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Music of the Ottoman Empire: Turkish Classic Music

August 20, 2005

Music of the Ottoman Empire: Turkish Classic Music

ARC Music (2001), 1 CD: 10 tracks (57:10)

Music Review by Christopher Deliso

Released by world music specialist ARC Music of Great Britain, Music of the Ottoman Empire is an invigorating compilation of Turkish classical music by 19th century Ottoman composers. This is big music, regal music; one hears, in the rich, plunging melodies and deep intonations, the sound of empire.

Of course, it could not be any empire or any classical music: while there is some Western classical influence, the sharp strains punctuated by oriental percussion and the kanun (plucked box zither) intimate the near east; the listener imagines on one side, the grand palaces of Dolmabace and Topkapi over the Bosphorus, and on the other, the elliptical movement of the caravanserais coming in from the desert.

The CD, which clocks in at just under one hour in length, contains 10 tracks, the works of 9 different composers born between the years 1831 and 1899. Short biographies of each are given in the liner notes, as our descriptions of the instruments and other interesting stories about Turkish classical music in general.

Along with the kanun, other instruments found on the album include the tambur (a ‘long-necked lute’ with four double courses of strings. As with the kanun, these are usually plucked with a plectrum. The kemençe, or short-necked fiddle, has three strings and is played with a bow. The ney, or rim-blown reed flute, is an instrument common to the Middle East, Iran and Central Asia, and is also used in ensembles of the Mevlevi (whirling dervishes). Finally, the darbuka, a goblet-shaped drum that can be played while tucked under the arm, is familiar to everyone and found across North Africa and the Middle East.

The mysterious eastern sound of the kamun gets full expression on the second track, ‘Nihavent Saz Semai.’ Erkan Dedeoglou is the master kanun player on the CD; according to the liner notes, he has been playing the instrument for almost 30 years after having learned it from his father. Erkan “gave numerous concerts all over Europe and is still working as a kanun teacher at the Marmara University in Istanbul.” The instrument itself is a classical music of the Arab world and Turkey, and introduced into Turkey during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II (1785-1839).

Track 7, ‘Mahur Saz Semai’ is remarkable for its combination of a slippery, Mediterranean tambur introduction segueing into a pretty, Western-sounding movement that at parts almost sounds like a television ad for butter. Along with the fourth track, Hicaz Saz Semai, this song was composed by Refik Talat Alpman (1894-1947), who is regarded as one of Turkey’s best composers.

Among the other composers represented in this compilation are Tamburi Cemil Bey (1871-1916) and his student, Tamburi Refisk S. Fersan (1893-1965), the latter having been at one point head of the Turkish Instrumental Orchestra, Misirli Ibrahim Efendi (1872-1933) who was Jewish, and Tatyos Efendi (1858-1913), who was of Armenian descent. The oldest composer, Haci Arif Bey (1831-1885) “was know for his marvelous voice and for his excellent musical memory.” Of the over 1,000 compositions he created, only 338 remain.

Almost every track features a soloist introduction from one of the instruments featured. The roughhewn, brooding intensity of the kemençe comes alive on track 3, ‘Hicaz Pesrev,’ which almost evokes the low-end sounds created by “the wild man of Cretan music,” lyra master Psarantonis.

The CD’s subtitle, “Darus Music,” has an interesting story behind it as well. Darus-Sifa, the producers say, was in fact a hospital, built in 1484 under the reign of Sultan II Beyazit. “…The patients, especially those suffering from mental problems, were treated with music. According to Evliya Celebi mental patients listened to classical music three days a week… it was believed that rhythm and melody in the music had a healing effect.”

Recounting that using music for healing was invented by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras in the 6th century BC, the notes add that Muslim doctors would later apply his wisdom. By Ottoman times diagnoses became categorical. “…The different musical forms and harmonies are called makam in Turkish. Each harmony has a special healing power attributed to it. Rast Makam for example is said to be good for patients with paralyses. Isfahan Makam seems to clear the mind, Zirffgent Makam is good for back problems, Rehavi Makam is said to alleviate headaches, Bûselik Makam is used for people with a high temperature, Zengule  Makam is said to help a weak heart, to give just a few examples.”

While these harmonies are not identified with specific tracks, chances are good that most of them are there. So whether you are looking to evoke bygone Ottoman grandeur in your imagination, perform some self-healing, or simply enjoy an hour of bold and unusual eastern classical compositions, Music of the Ottoman Empire is a great investment for Balkan music lovers.

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