Uzeyir Hajibeyov, A Musical Legacy


Statue of Uzeyir Hajibeyov in front of the Academy of Music in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has an immensely rich musical tradition, one that has many influences and has left an indelible mark on the world. If anyone can represent Azerbaijan’s musical tradition, it is Uzeyir Hajibeyov. Having lived through some of the most dramatic and formative periods in Azerbaijan’s history (1885-1948), Hajibeyov’s music reflects the dramatic times in which he lived, while holding true to Azerbaijani folk music. In true innovative form, Hajibeyov successfully merged indigenous musical forms with orchestra and even opera. In fact, he was the first Muslim to write an opera. Though non-Slavic art forms tended to be marginalized in the Soviet Union, Hajibeyov, not only survived during the period, but thrived during it. He was awarded and decorated on many occasions for his contributions to music in the Soviet Union. His fame extends far past the borders of the former Soviet Union; his music is celebrated by the international community.

Born in Azerbaijan when it was part of the Russian empire, Hajibeyov learned Azerbaijani music and Western music. It was his knowledge of both forms of music that characterized his music. He learned traditional Azerbaijani styles like mugham while growing up near Shusha (an important artistic center for Azerbaijan) and studied Western music at Gory Seminary in Tblisi. So talented was Hajibeyov that he wrote his first opera, Leili and Majnun, at the age of 22. Considering his age when he wrote the piece makes this opera impressive enough, but that fact that it was the first opera to be written by an Azerbaijani and a Muslim elevates the status of this work. This opera fuses mugham and Western operatic styles by using both kinds of instrumentation. He would go on to write operas and musical comedies before and during the Soviet era.

Uzeyir Hajibeyov with his family in Shusha, Azerbaijan (1915). Hajibeyov is in the upper-left corner.

Unlike many pre-Soviet artists, Hajibeyev soared in popularity and influence. Even in a political climate that saw the marginalization of many minorities in the Soviet Union, Hajibeyov continued to create music that incorporated both mugham and Western operatic styles. It should be said that Hajibeyov was no fan of the Bolshevik revolution, and often wrote under a pen name criticizing it and the forces behind it. Many of Hajibeyov’s contemporaries were in fact arrested or killed. Even more fascinating is the fact that Hajibeyov was honored by the Soviet government (which he had spoken against) many times, and was even personally congratulated by Stalin himself.

Among his best accomplishments is his effort in preserving traditional Azerbaijani music. His synthesis of mugham with opera allowed folk instruments to be used in classical orchestras. Hajibeyov also took a vital role in preserving pure Azerbaijani folk music through publishing collections of songs and writing The Basis of Folk Music in Azerbaijan in 1945. His legacy cannot be underappreciated: he preserved Azerbaijani music while taking an active role in its evolution. Many institutions and organizations exist today which he either directly or indirectly took part in founding. If any single figure can personify the flowering of Azerbaijani culture in the 20th century, it is certainly Uzeyir Hajibeyov.

Post Written by Andrew Loughery, Karabakh Foundation Intern

Additional Sources

Khalilov, Anar and Ramazan. “110th Jubilee: Composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov.” Azerbaijani International. Autumn 1995. Web. 13 May 2011

Obrien, Matt. “Soviet Music and Society: Under Lenin and Stalin: The Baton and the Sickle.” Azerbaijani International. Spring 2005. Web. 14 May 2011

Selimkhanov, Jahangir. “Music Then and Now.” Azerbaijani International. Spring 1995. Web. 13 May 2011