The people of Shusha made it the pearl of the Caucasus, the cradle of our culture, the mugham-singing heart of Azerbaijan
Folk Melodies and Symphonic Masterpieces: Fikrat Amirov (1922-1984)
by Jala Garibova
No doubt the music of Fikrat Amirov has been heard outside of Azerbaijan more than any other Azerbaijani composer. Unfortunately, millions of people who have heard his music probably don’t know it’s his.
Michele Kwan, 1996 World Champion Ice Skater used Fikrat Amirov’s symphonic piece, “Gulustan Bayati-Shiraz” in her bid to defend her title as World Champion in 1997. In the numerous competitions leading up to the world championship, she skated to this music, which usually was not identified. Each performance attracted at least 20,000 spectators in the ice arena, not to mention the millions who watched on national and international television.
Amirov is no longer with us. He died in 1984 at the age of 62. Last year (1997) marked his 75th Jubilee, but a composer of such stature doesn’t need the excuse of a Jubilee to be included in our issue, “Legacy of Music.” Amirov is truly one of the greatest composers that Azerbaijan has ever produced.
Like many other Azerbaijani composers who have left enormous legacies to Azerbaijan’s music heritage, Fikrat Amirov grew up in an atmosphere of folk music. He was born on November 22, 1922, in the city of Ganja in the north central region of Azerbaijan. Fikrat’s father, Mashadi Jamil Amirov, was a famous “khanande” (mugam singer), who composed and played tar (the traditional double-globed stringed instrument which is plucked).
The most famous musicians of that period used to gather at Mashadi Jamil’s house. Among them was Bulbul, one of the most well-known vocalists of the day. Apparently, Bulbul was among the first to notice Fikrat’s musical talent, and he invited the youth to join other musicians who were collecting and documenting folk songs throughout the countryside. It was an experience that would influence Amirov’s compositions for his entire life.
During his childhood and early adolescence, Fikrat began composing pieces for the piano. “Variations” was one such piece. Later he went back and edited it several times. This piece is still included in the repertoire of Azerbaijani piano students today. After graduating from Ganja Music College, Fikrat entered Baku State Conservatory and studied under Boris Zeidman and Uzeyir Hajibeyov.
But then World War II broke out in 1941. Amirov, who was only 19 at the time, was immediately drafted, and his studies at the Conservatory interrupted. Amirov’s first military assignment took him to Tbilisi, Georgia. However, within a few months, he ended up hospitalized for shell-shock. While being treated, he formed an amateur music group, which played Russian folk instruments, and he became quite adept on the mandolin. But it wasn’t long before doctors discovered a serious intestinal disease, which needed immediate operation. For 13 days, the young Amirov stayed in a coma. The operation was so difficult that they were not able to keep him in the army. By November 1942, he was back home. By the next year, he was back at the Conservatory.
I.G. Plyam became Fikrat’s piano teacher. His apartment was next to hers. She recalls his diligence “I could hear how hard he worked every day. For hours and hours, he would go over each nuance elaborating each phrase.” Plyam observed that Fikrat stood out from the others from the very beginning. “Students try to imitate others until they define their own way. Maybe that’s only natural. But right from the start, Fikrat’s work was original.”
Growing Up With Dad
According to his son, Jamil, who is also a musician and composer, Amirov followed a very strict schedule in regard to his creative work. “He always started work early in the morning and continued until lunch after which he would take a rest. Then he would continue his work again. He followed the same routine everyday except for Sunday. Dad rarely worked all night on a piece. He was not one for ‘all-nighters.’ He mostly followed a calculated, methodical, predictable schedule. And every day he worked the same hours. He respected discipline, cleanliness and order.”
Jamil recalls that he and his sister knew not to disturb their father. “Sometimes, we had to tiptoe around the house so as not to disturb him. I’m not exaggerating. The rule in our house was ‘father and his work-first-and then, everything else followed. My mother, Aida, was a physician by training, but she didn’t work. She totally devoted herself to my father.
We weren’t allowed to enter his room when he was working. He was a diabetic, and Mom was very strict with his diet. She was the only one who ever entered his room to bring him a cup of tea or glass of juice. To tell you the truth, it’s really not surprising that he lived only six months after she died of cancer in 1983. Dad relied on her tremendously. Without my mother, there was no Fikrat Amirov.”
Of course, there were times when he would break away from writing music. “It’s impossible to work on music continuously without taking a break. You have to give your mind a rest. Dad liked watching TV. He liked the news and was always curious about what was going on in the world. He also loved meeting friends and relatives. He enjoyed being together with people that he loved.”
Jamil remembers his father as a kind, honest, loving and caring person who always tried to help those in need. “A lot of people, especially friends and relatives, used to ask him to help them get jobs and apartments. Back in the Soviet period, such things were often difficult to obtain. My father, as an esteemed musician and a deputy in the parliament, often had access to decision makers who could arrange these things, and he always tried to help.”
Jamil admits his own career in music was deeply influenced by his father. “I grew up under his nose in an atmosphere of music that was impossible to ignore.” According to Jamil, his father wasn’t the best teacher. “Dad didn’t have much patience. It was very difficult for him to explain things, even to me. Whenever I asked him to clarify something, he would get hurt and upset. He thought I should have been able to understand him the first time. He had his own idiosyncrasies. Mom knew best how to deal with him.”
