Ahmed Adnan Saygun, was born on September 7, 1907 in Izmir. He was therefore born into a time of radical changes for his nation, namely at a time when a secular republic oriented towards Western models replaced the 600-year-old Ottoman Empire. In addition, the first president of the young Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, also introduced reforms on the cultural sector in order to bring his own country's tradition in line with those of the West and eventually to reach a synthesis of cultures. Among the programmes he advocated were study of one's own Turkish folk culture as the basis for national identity as well as the study of Western music. Not only was young Saygun to benefit from these reforms, he actually became one of the central figures in this since the synthesis of Turkish and Western forms of music evolved into his life's work.
The first musical education for Saygun included practical lessons of Ottoman and Western music tradition alike. Studying the oud, the Ottoman short-necked lute, he got to know the modal and rhythmic structures of Ottoman artistic music. Playing the piano, on the other hand brought a better understanding of polyphone harmonic structures of European music.
In 1928, Saygun received a scholarship from the Turkish state which enabled him to spend three years of study in Paris. Here, he was introduced to the late-Romance period of European music and to French impressionism. He studied composition with Vincend d'Indy at the Schola Cantorum and harmonics and contrapuntal studies with Eugène Borrel. During this time he wrote his first valid piece, the divertimento for orchestra, op. 1. This work betrays the strong influence of the traditional techniques and forms of composition learnt in Paris, but also gives proof of Saygun's preference for experimenting with his home country's modal elements in music.
After his return to Turkey, Saygun took a good look at Anatolian folk music. The culmination of these studies came in the form of a joint expedition together with Béla Bartók into the different regions of Anatolia to collect and transcribe folk songs. This research proved to be a pioneering effort for his own compositions in that it was Turkish folk music with its melodies in particular, its irregular metrical patterns and forms of dance that inspired Saygun to create his own music. Most importantly, it helped him to develop his own unique musical language and to find an emotive but never sentimental sound on the background of just that growing sense of nationality Ataturk intended with the studies of Turkish folk culture. Because of this national sound, Saygun's name should be listed among the names of composers like Béla Bartók, Manuel de Falla and Jean Sibelius.
Saygun first attracted international attention with his oratorio Yunus Emre, completed in 1946. Since its first performance in Ankara in 1947, the oratorio has been performed countless times, for example in Paris in 1947 as well as 10 years later in New York, conducted by Leopold Stokovsky. However, this work is actually a milestone in another respect, too, in that there are already elements of traditional oriental artistic music discernible, and aspect that gained importance for Saygun in the following years. Its modal basis proved to be reliable and could be used for longer and more complex works. Accordingly, he created his first two symphonies in the 1950s as well as the first of two concerts for piano and several pieces of chamber music. His most productive period were the 60s that saw the composition of a third, fourth and fifth symphony, numerous works of chamber music and compositions for piano on the basis of Aksak rhythms. These later works blend traditional folk music, artistic music and Western music in a well-developed complex style.
Closely tied to his work as composer and his folk studies was Saygun's work as a teacher. He gave direction not only to the Ankara Conservatory, where he taught composition, but also exerted a decisive influence on the entire development of art-music in his country. Among his students were the most important musicians of Turkey. He also published several works on the teaching of music in which his folk-music research found application. In addition, Saygun helped establish new conservatories, and was a member of the National Education Council from 1960 to 1965 and the Board of the State Radio and Television from 1972 to 1978. From 1972 on he taught composition and ethno-musicology at the State Conservatory in Istanbul, and Saygun's pedagogical work is evident in many of his compositions.
When Saygun died on January 6, 1991, the "grand old man" of Turkish music left an extensive and important opus - an opus that developed a personal style combining two different cultures, far across the barriers of place and time.