Istanbul has been a musical center in several different musical genres and traditions since the ninth century. Beginning from the Byzantine times the city maintained its central role in music both during the Ottoman period and during the Westernization process of Modern Turkey. Having been the administrative and the cultural center of two empires, the city has attracted musicians throughout many centuries. Masters of music active in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) produced new musical genres and styles and introduced them into other parts of the land.
According to the historians of Byzantine music, at the latest in the ninth century the center of Byzantine liturgical music shifted to Constantinople from Syria (especially from Antioch and Damascus), and Palestine. The city maintained its controlling position until the end of the fifteenth century. The surviving Byzantine chant was formed and notated during this period. Although its tradition ceased to be the main center after the fifteenth century, it continued to be one of the major styles of performance in Byzantine music. Today experts of this music distinguish between four major styles of performance: the Constantinople, Mt. Athos, Thessalonika, and Athens styles.
The conquest of Istanbul in the fifteenth century made the city a center of attraction for the musicians active in the élite Islamic cities of the Middle East, and the reorganized Istanbul undertook this role. Along side the Turks, the Ottoman Jews and Armenians subsequently established their musical centers in Istanbul, too. In the nineteenth century Western classical music was introduced to Turkey from Istanbul. The city then became one of the major cultural centers of Europe. Leading European composers and musicians who were on tour in other countries extended their programs to give concerts and recitals and some of them stayed for several years in Istanbul. Franz Liszt, Henri Vieuxtemps, Angelo Mariani, Luigi Arditi, August von Adelburg, and Leopold Auer were among these musicians. Many famous operas written by such distinguished composers as Verdi, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and many others were performed in Istanbul a very short time after they had been performed in Paris or Berlin. The authorities of the early Republican period wanted to establish Ankara, the new capital, as the new cultural center. Therefore, the officially supported Western classical music came to represent the new Ankara culture rather than that of historic Istanbul. Even from then on Istanbul has been the center for new musical genres to be introduced to Turkey: jazz music and Western pop music. The earliest examples of Turkish pop music can be found in the "canto"s of the nineteenth century, a peculiar mixture of Istanbul’s local tunes and urban Italian light music, and also in the rumbas, fox-trots, tangos of the 1930’s and 1940’s. These examples prepared the popular ground for the music to become a new genre, the Turkish pop music of the 1960’s, which was born again in Istanbul, from which it would spread throughout the country.
All this information is only to bring to attention the city’s central role in several musical genres. Here my main concern is to describe very briefly Istanbul’s position in the classical music of the Middle Eastern peoples; how it came into existence, how it established its institutions, and how it maintained the tradition.
The interest of the Ottoman court in music
The conquest of Istanbul paved the way for the city to be the new center of Islamic music. The fact that Abdulkadir Meragi (?-1435), the last of the greatest theorists of the pre-Ottoman Islamic tradition, dedicated his celebrated book Makasidu’l-Elhan to Ottoman Sultan Murad II and sent it from Samarkand to Edirne may be regarded as a significant sign of this in anticipation. Actually, in the foundation of the Ottoman state music had its share among the signs symbolizing the state’s sovereignty. Giyaseddin Mes’ud, the Seljuk sultan in Konya, had sent to Osman Gazi, the founder of the Ottoman Empire, a tug, a horsetail standard and a drum, as the symbols of the Sultan’s authority and rank; the tradition relates that the Sultan rose to his feet in respect and remained standing throughout its first performance. The foundation of the meter, the janissary band, has been traditionally ascribed to this historical event. Even before the conquest the fact that books on music had been written for the Ottoman court during the reign of Murad II is significant in that it reflects the court’s high level of interest in music. Risale Min Ilmu’l Edvar, Ahmedoglu Sukrullah’s translation in the fourteenth century from Safiuddin Abdulmumin Urmevi and Islamic sources, Hizir bin Abdullah’s Edvar-i Musiki, Nakaavetu’l-Edvar by Abdulkadir Meragi’s son Abdulaziz, Fethullah es-Sirvani’s Mecelle fi’l-Musiki, dedicated to Mehmed II, in the fifteenth century are clear indications showing the musical preference of the state and that classical Islamic sources have been evaluated for the formation of Ottoman musical culture.
