The people’s composer: Shafiga Akhundova

Narrator Turane Abdullayeva gives praise to Shafiga Akhundova, who went on to become the first professional female author of an opera in the East, despite a lack of encouragement from her father during her childhood

Shafiga4 - CopyI believe each person begins to live his or her life’s fate from the first moment they are born. That day when life begins is when a human being begins to step into ‘the school of life’.

Now, let’s speak about our dear famous composer Shafiga Akhundova’s life and creativity. This remarkable figure was the first professional female author of an opera in the East and a legend of the Azerbaijani music history. She passed away on July 26 at the age of 89.

Shafiga Gulam kizi Akhundova was born in one of our ancient settlements, Shaki, on January 21 in 1924. Her father Gulam Bagir oglu Akhundov was an intellectual and public servant of his time. He worked as the first secretary of Sheki from 1917 to 1920 and was even called ‘Bolshevik Kulam’. Akhundova’s mother Züleykha was a housewife. In their family, Akhundova had siblings such as Ismât, Tahir, Nahayat, Nariman and Rafiga. And she also had a sister named Zumrud, who would provide a very important indispensable service in her life.

Akhundova would be great artist in the future. She grew up in the district of Azerbaijan with ancient history, sweet, funny conversations, salty jokes, beautiful scenery and fascinating nature but her bright future was not imagined by anyone. Little Akhundova was born as one of many ordinary babies; the Akhundov family did not know that this baby would be a prominent artist in the future. On the contrary, her mother Zuleykha was a little disappointed with the fact that she was born on the day she was. Akhundova remembered her mother’s stance:

‘When I was born, my mother opened her eyes to find that virtually no one was with her. There was only one woman. She asked, ‘Where has everyone gone?’ Our relative replied that Lenin had died. So everyone had gone to the rally. When my mother heard the news of Lenin’s death, she looked at me and said, “My little one, what a bad day to be born.”‘

Perhaps this was fated: an extraordinary phenomenon in the artist’s life. Akhundova Khanim always remembered the death of such a significant person on her birthday. A great personality had died that day, and another person was born who would be a prominent figure in the future.

While growing up in the Akhundov family in the Shaki district, little Akhundova had a great love of life. The most important thing about her was her talent, which gave her positive energy and distinguished her from her peers. She did not see the beauty of nature, the height of the mountains, the waterfalls, the birds’ behaviours or the flower’s elegance as the others did. She remembered those years as such:

‘Our house was on the mountains. Every morning, every night, I watched the mountains. Some beauty that I saw in nature filled my ears with a melancholy sound. I’ve always heard music in every beauty which I enjoyed. Of course, at that time I did not know what these feelings meant. Later, I realized that it was my love of music. I remember that sometimes I would hum. I was so used to music that I also loved to dance. Many times, my mother would see me dancing.’

Her father, Gulam Akhundov tried to prevent her from becoming a musician but her mother was her first hero in music

It could be argued that talent is a quality of human life that cannot be learnt: a human being is born with it. The talent of the young Akhundova attracted the attention of those around her. Her education began in school N6 in Shaki. Later, her family moved to Baku because of her father’s work. Akhundova continued her education at the school N6 in Baku. Akhundova remembered the years of her studies and the teachers who taught her during this period:

‘I read very little in Shaki. For one or two years, I said openly that I was not going to school at all because we were expected to move to Baku. I received my primary education in Baku. First of all, I read in school N6. We had good teachers there. I always remember one of them, teacher Ahliman. He taught us the subject of geography. He was a very serious and well-educated teacher. I remember that he always compared me with my older sister, Ismât, and he depicted me as a model for my sister. When Ismât did not respond well, he called me to the board and asked me questions from the map. I think that Ahliman [Akhundova’s teacher] taught me to be responsible. I read up to the seventh grade at school N6. Then I continued my education at school N17. In those years, I also entered the music school.’

