The creation of classical music in Azerbaijan is wholly due to Uzeyir Hajibeyov. Born in 1885 in the village of Aghjabadi, near Shusha, Hajibeyov grew up in an environment of poets and traditional musicians. Shusha, which was located in the province of Elisavetpol as part of the Tsarist Empire – later known as the autonomous region of Nagorny Karabah – was considered to be the “cradle of Azerbaijani culture”; but in spite of this reputation, good schools were unavailable, and Hajibeyov began receiving serious education only at the age of fourteen, when he entered the Tsarist Russian Teachers’ Seminary at Gori (1899). The mixture of a traditional rural-Islamic background and a Russian-colonial education would mark Hajibeyov’s future role as “Father of Azerbaijan’s classical music”. After five years of schooling in Gori, where he was part of the school choir and learned to play the violin, cello and various folk instruments, he moved to Baku, where he worked as teacher, translator, journalist and after a few years also as a composer. In all these activities he evinced sharp social criticism of the backwardness of Azerbaijani society, especially the position of women and insufficient openness towards European modernity.
As a teacher and composer, Hajibeyov lacked the professional background of his Georgian and Armenian colleagues, who as Christians were better integrated in the academic and cultural infrastructure of the Tsarist Empire. Nonetheless, Hajibeyov’s first opera, Layla and Majnun, which premiered in Baku in 1908, was a remarkable achievement of lasting significance. It merged Azerbaijani monophonic Mugam, the traditional improvised music of his nation, with a classical European register, founding a genre known as “Mugam Opera”. Layla and Majnun was not only the first Azerbaijani opera, it was also the very first opera in the Islamic world.
Aware of his lack of training, Hajibeyov moved to Moscow and St Petersburg (1911-13); lack of funding prematurely ended his studies there and necessitated a return to Baku. There he founded an Azerbaijani music school in order to facilitate proper education for future musicians. The first teachers at the Baku Music School (founded in 1922) and at the State Conservatory (founded in 1926) were mainly Russian and Jewish, including Anton Rubinstein’s grandson Georgi Šaroev, and Leopold Rostropovič, the father of the cellist.
Following a brief period of independence (1918-20), Azerbaijan was integrated into the USSR. Sovietization policies in the non-Russian periphery were supportive of local vernacular cultures, and Hajibeyov profited from this situation; among the honours he garnered in the course of his career were the Stalin Prize, the Lenin Prize and the title of People’s Artist (the first in Azerbaijan, which he single-handedly managed to establish as the musical equal of Georgia and Armenia). His USSR-wide fame, his significance for Communist ambitions and perhaps also his opportunism towards the regime kept him safe from repression, even in the late 1930s, when many Azerbaijani artists, writers and intellectuals became victims of Stalin’s Great Terror.
Although his later works, mainly operas and musical comedies, more clearly carried the traces of European influences, the Mugam would always be an inseparable part of Hajibeyov’s musical language. An entire generation of Azerbaijani composers (Fikret Emirov, Qara Qarayev, Niyazi) further developed this cross-fertilization, creating the genres of Symphonic Mugam and even Mugam Jazz (Vaqif Mustafazade).
Hajibeyov is considered to be a crucial bridge between the paradoxes of Sovietization and Azerbaijani nationalism, and thus counts as one of the founding figures of that complex mixture of modern European and traditional Oriental influences which still characterizes post-Soviet national identity politics in Azerbaijan.