Ahmed Adnan Saygun

Born in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, Ahmed Adnan Saygun came of age just as the Turkish Republic was being established.  Becoming Turkey’s leading composer in the Western classical tradition as well as one of the country’s most important ethnomusicologists, Saygun embodied the cultural values promoted by the republic’s first leader, Ataturk.  Saygun’s works combine Western classical techniques with melodic and rhythmic elements from Turkish folk and art music.

Early Years in Cosmopolitan Izmir

Ahmed Adnan Saygun was born in the city of Izmir, in western Turkey on the Aegean Sea.  Also known as Smyrna, Izmir was a remarkably cosmopolitan city, with a large Greek population and traders from all over the Mediterranean.  In later years, the composer recalled hearing chamber music at its cafés and Ottoman military music in its streets.

When Saygun was still a teenager, the aftermath of World War I, in which the Ottoman Empire had sided with the losing powers, meant that Turkey was in grave danger of being carved up among the various European powers.  Greece occupied Izmir in 1919, but Turkish troops retook the city in 1922.  On September 12, three days after the city was recaptured, an enormous fire left much of the city in ruins.

In this turbulent atmosphere, Saygun began to study music.  He first sang in the chorus of his elementary school and started playing the piano when he was thirteen years old.  Two years later, he began studying with a former student of Liszt named Alessandro Voltan (known in Turkish as Macar Tevfik Bey). 

Teaching in Izmir and Studying in Paris

Upon leaving school, Saygun himself became a music teacher, working first at a primary school in 1925 and moving to a high school the following year. 

In 1928, the Ministry of Education sponsored a scholarship competition, and Saygun was one of the winners.  His scholarship enabled him to go abroad to study at the Paris Conservatoire.  There, his primary teacher was Eugene Borrel, but he also studied composition at the Schola Cantorum with Vincent d’Indy.

Return to Turkey and Encounter with Bártók

Coming back to Turkey in 1931, Saygun moved to Ankara, the new capital of Turkey, and began teaching at the Music Teachers’ Training College.  He became conductor of the Presidential Orchestra in Ankara in 1934 but resigned the same year because of his growing deafness.  During the early 1930s, Saygun composed two one-act operas, some chamber and piano music, and two works for voice and orchestra. 

Saygun moved to Istanbul in 1936 and taught at the Municipal Conservatory there.  The same year, he was invited to travel around Turkey, recording folk songs as assistant and translator to the composer and ethnomusicologist Bela Bartok.  Along with several other musicians, Saygun and Bártók recorded peasants performing folk songs near Adana in southern Turkey.  Saygun also did some research on his own, transcribing archival recordings of dances from the Black Sea region.

Administrative Positions

In 1939, Saygun left the conservatory to take a job as inspector of public cultural centers in Turkey.  This position enabled him to continue his research into folk music as he traveled.  He was also chosen as the music advisor to the Republican People’s Party, the political party begun by Atatürk.

In the 1940s, Saygun continued his administrative work and also founded a new group for the promotion of choir concerts.  He created his best-known choral work, indeed the best-known of all his works: the oratorio Yunus Emre (1946).  Based on poetry by the thirteenth-century Sufi poet Yunus Emre, the first major poet to write in Turkish, the work was heard not only in Turkey but also in Paris the following year and, in 1958, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Shortly after completing Yunus Emre, Saygun began his first full-length opera, Kerem (1947-52).  This was followed by his first two symphonies and first piano concerto.  Despite this concentration on large compositional projects, Saygun did not abandon his ethnomusicological interests, helping found the Folkloric Research Institute in 1955.

Saygun furthered his involvement with the government by becoming a member of the Curriculum Board at the Ministry of Education in 1960, a position he held until 1965.  From 1964 to 1972, he taught composition at the Ankara State Conservatory.  From 1972 until 1978, he was a member of the board at the state-run Turkish Radio and Television. 

Last Years in Istanbul

In 1978, Saygun moved back to Istanbul in order to teach composition and ethnomusicology at the Istanbul State Conservatory at Mimar Sinan University.  He remained active as a composer during these years, writing his fifth symphony, three concertos (one each for piano, viola, and cello), and two operas, Köroglu (1973), and Gilgamish (1983). 

Throughout his career, Saygun not only composed and taught but also wrote frequently on all aspects of music.  His publications, dating from the 1930s through the 1980s, cover subjects from Turkish folk music to music theory instruction to Atatürk’s influence on music.  Saygun’s long, varied, and prolific career ended in 1991, when he died in Istanbul.


“Ahmed Adnan Saygun.”  A. Adnan Saygun Research and Education Center, Bilkent
University (Accessed 30 May 2006), <http://mssf.bilkent.edu.tr/eng/adnan.html>

Araci, Emre.  “Reforming Zeal.”  The Musical Times 138 (1997): 12-15.

O’Connell, John Morgan.  “Fine Art, Fine Music: Controlling Turkish Taste at the Fine
Arts Academy in 1926.”  Yearbook for Traditional Music 32 (2000): 117-42.

Yener, Faruk, and Munir Nurettin Beke: ‘Saygun, Ahmed Adnan’,  Grove Music Online
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