Sultans Who Composed Waltzes

Article: Dr. Emre Aracı Date: July 2014

THE OTTOMAN SULTANS WERE NOT INDIFFERENT TO WESTERN CLASSICAL MUSIC. INDEED, THEY NOT ONLY LISTENED TO IT, THEY ALSO CONTRIBUTED TO IT AS COMPOSERS.

Sultans Who Composed Waltzes
Sultans Who Composed Waltzes

When Sultan Abdülaziz arrived in London in 1867 as the guest of Queen Victoria he was greeted by the Queen’s military bands playing La Gondole Barcarolle, one of His Imperial Majesty’s own compositions. The European press at the time was rather surprised that the Ottoman Sultan had composed such a lyrical gondolier song and that his music, along with one of his other compositions, Invitation à la Valse, was published in piano score in Italy. 
Sultan Abdülaziz and his nephew Sultan Murad V both played the piano, wrote modest pieces in the European dance forms and received their musical training from the Italian maestro Callisto Guatelli Pasha. Interest in European music at court had started to take root during the reign of his father Sultan Mahmud II, when the famous opera composer Gaetano Donizetti’s eldest brother Giuseppe Donizetti was invited to İstanbul in 1828 as the Sultan’s chief instructor of music. “Donizetti Pasha” to the Turks, Giuseppe Donizetti was never to return to Italy and continued to live in Ottoman Turkey until his death in 1856. Little known to opera lovers aroud the world today, Giuseppe Donizetti’s tomb is in the vaults of St Esprit Cathedral near Taksim Square in İstanbul.

SUPPORT OF THE PALACE
The fact that a member of the Donizetti family was employed at court in İstanbul undoubtedly played an important role for the Sultans to cultivate a taste for opera. The sumptuous Dolmabahçe Palace built by Sultan Abdülmecid, for instance, incorporated an opera house said to rival that of Versailles. Decorated by Charles Séchan of the Paris Opera, the Dolmabahçe’s opera house was inaugurated on 12 January 1859 with Luigi Ricci’s Scaramuccia. Sadly this jewel box of a theatre was completely gutted by a devastating fire seven years later in 1866. Rossini’s march composed especially for Sultan Abdülmecid was played for the sovereign in this theatre. It had become fashionable at the time for the famous European composers to write ceremonial marches for the sultans. In 1847 when Franz Liszt came to İstanbul to give concerts before Sultan Abdülmecid he also composed a paraphrase based on the themes of Giuseppe Donizetti’s Mecidiye March.

COMPOSER SULTAN MURAD
The most active sovereign composer of the Ottoman court to write music in the European fashion was Sultan Murad V who reigned for three months in 1876. Following his dethronement, he spent the 28 years of his life under captivity in Çırağan Palace, along the banks of the Bosphorus, where he composed at his piano hundreds of pages of short salon pieces in the genres of Viennese waltzes, galops, polkas and marches, dedicating them to members of his immediate family. Today a ballet set to his compositions and based on his life is in the repertoire of the Turkish State Opera and Ballet Company. In one of his letters to his sister Refia Sultan, held today in the archives of Topkapı Palace Museum, he observed: “Recreation for me is to play the piano, compose music and read history”.