Our traditional music, widely yet erroneously referred to as "Turkish Art Music", is the sublime music of a magnificent civilization. It would be more correct to call it "Turkish Classical Music", or simply "Ottoman Music". There are even those who prefer to call it “Istanbul music”, given that Islamic art and civilization rose to the pinnacle of perfection in the Ottoman capital. But this music is unique neither to Istanbul, nor to the Ottoman palace. The famed composer Dede Efendi was the son of a man who managed an Ottoman hamam, and Kömürcüzâde Hafız Mehmed Efendi and Basmacı Abdi Efendi were both from the artisan class. Figures like Edirneli Zurnazen Ahmed Çelebi, Lavtacı Hristo Ağa, Diyarbekirli Mahmud Ağa describe the diversity and richness of those who contributed to this music.
Ottoman art strove for an exalted form of beauty, what is termed in the West “sublime art”. Like Ottoman architecture, calligraphy, illumination and poetry, Ottoman music was music that aspired to abstract beauty, music that speaks to us from beyond time and this world, music that gives wings to the human soul.

Classical Turkish music is not a form of entertainment, but neither is it a kind of dead, lifeless music that numbs the listener to sleep. Called “the glorious art of music” by our forefathers, it was regarded as a form of edification and an expression of lofty ideas.

Ottoman music is part and parcel of the overall picture of Ottoman civilization, and one of its most precious fruits. With its songs and folk ballads, its military bands, its sacred chants and rituals, as well as its lullabies, classical Turkish music is the manifestation of a great civilization - a high claim grounded in its having its own way of thinking and outlook on life, at the heart of which lies the principle of the Unity of God. It is a unique and original sound erected on a foundation that exalts Unity and that discerns and expresses Oneness among the many. It is a music of faith and love in which military bands were employed in the “minor battles” against the enemy, and divine chants and sacred music in the “great battle” against egoism and self-absorption.

Let us speak briefly about the unique character and properties of this music. The sound system of Turkish music is quite different from that of Western music, in which whole notes  are divided into two half-tones, as represented by the black keys between two white keys on the piano. In our music, the whole tone is generally accepted as being divided not into two but into nine intervals. The octave has 12 tones in the Western system but 43 ‘perde’ or micro-tones in Turkish music. In other words, if we were to build a piano for Turkish music, it would have to have at least eight black keys between every two white keys! These “intervals”, which do not exist in Western music, are what give Turkish music its special character. They are also the reason why Turkish music cannot be played on Western instruments.

Turkish folk music and Turkish classical music arose from the same source and have always influenced each other. They are merely products of the same musical culture performed in different venues. Both have the same sound system as well as the same structure in terms of “makams” (modes or scales), usûl (rhythm) and form. The distinction between Turkish art music and Turkish folk music did not even exist in Ottoman times. Terms like “Alla Turca” (or Alafranga in Turkish) and monophonic versus polyphonic were invented to express the cultural contrast between East and West.

Without getting too technical, we might say that the best way of defining the word “makam” is to compare it to a taste. There is a certain flavor created by certain sound intervals and melodic lines that we could call the “makam”, a bit like the modes of early Western music. These makams, each one of which has a different emotional feel to it - a different “mood” - are not strict rules that limit the composer but rather are what make it possible for a certain “taste” to be felt, and as such they are perhaps the most characteristic trait of this music. There are 587 different makams in Turkish music. As for “usûl”, that is the term used for the rhythmic patterns created by the various beats and time divisions, and there are 80 of them in Turkish music!

Church music organized hymns around specific intervals so that everyone could sing them in unison, and it developed a special technique for doing this. Western classical music, which was born of church music, is a magnificent kind of music in which different melodies are played, one on top of the other in a harmonic whole, by musical instruments, including the human voice. Structurally, this music exhibits a vertical development, comparable to that of cathedral architecture, which is created by playing simple melodies simultaneously.
Classical Turkish music is an aesthetic monument which, like other forms of eastern music, does not employ harmony or polyphony but in which rich melodic structure and variety have pride of place. Leaving aside the shortcomings and impoverishment inherently implied by the term “monophonic”, it is high time the unique richness of this splendid civilization was recognized.
Turkish music was never a music widely performed outside the military milieu and the dervish lodge. It is a music performed not by mammoth choruses but rather by small groups of one instrument of each kind, on the order of chamber music.  

The Ottoman palace perpetuated this age-old tradition of music among the Turks by bringing together and supporting its most distinguished performers, as it did calligraphers and poets. In the artists it patronized, artistic excellence was always the primary consideration with no distinctions of race, language, religion or sect, thanks to which foreign and minority artists were able to make enormous contributions. The societies that were part of the Islamic cultural milieu exchanged lyrics and instruments and even inter-married.
Besides being the sultan, Selim III was also a great man of music who played the tanbour (long-necked lute) and the ney (reed flute) as well as composing. There were a number of master tanbour players in the palace during his reign, but his own tanbour teacher was a Jewish composer by the name of Tanburi İsak Fresco Romano, and a contest held by Selim III to come up with a specifically Turkish form of musical notation was won by a member of the Armenian community, Hamparsum Limonciyan, even though his main rival in the competition was, like the sultan himself, a member of the Mevlevi order of dervishes by the name of Nâsır Abdülbâki Dede.
There is no one-to-one correspondence between the development of Ottoman music and the political and economic history of the Ottoman state. While there are few composers or compositions from the most brilliant periods of Ottoman history, the greatest musicians and composers emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries during periods of decline.