There are many reasons why Akhundova came to a life of art. She was inspired by interesting meetings with kind people but, most of all, she was inspired by her mother. Her father, Gulam Akhundov tried to prevent her from becoming a musician but her mother was her first hero in music. Züleykha could play the Garmon [a Russian button accordion] well and often played for her children secretly, because her husband forbade her to play it. Akhundova’s conversations revealed that her father wanted to her to be a doctor and was unhappy with his daughter being a musician. When he became aware that she was choosing music, he punished her. Describing this, Akhundova said:

‘My father was a very serious man. He did not like much talk. It was not so easy to play music. There was a piano in our house. He didn’t let us to open it and kept it locked because he didn’t want me to play. He never wanted me to become a musician. He said that art would not bring you money in the future. My mother had a Garmon, and sometimes she played it. My dad hid it somewhere. But in spite of this determination of my father, I could not abandon music. And my mother helped me a lot so I was able to improve my playing. My talent came to me through my mother. My mother supported me morally on this path.

‘Because of my father’s anger, I had many problems. He even punished me. For example, I remember that when he first learned that I was going to a conservatory, he did not let me come home. And I had to spend the night in the neighbourhood. He punished me in this way many times, regardless of weather conditions such as snow or cold … He also was angry at my mother and said that l should choose a true art. Perhaps as an effect of such cold weather, my kidney was damaged, and Professor Javadzadeh had to remove [it]. It’s true that art requires sacrifice. But at last with the help of good people I achieved my ambitions.’

It is true that Akhundova became a respected musician in the larger world. She always considered herself a happy artist. Of course, this was true, but Akhundova’s path to the arts was not always smooth. Kind-hearted people helped her along her difficult and distressing path. But how did Akhundova meet with those kind-hearted people? I note from her own words:

‘I’ve been thinking about art since I understood life. I do not remember the first time I enjoyed music but I know that this love was born with me. I started playing songs and dancing when I heard them from the piano. This self-taught ability came from me, although my dad did not allow me, and my love of art – my love for music – did not make me comfortable.

‘Whenever I had the opportunity, I sat at the piano and began to play it, and I began to compose music. The first time, I could not believe that I could do it – compose music – because the pieces were created suddenly, it seemed unnatural. I wondered if I had heard them somewhere before? But then I realized that all of the music was new And I created this music.

‘My love for the art increased dramatically. I was already feeling that no one could prevent me from loving this art. Everybody began to feel it: family members, close people, local people, all except my father. He always wanted to impede me. I also understood that he wanted me to choose some profession which would not be difficult for me. My love of music was so strong that I did not think about the needs of my future life.

‘My older sister, Zumrud, understood my love for art and I shall always be grateful to her; she was my best supporter. I recall the name of my sister Zumrud with respect and great love. She was a PhD candidate and taught at the university. Her husband Arif Dadashzadeh was a literary critic, a critical scientist and one of the prominent intellectuals of his era. Famous poets and intellectuals came as guests to their home. I remember them well: Samad Vurgun, Jafar Khandan, Hamid Arasli [and] Mirza Ibrahimov.

‘They also brought their wives. Men would sit in one room, and the women were in another room, my sister’s room. Time was very difficult for women then; society restricted woman. [This type] of meeting was the main entertainment for women. There was a grand piano in my sister’s room and these ladies had heard of my musical talent. When they gathered, they asked my sister if I would play for them. My performances were so enjoyable for them that they often danced. Thus, these interesting meetings at my sister’s house helped me to show off my ability.

‘Many people were already aware of my performances. At one such meeting, when I was playing piano, many of the ladies who liked it advised my sister that she should take me to Uzeyir [Bey] Hajibayev, who was the best composer in the world. The great writer Mirza Ibrahimov’s wife, Sarah Khanim, said that she would talk to her husband about me, because [he] knew Uzeyir Bey well. And she did speak about me to her husband. They decided to introduce me to Uzeyir Bey [and] that’s why I always thank Sarah for this help. At that time, Mirza Ibrahimov was the chief of the art department. When they told Uzeyir Bey about me, he immediately said that I should come to him the next day.