The formation of the Ottoman tradition
When Istanbul was conquered there was no considerable musical tradition to be inherited. The new capital built its tradition by drawing musicians from the Anatolian provinces and recently conquered cities. Within this process, musicians from the art centers of Persia, Azerbaijan, Transoxania, and Anatolia came to Istanbul. The music they introduced to the court and the city was most probably part of the tradition cherished in the Timurid and Safavid courts, which was also appreciated in a wider Middle Eastern tradition. The repertoire of this music consisted of songs whose words were largely based on Persian texts (and to some extent Arabic), composed and sung by musicians who may have come from Persia, Egypt, and Ottoman towns and active in various courts of the region.
The leading representative of this genre was the Azerbaijani composer Abdulkadir Meragi, who also had sung in the Timurid courts. This tradition was introduced firsthand to Istanbul by Abdulaziz, his youngest son. He was active as a composer, performer, and a writer on music during the reign of Mehmed II (1451-1481). He was followed by his son, Mahmud, who was still active in the court of Suleyman I (1520-1566). Mahmud’s absence marks a definite break within the flow of the pre-Ottoman Islamic tradition. The repertoire of this genre disappeared in the second half of the sixteenth century, and its absence caused the Ottoman masters to take over the tradition and cherish this music, treating it according to local taste. As Owen Wright has recently shown, it was time towards the end of the sixteenth century, or at the latest at the beginning of the seventeenth century, to speak of a distinct Ottoman style developed in Istanbul. Using Turkish song texts instead of Persian and Arabic ones, apparent changes in the use of makams (modes), usuls (rhythmic cycles), composition forms and musical instruments reveal various aspects of this transformation. When the makams used by the Ottoman composers are compared with those described by Abdulkadir Meragi obvious discrepancies arise, marking the existence of rupture within the tradition. Compositions of the seventeenth century Ottoman musicians represent the earliest products of this transforming tradition. This new style soon developed into several genres: secular classical music, military music, religious music, urban light music, and instrumental music. There had been several musical center at various times in the Islamic world such as Herat, Samarkand, Baghdad, and Cairo. Istanbul was the last major stage in the development of this historical music.
Sultans’ involvement in music
The court, due to its central position in the social and political system, was the leading patron of the arts. Apart from their functions in the administration, the Ottoman sultans took a great deal of interest in arts such as poetry, calligraphy and music. Calligraphy and music had always been included in the education they received in their prince hood. As well as the sultans, and the princes who were the candidates for the throne, other members of the imperial family had the same kind of education. The fact that fine arts had been an inseparable part of the ruler’s education and that this approach towards education had become a tradition, contributed much to musical practice. Murad II, Bayezid II, Ibrahim, Murad IV, Mehmed IV, Mahmud I, Selim III and Mahmud II were either composers or great lovers of music, and their deep involvement in this art during their reign goes far beyond an official interest.
Music was given priority from the very beginning of the court’s organization. This situation was not only because of the sultans’ interest in music but also because of having professional musicians and instrument makers who receive a salary in court. Music was taught and practiced in the Enderun, the royal school. Musicians in this school had two functions: performing music in imperial concerts and training young people who had musical talent. The court sometimes included in the permanent staff of the Enderun the musicians active outside the court or invited them to perform in the imperial concerts given before the sultans. Therefore, court musicians and the musicians outside the court had a close relationship, and there were singers or instrument players who were active both in the court and in the musical environments of the city. It would be erroneous to describe this music exclusively as court music. Ottoman classical music had established its institutions throughout Istanbul, which made it a deep-rooted tradition. Furthermore, it developed not only in Istanbul but in Edirne, Bursa, Izmir, Selanik (Thessalonika), Aleppo, Damascus and other such urban areas. Therefore, describing this art as urban music best fits its nature. On the other hand, although the court was a strong supporter of music, it should also be considered that not all the sultans were music lovers. Let alone supporting music, there have been sultans who were antipathetic to music, and during their reign musical performance in the court ceased. Even in such times musical activities in the city were not interrupted.
