Ahmed Adnan Saygun (1907-1991)

A titan of modern Turkish music.The New York Times

...Saygun’s music is too unusual to sound familiar, and too intriguing to put listeners off. Fanfare

Ahmed Adnan Saygun can be said to be the Turkish Béla Bartók.Stereoplay

Saygun’s gift of orchestration, and particularly in creating dark, velvety, voluptuous textures from such instruments as low winds, harps, and celesta, means that no matter how complex the music may be, it always falls gratefully on the ear... If you collect characterful and rewarding contemporary music, you will want this.classicstoday.com

Widely acknowledged as one of the most important 20th-century Turkish composers, Ahmed Adnan Saygun’s works elegantly synthesize western musical ideals with traditional Turkish folk culture. His large and diverse catalogue includes five symphonies, five operas, two piano concertos, various concertos, and a wide range of chamber and choral works. In his obituary, the Times (London) recalled him as the grand old man of Turkish music, who was to his country what Sibelius is to Finland, what de Falla is to Spain, and what Bartók is to Hungary.

Born on September 7, 1907, Saygun as a young man witnessed radical changes in his country’s politics and culture. In the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk replaced the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled for nearly 600 years, with a secular republic based on Western models and traditions. His efforts to forge a new cultural identity for his new nation, which included a program in the study of Turkish folk culture and Western music played a fundamental role in the development of Saygun’s musical language.

Saygun spent his childhood in Izmir, a city celebrated for its cultural life. Frequent concerts given by the Ottoman military bands, as well as chamber music performances of Western works presented in the promenade cafes, helped shape Saygun’s personality. He began his musical education studying both the oud, the Ottoman short-necked lute, and the piano. By learning the oud he became familiar with the modal and rhythmic structures of Ottoman art music; studying the piano brought a greater understanding of the polyphonic harmonic structures of the European musical tradition. He began composing at the age of fourteen, writing short pieces in the genres of marches and polkas. In 1928, Saygun received a scholarship from the Turkish state to study with French composer Vincent d'Indy and theorist Eugène Borrel at La Schola Cantorum in Paris. Here he was introduced to the music of the late-Romantic and French Impressionism, and given lessons in counterpoint and motivic development. During this time he wrote his first mature piece, Divertimento for orchestra, opus 1 (1930), which incorporates both western compositional techniques and modal Turkish folk music.

In 1931, Saygun returned to Turkey as a faculty member of the Music Teacher’s Training College in Ankara, a school founded with the goal of training musicians in the new music policy of the republic. He conducted the Presidential Orchestra in 1934, and then moved to Istanbul in 1936 to teach at the Municipal Conservatory. That same year, the celebrated Hungarian composer Béla Bartók visited Turkey and joined Saygun on an expedition to Anatolia and Osmaniye to collect and transcribe folk songs.

Saygun attracted international attention with his oratorio Yunus Emre (1946), an hour-long work for four vocal soloists, mixed chorus and full orchestra that sets a number of poems by the 13 th century Anatolian mystic poet Yunus Emre. While firmly in the post-Romantic tradition, Saygun celebrates Yunus Emre’s legacy by his extensive use of Turkish modes and folk-like melodies. Since its premiere in Ankara in 1947, the oratorio has been performed many times, including a performance in the United Nations General Assembly Hall led by conductor Leopold Stokowski in 1958. The success of Yunus Emre encouraged Saygun to compose further large-scale works. In the 1950s he wrote his first two symphonies, a piano concerto, and several chamber music pieces. In the 1960s – his most productive decade – he completed his third, fourth, and fifth symphonies and a second piano concerto.

In addition to his work as a composer and ethnomusicologist, Saygun was a dedicated teacher. He greatly influenced the development of art music in his country, and counts among his students the most important musicians in Turkey. He also wrote and published several books on the teaching of music. Saygun helped establish several new conservatories, and was a member of the National Education Council from 1960 to 1965 and the Board of the State Radio and Television from 1972 to 1978. From 1972 until his death in 1991 he taught composition and ethnomusicology at the State Conservatory in Istanbul. Original manuscripts and archives are housed in the Ahmed Adnan Saygun Center for Music Research and Education at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.

Other reviews:

The time is ripe for Ahmed Adnan Saygun (1907-91). The Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, under the conductor Ari Rasilainen, presents three of his works to dazzling effect. Chief among them is the Violin Concerto, which veers between variegated tutti passages and breathless cadenzas for the soloist, Mirjam Tschopp, countering the laughing brasses and sinew-stiffening snare drum with double-stopped wizardry. The adagio features a magical whispering motif of muted, shuffling strings, and the finale is Saygun at his wittiest as he commands the orchestra’s great weight like the master of a dancing bear.

Indeed, none of Saygun’s music is far from the next dance. He was the Turkish Bartók, recording folk music all over Asia Minor. The disc ends with an orchestral dance suite full of pungent oriental melodies, including a meseli with a soft seductive harem drum and a horon with stuttering seven-beat bars.

There is a depth that reaches beyond the dance and into the hearts of his listeners. Saygun was aware of himself as the young voice of a newly emancipated nation. His Symphony No 4 (his last, like Brahms) has outer movements both called Deciso — decisive — that seize the ear, the first in hungry, pounding rhythms, the last in infectious chasing strings. The slow movement is a Passacaglia of impressive complexity. You have to be up there with the immortals even to attempt such feats.The Times

About a decade ago I first heard music of Turkish composer Ahmed Adnan Saygun (1907-1991) via a recording of two brilliant, fascinating piano concertos played by Gülsin Onay with the Hannover North German Radio Orchestra conducted by Gürer Aykal issued on Koch Schwann (3-1350) and now, unfortunately, discontinued. The enterprising cpo label already has released recordings four of Saygun's five symphonies (Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5) which I have not heard—and now we have this superb CD of two of his later works—Symphony No. 4, Op. 53 (1976) and the Violin Concerto, Op. 44 (1967), and the Suite, Op. 14 which dates from 1934. Saygun's work is strongly influenced by his native Turkish music and often by folk elements... The recordings, made in Ludwigshafen, Philharmonie, June 2-6, 2003, a production of Stephen Reh Musikproduktion, Mettmann, boast wide-range, rich orchestral sound. Check this one out, for sure.classicalcdreview.com