French avant-garde meets the Sufi mystics

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Oriental melancholy. © Charles Thibo

East and west united, sublimated, a synthesis of oriental and occidental culture, two broad streams of ideas about beauty and harmony coming together and creating something new – Ahmed Adnan Saygun’s String Quartet No. 1 (Op. 27) is all that and so much more. The first movement sets the tone: Oriental phrasing side by side with the French avant-garde of the 20th century – Saygun studied between the two world wars with Vincent d’Indy in Paris – very evocative, very ambitious too to incorporate traditional folks elements from what used to be the Ottoman Empire very much like Bela Bartok did after his ethno-musicological studies.

In 1947, when Saygun wrote his first quartet, the Ottoman Empire had ceased to exist. Kemal Atatürk had founded the first Turkish republic and was driven by the desire to catch up with Western Europe, to bring modernity to a backward country not only in terms of political ideas and public infrastructure, but also in terms of culture and education. Saygun embraced these ideas and put them into practice while he taught at the conservaories of Istanbul and Ankara.

The Turkish music historian, conductor and composer Emre Araci has written a 310-page-long study about the life and work of Saygun and here is what he says about the composer’s debut in the field of chamber music: “Adnan Saygun had a great enthusiasm for the medium of the string quartet […] the first quartet ended a five-year compositional crisis-period […] It appears that the inspiration for this work came from a seven-month stay in Europe, during which he had opportunities to attend a number of chamber music concerts and workshops.”

An anti-Romantic perspective

According to Araci all of Saygun’s quartets start with “a lyrical slow movement and a movement where traditional Turkish dance-patterns are recreated” while the finale are energetic derivatives based on the rondo* form. he points out another interesting feature of the quartet related to Saygun’s studies at the Scola Cantorum Basiliensis: the use of Gregorian church modes. Each movement of Op. 27 is structurally based on one of the modes of the Gregorian plain-chant system: Phrygian, Mixolydian, Hypodorian and Phrygian again.

Furthermore it is interesting to learn from Araci where the mystical mood of parts of the quartet come from, especially in the second movement, “where Saygun clearly alludes to the ritualistic services, called zikr, of the mystic dervishes, who throughout their  ceremonies played intoxicating music in order to attain a full meditative state”. In his earlier oratorio (Op. 26), Saygun recreated the musical tradition of the Sufi – a mystic current of Islam – through both his melodic writing and instrumental scoring.

Saygun’s three complete quartets and the fragments of a fourth have been recorded by the Belgian Quatuor Danel. I warmly recommend the album as it is a real treasure trove, far removed from the traditional quartet experience and as the reviewer of the “Gramophone” magzine pointed out full of surprises: “Saygun clearly viewed the [quartet] form from an anti-Romantic perspective with potentially ‘colourful’ native elements transmuted into a sophisticated, dissonant, increasingly abstract idiom.”

© Charles Thibo

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