But Jamil remembers his father as a person big enough to admit his mistakes. This quality became obvious when he was choosing his own career. “My father was involved in classical music, but my inclination was towards modern music and jazz. At first, my father didn’t approve, and we had many arguments about it. Finally, I persuaded him that all genres of music were valuable and that all of them should be developed.
Eventually, he accepted my decision and conceded that there were no ‘bad genres-only bad works and bad performers.’ He had wanted me to continue in his path, but after he realized I had chosen my own, he gave his approval.”
The Amirov Sound
Fikrat Amirov’s music, which mostly was written for the symphonic orchestra, can be identified by at least three major characteristics, according to Jamil. “The first is his very clear, rich, strong melodic line which continues throughout the piece. Secondly, each piece is always dramatic and full of color. To me, Dad’s works always sounded like they were created by a sudden illumination inside him-as if the entire piece dawned on him from the moment he began writing it.”
“Thirdly, his pieces are marked by national coloring. You can always identify folkloric elements in them whether they’re Azerbaijani or Arabic, as in the case of his ballet ‘Arabian Nights,’ his ‘Concerto on an Arabian Theme for the Piano and Orchestra’ (together with Elmira Nazirova) and ‘The Song of the Blind Arab.’”
The reason why there are such strong folkloric elements is because he always did a lot of research before starting on such pieces. For example, prior to composing his ballet “Arabian Nights,” he visited several Arabic countries-Iraq, Yemen and Egypt-and brought back tapes and records.
Consulting the Orchestra
Alakbar Iskandar, a professor at the Music Academy who performs with the Azerbaijan State Orchestra, recalls working together with Fikrat Amirov. “I’ve been working with the State Symphonic Orchestra for many years. In the process of composing his symphonies, he often came to see various members of the orchestra. It was as if he were writing the piece just for that performer. He would talk to flutists, oboists, bassoonists and other instrumentalists. It wasn’t that he didn’t know the nuances of the orchestra; he knew them as well as he knew his five fingers.
“I’ve seen composers make errors, for example, in naming a key that doesn’t even exist for a specific instrument. Fikrat knew everything by heart. He was extremely demanding and exacting, especially in terms of his own work. He could return to one small section in a piece over and over again during rehearsals in order to polish it. He almost always sang during practice. He had a wonderful voice and used it to demonstrate musical phrasing. He was a very neat person. It showed in his compositions. His scores were like pieces of art-so beautiful and aesthetic to the eye.”
Amirov was very emotional. “Music without emotion was not music for him. He lived and breathed music.” For Iskandar, the most obvious characteristic of Amirov’s music was his economic use of the orchestra. “In Amirov’s compositions, there a really no wasted, unnecessary notes. Everything is in harmony. Everything has its proper place. For him, misusing instruments in the orchestra was like going to the market and buying a lot of frivolous things only to realize that you had wasted your money and had nothing to show for it. Amirov never had that problem. Every instrument had its place. Every single sound was relevant.”
Amirov, of course, like any other composer, had his own favorite composers. According to Jamil, they included Bach (1685-1750) and Vivaldi (1678-1741) from the past, and 20th century composers Bela Bartok (1881-1945), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Azerbaijan’s Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948).
Amirov was involved with numerous responsibilities related to music. He directed the Azerbaijan Opera and Ballet Theater (1956-59), presided over the Azerbaijan Composers’ Union in the 1960s and headed the Soviet Composers’ Union during the 1970s.
Amirov was a prolific composer. His most famous pieces include symphonic works such as “Shur” (1946), “Kurd Afshari” (1949), “Azerbaijan Capriccio” (1961), “Gulustan Bayati- Shiraz” (1968), “The Legend of Nasimi” (1977), “To the Memory of the Heroes of the Great National War” (1944), “Double Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra” (1948) and “The Pledge of the Korean Guerrilla Fighter for Voice and Orchestra” (1951).
His ballets include “Nizami” (1947) and “1001 Nights,” (sometimes referred to as “The Arabian Nights”) which premiered in 1979. He wrote the opera, “Sevil” (1953) for which he was named, “People’s Artist of the USSR.”
He also wrote a number of pieces for the piano including “Ballad, “Ashug’s Song,” “Nocturne,” “Humoreska,” “Lyrical Dance,” “Waltz,” “Lullaby” and “Toccata.” He also wrote numerous film scores including “Morning,” “I Wasn’t Beautiful” and others.
Amirov was among the very few Azerbaijanis who was awarded the “State Prize Laureate of Azerbaijan” (1949), the “People’s Artist of the USSR” (1965) and the “State Prize Laureate of the USSR” (1981). And he was one of the privileged few who visited the United States as a member of the Soviet delegation of composers under the auspices of the State Department.
He is remembered as one of the most outstanding of Azerbaijan’s 20th century composers.
Farman Azimov, professor at Azaf Zeynalli Music School, and Gulchin Aslanova, pianist, also contributed to this article.
From Azerbaijan International (5.4) Winter 1997