NURY HALMAMMEDOV – Unveiling the heart of a great Turkmen

A Lyrical Biography
Translated by Dr Youssef Azemoun
Published by the Society of Friends of Makhtumkuli, 145 pages, 2017.

NURY HALMAMMEDOV is the foremost composer to have emerged from the Turkmen people in the course of the 20th century. His progress from childhood in an orphanage, after the killing in different circumstances, of both his parents, to success and recognition in Moscow is itself remarkable. The great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich hailed him as an extraordinary gift to the world of music. His unique ability to weave the exotic textures of Turkmen folk music into a classical framework have won him appreciative listeners the world over.

Equally remarkable is his sad decline to an early death, unsung and unrewarded in his native land. This touching, passionate account by the eminent Turkmen author Oraz Yagmyr, lifts the veil on Halmammedov’s origins and his short, eventful career. It also offers a rare and fascinating insight into the social, cultural and political life of a region that is little known or understood in the wider world.

We are publishing a chapter from the book.

“You have come into this world ahead of your time”

The five years he spent studying at the conservatory in Moscow passed as fast for Nury as if a bird had flown over him. The time when he used to shiver in his old coat and walk, contorting himself, in the Moscow cold had passed. His time in the cold rain, nearly freezing as water ran down his long hair, was a story of the past. The days when he used to wait for his scholarship, and wanted the sun to set and rise early, had also passed. Popularity, applause, love, anger, grudges and tears had all become things of the past. Only music remained.

In his last year he spent all his time on music and began to live inside music. He was so immersed in it that it was difficult to differentiate music from Nury. One might say “If Nury’s weight were 70kg, 69kg of it would be music.” As his graduation assignment he wrote the symphonic suite Turkmenistan. When he was working on this score, one of the officials from the Turkmen Representation Centre came to the dormitory where he lived and took Nury out with him.

Where are we going?

An important personage wants to talk to you. Your hair is a mess and your trousers have not been ironed for a year. I’ll feel embarrassed presenting you to this gentleman.

Nury stopped.

If you’re embarrassed, go and present yourself. I’m not going. No one says anything about my beard and my appearance. I’m the king of myself. And I laugh at the miserable condition of other kings. Do you understand?

Hey, calm down! It’s impossible to talk to you like a human being. Let’s go. They told me to bring you with me. I’ve got nothing to do with other matters.

The head of the Representation Centre was most cordial in his greetings.

Dear Nury, I see you’re looking well. If you need anything, come directly to me and tell me. Now, the head of the Ideology Committee of the Central Committee of the Turkmenistan Communist Party is going to talk to you. He’s just coming from a meeting. Dear Nury, you do understand, don’t you? Listen carefully to whatever he says. Talk to him politely; He is a very nice gentleman.

Sir, I’m not a first-year pupil. I’ve seen people before.

Ah. dear Nury, you’re right. But no one is infallible. Since he’s a high-ranking official… Yes, it will be fine, absolutely fine.

The head of the Representation Centre then began dealing with paperwork. Nury sat shaking his head. He had to wait a long time. Suddenly he got up, quietly left the office and rushed down to the basement. He went into the room where the piano was and began to play. He played for a long time. After a while a man of medium height with a round face gently opened the door, walked slowly to the other side of the piano, sat on a chair and continued listening to the piano. Nury noticed him for the first time. He made no effort to interrupt his playing. He went on playing for a long time with his eyes closed. The man who had come in stood up and shook hands with him when the performance was over.

Nury, is everything all right?


Let’s go and have something to eat. We haven’t heard these pieces before. Did you write them recently?

Of course, I’m composing.

I liked them.

Your liking them is not good enough. If the music is no good, it’s wasted effort. I know the pieces which I played have shortcomings, but I have to find them.

You’ll gradually perfect them.

That’s the whole problem. Everybody can write, but perfecting is another matter. Sir, let’s not go too far. I have to come back again.

All right, that’s fine. Let’s go into this cafe. It doesn’t look as if there are many people in it.

They had a simple meal. They sat talking about various subjects. Nury began to like this gentleman. He was polite and well- behaved. Most of those who come from Turkmenistan take their guests to have a meal. They take them to an expensive restaurant and try very hard to make them drink various types of vodka and cognac. They want to show how rich they are. The man sitting here is either a teacher or a poor scholar; he could also be a modest librarian.

What are you planning to do when you finish at the conservatory?

We’ll see.

The Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Tatars and Jews who are successful usually stay in Moscow and go to their homeland later.

Nury interrupted the polite gentleman’s flow.

Ah, you’re right, but I can’t live without Turkmenistan. If I didn’t talk in Turkmen I’d be bored stiff and crack up. At this moment we’re talking in Turkmen and I’m loving it.

I understand. But you’re fully aware of the situation in Turkmenistan, and it would be better if you came to a decision later.

I have very good friends in Moscow; they’ll support you. I’ll do my best to help you. In Turkmenistan they weigh culture and cotton on the same scales. They will grind you down and throw you out. You and I have neither money nor relatives. You’ll be drowned in a quagmire. There are many issues I can’t talk about with you. Think about them. We’ll find a way to provide you with accommodation in Moscow. I’ve talked to your Rector; he expects great things from you. All you have to do is write music and be successful. You need patience, that’s all – patience. You can bring Turkmenistan to the attention of the world.

Excuse me, Sir, but I don’t know who you are.

I’m Yazguly, I’m an Ideology official.

Although the polite gentleman sitting opposite Nury had been working as the head of the Ideology section of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan, he had been invited to a meeting in connection with his nomination to the post of Secretary of the Central Committee. Yazguly Hudayberdiyev knew that at the party meeting to be held twenty days later he would become the Secretary. At that time this was the third most powerful position in Turkmenistan. Nury and Yazguly Hudayberdiyev sat talking in the cold cafe until late at night, discussing all sorts of issues. Hudayberdi believed that he and Nury would be close friends, but Nury did not accept his suggestion that he should stay on in Moscow. Later, Hudayberdi was able to help him get accommodation in Ashgabat and procure exemption from military service for him, while doing his utmost to quash all anonymous denunciations against him. He was also aware that all of these matters would not be short of difficulties. He was planning to give Nury the post of Minister of Culture when Gara Seyitli grew tired of his position.

So among the high-ranking officials of Turkmenistan, Yazguly Hudayberdi was the one who supported and defended Nury. Recognizing that Nury was a modest, shy person and was satisfied with his rights even though some people made him suffer, he said “Nury, you have come into this world ahead of your time.” When in November 1966 Yazguly Hudayberdiyev died in a car accident in Uzbekistan, Nury played the piano and wept. The keys were struck not by his fingers, but by his tear drops. The pain in his heart turned into his famous composition Elegiac Prelude and Fugue. Nury dedicated this composition to his deceased friend. If Yazguly Hudayberdi had lived, Nury’s fate would have been different. Perhaps he would have had time to write the brilliant pieces which he took with him to the other world. He may have been aware of this. Whatever the case may be, the pain of being separated from his friend was unbearable until the last moments of his life.

A chapter from Nury Halmammedov, Unveiling the heart of a great Turkmen, A Lyrical Biography by Oraz Yagmyr 

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