Countless composers and performers have scaled the heights of this music from past to present. There must be at least as many unknown composers who have left no trace as there are the hundreds of figures who created this magnificent tableau. Among those giants are Buhûrizâde Mustafa Itrî (d.1712), Hafız Post (d. 1693), Seyyid Nuh (d.1714), Zaharya (d.1740), İsmail Dede Efendi (d.1846), Zekâi Dede Efendi (d.1897) and last but not least Tanbûrî Cemil Bey (d.1916).

Turkish music is taught through reading musical notation but from teacher to student in a method known as “meşk”, in which the teacher provides the student with a model to imitate and the two of them practice it together. The teacher passes his own work along to his student, who learns and executes it exactly as it came from the lips of the master. Students of the great masters like Niyazi Sayın, Kani Karaca, Alâeddin Yavaşça, Bekir Sıdkı Sezgin, Necdet Yaşar, Cinuçen Tanrıkorur and İhsan Özgen continue to train pupils today in the tradition they launched.

Ours is the music of a civilization. We created our own original sound by giving and taking sounds based on “Tevhid”, or the Unity of God. Our music is an expression of tranquility, edification and love, as is our civilization itself. SAVAŞ BARKÇIN

What makes music worthwhile are its forms of expression and the emotions, ideas, concepts and approaches it conveys. Turkish classical music expresses sublime emotions and ideas through a flawless approach and a refined aesthetic. This is a perfect kind of music, thoroughly mystical and expressive of “aşk” (love). TIMUÇİN ÇEVİKOĞLU

The world knows Itrî for his Nât-ı Şerif in the Rast mode, which is recited at the beginning of the Mevlevî ceremony written by the great mystic, Mevlânâ, himself. But his Segâh Tekbir and Segâh Salât are also among the rare works that bring the shared cultural code of Islamic civilization to the present generation through music.

If we say that classical Turkish music is not “today’s music”, we are forfeiting another point of communication with our own past. Even though the people of today may be living in another culture, in a different atmosphere, they can still derive pleasure from this music. What’s more, they will find in it a magical key to understanding the past. MEHMET GÜNTEKİN

Our music is one of the centuries-old branches of the great plane tree that is our civilization. To understand that music better and appreciate its splendor, we need to remember it in the context of the many other components that make up our culture. Not only music but all the components of our culture exemplify all the different means we have developed for getting closer to God. Our greatest achievement in the days to come will be to take that glorious past into the future without letting it fall to the ground. MURAT SALİM TOKAÇ

Turkish music attracts extraordinary interest all over the world for its sounds, its makams, its rhythms and its instruments. This interest leads people to study and learn about the other areas of a culture they have come to know through music. That the sound of the kemençe (small fiddle with three strings) was chosen for Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning film Argo, for which Alexandre Desplat wrote the music, means to me that fabulous music can be shared with everyone no loss of its original character. DERYA TÜRKAN

The military band that was an indispensable element of Turkish warfare from the time of the Huns was a psychological weapon aimed at instilling fear in the enemy from afar. In peacetime, concerts were given by this band, which was renamed the Mehterhane by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. The sources of this music were the airs performed since 1361 by a large ensemble of pipes and drums at the traditional oiled wrestling contests at Kırkpınar in Thrace. Starting in the 18th century, Mehter music sparked a fashion among western composers to compose operas, symphonies and concertos in the style of the Turkish military band. Grétry and Haydn were the pioneers of this style, dubbed “alla turca”, reached its apogee in Mozart and Beethoven. In 1828, Sultan Mahmud II abolished the Janissary Corps and the Mehter band and its repertoire. To hear Mehter music today, follow the programs of the Military Museum in Harbiye, Istanbul. Museum is open to public visits every day from 9 AM to 5 PM except monday and tuesday.

The Mevlevi music that accompanies the whirling ceremony is regarded as the pinnacle of Turkish classical music. These works, which, formally speaking, are long and complex in structure, performed as an unaccompanied vocal solo with a eulogy to the Prophet Mohammad, continue with an instrumental prelude and, following a ritual in four parts, close with a final instrumental solo and a chant from the Quran, followed by a number of different prayer-like sections. Even the great non-Mevlevi composers could not refrain from composing such music, which they enriched with mind-boggling beauty. Circulated orally during periods when training in Turkish music was interrupted, Mevlevi music performed a great pedagogical role for many musicians. The Gelibolu Mevlevihane is a venue where Mevlevi music is performed regularly. If you go to a performance, be sure to have a look at the newly revamped museum.

Founded in 1363, the Enderun, or Palace School, evolved into a full-fledged university in the time of Mehmed the Conqueror. Music of course occupied a prominent place among lessons in poetry, law, logic, geography, astronomy, calligraphy, illumination, paper cutting, painting and archery. The top composers were trained at this learned institution, where students came from all over the Islamic world to be educated, and those composers then taught new pupils at the same school.

This charming house in the Cankurtaran quarter of Sultanahmet was the home of the Turkish titan among composers, Hammamizade İsmail Dede Efendi. The Society for the Preservation of Historic Turkish Houses regularly holds Turkish music concerts at this venue, which is also its headquarters. You can tour the house, now a museum, where the great composer lived and perhaps hear some of his compositions.

The “Emin Ongan Üsküdar Music Society”, who trained countless performers and musicians in Turkish art music is active today with its choruses for various age groups and levels.

Established for the purpose of studying the history of Ottoman music, classifying the works and making the collection thus created easily accessible, the “Istanbul University Ottoman Period Music Performance and Research Center” (OMAR) has been active since January 2012. Besides its work to perform a key archival function for Turkish classical music, it also provides a joint platform for discussion for faculty members and academics.

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