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OTTOMAN MUSIC AND ITS INSTRUMENTS

Music occupied a very important place in Ottoman society. Topkapi Palace was a virtual conservatory, where both women and men received intensive training in music. Every concubine mastered an instrument while also being instructed in singing and dancing. Indeed, there were concubines who learned to play the trumpet, usually considered a man’s instrument. The men, on the other hand, received their musical training in the Enderun, which was the palace school. Albertus Bobovius, for example, a Pole who entered this school while still young and spent twenty years there, contributed a great deal to Turkish music. Bobovius, who in Turkey took the name Ali Ufkî Bey and was an interpreter and translator at court, transcribed 544 works of Turkish music into European notation. It is thanks to this effort that these pieces can be played today.

In order to grasp the importance which music had for the Ottomans, and the place it occupied in their culture, one must understand its three functions: Concert music, music for accompaniment, and visual impact.

Concert music, whether at the palace or elsewhere, was simply to be listened to. Among the Ottomans, concerts were performed both indoors and outdoors. A picture the original of which is in the Warsaw University Library depicts twelve Ottoman musicians giving a concert at the British Embassy on February 22, 1779. The instruments employed were three neys, a violin, a ‘kemânçe’, a ‘santur’ (the Turkish dulcimer), three tambourines, one ‘miskal’ (a multi-reeded wind instrument), and two ‘tanburs’. We have many miniatures and paintings which show female instrumentalists and concerts given among women. One such work is an 18th-century miniature now in the Philadelphia Free Library. In it, four female musicians perform for a lady in the garden of a palace or mansion, while a servant serves the lady a drink. The instruments depicted in the miniature are the tambourine, kemânçe, tanbur and ‘kanun’.

Music for accompaniment, on the other hand, was highly important for the art dances performed sometimes by women and sometimes by men dressed as women. Here music and dance were so closely intertwined that we might call such performances “visual concerts.” Music functioned as accompaniment in other types of show as well. One can cite the performances of tumblers, acrobats, jugglers, magicians, jesters and wrestlers, as well as those by trained animals. A miniature depicting festivities held in 1582 has two acrobats, two dancers and four jesters accompanied by the music of a tambourine, miskal, çagane and kopuz.

Visual impact was the third major element in Ottoman music. The costumes of the instrumentalists, and the unusual or majestic aspect of some musicians, appealed to the eye as much as to the ear. The sultan’s processions included other performances besides music. In the middle of a miniature depicting a procession of Sultan Murad III we see this ruler on horseback, while in the lower part of the work there are two dancers and a jester accompanied by a stringed instrument, and in the rear a mounted ‘mehter’ band.

Music and dance also figured prominently in the processions of tradesmen, which lasted for hours. Ottoman ambassadors who had been posted to some country, say Vienna or Paris, would enter the city with a large procession which included a sizeable mehter band on horseback. So magnificent were the scenes that the public and the courtiers watching were deeply stirred. And the ranks of those who were moved also included composers. The tradesmen’s processions inspired such greats as Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, in whose works this Ottoman music was reflected.

The fact that music appeared in the festivities simultaneously with other types of performance did cause one problem: when different kinds of music were played at the same time, they struck the ear all together, and there was no way to make a choice. There are numerous examples of this. Consider, for instance, the miniature which shows festivities held in 1582. A ‘köçek’, that is a male dancer dressed as a woman, does his stuff for thousands of spectators to the tune of his own music. Elsewhere a Mevlevi whirls in a religiously motivated dance called the ‘sema’, again accompanied by his own music. The public can watch the köçek’s dance and the sema separately, but how are they going to keep the two different kinds of music apart. The answer is very simple: Even if the clashing types of music turned into noise, the spectators, caught up in the exuberance of the festivity, just didn’t care. On the other hand, foreigners who witnessed the festivities and wrote about them in books and reports say the cacophony of hundreds of clashing instruments, and all those songs, did indeed disturb them. The reason was that they, as strangers, were unable to surrender themselves to the festive atmosphere.

There was a wealth of instruments in Ottoman days. In his book of travels, Evliya Çelebi describes a parade of all the guilds past Sultan Murad IV, giving a full list of instrumentalists, instrument makers and singers, and points out that there were some “hundred” names for instruments. Every instrument had its own name, even when they belonged to the same family. Some of the better-known stringed instruments were the kopuz, çeng, kemânçe, violin and lute, while the winds included the horn, ney, miskal and zurna. Prominent percussion instruments were the triangle, drum and ‘çagane’. Most of the Ottoman instruments have unfortunately not come down to our age, being lost in the mists of time. One reason is that during the 19th century growing Westernization led to the use of European instruments. Indeed, such once-popular instruments as the çeng and miskal have vanished completely, not a single example being left even in the museums. But luckily we have drawings in miniatures and old books on music.

Reference: Prof. Dr. Metin And / SKYLIFE

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