Although the orthodox Islamic traditions hesitate about the legitimacy of music, Ottoman religious milieu made great contributions to music by creating a religious classical musical repertoire. Tekkes played a chief musical role in the cultural life of Istanbul and other cities. Almost all the tekkes used music in their liturgical ceremonies. Musical practice in the sufi communities gave rise to mosque and tekke or sufi styles, which constitute a peculiar aspect of Istanbul tradition. Both genres have developed their own styles and composition forms although they have common musical characteristics as well. Moreover, each tekke, which represented a different aspect of the sufi theosophy, has developed its own musical practice and style. Hence, Mevlevi, Bektashi, Celveti, Kadiri, Halveti, Rifayi, Gulsheni, Cerrahi and other orders in Istanbul had different musical styles, performance, and composition forms. Of course, tekkes have dealt with music primarily for its functional purposes in their liturgical ceremonies. However, their interest in music was not restricted to functionality. In some tekkes music was given more importance in the ceremony. The Mevlevi order was the leading one among them. In the Mevlevi liturgy, music was so exalted that it was the sanctified means to reach God. This factor prepared the ground for music to grow into an almost autonomous occupation in the Mevlevi circles. The greater part of the books written on music belong to the Mevlevi musicians. As a matter of fact, Turkish religious music and secular music cannot be decisively separated from each other in that the composers of both genres were almost the same musicians. Hence, tekkes were the gathering place of musicians. Musicians of the city would meet there to listen to music, and to exchange opinions and share musical experience. Young musicians also would attend the tekkes in order to introduce themselves to masters and to learn music from them. There was probably no important Ottoman musician who had never been to a tekke. An overwhelming majority of Turkish musicians had their formative years in the tekkes, and not in court. Even the musicians from non-Muslim communities attended tekkes to listen to music or to improve their knowledge. If the court was the official institution of music, tekkes could, so to speak, be considered the civil establishments of the tradition to diffuse musical knowledge, to transfer musical experience from one generation to another.
It is a well-known fact that the Ottoman meter, which is known as the janissary band in the western countries, is one of the oldest military musical ensembles in the world. It has been used for many centuries in times of war to encourage the army. Military music was a striking aspect of old Istanbul life. Apart from the imperial band, the supreme vizier, grand admiral of the fleet, pashas of high rank, princes and the governors in important Ottoman provinces had large bands of military music. The imperial band in Istanbul played on holidays, on special religious days, in the festivities called "donanma", on occasions to celebrate a military victory, for the births of princes and other joyous occasions at the wish of the sultan. However, meter was not an ensemble strictly for military music. It was in fact an open air orchestra which could perform classical music pieces and urban light music tunes as well as military songs. The orchestra had a central role in the Ottoman festivities. This function given to meter can still be seen in the modern military bands of many countries.
Urban light music
The interest of the population in music in the sixteenth century had encouraged an urban light music, too. Professional itinerant musicians could be hired to sing and play. Recreation gardens, coffeehouses and taverns were the places to hear this kind of music. Some compositional forms of urban entertainment music such as the tavsanca and kocekce were designed to accompany urban folk dances. Kocek, tavsan and cengi groups had singers, players and dancers, of both sexes.
In the repertoire of Istanbul music there is a group of melodies which are collectively called Istanbul folk songs (Istanbul turkuleri). The texts of these songs describe vividly several aspects of old Istanbul life, but the most musically striking peculiarity of these melodies (together with kocekces, tavsancas and Rumeli turkuleri) is that they have been composed within the scales and melodic progression of the classical makam system. Since many of these songs are appreciated by classical music circles they are sometimes included in the programs of classical music concerts to bring some variety. The tunes of urban folk or light music and their composition forms were considered to be a lower style music in comparison with kars, murabba bestes "agir" and yuruk semais, the composition forms of the higher style, yet even the most distinguished representatives of the tradition showed interest in popular taste and composed light tunes in the Turku, kocekce and tavsanca forms. Hammamizade Ismail Dede (1778-1846), who is considered to be the apex of the tradition, is also well-known for his Rumeli turkus and kocekces. Buhurizade Mustafa Itri (?- 1712) who is considered to be one of the founders of the Ottoman tradition, composed many light tunes in the form of turku although none of them has survived. Mustafa Cavus (18th c.) is regarded as the best representative of urban music in the sense that his compositions form a bridge between the élite taste and the popular taste.