‘The next day, my sister Zumrud took me to Uzeyir Bey. Yes, my sister, she was the main link between me and art. Of course, it was very difficult to me to perform in front of such a great person. I was so excited that I will never forget that feeling of excitement. After Uzeyir Bey listened to my musical talent, he was very pleased with it, and said that I had creative ability and should take music up seriously. So, Uzeyir Bey recommended that I study music and from that day, I devoted myself to art with all my existence.’

If we look through Akhundova’s personal life, there is a sense that it was an unbearable life for a woman

So people helped Akhundova on her way. It is good that our people were so kind and good-natured. They contributed to the enrichment of our culture, which played a great role in the next generation’s life. Among these noble people, the names of Uzeyir Bey, Aghabagi Rzayeva and Fatma Zeynalova will always be respected, because they did not help people only in the field of music but in every respect. Such mentors’ services were invaluable in the development of Akhundova’s work as a professional composer.

Shafiga Akhundova studied music from 1941 on the initiative of Uzeyir Bey. The first Azerbaijan woman composer was Aghabagi Rzayeva and her impact on Akhundova was also great. She taught her to play the Tar [a long-necked Lute] and Kaman [a bowed string instrument]. She was a role model for her young student and Akhundova always remembered her teacher with great love.

Akhundova was taught music theory by Fatma Zeynalova. Fatma Zeynalova was also a prominent person in Azerbaijan artistic life. All of this was a stimulus for the young Akhundova’s dreams to come true; as she learned the notes and theory from her lovely teachers, she knew what the music meant and was able to transfer the music from her heart to the paper. Also, by meeting such superlative women in her field, Akhundova believed in herself more and her original desire for art. Despite the difficulties in her life, she followed her dream and dedicated her entire life to her art, becoming the nation’s musician and being awarded by the government for her merits: in 1998, Akhundova was conferred the title of People’s Artist of Azerbaijan and in 2005 she received the Shohrat (Glory) Medal. She faced many difficulties in becoming a favourite of the people and reaching the peak of the art world.

Reflecting on her career, Akhundova stated the following:

‘I am very pleased with God, because I have everything. I consider myself a very happy person, a happy artist. When my work is played in any audience, the audience welcomes me, and I wish that my father [had] heard and could see that. In short, I am a lucky artist in that my nation loves me. It means that I did not live in vain. It is not possible for everyone who has a strong sense of art and a great talent to gain the love of the people.’

Of course, Akhundova was right. Not everyone can gain the love of the people. Only those who sacrifice their lives for the enrichment of the history and culture of their people can do this. For this reason, a talented person must have a great love of art and love of the people in their heart. Shafiga Akhundova stands as a figure of art and folk love. It is clear that in order to reach such a level of professionalism, along with talent, a healthy environment and the right teachers are required. In keeping with this logic, Akhundova was taught by genius composers and followed their recommendations, so it is natural that she was such an outstanding artist.

But if we look through Akhundova’s personal life, there is a sense that it was an unbearable life for a woman. First of all, as expected of an Azerbaijanian women of that period, Akhundova married in her early years. This presented a problem for her music: her husband wouldn’t let her play all day and dedicate most of her time to her work and was also very jealous and didn’t like his wife being a composer. Meanwhile, the composer couldn’t agree with her husband; she preferred her art to her family life and decided to divorce him. As they had a son, she subsequently had to bring him up alone. Life was very difficult for her during this period, living under the communist regime as a divorced woman with an epileptic child. Akhundova had to earn her living and at the same time develop her creativity. As Akhundova stated during an interview on May 9th, 2013, when she composed her opera, she had no money to buy bread but this wouldn’t demotivate her from composing. She just loved her art, felt herself unstoppable and never gave up working hard until she reached her shining goal.

