Ahmet Adnan Saygun: a pioneer who brought together Romanticism, Western modernism, and Turkish folk song

After a very hectic few months of quarantine, things have settled down a little – I’m very excited to be able to write again. I’m hoping to be able to return to a normal schedule from this point on!

From Jean Sibelius in Finland to Béla Bartók in Hungary, there are countless composers who have come to personify the music of their countries throughout the world. However, there are many others who are hailed as national symbols in their home countries but sadly neglected elsewhere. Fikret Amirov of Azerbaijan, whom I profiled earlier, is one such composer – today, I’ll be covering another forgotten colossus, Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun.

Ahmet Adnan Saygun - Wikipedia
Ahmet Adnan Saygun (Wikipedia)

Saygun was born in in 1907 in Izmir, a port on the Aegean Sea. Unlike many of the composers I’ve written about in the past, he did not grow up in a musical family; Instead, he developed a strong interest in music after hearing performances of European music and concerts by Ottoman military bands.

In elementary school, Saygun began learning instruments including the piano and oud (a short-necked lute common throughout the Arab world.) By the age of fourteen, he had begun studying composition and theory; around this time, he translated the entire music section of the French Grande Encyclopédie after learning the language from his father, a mathematics teacher and linguistic scholar. His studies continued in high school with a private tutor and music theory books. Just two years after graduating, he began teaching music at another high school in Izmir.

In 1928, the 21-year-old composer was given a grant from the Turkish state to study in France; his experiences there would have a formative influence on his musical idiom. Studying at the Schola Cantorum with the renowned composer Vincent d’Indy, among others, furthered Saygun’s interests in late Romanticism and Impressionism. These influences are audible in the atmospheric textures and sometimes highly chromatic harmony of his 1930 Divertimento, written for large orchestra plus saxophone and darbuka, a type of goblet drum found throughout the Middle East. The work proved an instant success, winning Saygun a 1931 prize in Paris and subsequently being performed in Poland and the Soviet Union.

Later the same year, Saygun returned to Turkey, where he was already being recognized as the foremost Western classical composer in the country. He soon became part of a new musical system devised by the reformist prime minister Mustafa Kemal Atatürk which aimed to orient Turkey more toward European musical standards. His newly formed relationship with Atatürk, of whom Saygun was a great admirer, proved fruitful – the former commissioned him to write Özsoy and Taşbebek, the first two Turkish operas.

During the year 1934, possibly the most important of his career, Saygun completed much more than just operatic music; for instance, he also finished composing the piano work Inci’s Book. A collection of short pieces that can be delightfully whimsical at times and quietly beautiful at others, Inci’s Book is to me one the most underappreciated works in the piano literature.

Over the next few years, Saygun’s fame continued to grow both in Turkey and abroad. He initially began teaching at the Ankara State Conservatory, which was being supported at the time by Paul Hindemith and his associates, but left shortly afterward to take up a position at the Istanbul Municipal Conservatory. In 1936, Saygun accompanied Bartók when the latter arrived in Turkey to collect and transcribe folk music; the two composers quickly became good friends. Three years later, he formed the organization Ses ve Tel Birliği, which aimed to increase awareness of Western classical music in Turkey through recitals and concerts.

Having become acquainted with some of the most notable names in contemporary music of the time, Saygun had his big break when his oratorio Yunus Emre, completed in 1942, received its first performances in 1946-47. The oratorio, which set poetry by the titular 13th-century Turkish mystic, is largely written in a late Romantic or post-Romantic idiom, but as with many of Saygun’s works, contains modal harmonies and melodies based on his country’s folk music. Yunus Emre was translated into five languages and received multiple performances worldwide, from a 1958 rendition in English by Leopold Stokowski and the NBC Symphony to a performance in the Vatican in 1991!

With the success of Yunus Emre, Saygun was encouraged to continue writing larger-scale works. The 1950s proved to be a fruitful period for him in this regard, as he completed three operas, his first and second symphonies, and a piano concerto (the latter two of which are linked below.) These works, while retaining the harmonic ideas of his earlier music, are somewhat darker in mood, perhaps owing to Saygun’s long association with the music of Bartok.

Despite his penchant for orchestral music during the 1950s, chamber music was an equally important form of expression for Saygun; indeed, it was performances of his first two string quartets by the internationally renowned Juilliard Quartet that cast him further into the musical limelight. His colorful first string quartet (the four movements of which are linked individually below) merits many more performances; it would be a welcome addition to a literature where a select few twentieth-century composers predominate.

Saygun was not only a renowned composer, but also a musicologist who taught ethnomusicology at the Istanbul Municipal Conservatory from 1972 until his death. Furthermore, he published several books on music teaching and helped found a number of conservatories across the country. Despite all these commitments, Saygun kept writing almost continuously until he passed away on January 6, 1991; in his later period, he completed, among other things, three more symphonies, concerti for the violin, viola, and cello, and a third string quartet. In particular, I’d like to single out a few of his works for varying instrumentations – the singular 10 Etudes on Aksak Rhythms, his virtuosic cello concerto, and his viola concerto, which I find to be one of the most compelling ever written in its genre.

During his lifetime, Saygun’s music circulated widely, and his works were performed by ensembles as prestigious as the Juilliard String Quartet and Vienna Philharmonic. While his music is still being recorded in some quarters today, performances of his orchestral and chamber works are unfortunately few and far between.

On that note I appreciate everyone who’s been reading all of my blog posts, but it would mean even more if those of you who are performers or conductors could go beyond the blog and find works by these composers you might be interested in performing. (In Saygun’s case, scores and parts for one or two of the string quartets can be easily found, and there are piano reductions available for several of the concerti.) In the long-term, that is the only way that the music I write about here can reach a larger audience!

Thank you so much for reading once again, and I hope to be back with a new blog post next week!

(All my information from this post came from a quite comprehensive Wikipedia entry, although the phrasing descriptions of Saygun’s music are of course mine.)

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