Traditional Turkish shadow plays, known as Karagoz watched and loved by the greater part of the population including the sultans and the élite, had a repertoire of their own. In this repertoire one finds a variety of songs ranging from classical compositions to popular melodies of the period, a peculiarity reflecting the musical taste of the whole city. Not the repertoire of classical fasil but that of "new" fasil music, which is a lighter form of the old fasil, started to be created in the second half of the nineteenth century, can be regarded as a modern exponent of urban entertainment music of Istanbul.
Contributions of Non-Muslim
Ottoman music, whose main center was Istanbul, was not a closed tradition as can be seen in other élite traditions of the Middle East. It was open not only to wealthy classes and people who could spare time for music but also to people of humble social background, various ethnic groups and non-Muslim communities. People of different ethnic origins existed side by side in Istanbul. Even in the sixteenth century it was possible to hear Western music in Istanbul. The Europeans and Levantines, basically of Italian origin and living around the Galata district, were used to Western music, but the non-Muslim Ottoman communities were not influenced by Western elements and remained indifferent to European melody. Furthermore, from the seventeenth century onwards they began to come under the influence of Turkish elements. This was natural in that the Turkish, Greek and Armenian traditions had all shared the same musical basis prevalent in the Middle East. Since the Sephardic Jews, who came from Spain, had already been introduced to Arabic music when they were in Spain, they found the music in Istanbul familiar to their own. All these interactions made Istanbul’s music more complex and a multi-layered one. Turkish musicology and historiography of music have not yet given a full account of such curious interactions. Although we can observe the Turkish influence on Orthodox Greek music, it could be possible that at the very beginning of the Ottoman tradition Turks might have borrowed melodic elements from the Byzantine liturgical chant to elaborate them in their own makam system.
Once the tradition had been established it became the most prestigious genre in the Ottoman musical milieu so as to attract the Greeks, Jews and the Armenians. In the Ottoman musical sphere Ottoman classical music became a higher cultural product which stood above all ethnic and religious music conventions including the Turkish peasant folk music, which served as subcultural elements. Therefore, the non-Muslim musicians who had already been functioning as musicians in their own milieu -in church, in synagogue, etc.- and also contributing to their local or folk music, approached Ottoman classical music if they wished to test and display their talents on a higher level. Musicians of Greek, Jewish and Armenian origin made significant contributions to the tradition. We find very good non-Muslim composers, instrumentalists and even teachers in the history of this music. At the very beginning of the tradition they learned music from the Turks, but once they had assimilated the music they showed such an amazing advancement that they themselves became the teachers of many Turkish pupils. Fresko Romano, known as Tanburi (tanbur player) Izak, who was also a cantor in an Istanbul synagogue, was the tanbur teacher of Sultan Selim III, who was one of the masters of Ottoman music. The tradition relates that Selim III rose to his feet in respect whenever Izak came before his presence. Similarly, other such non-Muslim musicians have exclusively been evaluated in terms of their musical knowledge and respected by their Turkish pupils as being the masters of the tradition. It is striking to see that the bulk of the names of such musical masters fell into oblivion in their own ethnic or religious spheres while they have survived in the history of Turkish music. Zaharya (18th c.), for example, who composed a few pieces for the Greek Church, which are very rarely performed, is not at all considered an important composer in Greek music, while in Ottoman-Turkish music his name is mentioned together with masters like Itri, Tab’u, Sadullah Agha and Dede Efendi. Oskiyan (18th and 19th centuries), an Armenian tanbur and ney player, whose name has not been recorded in Armenian history, is known in Turkish music as one of the most remarkable representatives of the traditional performance in tanbur. The Greek composer Ilya (18th c.) has an unshakable place in the repertoire with his few but outstanding compositions. Tanburi Emin Aga, Markar, Tatyos, Kemenceci Nikolaki, Kemenceci Vasil, Lavtaci Andon and Hristo, Bimen Sen, Levon Hanciyan, Izak Varon and many others will ever remain in their position in the history of the tradition.