Akhundova loved her art, land and people but the Communist government didn’t appreciate her as a composer, because she mostly composed music centred on these themes – Azerbaijan, her people and women, in particular – and these were not valued by the government.

As a mother, Akhundova was very courageous and raised a very talented son. Her son Taleh also composed much famous music, like his mother, and was very knowledgeable in his field. And his mother’s role is undeniable; she always found time for her son and fostered the growth of his musical ability.

Azerbaijan’s popular writer Samad Vurgun dedicated his famous poem ‘Aygun’ to Akhundova’s life. If you watch the film based on that poem, you can see a similarity in the life and creativity of the main character, Aygun.

Once Akhundova, as a young composer, was familiar with writing music and songs for the piano, she began to show her works to her teachers. Even today, we can find some manuscripts written by Akhundova and reviewed by Uzeyir. When speaking about this time, Akhundova said:

‘I remember, I showed the song ‘At the head of a cradle’, which I composed using the words of the poet Mirvari Dilbazi, for Uzeyir. It was one of my first songs. He listened to the song until the end and liked it. I can still remember his words. He said, ‘Akhundova, you have good connections’. Later, he also listened to my song ‘Kolkhoz Daughter’ and even made some adjustments. When he liked my work, my joy did not fit in the sky.’

After graduating from music school, Shafiga Akhundova entered the preparatory course of the composer faculty at the Azerbaijan State Conservatory, and a year later entered the class of Professor Boris Isakovic Zeydman. It was one of the best composer schools and Uzeyir invited Akhundova to train with professional composers. Boris Zeydman was a teacher at the Leningrad Conservatory and important in the development of the Azerbaijani composer school. Uzeyir encouraged the students to write the basics of Azerbaijani folk music and to write down Mughams. [For more information on this specialised form of music of the Azerbaijani people of the Caucasus mountain range and nearby territories, please see the associated list of references at Wikipedia.]

For the first time among East women composers, Akhundova applied herself to the opera genre

Zeydman taught the secrets of composition techniques. According to Akhundova’s memoirs:

‘BJ Zeydman was a very talented and demanding teacher. We learned from him the essential features of composers. His arrival in Azerbaijan was on the initiative of Uzeyir, too. Then Uzeyir opened preparatory courses at the Conservatory. We had been busy with Uzeyir there three times a week. In the general group, he studied the fundamentals of Azerbaijani folk music [while] engaged in our own works. That is, he rewrote what we wrote, and transferred the Mughams … The famous Tar theorist Fatma Zeynalova and Tar player Aghabagi Rzayeva played Mugams on the Tar and we transcribed the notes under the supervision of Uzeyir. This is one of the most important factors [that] influenced us to learn the Mugham perfectly and our folk music style.’

Akhundova Akhudova wrote many instrumental works, songs and romantic pieces during her time at the conservatory, including ‘What’s Beautiful’ and ‘Jahanda’ by Nizami Ganjavi and the songs ’Victory Anthem’, ‘Victory is Ours’ and ‘Motherland’. The theme of military patriotism, including the Homeland is wide-spread in Akhundova’s compositions, unsurprisingly because she first came to music between 1941 and 1945 (i.e. during the second world war). Those years undoubtedly represent a page of history that cannot be forgotten, because our people gave many sacrifices that time, and representatives of art created many works about the Homeland, belief in victory, and the struggle against genocide. The first steps in this area were made by Aghabagi Rzayeva, who encouraged young composers to write to inspire the people and give them moral support. Akhundova, filled with love for her motherland, expressed her love for Homeland and its pride in its music. Her songs from those years are still available.

