Zithers of Iran and Turkey

To follow my posts on bowed zithers (Korea and China, and Alpine), among an extensive family of plucked or hammered zithers around west and central Asia are the Persian santur and the Turkish kanun. Both have developed a solo repertoire quite recently.

Some of us were first entranced by the Iranian santur with Nasser Rastegar-Nejad’s playing on the 1970 film Performance. Here’s a further selection.

This 1955 recording is by Hossein Saba (1924-1957):

Here’s a 1984 LP by Faramarz Payvar:

And Hossein Farjami:

* * *

Whereas the Persian santur is also often part of chamber ensembles, the Turkish kanun now seems to be more commonly heard solo.

Plucked or hammered zithers were part of the multicultural musickings of the Ottoman empire and its periphery. [1] I can’t interpret the clues from early written sources and iconography, but the term santur looks more common. In Constantinople, zithers seem to have been played mainly by musicians of the peripheral minorities; by the 17th century Evliya Çelebi described the santur as of Jewish origin. This 1779 image shows six Muslim and six non-Muslim (Greek or Armenian) musicians, including a santur, as well as ney flutes and both rebab (keman) bowed lute and Western violin:

Ottoman music 1779

Concert at the official residence of Sir Robert Ainslie, British Ambassador in Constantinople,
by Chevalier d’Otée 1779.

In Constantinople the kanun seems only to have become a regular member of elite chamber ensembles from the late Ottoman era. In his entry on “Qānūn” in The New Grove dictionary of musical instruments, Christian Poché states

Turkish writers agree that the qānūn in its present form was introduced into their country during the reign of Mahmud II (1785–1839) by a Syrian immigrant, Ūmer Effendi, from Cairo. It would thus seem that the instrument was diffused from the area of Egypt and Syria. […]

The more recent history of the qānūn resumes at the time of the technical revolution that reached Istanbul in 1876. There is a gulf between the old qānūn and the new, the earliest examples of which were made by the Istanbul instrument maker Mahmut Usta.

In wider Turkish society, both urban and rural, Sufi ritual groups and davul-zurna drum-and-shawm bands continue to maintain imperial traditions. By contrast, I’m unclear if the kind of “art music” traditions that incorporated the kanun have survived beyond the concert platform; perhaps someone can tell me if it’s commonly part of folk ensembles around Anatolia.

Anyway, it’s a most beguiling sound—especially in solo free-tempo modal taksim, always to be relished (cf. Indian alap).

Here’s an early recording by Ahmat Yakman (1897–1973):

In her vimeo series (in Turkish) Esra Berkman profiled some masters from the senior generation, some samples of whose playing you can hear below.

Nuri Şenneli (1922–2006) (interview):

Nevzat Sümer (b.1927) (interview):

Cüneyt Kosal (1931–2018) (interview):

Erol Deran (b.1937) (interview):

Chinese parallels for the shift from folk activity to the conservatoire might be the zheng zither and pipa lute; cf. Musicking at the Qing court 1 and Amateur musicking in urban Shaanbei, also featuring the yangqin dulcimer.

If Pachelbel played the zither, it might be called Pachelbel’s kanun—to complement Pachelbel’s capon.

 


[1] For musicking in Ottoman Constantinople, note the work of Ersu Pekin, e.g. here. See also the introduction to Ottoman music on wiki, and Dilek Göktürk-Cary, “Ottoman music in travel books: a path to restructure the forgotten Ottoman instruments” (2017).

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