The greatest musicological contributions to Ottoman-Turkish music came from three non-Muslim Musicians: Ali Ufki (17th c.), a Pole taken captive in war, known as Albert Bobowski in Western sources; Demetrius Cantemir (1673-1723), prince of Moldavia and a well-known historian who produced a history of the Ottoman Empire; Hampartzum Limonciyan (1768-1839), chief musician of the Armenian Church in Istanbul.
Ali Ufki Bey, who was also a santur player, and Cantemir, who was a tanbur player, in Turkish music, wrote down much of the repertoire of the seventeenth century and eighteenth century, respectively. Their books, apart from being among the first hand sources of this music, are now considered valuable in that they give us the notations of the pieces in the period they were composed. Hampartzum Limonciyan introduced a very practical notation system into Turkish music which became the most widely-used notation of the tradition. All three musicians have prevented numerous compositions from falling into oblivion.
Such a contribution may be found odd by those who are not familiar with Turkish music. Throughout the history of Turkish music there have been musicians who attempted to introduce notation to the tradition, but none of them could achieve their aim. To attribute this to the backward nature of the music in question would be a judgment from "outside". Like other musical traditions in the Middle East, Turkish music uses very small intervals of the scale some of which are unfixed and many change in peculiar makams, which are not used in the equal tempered Western scale. However, a makam is not only characterized by its scale but also by its melodic progression (seyir) which is considered to be the predominant aspect of the makam. Furthermore, the use of very small intervals has created characteristic peculiarities in performance. Each performer could make small shifts in notes to add his own ornamentation in order to show how masterly he could interpret a given composition, thus creating a sphere of liberty. Standard performance was abhorred. This liberty in performance had produced different styles in different musical environments. These subtleties could have never been noted. The tradition has always reacted against attempts to bring in all-encompassing theoretical approaches. Throughout the history of Turkish music such knowledge has been learnt through the close relationship of the master and disciple, which was based on an oral tradition. Even today, masters of Turkish music, especially those who have learnt music in traditional methods, are not satisfied by the written explanations of the makams.
Since male life and female life has been separated by Islamic conventions, this segregation gave rise to a curious by-product. Women had to create their own entertainment both in court and at home. The concubines in the harem of the imperial court were encouraged by the sultans to occupy themselves with music. The talented girls among those who had been at the service of the court were given private music lessons. The imperial harem had a musical ensemble of its own. Celebrated Ottoman painter Levni represented a musical group of four woman musicians in the eighteenth century.
Undoubtedly, throughout the tradition there have been numerous woman composers, singers and instrumentalists. However, very few of them have been recorded in written sources. The most celebrated woman composer of Ottoman music is Dilhayat Hanim / Lady Dilhayat, who lived in the court in the mid-eighteenth century. Her vocal and instrumental compositions are now among the distinguished pieces of the classical repertoire. Reftar, whose compositions have been noted by Cantemir and others, is another woman composer who probably lived in the first half of the eighteenth century. Of woman composers and musicians who were born towards the end of the nineteenth century, we know their names and compositions. Leyla Saz (1850-1936) is the most prominent name among the composers of the more recent times. Women’s participation is another aspect of Istanbul’s musical life, which we cannot observe in Turkish folk music.
