As Baha’is and their friends begin to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of the Bab, artistic expressions in all sorts of media are emerging that testify to the connection between people’s hearts and the Bab, Prophet-herald of the Baha’i Faith. Keivan Towfigh’s oratorio, The Martyrdom of the Bab, is one such example in a style we don’t often see or feature here on Baha’i Blog. What’s an “oratorio” you ask? An oratorio is a large-scale musical work for orchestra and voices, like Handel’s Messiah. It usually tells a religious story and is performed without costumes or staging.
I was curious to hear all about this special oratorio and how it came into being, so I connected with Keivan Towfigh to find out more:
Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us a little bit about the album and the initiative?
As a child of 7 or 8, I was taught to memorize the story of the Martyrdom of the Bab, and recited it at Holy Day Commemorations. It was burned into my mind, and when I grew older, I started to understand more deeply the significance of this story, which for me is really about the Bab’s ultimate triumph.
Several years ago, I was reading the section in Nabil’s Narrative that describes the Amir Kabir’s edict to execute the Bab. I reflected on how sure of himself the Amir Kabir sounded, how arrogant, how impervious he was to the protestations of his ministers. Throughout history, those in power have thought that by persecuting the Manifestations of God, they could stop the growth of a new Faith, of new ideas. But we know that ultimately, the Amir Kabir’s effort to extinguish the Faith of the Bab was entirely unsuccessful. In fact, the Bab opened the door to a new and glorious age for all of humanity. I decided to write a piece of music about the edict. Writing it inspired me to expand the piece into a full oratorio in nine parts, telling the story of the Martyrdom of the Bab in the year 1850.
The oratorio is intended to show the powerful forces at play in this well-documented historical episode. It must be said that portraying any one of the Central Figures of the Faith is strictly forbidden. Therefore, the oratorio tells the story as seen through the eyes of Nabil, quoting the Bab, not the Bab Himself.
After a tone-setting prelude comes the edict. Although a minister pleaded with the Amir Kabir to change his mind, he issued his orders anyway. Needless to say, his speech was venomous. To counterbalance that, I wrote the third movement to show just the opposite. It sets to music Tahirih’s poem of divine love for the Bab. The next section is devoted to the Bab’s address to His followers: “Tomorrow will be the day of My martyrdom. Would that one of you might now arise and, with his own hands, end My life. I prefer to be slain by the hand of a friend rather than by that of the enemy.”
Then comes Sam Khan, the Armenian commander chosen to perform the execution. He approached the Bab: “I profess the Christian Faith and entertain no ill will against you. If your Cause be the Cause of Truth, enable me to free myself from the obligation to shed your blood.” Sam Khan’s regiment, 750 in number, lined up in three tiers, and one after another, they fired. This can all be heard in the music. When the smoke settled, the Bab was nowhere to be seen, and His companion, a youth who had volunteered to be with Him, was standing unharmed in the barracks square. Officials searched the area and found Him back in His cell, dictating His last directives. Another regiment of soldiers was called in as Sam Khan refused. Immediately following the Martyrdom, a dust storm swept the city of Tabriz and blocked the sun. The final section quotes from the Tablet of Visitation, “I bear witness that the eye of creation hath never gazed upon one wronged like Thee.”
Baha’i Blog: Why was it was important for your family to make this happen, and what was the inspiration behind the album?
When I was 16, my uncle took my cousins, siblings and me on a trip—my first outside of Tehran. We visited the House of the Bab. I remember the beauty of that House: the stained glass windows, the quality of light, the Persian carpets. The atmosphere of the House made me feel elated and energized. It was the 1950s—less than a century after the Martyrdom of the Bab. He felt so close. It seemed that you could almost hear the voice of the Bab Himself speaking in those rooms. This experience brought a feeling of connection with the Bab, and stories of Him have always had a profound impact on me. Although I have composed quite a bit of music in my life, this oratorio felt different. I do not know where the music came from, other than this deep connection to the Bab that I feel in my heart.
Baha’i Blog: What’s something that really touched you and those involved, or that you personally learned during the process of making this album?
In writing this piece, I learned that if you make a sincere effort to accomplish something, it will most definitely happen, especially with the support of family and friends. Between the composition, orchestra, chorus and soloists, producers, conductors, engineers and designers, some 70 people from many diverse backgrounds contributed to this piece. There were Armenians, Turks, Greeks, Singaporeans, African Americans, Albanians, Italians, Persians, Mauritians and others; people of the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i and other beliefs; and teenagers to octogenarians. I feel they understood the powerful meaning and spirit of the story and helped bring it to life.
As for a story:
I wrote “Tahirih’s Lament” expressly for our dear friend, Shadi Ebrahimi. Shadi, an early BIHE graduate and music teacher in Boston, was a soprano, equally adept at singing Western opera as well as Persian classical music. Very sadly, in 2014, Shadi discovered she was seriously ill, and she passed away at 44.
A wonderful soprano, Victoria Avetisyan, agreed to sing the piece in Shadi’s place. We recorded the majority of the oratorio at WGBH in Boston, except “Tahirih’s Lament”. On the morning of a huge snowstorm, we traveled to a far-away studio to record this one section. As Victoria was singing, the recording engineer in the booth asked, “What language did you say this is?” We said, “Persian.” The engineer got a far-away look in his eye, and said, “I had a very dear friend who was Persian. Sadly, she passed away recently.” We looked at each other and asked, “What was your friend’s name?” “Shadi Ebrahimi,” he said. All present, including the engineer, got tears in our eyes. He told us that everyone he knew loved Shadi dearly, and that she had recorded her own CDs in that very studio. Although Shadi passed away before she could record this piece and was not physically present, we feel that she attended the recording and was palpably supporting and encouraging our efforts from the next world. The fact that “her” piece was the only part to be recorded in what we discovered was “her” studio was astonishing to us.
Baha’i Blog: What has the response to the music and album been like so far, and how has it been received?
As far as we know, the oratorio has reached people in about 60 countries. Friends have told us that they love to listen to the oratorio all the way through, and play the music on Holy Days related to the Bab. Multiple communities are employing the piece at upcoming bicentenary celebrations.
Baha’i Blog: Thank you so much, Keivan, for sharing this with us, and congratulations on creating such a beautiful album.
You can purchase and download the oratorio, ‘The Martyrdom of the Bab’, here on 9 Star Media.