Saygun’s “Yunus Emre”

DGCD21074 - cover

SAYGUN: Yunus Emre / Birgül Su Aric, sop; Aylis Ateş, mezzo; Aydin Uştuk, ten; Tevfik Rodos, bs; Osnabrueck Youth Choir & Symphony Orch.; Naci Özgüç, cond / Dreyer Gaido DGCD21074

Ahmed Adnan Saygun is one of those composers whose music exists on the fringe of the classical establishment, the same way (as for different reasons) that the music of Harry Partch, George Antheil does and, until about 15 years ago, Mieczysław Weinberg’s music did. It is an outlier, but a fascinating one that provides us with a glimpse into the musical mind of someone who worked long and hard at creating his legacy and, in a sense, didn’t much care who appreciated it or not.

Yunus Emre is an oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra in three parts based on the work of that poet, who lived from 1240 to 1321. Emre’s work created, according to the liner notes, a “universe of encompassing love, in which ‘all humankind, without exception, was one with God.’ Saygun appreciated Emre’s simplicity and accessibility, and the power of his ability to create popular poetry with a clear language. He hence devoured all poems of this most important representative of popular mysticism.” Saygun worked on this oratorio from August 1942 to January 1943, writing in the Baroque fashion. Again from the liner notes:

Saygun wanted to bear witness and express in an internationally comprehensible form the culture and the folk music of Turkey’s impoverished and war-ravaged heartland, Anatolia. His aim was to reach out to villagers and urbanites alike, to the ignorant and to the intellectual, to the Muslim and non-Muslim. In this way, the maqams, which Saygun used, were an implement, a colour on his palette. With the Oratory, Saygun translated the rhythm and modes of folk songs into an international language. For instance, the part, which calls to mind the “segah” maqam had actually been written in Phrygian mode (In the first part choral and the third part Vivo). In his quest to make his work accessible to a larger audience, the composer had also hoped for translation into other languages. And indeed, the Oratory has been translated into English, French, German and Hungarian.

Listening to the music, you’d scarcely believe that this was written by a 20th-century Turkish composer. It sounds, rather, like a late-Romantic cantata, despite the use of some modal harmonies and Berlioz-like orchestration and choral writing. The opening section is slow and mysterious, leading into a tenor solo, after which the music rises to a loud climax and falls away. Saygun had a keen ear for orchestral color, thus there are some remarkable passages in which he pits the tuba against high winds and strings. Then, in turn, some of the orchestral music resembles Debussy’s La Mer. In the second part, Saygun introduces some driving rhythms played by the basses as the tenor sings

The ones who left a world, deceitful, lying,
They left us here, bereft, remote, and lonely
Above their graves grass is like banners flying
They left us here, bereft, remote, and lonely.

Tenor Aydin Uştuk has a superb voice, well controlled, high and ringing, but mezzo Aylis Ateş has the ugly, wobbly voice of an old woman which spoils her music for me. Thankfully, basso Tevfik Rodos has a rich, solid timbre. But the quality of the music is very high: moving and brooding in turn, yet never cheaply sentimental. The seventh section, however—“By thy fire I am burned”—is written at a faster tempo and features both our wonderful tenor and the somewhat fluttery and shrill soprano of Birgül Su Aric.

Saygun’s purposely simple approach to this score makes it accessible to all classical listeners, although to my mind the music sounds more like a Mass than a Cantata, and this in itself began to lose my interest. I don’t much like religious music unless it is more technically challenging than this (Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Mass in b minor, Berlioz’ Te Deum and Messe Solennelle, etc.), but if you respond to this type of music you’ll certainly enjoy this work. He was, as I say, a fine composer and a very serious one. We need more like him today.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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