Woman’s traditional occupation with music continued even
in the Westernization process of the Ottoman Empire. One of the musical
activities in the court of Sultan Abdulmecid, who started reorganizational
reforms in 1839, was setting up orchestras, fanfares or brass bands whose
members were solely women. Forming orchestras of women is probably a rare
example in the history of music but forming a women’s military band has
to be a unique example! Of course, this was no more than a courtly luxury
which had nothing to do with art, since the girls in the harem could not
continue to perform music when they got married, so it would be clear
how useless a practice it was in a newly introduced art as Western music
to spend money and time for musicians who could have performed only for
a few years. Moreover, it was physically exhausting for women to use wind
instruments of military band. There were such orchestras not only in the
imperial court but also in the private courts of the sultanas or princesses,
too. We learn all this historical information from Leyla Saz, who spent
several years in the court. M.A. Walker, an English woman writer who came
to Istanbul after the Crimean war, had made friends with several members
of the imperial family and visited sultan Abdulmecid’s daughter Zeynep
Sultan in her court on the Bosphorus, also described vividly one of these
female orchestras. Mrs. Walker thus observes the rehearsal of the ensemble:
The women were playing the following instruments:
Music was one of the main interests of women outside the court, too. It was customary for upper class families to have their daughters trained in music. Being able to play an instrument or sing was considered a personal merit for a girl who reached matrimonial age. However, Turkish women have almost never dealt with music for professional purposes. All their involvement with music was limited to entertaining their husbands or other women in female gatherings. Professional musicians could almost always be found among Greek, Jewish, Armenian and Gypsy women.
Social background of musicians
As has already been pointed out, Ottoman tradition was open to people of humbler origin as well as the wealthy or well-known families. Such nicknames of the musicians as Buhurizade (son of an incense seller), Komurcuzade (son of a coal-seller), Basmaci (printed cotton manufacturer or seller), Suyolcuzade (son of a man dealing with waterworks) and Hammamizade (son of a public bath owner) reveal the social background of some Ottoman musicians.
Countless musicians started to learn music by taking private lessons to recite the Koran. These musicians have performed secular music throughout their lives while on the other hand fulfilling their main occupational functions as hafiz / Koran reciter, hatip / preacher and muezzin. Such religious functions have legitimized their interest and involvement in music. Other musicians who lived around tekkes had to use a foreground the liturgical of music peculiar to their religious order. Together with the tekkes and the imperial court, mosques, private music schools, called meskhanes, under the leadership of a certain master, mansions, homes and coffeehouses were the most common places to learn music.
In the seventeenth century Evliya Celebi speaks of musicians as if they belonged to an artisan guild. These musicians should have belonged to the mehter whose members received a salary from the sultan, the viziers and pashas, or to the urban light music groups. Most representatives of classical music were not professional performers but authorities and connoisseurs of the tradition. Some musicians could not have occupied themselves with music throughout their lives only during a certain period, especially during their youth, and several others must have had other occupations to make a living. Of course, the musicians in the court had salaries, but the ones in the city would accept no money from their disciples. Although the whole tradition was not professionally organized, how it has reproduced itself throughout five hundred years its peculiar to itself.
Music in the Ottoman festivities
So far I have tried to present a panorama of the musical life in the historical Istanbul. This panorama could be best observed in the festivities in Istanbul. In these festivities many kinds of pageants were organized among which musical performance was the most conspicuous one. Apart from the festivities called donanma, parades were organized in which all the artisans and the musicians in the city would march or be mounted on horse carriages as they were playing their instruments. Both in the open air public shows and in the entertainments arranged in the halls of the palace or the mansions of high ranked Ottoman pashas music was the leading art to be performed. Music basically had three functions in the festivities. First, it was to perform, so it could be listened to; as far as concert music is concerned, fasil or mehter music were the genres. Second, music was used to accompany dances; that the performers who played percussion instruments were also dancers is a clear indication of this function. Third, one can mention the visual aspect of music, because both the costumes and the instruments of the musicians contributed to the visual spectacle of the pageant by creating an eye-catching appearance.
Evliya Celebi vividly describes one such parade in 1638. He groups the musicians as singers, instrument players, mehter players, instrument makers and professional musicians; describes the characteristics of each musical instrument, and finally states that some of the instruments he mentions belong to “other lands”. This significant historical record shows that such festivities brought together the elements of several nationalities, religions and cultures.
