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ClassicsOnline Home » SAYGUN: 12 Preludes on Aksak Rhythms / 10 Sketches on Aksak Rhythms / Piano Sonatina
A colleague of Béla Bartók in the collection of Turkish folk-music, Adnan Saygun was among the most distinguished Turkish composers of the twentieth century, writing music that combined Western techniques with essential elements of his country's own musical traditions. His piano music includes works that explore characteristic ‘limping’ rhythm, Turkish dance-forms and, in Inci’s Book, children's pieces of charm and simplicity.
By Christopher Howell
Ahmet Adnan Saygun (1907–1991)
The establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, after the abolition of the Caliphate, brought many reforms, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. There were to be changes in dress, in language, with the restoration of words of Turkish rather than of Persian or Arabic origin and the adoption of a Western alphabet, in legal systems, in schooling and in outlook, with a strong belief in the people of Turkey within the country’s established borders and in the best that could be introduced from the West. Adnan Saygun was among the many artists who benefitted from the changes that took place, the emphasis that Atatürk placed on the arts and the generous encouragement that continued to be given by the government to the promotion of Western culture, absorbed into the new Turkish nationalism. In his speech at the opening of the Turkish parliament in 1934, Atatürk alluded directly to music, urging the creation of a new musical style that drew on Turkish national heritage as a means of national transformation. In the new capital, Ankara, buildings were to be erected on designs by architects from Germany and Austria. A new conservatory was set up, to be directed by Paul Hindemith, who drew up plans for national music education, while the new opera-house was to be under Carl Ebert.
Adnan Saygun was born in Izmir in 1907. His father, Celal Bey (surnames were made obligatory by Atatürk only in 1934) had moved from Nevșehir to take a position as a teacher and it was in Izmir that Saygun had his early education, through the difficulties and dangers of war, of the Greek occupation and of the varied rivalries of Western European powers. He was able to have piano lessons, and his father bought an instrument for Saygun and his sister, but discouraged his son’s ambitions as a musician, insisting that he have some other means of earning a living. Saygun broadened his own musical knowledge by translating articles on music from the French Grande Encyclopédie, taught music at a primary school and then at a boy’s lycée in Izmir, before, in 1928, winning a Ministry of Education competition that allowed him further study in Paris. There he studied at the Conservatoire with Eugène Borrel, who had early connections with Turkey, and subsequently at the Schola Cantorum in the composition class of Vincent d’Indy, learning what he could of Western culture and associating with fellow-students, particularly a group of young Turkish painters who were also benefitting from the cultural policies of Atatürk. In 1931 Saygun returned to Turkey, first to teach at a training college for music teachers, and in 1934, at the command of Atatürk, to write an opera, Özsoy, to mark the state visit to Ankara of the Shah of Persia. At Atatürk’s intervention, Saygun was put in charge of the performance, with the Presidential Orchestra. This was followed by a commission for a second opera, Tașbebek, the first two such compositions of the new republic.
In 1936, after a disagreement with the Minister of Education, perhaps over his failure to find employment for Bartók in Turkey, an appointment to which Hindemith was opposed, Saygun returned to Istanbul to teach at the Conservatory. In 1939, however, he was appointed inspector of the Halkevleri, social institutions established throughout the country, based once more in Ankara. The position involved travel and enabled him to carry out his research into Turkish folk-music, continuing work in which he had earlier collaborated with Bartók. In 1940 he was involved in the establishment of the Ses ve Tel Birliği (Voice and Strings Association) for the performance and promotion of music, a society that was to meet for many years at the house of arts patron Cenap And. In the same year Saygun married a singer from a visiting Hungarian women’s chamber ensemble, Irén Szalai, later Nilüfer Saygun, who had taken refuge in Istanbul four years earlier. Two years afterwards, in 1942, he completed his most famous work, the oratorio Yunus Emre, based on poems by the thirteenth century Sufi mystic. This had its first performance in Ankara in 1946 and was to have notable performances abroad, in 1958 in the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York under Stokowski, who hoped one day to perform the work in St Sophia in Istanbul. From 1946 Saygun taught at the Ankara Conservatory, actively continuing his career as a composer, ethno-musicologist, writer on musical subjects and translator. On his retirement in 1972 he was given the honorary title of State Artist, the highest official honour, with its consequent financial security, one among various other awards and distinctions. He was able to continue teaching in the following years at the Istanbul Conservatory. His position in Turkey as one of the selfstyled ‘Turkish Five’, with Ulvi Cemal Erkin, Cemal Reşit Rey, Necil Kâzım Akses and Ferit Alnar, three of whom he outlived, was unassailable, and he remains one of the most important composers of the New Turkey.
The three piano pieces that make up Anadolu’dan, Op. 25 (From Anatolia) were written in 1945 and dedicated to Laurence Shaw Moore, then of the American Embassy in Ankara. The first piece, Me şeli, is in a characteristic Turkish rhythm, its 9/8 metres in fact 2 + 2 + 2 + 3. The Zeybek that follows, a familiar men’s dance from the West of Turkey, makes opening use of the lower register of the keyboard, its 9/4 metre again uneven and divided by emphatic beats at the end of phrases. The Halay, a men’s round dance, with its varied rhythms, ends the set.
Aksak Tartılar Üzerine 12 Prelüd, Op. 45 (12 Preludes on Aksak Rhythms) are dedicated to the distinguished Turkish pianist İdil Biret and date from 1967. The rhythms described as ‘aksak’ (‘limping’) had been incorrectly described by Bartók as ‘Bulgarian rhythms’, and occur under that title in Mikrokosmos and are used in his Fifth String Quartet. They are, in fact, rhythms that combine binary and ternary units. Thus, in the 12 Preludes, Nos. 1, 4, 6 and 10, with a metre of 5/8, have a rhythm of 2 + 3, binary followed by ternary. No. 9, also in 5/8 metre, is 3 + 2, ternary followed by binary. Of the other Preludes No. 12 is essentially 4 + 3, while Nos. 7 and 8 divide the beats as 3 + 2 + 3 and 3 + 3 + 2, Nos. 3 and 5, with seven quavers in a bar, are divided as 2 + 2 + 3 and 3 + 2 + 2 respectively, and Nos. 2 and 11, with nine quavers in a bar, break up the rhythm as 2 + 2 + 2 + 3. The same rhythmic principles, derived from Turkish folk-music, occur in Aksak Tartılar Üzerine 10 Taslak, Op. 58 (10 Sketches on Aksak Rhythms), completed in 1976. Here again the combination of binary and ternary rhythms, in Sketch No. 1, for example, heard as 2 + 2 + 3, and subsequently varied by the use of ties or in more complex units, is further explored.
To these pieces İnci’nin Kitabı, Op. 10 (Inci’s Book), written in 1934 and ten years later arranged for orchestra, provides a contrast. Dedicated to Madame Eugène Borrel, the seven little pieces offer a Turkish counterpart to Fauré’s Dolly Suite, simple in texture and appeal and including its own kitten, lullaby and final dream.
Adnan Saygun’s Sonatina, Op. 15, was written in 1938 and dedicated to the composer’s Istanbul colleague Ömer Refik Yaltkaya. It offers an opening theme of pentatonic outline in its essentially classical first movement. The slow movement provides a place for varied Turkish rhythms, with the opening and closing sections presented over a repeated bass figure. The work ends with a Horon, a dance from the Black Sea region, with its bars of seven semiquavers variously divided into binary and ternary groups, the whole coming to the expectedly abrupt conclusion characteristic of the dance.
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SAYGUN: 12 Preludes on Aksak Rhythms / 10 Sketches...