Waltzes with Sultans

Waltzes with Sultans

Some hold the view that Ottoman sultans, namely “our ancestors,” were merely heroic soldiers and conquerors who did not have the characteristics of normal people. Not surprisingly, Ottoman sultans were not very different from other ordinary human beings. They did not spend their entire lives on horseback. They used to fall in love, write poetry and drink alcoholic beverages. They also listened to music; not only listened, they also composed. Among the most famous “composer sultans,” Turkey’s public opinion probably recollects the compositions of Bayezid II, Murad IV, Mahmud I, Selim III, Mahmud II, Abdülaziz and Mehmed VI more voluntarily. This is because they composed Turkish music.

Mediocre public opinion unfortunately fails, if not deliberately ignores, to recognize that the Ottoman sultans used to listen to western music as well; not only listened, but also composed. Mahmud II, Abdülaziz, Murad V, his daughter Fehime Sultan (whose mother was Circassian, Meyliservet Kadın Efendi) and Sultan Abdül Hamid II’s son Burhaneddin Efendi were among those who composed magnificent examples of western classical music. Murad V, who spent his last 28 years confined in Çırağan Palace because of his western, liberal and progressive views, actually is the most famous of all for he apparently made more than 1000 compositions, mostly inspired by western music.

On Nov. 27, 2015, the Turkish Culture and Information Office and the Yunus Emre Institute in London gave a magnificent example of public diplomacy by jointly organizing a concert at the prestigious Cadogan Hall in London. Both the Turkish and British public, although the latter less significantly, were unaware of this exposition of Ottoman sultans’ western music. The concert, labelled as “Waltzes with Sultans,” therefore was not only educational but also ground-breaking.

Thanks to Dr. Emre Aracı, the western public becomes aware of Turkey’s European legacy by such cultural events where the Ottoman culture is presented to the European public in a more universal context.

Unfortunately, the so-called neo-Ottomanist tendencies of today avoid recognizing this European, hence more universal, aspect of Ottoman heritage. 

Dr. Aracı, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, has made significant original contributions to the scholarship of Turkish music through his pioneering research focusing on the European musical practice in the Ottoman court in the 19th century. In 2012, the Ankara State Ballet produced “Murad V,” a ballet in two acts, based on Aracı’s libretto on the life and original compositions of this Ottoman sultan who was unfairly dismissed of his duties. The concert, performed by the Chamber Ensemble of London under the professional conducting of Dr. Emre Aracı himself, was divided into two parts. In the first part, pieces by Jean-Baptiste Lully, W.P.R. Cope, Giuseppe Donizetti Pasha, Gaetano Donizetti, Charles Louis Napoleon d’Albert and Callisto Guatelli Pasha were performed. All these composers were known to have been very much exposed to the Ottoman culture. Inspired by the mystic, oriental tones of Turkish music, they did not fail to reflect such tunes in their compositions, mainly dedicated to the Ottoman court.

The focus of the second part of the concert was on Ottoman composers. The “Invitation a la Valse” by Abdülaziz, the “Valse en Mi Bemol Majeur” by Murad V, “Marche l’Union Nationale” by Fehime Sultan and the “Grande Marche” by Burhaneddin Efendi all received standing ovations by the much adoring public in the hall mainly composed of Turkish and British spectators. Listening to the “Waltzes” by two Ottoman sultans, the public probably reminisced about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s customary opening of the “republican balls” with waltzes during his lifetime on the occasion of Oct. 29, namely the proclamation of the Turkish Republic.

Atatürk, apparently, was much more cognizant of the talent and capabilities of his Ottoman ancestors in composing western music than some of the culturally uninterested and disoriented opinion makers of today.

Public diplomacy requires pragmatism. If you define your terms of engagement with western culture according to your own ideological parameters, you not only fail to represent your history, your traditions and your culture but you also misrepresent your contemporary aspirations to become a part of a more universally recognized global code of conduct. Yes, the Ottoman court was seriously inspired by western culture. It also influenced western culture in return. Today, after ninety-two years of its existence, the modern Republic of Turkey, with its secular tradition of republican values aspires to become a member of the European Union. The most valuable common denominator between Europe and Turkey is their common understanding of this secular tradition. This supra-religious common denominator is their strongest shared value to overcome the cultural differences so artificially presented today in front of their desire for reunification. Turkey and Europe deserve to waltz together.