Ahmed Adnan Saygun is an important figure in Turkish musical life as a pioneer in polyphonic composition, an ethnomusicologist and an instructor for younger generations. His father was a mathematics teacher in I zmir, and Saygun had his first musical training there. He began studying privately with Ismail Zühtü and Rosati when he was thirteen years old. In 1922 he was a student of Macar Tevfik Bey; in the meantime he studied harmony and counterpoint on his own.
During the years 1924-25 Saygun taught music in the primary schools of Izmir and in 1926 he moved to the Lycee of Izmir. Winning a state competition in 1928, he went to Paris to study music. There he studied with Madame Eugene Borrel, Vincent d’Indy, Monsieur Borrel, Souberbielle and Amedee Gatour.
Returning home in 1931, Saygun was appointed to teach counterpoint in the Music Instructors School in Ankara . In 1934 for a year he conducted the Presidential Orchestra and then went to Istanbul . In 1936 he began teaching at the Municipal Conservatory of Istanbul. In the same year, the famous Hungarian composer Bela Bartok visited Turkey and Saygun joined him in a tour of Anatolia . They collected many folk songs from different districts of Anatolia , and transcribed them into conventional musical notation. Around the same time, he carried out research in the archives of the Municipal Conservatory of Istanbul and he transcribed folk dances of the Black Sea region.
In the 1939 he was appointed as an inspector of the public culture centers, which were established during the early Republican era. He also became the music advisor to the Turkish Republican People’s Party.
In his capacity as inspector, Saygun traveled widely throughout Turkye, learning a great deal about the local rhythmical and melodic structure of the music of different districts. In 1940 he founded the “Voice and String Union”, which performed music from all of the periods of the history of music and Turkish compositions as well. In 1955 he became one of the founders of the Folkloric Research Institute.
Between the years of 1964 and 1972, Saygun taught composition at the Ankara State Conservatory. He also taught the structure of modal music and served as head of the department.
Among his administrative positions we may note that he worked in the Ministr of Education as a member of the Curriculum Board from1960 to 1965, and that he also served as a member of the Administrative Board of TRT (1972-1978). Until his death, he continued teaching ethnomusicology and composition at the Istanbul State Conservatory of Mimar Sinan University.
The first incident that spread his fame beyond Turkey was the performance in Paris of his Yunus Emre Oratorio in 1947 by the Lamoureux Orchestra. In the same year he was elected to the International folk Music council as an executive member. He was honored with the Palmes Academique Medal of the Ministry of Education in France in 1949; in 1955 he was also awarded the Frederich Schiller Medal by West Germany . The Italian Government gave him the first prize of Stella Della Solieriate Medal in 1958, and in the same year he received the Jean Sibelius Compositions medal of the Harriet Cohen International Music Award. Because of his collaboration with Bela Bartok, Saygun received two prizes from the Hungarian Government: In 1981 he was honored with the Bela Bartok Diploma; and in 1986 he received the Pro Culture Hungarica Prize from the Commemoration Committee of Bartok.
His local awards include the following: In 1948 he received the Inönü Award; in 1971 he was named a “State Artist”; in 1978 the Aegean University and the Anatolia University gave him honorary doctorates; in 1981 he received the Atat ü rk Art Prize; in 1984 he was awarded the Grand Prize by the Ministry of Culture of Art; and was given the “Osman Hamdi Award” by Mimar Sinan University on the occasion of its centennial anniversary.
Adnan Saygun had done a great deal of research in the field of ethnomusicology and his studies on the pre-modal and modal music have illuminated polyphonic compositions in Turkey . He has carried out studies comparing traditional Turkish modes with other modal music such as Persian and Greek modes. His compositions are all in a modal structure but sometimes with a pentatonic character. He has carried out research on Anatolian folk music, Asian songs, and songs from the Urals as well as Hungarian and Finnish fold songs, examining their pentatonic structure and other musical characteristics.
One of his main principles is Atat ürk ‘s aim of achieving and international outlook in music, which is at the same time national. He believes that art may develop without breaking away from its roots, and he adds that “we must feel the breath of Anatolia in all of our works.”
Adnan Saygun has composed over seventy works. He is unwilling to analyze his works in terms of stages.
Saygun wrote two operas in 1934, creating the first examples of polyphonic opera in Turkey . His later works for the stage reflect the tribulations of the mystic who is searching for truth. He is also very much interested in the correct use of the Turkish language in operas and oratorios.
He has been inspired by folk tales as much as folk songs. He has used mystical hymns as well as themes from epics in his works.
The copyright of some of his works is held bye SACEM, where some of them belongs to Southern Music Publishing Co., New York and some to Peer Musikverlag, Hamburg .