Aida Huseynova’s The Music of Azerbaijan: From Mugham to Opera is a journey into the remarkably eclectic and rich East-West syncretism propelled by Azerbaijani composers whose works fuse elements of traditional Azerbaijani and Western classical music. Using Bruno Nettl’s concept of syncretism, in which two traditions have compatible traits, Huseynova traces the fate of the national composition school, from its beginnings in the early twentieth century to the present day. She offers some enlightening examples of syncretic musical moments, illustrated by audio-visual materials conveniently made available on the Ethnomusicology Multi-media platform.
The Music of Azerbaijan focuses mainly on the twentieth century, with each chapter devoted to different time periods and particular genres. Huseynova restricts her scope to the Republic of Azerbaijan and sets aside any comparative analysis of its traditions with the musical output of the Azerbaijani-speaking population in Iran. Chapter 1 is an overview of musical nationalism. Huseynova begins in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when the earliest forms of nationalism were enacted through changes made to Azerbaijani traditional modal mugham and the plucked, fretted, waisted lute known as tar. She continues this chronological progression through the early twentieth century to national music during the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918–1920), and then to the musical products of the Soviet era. Huseynova uses the metaphor of Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and endings, to figuratively capture the simultaneously inspiring and restrictive Soviet environment: this particular milieu allowed for the nascent composition school to develop and thrive, yet it also succumbed to the burdens of socialist realism and censorship. On the other hand, traditional music was subjected to a cruel kismet of Westernisation and modernisation. Yet, Huseynova concludes that despite this adversity, mugham and folk music retained an integrity that was never entirely subsumed by these external forces.
Uzeir Hajibeyli, the founder of the Azerbaijani composition school, along with his successors Gara Garayev and Fikrat Amirov, were the three composers who were most influential [End Page 317] in the formation of Azerbaijani East-West syncretism. In Chapter 2, Huseynova provides biographical information about this triumvirate and demonstrates how Garayev and Amirov were respectively a Westerner and an Easterner in a musical sense, as determined by their degree of faithfulness to traditional music.
In Chapter 3, Huseynova drives home a critical point: while the role of Russian composers was pivotal in Soviet Azerbaijan, the process of East-West syncretism was driven from the inside by Azerbaijani composers. According to Huseynova, education and the performing arts were the two areas most impacted by composers from the Center, but ethnic Azerbaijanis remained the driving force in the musical scene overall. The activities of visiting performers and composers from Russia such as Leopold Rostropovich and Reinhold Glière come under the spotlight in this chapter. In particular, Huseynova asserts that Glière’s distinct approach to East-West syncretism in his opera Shahsenem is an example of the sort of “tourist nationalism” Richard Taruskin describes in his discussion of Dvořák’s music. Although Shahsenem is a fusion that incorporates unmediated Azerbaijani folk songs, it is a different path from the one taken by Hajibeyli. This chapter also offers fascinating details about the influence of Shostakovich on the music of four Azerbaijani composers who studied with him at the Moscow State Conservatory: Gara Garayev, Jovdat Hajiyev, Soltan Hajibeyov, and Elmira Nazirova.
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 can be grouped together into an in-depth chronological examination of music composed during three periods: 1900 to the 1930s, 1940 to the early 1960s, and from the 1960s to the present day. These chapters are teeming with illuminating and thorough musical analysis of major milestones in the history of Azerbaijani musical output, such as Hajibeyli’s Leyli and Majnun and Koroghlu, Muslim Magomaev’s Shah Ismayil, Amirov’s Kurd Ovshari, Garayev’s atonal compositions, as well as examinations of neofolklorism in the works of Agshin Alizade, Frangiz Alizade...