If there are a few artists who have heavily influenced the twentieth century Persian classical music by their work and style, Abolhasan Saba is for sure one of them.
More than fifty years after his death this multi-instrumentalist, composer, researcher and master of Radif (the Persian Classical Repertoire) continues to pour vitality and freshness through his important contributions.
Saba was born in Tehran at the turn of the Century, in November 17th, 1902 into a family that had for long embraced music and literature by tradition. His familiarity with music began when learning the basics of Setar from his father Kamal ol Saltaneh and Tombak from his aunt's maid. He finished school at the American College of Tehran (later called Alborz) and let his ever growing desire of studying music to be fulfilled by attending, nothing less than the courses of the greatest masters of the Persian Classical Music of the moment: Mirza Abdollah Farahani for Setar, Darvish Khan for Tar, Hossein Esmail Zadeh for Kamancheh, Hossein Hang Afarin for Violin, Ali Akbar Shahi for Santoor and Haji Khan for Tombak.
In 1923, as Colonel Ali Naghi Vaziri founded his Superior School of Music, Saba was one of the first students attending Violin courses and even becoming part of the Vaziri Orchestra as the first Violin. But according to Sasan Sepanta (Persian Music specialist and historian) in his Perspective of Music in Iran, Vaziri had to convince young Abolhasan’s father to let him enter his School, amidst an atmosphere of fierce opposition to the foundation of the institution (Many cultivated spheres would consider Vaziri’s views as being too much of a Western style and opposed the creation of the school).
Saba was soon to become one of Vaziri’s favorite students and assistants, learning fast the secrets of Violin and the theory of European Classical Music. Quite naturally in 1929, the Colonel appointed him as the head of the School of Fine Arts (Conservatory) in the Caspian city of Rasht. Indeed, no need to insist on the fact that this was a dreamed position for Saba, as he would have been able to resume research and collection of folkloric music and melodies of the regions of Gilan and Mazandaran. Later he composed numerous classical melodies based on those researches including famous “Zard e Malijeh”, “Koohestani”, “Deylaman” and “Tabari”, most of them in Avaz e Dashti or Avaz e Bayat e Tork modes.
Orchestral performance of one of Saba’s compositions (Avaz e Bayat e Tork)
Hence, in his classical compositions, Saba often made use of what is known in Iranian music as “Lame Rhythms” (Ritmhaye Lang) to say patterns like 5/8 and 7/8, widely common in folkloric and regional musical forms.
Saba could easily be given the surname of father of the Iranian Violin. It should be considered that when Violin first came to Iran at the end of the Nineteenth century, there were obviously no Iranian Violin players. Two categories of musicians began using the new instrument: Kamancheh players (Kamancheh techniques are quite different from those of the Violin) and European style violinists. For the first time thanks to his deep knowledge of both Persian Classical music and Western style violin, he developed Violin techniques specially adapted for the Iranian music.
By 1931, he returned to Tehran to run his own Violin class that continued to dispense musical knowledge until the end of his life. But he also taught at the Association of National Music and the Institute of National Music (founded by Vaziri). According to Mr. Sepanta (former Violin student of Saba), he would always stress on the fact that European and Iranian vibratos are two different things and the misuse of the European style for the Persian music harms the musical expression.
As master Setar maker, Mohammad Mehdi Kamalian puts it in his memories (collected by Behrooz Mobasseri): “ the working system of Abolhasan Khan Saba was that when he would have finished a Violin course, he would have gone into another room to play Setar. He’d say this helps him get rid of tiredness.”
In fact, Saba considered Setar as an intimate instrument. This is one of the reasons why there are but a few personal recordings of his Setar performance and no official ones (neither at the National Radio nor in a professional studio). It is a pity considering this man’s standing in the art of Setar performance: simply a national monument. Saba is seen by many, including master Setar performer, Mohammad Reza Lotfi, and late Mr. Kamalian, as the true link between the artistic heritage of Mirza Abdollah Farahani (Saba’s master and the founding father of modern Persian Classical Music) and future generations. Recordings of Mirza Abdollah’s Setar are inexistent and of course, Saba having developed his own style wasn’t a pure copy of his master, yet he was the one who had kept the spirit of Mirza’s Setar. Saba’s nail movement (upward & downward or Right & Left) on the string was almost perpendicular, with very clear, concise and orderly strikes so that no extra noise was produced. His first “right nail strike” or “Mezrab e rast” on the string was strong as his index finger would have drawn a half circle (180°) movement, touching the string at angle 90°, but delicate at the same time as the distal joint (last joint before his fingertip) was completely relaxed with a paintbrush effect. One of Saba’s most important advices to his students was that while playing the instrument, the musician should have all his body relaxed, with no muscular tension, even on the fingers of both hands. Late Mr. Kamalian pointed out that Saba’s Setar awakens and excites you. This statement emphasizes the genius of Saba in turning rather austere melodies of Radif into invigorating rhythmical patterns.
This beginning of Chaharmezrab in Dastgah e Nava speaks by itself.
Saba also demonstrates that austerity or not of the Radif depends greatly on how it is performed and not much on its structure.
His belief in the structural strength Iranian Radif was very important. When teaching the basics of instrumental technics to students, contrary to his own master’s style (Ali Naghi Vaziri), he would privilege playing the Radif itself rather than training on Etudes. He would start with simplified rhythmical melodies taken from the Radif (mostly Avaz e Dashti).
Ever famous students such as (each one of them later becoming respected masters in their ground) Hossein Tehrani (Tombak), Ali Tajvidi (violin), Faramarz Payvar (santur), Hasan Kasa'i (Ney), Hossein Dehlavi (composer) have always insisted on the incredible teaching capacities of their master. He was known to be a patient and loving instructor, perfectly measuring the psychology of each student for better understanding and results. The respect of a student toward his master is part of a core tradition in oriental cultures, but what is less known is the opposite consideration. Saba is known to have been very respectful toward his students and a kind of communion existed between the both ends of the heritage transmission process.
He was praised for his deep humanism and artistic ethics and as he disregarded material gain from his art like many other great musicians of his time, poverty never actually left him. According to Violinist and former student of Saba, Mehdi Khaledi (1919-1990), his master was willing to publish his books but was in need of 700 Tomans (approx. $220 with before 1957 exchange rates) to fulfill the printing costs. Some of his students presold the book and a friend completed the missing amount. The three volumes of his Radif (Persian Classical Repertoire) for the Violin were eventually published. The publisher later wanted to increase the price by 5 Rials (15 cents). Saba refused: “Why kids should pay for it?” Saba published numerous notebooks such as a three-level Radif for Violin and Santoor, his own compositions and a beginner’s handbook for Tar and Setar.
The multi-faceted art of Saba also included poetry, fine woodwork (particularly work on musical instruments), painting and calligraphy.
Saba was a visionary artist being at the source of real innovations in Persian music and at the same time always remembered as one of the guardians of this tradition. And this is certainly thanks to his ability to be open to other musical forms – be it regional folklore of Iran or Western music – and other arts while never giving up the essence of the traditions he once received from his masters, Mirza Abdollah and Darvish Khan. As a matter of fact, he both rejected conservative traditionalism that would accept no form of novelty and ultra-modernism that despised Persian Classical music as old fashioned and underdeveloped (for instance in comparison with the European Classical music).
On December 20, 1957, he passed away suffering from heart disease. He was 55.
The ministry of culture bought the house that Saba’s father Kamal ol Santaneh had acquired in 1897 and transformed it into the Saba museum, since 1974.