From 1941 until her death, Shafiga Akhundova was a self-sacrificing woman, serving her people with her music. She wrote and created in different genres of music. Her composing creativity ranged from small instrumental works to large-scale operas, operetta-like music genres and dozens of theatre performances. For the first time among East women composers, Akhundova applied herself to the opera genre. In 1974 she reached the highest peak of her work with the opera ‘Bride’s Rock’, which was written by the famous writer Suleyman Rahimov on the basis of the libretto from Alexander Iskus of same title. In fact, Akhundova first wrote the music for ‘The Bride’s Rock’ for radio, with a song called ‘Hearts’. Then she was asked to compose the opera and the full ‘Bride’s Rock’ was created. With this, Akhundova confirmed once again that she was a true and worthy follower of the Uzeyir school. This aspect is more apparent in the musical language of the opera. First of all, Akhundova came to love opera after she read Uzeyir’s opera Leyli and Majnun, an experience that brought Akhundova closer to Uzeyir’s creativity. There are many positive reviews of the opera ‘Bride’s Rock’. Let’s recall the words of our immortal composer Tofig Guliyev:

‘This opera is a very beautiful. Its music is clear. The composer used her mugam extensively. This is a very good thing, and its efficiency is excellent.’

…And from another People’s Artist [an honorary title in the Soviet Union still used in post-Soviet countries], Professor Vasif Adigozalov:

‘I watched the opera with great enthusiasm. Akhundova Khanim suffered a lot, and the opera satisfied me.’

Such comments form part of the high praise given to the opera. The first performance was met with great love by the public; it had already succeeded. The other large-scale operetta from Akhundova is ‘Ev bizim, sir bizim’ (which translates as ‘keeping home secrets under wraps’), which is based on Novruz Ganjali’s libretto. The work met the requirements of the era and praises the power of love. The main theme of both the opera and operetta is ‘love prevails over everything’.

Akhundova also composed stage works during the early years of her creative activity. On the first occasion, she wrote music for Eyyub Abbasov’s ’Adil and Sourvinaz’ performance in 1943. This trend constituted a special branch in the composer’s creativity and she followed with many others, such as:

  • ‘Last letter’
  • ‘Mother’
  • ‘Great heart’
  • ‘Conscience’
  • ‘Why do you live?’
  • ‘Golden dragon’
  • ‘Natavan’ [a name]
  • ‘Yaşar’ [a name]
  • ‘Aydin’ [a name]
  • ‘A friend’s hand’.

Akhundova’s performances made her artistic value even more enjoyable to the public. She wrote music for different theatres and her performances were performed in Sheki, Ganja, Nakhchivan, Sumgayit, Baku and other regions. Here, the composer herself was involved and communicated directly with the people. Some of her music was learned by many singers and included in their repertoire which they performed independently. She was the author of about 600 songs, covering a wide range of topics.

Considering the themes of Homeland, beauty and patriotism were:

  • ‘Shaki’ [a town]
  • ‘Song about Baku’
  • ‘Lighthouses’
  • ‘Lankaran’
  • [a town]
  • ‘My Republic’
  • ‘I owe this land’
  • ‘Homeland’
  • ‘Victory anthem’
  • ‘Victory is ours’.

On labour:

  • ‘Mountains of the sons’
  • ‘Lankaran’s daughters’
  • ‘Khuraman [a name]
  • ‘A daughter of waters’
  • ‘Healing Hands’.

Lyrics about love:

  • ‘Light of my eyes’
  • ‘What’s in’
  • ‘Touched your eyes’
  • ‘You’re coming to love’

Love of life:

  • ‘Life, how sweet you are’
  • ‘Love of life’
  • ‘Let’s live our lives’
  • ‘To live a life’

Friendships and affection for people:

  • ‘Let’s be affectionate’
  • ‘Think about this world’
  • ‘Friends without friends’
  • ‘Friends come to us’

And mother and child love:

  • ‘Lullaby’
  • ‘Anacan’ [‘My Mom‘].

