About this Recording
8.570720 - KARAYEV, K: Symphony No. 3 / Leyli and Medjnun / Don Quixote (Russian Philharmonic, Yablonsky) (Azerbaijani Composers, Vol. 1)
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Kara Karayev (1918–1982)
Symphony No. 3 • Leyla and Mejnun • Don Quixote


Kara Karayev is a composer with a highly expressive, individual style, whose compositions are infused with the harmonies and melodic characteristics of his native Azerbaijani music. He once said: ‘Traditional music of Azerbaijan is my native language. As a composer I grew up on Azerbaijani folk melodies, and to break away from their influences, regardless of what artistic problem I am working on, I cannot, and do not want to do.’ Karayev was born in Baku, his favourite city, which he called ‘an enormous, multi-voiced symphony’. His father was a famous professor of medicine, and his mother a talented pianist with a passion for poetry. Karayev’s musical education began in Baku in 1930 and in 1938 he was accepted to study composition at the Moscow Conservatory. His long and illustrious career as a composer, pedagogue, music writer and critic began after his return to Baku in 1946 as a conservatory graduate.

Karayev studied composition with Dmitry Shostakovich, becoming one the brightest representatives of his class. Shostakovich, a sensitive, and at the same time demanding teacher, had enormous influence on the young composer both personally and professionally. Karayev’s music shows how he assimilated and adapted some aspects of his teacher’s compositional style into his own in such areas as instrumentation and harmonic language. He wrote in different genres, which included music for plays and musicals, opera, ballet, symphonic and chamber works, romances, cantatas, children’s music, and film music. Karayev adored Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and was strongly drawn to Albanian, Vietnamese, Turkish, Bulgarian, Spanish, African, and Arabic music. He once said that ‘from the very beginning, East and West co-existed in me’, and his works are a testament of this happy co-existence.

Karayev’s Third Symphony for chamber orchestra (1964) was one of the first large-scale Soviet works composed using serialism, which Karayev combined with the elements of national tradition, such as the national ashug melody, and conventional four-part structure. He said that in this work he wanted ‘to find new ways of artistic expression, new principles of form and construction, and, most importantly, new means of expressive musical language’. He added that in this symphony he attempted to express his ‘reflections on the problems faced by humanity, and attempted to deepen and expose the inner world of a contemporary human being’. The symphony is also an attempt to preserve some of the elements of traditional Azerbaijani music. During the composition of the symphony Karayev said that he was saddened to think that ‘everything that comes from the depth of my dear culture may vanish’.

The opening Allegro moderato is an energetic movement, whose two main themes are built on the same twelve-tone row. The symphony opens with a motoric, staccato first theme, which gives way to a gentler, contrasting melody that differs from the first in tempo, dynamic, and texture. The first movement’s clear-cut, determined rhythms, and sarcastic, harsh harmonies are reminiscent both of Shostakovich and Prokofiev but still speak Karayev’s own individual language. The inclusion and prominence of piano clusters is interesting and colourful. The second movement, marked Allegro vivace, is a brilliant Scherzo with complex dance rhythms and a waltz-like trio. The composer explained that the movement is ‘intentionally close to ashug music. I did it genuinely, from my heart, but also, of course, I wanted to prove that, strictly following twelve-tone technique, it is possible to write nationalistic music, and not simply nationalistic, but specifically ashug’. Ashug is a five-hundred-year-old Azerbaijani musical tradition, where ashug, a highly masterful minstrel, tells epic stories to the accompaniment of the Azerbaijani lute. The Andante is a traditional lyrical centre of the work. It is gentle, expressive, and philosophically pensive. The final Allegro sees the return of the motoric, energetic rhythms of the first movement, and has an overall positive and optimistic character. Karayev introduced a fugue in the centre of the finale, displaying his considerable polyphonic writing skills and, rather unexpectedly, added a slow coda, which appears as a pensive summary and re-evaluation of the last movement and, indeed, the whole symphony.

Leyla and Mejnun had its première in Baku in 1947, at a concert commemorating the 800th anniversary of Nizami, and a year later it received the Stalin prize, one of the greatest honours that could be bestowed on a Soviet artist. The symphonic poem is inspired by the work of one of the greatest twelfth-century Azerbaijani poets, Nizami. The poem was based on the popular Arab legend of ill-fated lovers: the young poet Qays and his cousin Leyla, who fell in love. When Leyla was given in marriage to another man, Qays went mad, and his name became ‘Mejnun’ which means ‘mad’ and ‘possessed’. He abandoned family and society and lived in the desert, writing poems about his love for Leyla. Like Tristan and Isolde, and Romeo and Juliet, they were united in death. Karayev said that he ‘did not attempt to take the path of musical illustration’, but wanted to ‘express with the music the eternal theme of heroic love that conquers all obstacles, conquering death itself’. Leyla and Mejnun has three clear thematic elements. It opens with a sombre, harsh theme that could be said to represent fate, precluding the lovers from being together – the first element. The second section of the work addresses a struggle against fate, and fight for happiness—the second element. It is followed by a theme of love—the third element—punctuated by the returning theme of struggle. The theme of love returns in the end, but this time it is tinted with sadness and sorrow, and the work concludes with a crushing blast of percussion and lower strings, fate delivering its final blow.

Don Quixote (Symphonic Engravings) (1960) is a symphonic work that Karayev based on musical material for the eponymous film directed by Grigory Kozintsev. This is a cycle of eight sections, depicting the life and adventures of Cervantes’ hero. The sections have the titles Travels, Sancho, the Governor, Travels, Aldonse, Travels, Pavan, Cavalcade, and Don Quixote’s Death. Don Quixote had been Karayev’s favourite book since his childhood, and he often said that he identified with the protagonist’s eternal need to move forward, to fight for high ideals.

Although Karayev’s composition bears all the signs of a programmatic work, with the title, subtitle, individual sections, and use of the musical material of the film soundtrack, he once again, as in Leyla and Mejnun, avoided the path of musical illustration. Thus, there is no depiction of Don Quixote’s battles, or faithful representation of the novel’s events. Instead, the musical tableaux concentrate on the inner world of the protagonist.

The first section, Travels, serves as an exposition, introducing the listener to the world of the main character. It is difficult not to find associations with the measured pace of Don Quixote’s steed, Rosinante, as he embarks on one of his adventures. The first section is lyrical, peaceful, and calm. It does, however, contain in itself a seed of the theme which will come back later, a dotted rhythm pattern over an ostinato bass line. This figuration comes back in the two subsequent Travels sections, and serves as a basis on which their musical material develops. The second section is more dramatic than the first, and the third is the darkest and most dramatic of the three. Sancho, the Governor is a boisterous, celebratory, cheerful tableau; Aldonse is lyrical and gentle, and Pavan is a beautiful, lyrical section that perhaps prepares the listener for the protagonist’s imminent end without being dirge-like or mournful. In the dynamic, rhythmical brass sections of Cavalcade, Karayev’s scoring gives prominence to harsh and bold Prokofiev-like harmonies. Don Quixote’s Death is the longest section of the work, where the gentle and lyrical theme from the Aldonse episode comes back. The light is extinguished but we are not left in complete darkness. Bright memories are still with us and the image of the likable hero will remain.

Anastasia Belina

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