August 17th, 1942, Baku – October 25th, 2008, Moscow
Most Western collectors may never have heard the name of Muslim Magomaev, and yet he was the greatest star by far of Soviet
music; figure a combination of Luciano Pavarotti, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley to get a rough impression of his fame
and popularity in the USSR. Since his career is interesting also from a historical point of view (not least because it
proves that the iron curtain worked in both directions; we, too, had not the faintest idea what was going on behind it),
and since I love Magomaev, I can't refrain from telling his story at a somewhat extended length.
Magomaev was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, into a family of musicians; his grandfather, another Muslim Magomaev, was one of the
two most important Azerbaijanian classical composers. (The name really reads Müslüm Maqomayev, but he used the russified
version himself.) He began singing in public in 1960, at the age of merely 18 years; even if he was stealing those two or
three years customary for opera singers, he would have been incredibly young. His breakthrough came in a young talents
competition in 1962; over night, a star was born. From 1964 to 1965, he went through an internship at La Scala. He is reported to
have sung eight concerts a week in his early years
(two on Sundays). Well, I guess not every week, but anyway, he must have been positively crazy. Furthermore, he was
a really heavy smoker; every second private photo throughout his life is showing him with a cigarette. He also sang
regularly in opera in those early years, Figaro in Barbiere being his most important, and Scarpia being his best role.
His musicality was as outstanding as his voice range; he sang in all three keys, also in public, and while he is being
considered a baritone, I for one don't hear any difference in quality between his baritone and bass renditions; and in the
recordings included here, I guess everyone would mistaken him for a tenor. Nevertheless, tenor was the key he felt least
at home, obviously, since he didn't any arias in that key, just songs, both Neapolitan and pop. (His Yours is my heart
alone is a late recording, and therefore transposed down – earlier, he might have been able to do it in original key, but
alas he didn't.) The voice is reported not to have been very large, but from his many live recordings, it's easy to say
that it wasn't very small either. The constant overstrain, though, inevitably took its toll, and it didn't last long. As
early as 1978, he gave his last opera performance (Barbiere in Baku), and about 1990, also his pop career had come to an
end, random later public appearances notwithstanding.
Yes, indeed, I wrote "pop career". Magomaev was the godfather of crossover; neither a pop singer who thought it might be
nice to croak Nessun dorma (greetings, Mr. Bolton), nor an opera singer who thought it might be nice to kill Yesterday
with loads of operatic pathos (greetings, Mr. Domingo). No – Magomaev sang crossover because he was really at home in every
kind of music from Mozart to the Beatles. That is, he didn't start singing pop when the voice for opera was gone. He did
it from the very beginning. A typical early Magomaev concert that had been broadcast by the Soviet television starts with
a Rachmaninoff song, includes arias from Barbiere (both Largo al factotum and La calunnia, in the same concert, and both
excellent!! - who else could do this?), from Don Giovanni, Rubinstein's Néron, Rachmaninoff's Aleko, and from Faust (Le
veau d'or); and a few Neapolitan songs, Marechiare among them. Then, and this was like a ritual in Magomaev's concerts,
the pianist would go home, and for the encores, Magomaev sat down at the piano and accompanied himself: in this case, he
sang a Russian pop song, a jazzy version of Adriano Celentano's latest hit (24000 baci, included here – in the poor sound
quality Soviet TV had in the 1960s), and Come prima, a song also used in Mario Lanza's last film (here included in a different version -
this song was one of Magomaev's standards, with a bunch of recordings running from 1961 to 1989).
The fascinating thing, for the historian, is that Magomaev sang loads of music that might seem impossible for the Soviet
Union: hits by Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka, Lanza, Yves Montand, Celentano, Domenico Modugno, Glenn Miller, the Beatles,
and almost always in the original languages. He did all those "very American" standards like "Sunrise – sunset",
"Summertime" or "Chattanooga choo-choo", "Hello, Dolly", "Ol' man river", songs from "My fair lady", and many, many others.
(Yes, he performed the communist propaganda songs that one would expect in the USSR, as well, and many of them.) In opera, where
Russian was the standard language in most parts of the Soviet Union, he would always sing Italian roles in Italian, like a foreign
guest star (the rest of the cast sang in Russian, of course!). He performed in at least eight languages: Azerbaijanian,
Russian, Italian, English, French, Spanish, German, and Latin, most of them excellently mastered (his Italian, above all,
is absolutely amazing). An elegant and, in his younger years, very handsome man, he staged himself as the perfect dandy.
All in all, he must have brought the flair of the closed-off wide world to his Soviet audiences, with whom he was able to
rouse enthusiasm as rarely anybody did anywhere.
His is also the best website of any opera singer by far (the Russian version is way more complete
than the English, though).
On October 25th, 2008, Magomaev died in Moscow, age 66. His funeral was a major event, with public viewings first
in Moscow and then in Baku, where he was buried like a statesman, with Azerbaijanian president Aliyev heading the
|Muslim Magomaev sings Mamma (film):
|In RA format
|Muslim Magomaev sings
| Come prima (Di Paola/Taccani)
|In RA format
|Muslim Magomaev sings Krasota, moj drug ne vechna (Quliyev)
|In RA format
Muslim Magomaev, live on TV, imitating Rəşid Behbudov (Rashid Beibutov), accompanying himself on the
piano. He sings the Russian translation of Quliyev's song "Sənə də qalmaz". I wish to thank Yuri Bernikov for
helping to identify the song, which was the really tough part in this case.