The Ottomans and their classical music

The Ottomans and their classical music

NIKI GAMM Hürriyet Daily News
The Ottomans and their classical music

GenIn addition to general music education in the Ottoman, efforts aimed at teaching particular instruments including the ud, pan-pipes, zurna, drum, saz, kemance and zither.

We take music in our lives for granted today, but the radio only started audio broadcasting in the early 20th century. The phonograph was invented in the 1870s. Before then, and even long afterwards in some areas, either you made your own music or you went where music was being played. The Ottomans made their own music.

Ottoman classical music was nurtured at Topkapı Palace, although it was widely known that earlier the court at Edirne was deeply involved in music and musical theory. And before the rise of the Ottomans there were several different courts holding sway around Anatolia that fostered music. The Janissary military band, apparently, was created in the 15th century, before the conquest of Constantinople. It was significantly influenced by music that came from Iran and Central Asia, like many of the Ottoman arts in the classical period, which began with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and continued until the death of Kanuni Sultan Süleyman in 1566.

The Ottoman court enrolled young boys and girls for education, where anyone who showed musical ability would be trained. The teachers were often professionals on the Ottoman payroll and would have their own private students during the hours they were not at the palace. Even the sons and daughters of the sultans were required to undergo musical training if they showed an aptitude. Several of the sultans composed music, such as Yavuz Sultan Selim. In one of his best known pieces written just before a battle at Isfahan in Iran in 1514, he exhorted his veteran troops to fight.

In addition to general music education, efforts aimed at teaching particular instruments. These included the ud (an early form of the lute), pan-pipes, zurna (a kind of simple clarinet), drum, saz (similar to a guitar), kemance (a string instrument played like a viola) and zither (a picked string instrument played on the lap). The musicians were part of the entertainment put on for the benefit of the sultan and the harem members, either individually or in ensemble. It is also not unusual to find miniatures that portray the musicians playing for dancers.

Turkish classical music expert Ersu Pekin has pointed out that we do not really know what many of the Ottoman compositions sounded like until the beginning of the 18th century, when work by Prince Dimitrie Cantemir in developing a type of notation allowed 350 compositions to survive until today. There have been numerous recordings in recent years of Ottoman classical music. For example, the Association for the Protection of Turkish Historical Houses hosts concerts once or twice a month and certain types of classical music like fasıl are performed throughout the year, but especially at New Year’s time.

Music was an oral tradition among the Ottomans. The system was one in which the composition would be passed down from master to student orally. While the words were written down and memorized, the melody itself would be sung by the master and repeated by the student, until the master was satisfied that it had been learned. This is why we do not know today how many compositions actually sounded.

Ottoman vs. Western music

Ottoman music is monophonic, which distinguishes it the most from music of the West. It has a single melody line played or sung in unison. In that sense anyone who has heard very early church music will find it familiar. Later Western music became polyphonic. Ottoman music is based on units similar or varying in length, but when combined make up the whole of the composition called a makam. The makam also determines the tone of the composition from start to finish.

Ottoman classical music was not affected by Western music until quite late. We do not know what the reaction was to the organ that Thomas Dallam set up in Topkapı Palace in 1599 to 1600 as a gift from Queen Elizabeth I of England to Mehmet III who was the sultan at the time. A harpsichord brought from Paris in the first half of the 18th century did not meet with favor because it could not reproduce the tones the Ottomans were used to. It was not until the second half of the 18th century that Western music began to make its way into Ottoman consciousness and favor