Hormoz Farhat obituary: Gifted composer and much-loved teacher at TCD

Expert on music of Iran forced to flee home country during 1979 Islamic Revolution

Hormoz Farhat, 1928-2021

Hormoz Farhat, 1928-2021


Hormoz Farhat

Born: 9th August, 1928

Died: 16th August, 2021

Hormoz Farhat, who has died aged 93, was a gifted and distinctive composer of contemporary classical music, and a much-loved and revered teacher during his tenure as Professor of Music at Trinity College, Dublin (TCD), from 1982 until 1995. An expert on the ethnomusicology of his native Iran he gave up his post as Professor of Music at the University of Tehran and fled to the west in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He was not to return until 2018.

Hormoz Farhat was born in Tehran in 1928, the son of a senior official of the Persian Ministry of Finance, Ebrahim Farat, and his wife Sedique, both of whom came from families of long-secularised Muslims. The Farhat family had served Iran for decades past in senior positions in the civil service.

Farhat left in 1949 to obtain a Western classical musical education not available then in Iran. He completed his doctoral thesis at UCLA, where he had studied for his primary degree from 1949 to 1953, on Persian traditional music. He was encouraged to do so by his UCLA teacher, Mantle Hood, then one of the world’s leading figures in ethnomusicology, a discipline then in its infancy, and was especially interested in the native music of Asian countries.

As part of his research, Farhat spent much of 1957-‘59 back in his homeland, traversing the country, and in 1967 returned again to record, and film, performances of Ta’zie, a type of musical theatre used in Shiite Islam as a commemorative act of remembrance. (This type of musical performance art was one of the few such art forms which met with the approval of the fundamentalist clerics who seized control of Iran in the Islamic Revolution in 1979.)

In 1968 the National Iranian Radio and Television (NIRT) recruited Farhat, by then a senior academic at UCLA to chair its classical music committee, and he was appointed Professor of Music at the University of Tehran.

The country to which he returned was a very different place. The population, which in Farhat’s youth had been about 12 million, 80 per cent of which lived in rural areas, had tripled in size and was then 50 per cent urban. There had been huge economic and social progress but, portentously, not so much political progress.

The arts, particularly music, had been transformed. His position meant, inter alia, that he was also centrally involved in the programming of the Shiraz and Persepolis Festival of the Arts, which, from the late 1960s, produced a world-class programme of events, including visits from some of the most famous of foreign musicians and theatre directors, including people of the calibre of Yehudi Menuhin and Peter Brook.

This interest in and care for Persian traditional music brought Farhat into contact with Dr John Blacking, Professor of Social Anthropology at Queen’s University in Belfast (QUB), who had set up a postgraduate course there in ethnomusicology, a contact which proved crucial to the Iranian when he was forced, in effect, to leave Iran in July 1979.

At Blacking’s invitation, Farhat had come to QUB as a visiting lecturer in 1975, and in 1979, Blacking arranged for him to return to QUB as a visiting professor, both a cultural and a physical refuge at a most dangerous moment in his life.

Hormoz Farhat, 1928-2021
Hormoz Farhat, 1928-2021

Farhat was not to return to his native land until 2018, at the invitation of the Iranian Artists’ Forum and, specifically, the composer Loris Tjeknavorian. His return visit was welcomed by the Iranian Government, and the Iranian ambassador to Ireland attended his funeral in Dublin in August.

In his memoir, Past Present (Ibex, 2019), Farhat gave a highly nuanced account of his homeland’s troubled modern and cultural history.

Farhat penned numerous orchestral works, concertos, string quartets, choral music, many scores for film, and piano sonatas, two of which appear on Irish pianist Mary Dullea’s CD Persian Autumn (2020). His music for Dariush Mehrjui’s 1970 film Gaav, or Cow in English, was awarded the Golden Plaque by the International Federation of Film Critics at the Venice Film Festival the following year, the first international award for Iranian cinema.

His greatest legacy, however, will be regarded, probably, as his rare and distinctive contribution to global musicology, the cultural and social context of music, especially his truly original contribution to the ethnomusicology of his native Iran - which he always insisted on referring to by its traditional name of Persia - and to the development of musical education in that country. His book, The Dastgah Concept in Persian Music, (Cambridge University Press, 1990) is regarded widely as a seminal work of its kind.

The Irish composer Donncha Dennehy, a former student of Farhat’s at TCD, in comments to The Irish Times, remarked that although his teacher might have appeared “conservative (he was always immaculately dressed) he had great openness…and could quite surprise you with what he might be taken with.”

He is survived by his widow, Dr. Maria Bagramian, Professor of American Philosophy at University College, Dublin, and by their son, Robert, Lead Talent Developer with the London live music group, Serious.