In addition to the above songs, the composer had dedicated hundreds of others to those topics. These beautiful songs were performed by many famous Azerbaijan singers, such as Shovket Alekberova, Rubabe Muradova and Murtuza Mammadov [who is known under the name Bul-bul which means nightingale]. Many modern singers have included their music in their repertoire, not only those from Azerbaijan but many foreign performers, such as Ibrahim Tatlises, have performed Shafiga Akhundova’s works around the world.

Akhundova continued to write songs until her death, including famous ones such as:

  • ‘Come the morning’ (based on P. Ghalbinur’s words),
  • ‘You will not find’ (based on T. Panahgizi’s words)
  • ‘Our Uzeyir’ (a piece for a choir, based on H. Vavan’s words) [Uzeyir Hajibeyov is a famous Azerbaijani composer]
  • ‘Brave Soldier’
  • ‘Why are you guilty?’.

Shafiga Akhundova’s songs are so popular because they do not lose the essence of the poem, but on the contrary, enhance it with the music. The composer also worked with the poems of the following writers:

  • Rustam
  • Vurghun
  • Jabbarzade
  • Safarli
  • Hazri
  • Arif
  • Hasanzadeh
  • Mushfig
  • Dilbazi.

Reflecting on Shafiga Akhundova’s work in this regard, the poet and dramatist Bakhtiyar Vahabzadeh said she beautifully conveyed the spirit of the song and correctly matched it in the music.

Akhundova also wrote many songs for children. Included in this category are ‘Dear teacher’, ‘Native School’, ‘Twin Sisters’, ‘He Understood the Error’ and ‘Zumrud’. Most of these songs’ words are by H. Aliebli. The world of children always attracted Akhundova and she wrote music for several children’s performances.

Shafiga7 - CopyShafiga Akhundova worked in a variety of genres of music, including her instrumental works for symphonic orchestras, ‘The whisper of the flames’ for solo kamancha, various piano plays, and ‘Bayram dance’ and ‘Happy colors’ for folk instruments. Akhundova’s master works played an important role in the upbringing and education of the new generation and from 1956 to 1982, the composer worked as a teacher at the Azerbaijan State Art Institute.

In summary, Akhundova’s creative activity has always been highly valued by our people and state, with her work being given the honorary titles ‘Honoured Art Worker’ and ‘People’s Artist’ and Akhundova being awarded various honorary degrees.

Shafiga Akhundova died on July 26 in 2013, when she was 89. I believe her masterpieces will always live on.

To my mind, Akhundova’s life and creativity inspired many women in art and music, because we know that women had less rights in the past than today and this made it very difficult for them to work, especially in the arts field. However, Akhundova did it successfully: she realized her ambitions and her dream. She is therefore a symbol of bravery for many women.


‘I am an assistant at Baku Engineering University. I heard about the EFAP project from my dear teacher, Shafag. It was interesting to me and I decided to contribute to this project. Unfortunately, I am not a musician, actually, a dilettante in music, but I am very much interested in the female composer’s life and creativity, because I know that women have encountered many problems in their work. I am an aficionado of Shafiga Akhundova’s musical style. She was a cognoscente in her field and also contributed a lot to the development of her female students. Her struggle in her personal life and her determination inspired me to find more information about her. I am very glad to contribute to this project.’

Image information for this post is pending, as a reverse image search brings up very little and no credits can be found. Please get in touch if you have any background information for the two pictures used (one of Akhundova deep in thought and at work as a young woman and the second a later and more formal colour image).


1. ‘В Баку прошел творческий вечер первой женщины-композитора Востока’. May 18, 2012.

2. Rajabova, S. Shafiga Akhundova – first female composer of East. Azer News. ( Retrieved July 26, 2018.

3. ‘Шафига Ахундова и Михаил Гусман награждены орденами’, ‘Шохрет’, а Залимхану Ягубу присвоено звание ‘Халг Шаири’. January 20, 2005.

 4.’Первая женщина-композитор Востока Шафига Ахундова отмечает 86-ой день рождения’



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