Franghiz Ali-Zadeh: Nağıllar (Fairytales) for Orchestra

Program notes written for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Franghiz Ali-Zadeh was born in 1947 in Baku, Azerbaijan, on the coast of the Caspian Sea. Growing up in the Soviet era, Ali-Zadeh studied piano as a child, and began composing by age seven. In 1965, she entered the Baku Conservatory, studying with Kara Karayev, who had in turn been a student of Dmitri Shostakovich in Moscow. Karayev collected Azerbaijani folk music and incorporated it into his orchestral writing. Even in the most oppressive decades under Stalin, folk music was a permitted resource to draw from, so many composers, especially from the outlying Soviet Republics, turned to local traditions as a way to explore new sounds.

One style of traditional music in Azerbaijan is mugham, based on a system of seven-note modes, and related to the maqam system in Arabic and Persian music. Mugham performers often sing poetry over the accompaniment of the tar (a long-necked lute with sympathetic strings) and däf (tambourine), sometimes with the addition of other percussion, wind instruments, and kamanca (upright violin). The pitches are fixed within a scale, but the ornamentation and rhythm can be quite free and improvisatory.

Like her teacher, Ali-Zadeh was greatly inspired by mugham, and sought to evoke its sounds in an orchestral context. She also added avant-garde elements from Western Europe and the United States: by the time she was a student in the mid-60s, stylistic restrictions had relaxed. As a pianist, she gave the first performances in the USSR of once-banned pieces by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, John Cage, and Olivier Messiaen. In the late 1980, she visited the United States as part of a cultural exchange. After the collapse of the USSR, she moved to Turkey, and then to Germany, where she lives today. In recent decades, her music has been commissioned and performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Evelyn Glennie, Silk Road Ensemble, and Kronos Quartet. In 2000, she was named People’s Artist of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and in 2008 became a UNESCO Artist for Peace.


Nağıllar was commissioned by the Lucerne Festival and the Orchestre Philharmonique Suisse, and premiered in August 2002 conducted by Susanna Mälkki. The title means “Fairytales” in Azerbaijani, and the piece was inspired by the flying carpet adventure in the Arabic collection One Thousand and One Nights.

The brisk opening represents the carpet taking off into the sky and gaining height. Then the suspended, sliding notes in the strings depict the breathtaking flight and aerial view of the Earth below. Together, the prince and princess fly across several vistas before arriving at a bazaar, where the babble of voices is evoked by the musicians freely repeating small segments of music, uncoordinated with each other. “Play the repetitive notes in a chaotic rhythm,” the composer instructs the flutes and clarinets (a technique related to both the avant-garde and mugham improvisation). Gradually the orchestra re-congeals into an energetic dance. But suddenly the princess is kidnapped from the crowd.

“How many difficulties the hero had to overcome to find her,” Ali-Zadeh describes. “He makes his way across the stormy ocean and fights his way to an enchanted kingdom in which the princess is being held captive. The heroes, who have walked the dangerous path together, are set free. And finally… the hero sails the ship towards fortune. Triumph, the trumpets announce the hero’s return to the land of the fathers. But suddenly the story ends and it turns out that it was just a beautiful vision.”

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.