musical interpretation.
Simorq (Simorgh), the story of the birth and growing up of Zaal and his love for Roodabeh, the daughter of King Mehrab of Kabal, is one of the most beautiful and, in structural terms, complete facets of the Shahnameh. In this story, Ferdowsi has interwoven human preoccupations with luck, fate and destiny, greed, fear and disgrace with the need and desire for fame and love, under the canopy of the epic story. The story of Simorq (Simorgh), apart from its literary beauty, is also informed by an inner music. This is the factor that ultimately persuaded Hamid Motebassem to compose this piece of music.
Motebassem, whose distinctive compositions are renowned for their excellence and his ability to create polymelodic pieces for Iranian instruments and Iranian musical modes (“dastgahs”) has now undertaken a formidable task in choosing the story of Simorq (Simorgh) and writing polymelodic pieces for national Iranian musical instruments. This composition combines both the challenge of creating a musical piece based on the Shahnameh, and the complexity of overcoming the shortcomings of our national musical melodies for polytonal music.
In this piece, the composer must not only express Roodabeh’s love for Zaal through the music, he must also convey the onrush of warriors galloping to the Alborz mountains, toward Simorq’s nest, and the disappointment of Saam, the son of Nariman.
Like an experienced narrator of the Shahnameh, he must bring out each and every scene, as well as the feelings and aspirations of the characters in the story, and make them come alive through the strings, wood and skin of Iranian musical instruments. And he must do this within the confines of each Iranian instrument’s capacity to express the meaning of Persian poetry.
Hamid Motebassem is like a “Pardeh Khaan” – a person who tells a story from a picture hanging on the wall – evoking the scenes from the Shahnameh and etching them in the imagination of his listeners.
Simorq (Simorgh) recreates the story of Zaal so vividly that listeners cannot help but visualize what they hear.
Written by Mohsen Banaie
Translated by Mahmood Tootoonchian
Revised by Jody Freeman
The “Simorq”(Simorgh) project is an ambitious initiative designed to acquaint the public with Iran’s historical culture, and to transcend boundaries. Following three years of tireless efforts researching the universe of the epic tale “Shahnameh”, selecting specific poems from it and creating the appropriate musicality, notes and chords to do justice to these poems, we are pleased to announce that the project is in the final stretch. To concretize this final phase, however, a substantial financial contribution is a necessity. The group in its current state needs support. To take one example, traveling from city to city involves heavy expenses for members of the orchestra and project organizers that are a burden for them to incur. Until now, this funding has been generously assumed by them alone.
“Simorq” (Simorgh) is a major project that urgently needs sponsors. It is clear that this project will depend entirely on the financial assistance of friends and organizations capable of supporting our cultural endeavour. This project belongs to all of us. We cannot carry such a major project on our own.
We are calling on all individuals and organizations interested in this cultural heritage to support us financially.
To thank you for your generosity, “Simorq” (Simorgh) will display the names of its donors and sponsors on its public list of sponsors, to honour their contribution.