Books providing records for and miniatures representing festivities give evidence that there was an organic link between Ottoman classical music and urban light or urban folk music. Each of these genres reflects the musical taste prevalent in various social levels, yet their result, due to that organic relationship, represents the musical taste of one and the same musical culture. The mehter performing classical music pieces for the sultan and the élite, lively tunes and dance music for the ordinary people, instrumental pieces to accompany the shows of the acrobats, conjurers and other skilled men used to serve to form a bridge between various sections of the old Istanbul population. Therefore, music performed in the festivities can truly be called urban music: the music of Istanbul.
Although Islamic conventions in general terms did not tolerate profane and instrumental music, music flourished in the Ottoman society. However paradoxical it may seem, tekkes, which represented people’s reception of the religion vis-à-vis formal religion represented by the doctors of Islamic canonical law / ulama, played a crucial role in overcoming the hesitations within the conventions. They made precious contributions to Ottoman musical life in many ways. Since this music was also received as a contribution to Islamic culture by the population, it caused music itself to gain prestige, which opened the way for a broader concept of music. Secular music, also cherished by the tekkes, especially by the mevlevis, thus found its institution alongside the court. Historians of music of our day have rightly evaluated the role of the tekkes as being the conservatories of the Ottoman musical life.
How prestigious an art was music in the eyes of the majority
in the Ottoman society? This is not an easy question to answer in terms
of the past, but what we know is that the Turks from the upper classes
or those who received considerable education have either dealt with or
enjoyed listening to music. With regard to this subject, Venetian orientalist
and traveler Giambatista Toderini, who spent five years in Istanbul between
1781 and 1786, made the following interesting observation which was based
on the information given to him by a friend from the ulema:
One infers from this observation that even the most scrupulous people had no objections to having music of serious kind. In the same period, d’Ohsson, an American historian who wrote a history of the Ottoman Empire, observed that except for the ulema and the devout, Muslims had no scruples about having music at home. However, even this attitude had exceptions, since there had been several musicians, composers among the ranks of the ulema.
One remarkable aspect of Ottoman tradition is that the several genres of this music were created and developed by the same composers or environments. It is difficult to find musicians who have exclusively cultivated religious forms, or composed only military songs, or entertaining melodies. The greatest masters of the tradition have tried to embrace all these genres. Needless to say, all the genres of Ottoman music are based on the same scale and modal / makam system.
In many countries "traditional music" simply means either the rural or the urban folk music. In Turkey this concept represents two different genres: folk music and Ottoman classical music. These two genres existed together in the Ottoman society, influencing each other from time to time. The former was the local music of the peasants and since it was local it did not represent the whole society. The latter genre was urban music including both the classical music and the urban light music, which developed in the main urban centers of the empire. If considered in quantitative terms, it did not represent the taste of the majority either, but in qualitative terms, since the tradition was open to all social sections including the non-Muslim communities, it was sweeping in this sense. Having embraced and synthesized many subcultural conventions it created an upper level to represent the musical culture and taste of diverse social elements. In no other Ottoman fine art do we find such a representative quality. The place of music in the Ottoman culture can only be compared with that of architecture.
The great Turkish poet Yahya Kemal Beyatli (1844-1958) once said “Our novel is our songs”. By this penetrating statement he attributes other representative dimensions to music. Ottoman society could not create ways to make the novel a literary necessity. He imagined that Turkish personage channeled his most remarkable characteristics into music in the absence of the novel. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (1901-1962), another poet and novelist, who attached great importance to music for his own poetics, looked into Ottoman music for elements peculiar to see the old Istanbul landscape which the traditional miniature painting could not represent. In their sense of the past it is as if music houses all the subconscious historical experience of the national character which every now and then finds an outlet to externalize itself. Apart from the imagination of literary men, it is a fact that music is the sole Ottoman fine art that has succeeded to survive after the long process of Westernization. Many Turks are still deeply impressed by this music. They feel they must penetrate this music deeper to understand themselves better. If this is not a national exaggeration we should say: Poets have only represented their feeling.