While every man, woman and child in Europe was glued to their TVs watching the Eurovision Song Contest from Baku last night, I was touring Azerbaijan's classical music online!
Azerbaijan's composed classical music tradition is a 20th century affair, so much of it was written during the Soviet era. You could hear it as merely following what soon became the official line that music should reject modernist experimentation, stick close to the empire's 19th century classical heritage and draw on the peoples' music - i.e. folk music. Several of the composers mentioned in this post clearly did all those things. However, the Azerbaijani composers I've been listening to were surely also following a path which they wanted to follow, especially in seeking to integrate their national folk traditions with Western classical music. After all, composers across Europe (from Vaughan Williams to Enescu, from Falla to Szymanowki) were doing just that of their own accords - as were the many of the composers of North, South and Central America. Some of these Azerbaijani works consist of a string of folk melodies dressed in all the colours of a symphony orchestra (or other familiar kinds of ensemble), often based on mugama, or national modes, with set scales and fixed melodic patterns, and sometimes including native instruments too. That said, there are a lot of ballets here too and they could have been written by any imaginative minor Russian composer at the end of the 19th Century.
Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948) was the 'Father' of Azerbaijani composed classical music, founding this mixed style of classical writing in his native land. He wrote operas such as Leyli and Majnun (full of mugam-style passages as well as more conventional operatic writing) and operettas such as Arshin Mal Alan. His Koroglu Overture is especially popular.
His cousin Soltan Hajibeyov (1919-1974) followed a similar path. His most popular piece appears to be the short, seductively-scored tone-poem Caravan.
For symphonic mugams, Fikret Amirov (1922-1984) was the pioneer. He seems to me to be the most modern-sounding - and successful! - of these composers, penning such treats as The Girls' Dance (shades of 'The Sabre Dance') from Nizami. His large-scale Symphonic Mugams is quite a remarkable listen, strikingly different to listening to much Western symphonic music - more like a huge, rhapsodic, improvisatory-sounding (though not actually improvisatory) outpouring for orchestra. If that's a bit too much for you, please try his attractive Azerbaijani Capriccio or the colourful ballet The Arabian Nights. As a measure of Amirov's appeal, the famous British composer Leopold Stokowksi took up his music, including the extrovert Kyurdi Ovshari.
Another composer of symphonic mugams was Niyazi (1912-1984). The title of his Rast is simply one of the traditional modes of Azerbaijani (and other) folk music, the one closest to Western music's major scale (though the quarter tones in its scale give it a highly non-Western twist).
Another big name was Gara Garayev (1918-1982). His ballet Seven Beauties is a decent example of how an Azerbaijani composer could integrate his national melodies with a ballet style that is firmly rooted in the style of the Mighty Handful. Don't expect it to sound much like a Prokofiev ballet - or even like Amirov! (For a short sample, please try the score's Waltz.) For an example of Garayev's chamber music please try his listener-friendly String Quartet No.2. Compared to Amirov, however, Garayev's music seem paler.
Other names to conjure with include Afrasiyab Badalbeyli (1907-1976), composer of the ballet The Maiden Tower (further extracts here and here); Arif Malikov (1933-), composer of the ballet Legend of Love; and Vasif Adigozalov (1935–2006), composer of this little Elegy.
For someone rather different - a contemporary, female Azerbaijani composer whose name is somewhat better known in the West - please try Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (1947- ). With her music experimentation is back! From the Berg-inspired serial modernism of her Piano Sonata No.1 of 1970 to the Piano Quintet of 2000 you find her Crossing II the Oasis of Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road project, where West meets East and where the composer re-joins the composers mentioned above, employing the spirit of mugam in the context of a mainstream-sounding Western contemporary style complete with sound effects.
I can't say that I've come across any outright masterpieces here but listeners who enjoy colourfully orchestrated, tuneful, exotic-sounding Russian music will also find much to enjoy in these pieces from Azerbaijan and Fikret Amirov's music is certainly worth further exploration.