Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the last 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.
In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema... And so the list goes on.
This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. These articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
Fakhri Malekpour is not fond of interviews. Over many years, this quiet but remarkable force in Iranian music has spoken to the media only once or twice. According to one of her closest associates, her common refrain is: “I must pay tribute to my master. I do not look for fame.”
The sole direct student of Iranian pianist and composer Morteza Mahjubi (1899-1965) has devoted her life to keeping her master’s memory and school alive. “Students still come,” says the same well-acquainted source, “and Fakhri teaches them from the 12 volumes that her master left behind, using Morteza’s innovative technique of music notation.”
Raised in a House Full of Musicians
Mahjubi, a piano virtuoso, is considered one of the forefathers of Iranian national music. He is variously known as Morteza Khan or Morteza Khan Mahjubi in artistic circles. What gave his work special significance was his ability to perfectly play authentic Persian music on European instruments. For this reason, his music is considered a singular hybrid blend of the traditional and the modern.
Fakhri Malekpour was born in Shemiran in 1935. She began to be taught music by Mahjubi at the age of seven. In a rare interview with Etela’at newspaper, she recalled: “My father, Seyyed Zabihollah Malekpour, was an esteemed merchant who loved music. He played the tar, the sitar and the piano well. He had an extraordinary voice. The music masters of that time would come to to our house on Tuesdays; Mr. Morteza Khan Mahjubi came at 11am and stayed into the night.”
Music became a more serious pursuit for Fakhri Malekpour when she reached the age of nine. “I grew up with Morteza Khan Mahjubi and [poet and musician] Rahi Moayeri. They came to our house because of their friendship with my father. One day Morteza Khan told my father that his child had a strange love for music, and asked my father to teach me the piano. I was seven when I first sat behind it; I was playful until I was nine, but from the age of nine it all became very serious for me. Morteza Khan came to our house regularly to teach me.”
Her talent and passion encouraged Morteza Khan to continue teaching her for 12 years. “He began with the Persian scales,” she would later recall. “Then I learned Mahjubi’s radif (a collection of old Persian melodies) from him. He had devised a system of notation for Persian music that other students and I can also read now. I do not remember his other students; in fact, I was the only one who continued with music seriously.”
Today Fakhri Malekpour does not accept a rial in tuition fees from her students. She chooses them: that is to say, she must first see some talent in them to accept them as potential protégés. She has told ISNA news agency, “I am happy that until now, no money earned from music has entered my life. I teach Morteza Khan Mahjubi’s innovated system to keep the memory of my master alive. I do not want to have any income from teaching music.”
Abandoning Other Passions for Iranian Piano
Malekpour is not just a pianist but is also skilled in other classical instruments and has learned the basics of composition. Her later teachers were among the luminaries of Iran’s golden age of music: Ahmad Ebadi, who taught her the sitar, Hoseyn Tehrani with whom she learned the tonbak, and Ali Tajvidi, with whom she practiced elementary music composition. Her home is full of photos of these tutors and their contemporaries – but Morteza Mahjubi remains the main object of her devotion. “I was Morteza Khan’s daughter,” she has said. “He had no children and loved me as the child he never had. When he saw my passion, he taught me all that he had learned and developed. I am so proud to be known as his sole direct student.”
Malekpour loved the sitar but felt forced to abandon it in order to retain her title as Morteza Mahjubi’s protégé. “One day,” she has said, “Mr. Ebadi called me and said, ‘You are like my daughter. I want to tell you something, but I hope it doesn’t hurt you. You play the sitar beautifully. But do not touch the sitar anymore.
“’After Morteza Khan, who improvised while playing piano, it is only you who does the same now. We do not have anybody like Morteza Khan. We have a lot of pianists, much better than you. But nobody plays the Iranian piano like you. If you touch the sitar, you will not play piano. So you must promise me not to touch the sitar anymore.’ In short, I put the sitar away and cried for a long time. But for Mr. Ebadi’s sake I did not touch the sitar anymore.”
Carrying the Torch for Traditional Persian Music
Malekpour has never given a concert. Her modesty and humility is such that when asked during one interview about the subject, she said, “I will never give a concert even if they kill me. In private I do not play badly, but I do not like to play the piano in front of others. I wish to remain private. The albums you see released by me were on the insistence of my friends.”
Since the beginning, Malekpour has preferred to play for herself and not sought fame. “I did not respond to invitations by radio stations. I am not that kind of person. I do these things for myself.”
Her friends and companions say that the history of Persian music is inscribed in Fakhri Khanum’s heart. Her sweet memories of musicians are a regular topic of her daily conversations with others. In the interview with ISNA, the reporter notes: “Amid the conversation, she remembers her old friends: ‘Do you see that armchair in front of the door? [The singer] Moluk Zarabi always sat there. Before arriving she would ask me to make the Iranian dish baqali polo for her, with a caramel dessert. She dropped by every week. [Iranian singers] Elaheh and Marzieh also socialized with me a lot. Now they have all gone and I am the only one that remains.”
Regarding her unreleased material, Malekpour has said: “There is a tremendous volume of unreleased works in this house, recorded with great masters. For example, I have recordings with [composer and violinist] Parviz Yahaqi, and with [barbat player] Abdolvahab Shahidi. Perhaps I will release them later; I do not know what will happen.”
In recent years, Fakhri Malekpour has received public acclaim on several occasions. In 2017 at a ceremony held in Vahdat Hall, Malekpour’s small pupil Mahur Aqili played the tonbak in honor of his master, accompanying the singing of classical Persian singer Salar Aghili. She was also commended at the 34th Fajr International Music Festival in February 2018, just a month after being awarded a nationwide Special Music Prize. At every occasion she mentioned her own master Morteza Mahjubi.
According to the prominent music researcher and critic Alireza Mir-Ali-Naqi, “Fakhri Malekpour is the fruit of the old Iranian educational, artistic, and ethnic music era: a period in which the current practice of showing off and disrespecting one’s roots was not customary.
“It was a culture that preferred emotion to sensational form and skill, and recognized the master not in preservation of what is learnt but in creating an inner transformation and psychological refinement of melodies.
“Her presence is not only a cultural heritage, but a treasure-trove of gems for our contemporary music and its crisis-ridden atmosphere, because she has made an impact in all respects and has propagated a genuine school of music performance by retaining its characteristics – single-handedly.”
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