Traditional music and modern harmonies: the composers of Azerbaijan

I’m taking final exams next week, so this post is a few days late – my regular schedule will resume starting from my next entry.

Today, I’ll be taking a look at another non-European country, one whose composers are rarely performed in the US today – Azerbaijan. Originating from a country with rich musical traditions (both ethnic and classical), Azerbaijani composers usually tended to adapt forms of traditional music for orchestra or alternatively worked in the somewhat dissonant vein of 20th-century classical music.

Until the 20th century, there had been no operas written and performed in the Islamic world, but that changed in 1908 with Uzeyir Hajibeyov’s “Leyli and Majnun”. Hajibeyov was the first Azerbaijani composer and is thus considered the father of classical music in the country. Several years later, in 1936, the first symphony by an Azerbaijani was written, the first of eight by Jovdat Hajiyev.

Born five years after Hajiyev in 1922, the first Azerbaijani composer to achieve worldwide renown was Fikret Amirov.

Fikret Amirov (source: Wikipedia)

Amirov grew up around music – his father, Mashadi Amirov, not only was a well-regarded singer and performer on the tar (a traditional lute), but also wrote one of the first operas by an Azerbaijani composer, Seyfal mulk. Perhaps most importantly, Amirov’s father was an expert in mugam, a traditional art form that combined poetry and musical improvisation.

In his teenage years, Amirov primarily composed for the piano, entering a local music college before moving on to the Azerbaijan State Conservatoire. After being drafted into the Soviet army and wounded in World War II, Amirov returned to composition. Around this time, Amirov began the work for which he is most remembered, transforming the Azerbaijani art of mugam into a new classical genre, symphonic mugam. Some of his most famous works are in this genre, such as “Shur” (1946) and “Kurd Ovshari” (1949) – which together won him the USSR state prize.

Because of my current schedule, I don’t have the time to analyze “Shur”, but (as usual) I have included a recording of it below.

Thanks to his innovations, Amirov became a relatively well-known composer in the classical world of the mid-20th century; several of his works been performed by renowned orchestras and conductors from that period, such as the Houston Symphony under Leopold Stokowski.

Since Amirov wrote “Shur”, his first symphonic mugam, the genre has been expanded by a number of his compatriots, such as Vagif Mustafazadeh and Hajibeyov’s nephew Niyazi. Furthermore, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, a contemporary composer who combines mugam and 20th-century techniques, has had her works performed by the likes of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, Hilary Hahn, and the Kronos Quartet.

Other composers, while still influenced by the melodies of Azerbaijan, preferred to delve into the prevalent styles of classical music at the time. Two composers who exemplified this idiom are Vasif Adigezalov and Gara Garayev. Both of these composers were fairly prolific and have a number of works available on YouTube, but I am including video of a composition I have listened to on several occasions – Garayev’s 24 Preludes for piano.

For me, Garayev’s preludes hit exactly the right balance in a piano piece – neither too heavy and brooding nor too lighthearted, neither wholly tonal nor wholly atonal – giving the listener a pleasant experience through all 45-plus minutes. If anyone is looking for an interesting set of piano works to play, I would highly recommend looking at Garayev – especially in Europe, where much of his work is now in the public domain.

Before I finish this post, I’d like to highlight a few other Azerbaijanis who also deserve mentions here, including a number of notable women composers. Haji Khanmammadov, a student of Garayev, wrote the first concerti for the traditional string instruments tar and kamancheh; in 1974, with the opera “Galin gayasi”, Shafiga Akhundova became the first female composer of an operatic work in the East. Finally, Elmira Nazirova is mostly remembered as the subject of the “Elmira” theme in Shostakovich’s 10th symphony but is a notable composer in her own right, writing a “piano concerto on Arabian themes” with Amirov and (from what limited information I have) at least three string quartets.

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this post, feel free to leave a follow so you can stay up to date with my blog. Until next time!

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