Western Music in Turkey from the Nineteenth Century to the Present by Kathryn Woodard

From works such as Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio and Beethoven’s The Ruins of Athens many music listeners are familiar with the practice of evoking the sound of Turkish music, specifically music of the Janissary corps, within European works of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. What is less known in the West is that shortly after the alla turca style had reached its peak in Europe, Western music also made its way to Turkey, as a substitute, in fact, for the Janissary music that Europeans had come to associate with the Ottoman Empire. This turn of events was the result of Sultan Mahmud II’s decision in 1826 to abolish the Janissary corps after decades of previous attempts by his predecessors at reforming the Ottoman army with little success. Mahmud’s goal was to form a new army along European lines and this included forming a European military band to replace the music of the Janissary corps.

Because of his military career and training in music, Giuseppe Donizetti, brother of the opera composer Gaetano, was invited to Istanbul to assist in the military reforms as they pertained to music. He directed the first regimental band and composed marches for the ensemble. Mahmudiye for Sultan Mahmud I was composed in 1829 soon after his arrival in Istanbul, and Mecidiye was dedicated to Sultan Abdülmecid who succeeded his father Mahmud to the throne in 1839 and who had known Donizetti during his childhood in the palace. Donizetti also formed and directed an Imperial orchestra that performed at the Ottoman palace often for the Sultan’s European guests. In 1836 he assisted in establishing the Imperial Music School (Muzika-i Hümayun Mektebi) that trained the palace musicians, and he invited other European musicians to teach at the school. The instructors taught not only male musicians who served at the palace but also female residents of the harem, which had its own orchestra that performed at court functions.

One of the most prominent musicians to be educated in the harem was Leyla Saz (1850-1936), or Leyla Hanimefendi as she was known before surnames were adopted in Turkey. Her memoirs provide a unique glimpse at the musical life of the nineteenth-century Ottoman palace. As the daughter of the surgeon-in-chief of the palace during the reigns of Mahmud and Abdülmecid, Leyla Saz spent several of her early years in the Imperial harem. It was considered a privilege at the time to be educated in the harem and she made particular use of the music instruction she received as a resident of the palace. Today Saz is recognized as one of the foremost composers of Ottoman classical songs, or şarkı, of the nineteenth century. She also composed pieces in the European style such as marches and recalls in her memoirs how Turkish and Western music existed side by side in the palace: "The orchestra for Western music and the brass band practiced together two times a week and the orchestra for Turkish music only one time.… Western music was taught with notes and Turkish music without them; as had always been the custom, Turkish music was learned by ear alone." This excerpt refers specifically to the ensembles of the harem, including the brass band, and Saz later mentions works played by the harem orchestra on one occasion: selections from Rossini’s William Tell and Verdi’s La Traviata.

By mid-century performances of Western music were not restricted to the Ottoman palace. The broader public was introduced to music from Europe through traveling opera companies and performances by solo virtuosos such as Franz Liszt who traveled to Istanbul in 1847. Foreign embassies provided venues for such performances, as did the establishment of the first theaters in the city during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Italian operas were particularly popular at this time, and full productions of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, and Rigoletto were performed at the Naum Theatre soon after their European premieres.

Ottoman composers were influenced and inspired by these performances and became interested in writing music for the theater. One of the first to do so was Dıkran Çuhacıyan, of Armenian descent, who traveled to Milan to study composition at the conservatory. Recently I came across scores for operettas by Çuhacıyan and his contemporaries Ismaili Hakkı Bey and Celal Bey from the new Borusan Library in Istanbul. Although the works are called "operettas" implying a connection to European works of the same name, the scores consist of only a single notated melodic line, indicating influence from Ottoman classical music. Rather than simply composing in a polyphonic European style with Ottoman dramatic subjects, the composers retain the monophonic texture of Ottoman classical music, the predominant style at the Ottoman court before the introduction of Western music. The exact instrumentation is not clear from the score and it is possible that both Western and Ottoman instruments may have performed side by side. There are even instructions in some scores for the performance of taksim, an instrumental improvisational form in Ottoman music. Some scholars have proposed that it was standard practice to improvise harmonies to the notated melodies, on the piano for example. Such works demonstrate just how syncretic so-called Western genres had become in nineteenth-century Istanbul.

The practice of creating a synthesis between Turkish and Western music continued in the twentieth century and reached a peak with the generation of composers who came of age at the time of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Ahmed Adnan Saygun (1907-1991) belongs to this generation and is considered one of Turkey’s foremost composers of Western classical music. His output includes five operas, five symphonies, two piano concertos, and numerous choral and chamber works. Born in the Aegean coastal city of Izmir he received his first musical training by taking lessons on the piano and the ud, a six-stringed lute played in Ottoman classical music. In 1928 Saygun traveled to Paris to study with Vincent D’Indy at the Schola Cantorum as part of a program sponsored by the Turkish government to support the European education of the Turkey’s most promising artists. Saygun spent three years in Paris studying counterpoint, harmony, orchestration, organ and composition. Upon his return to Turkey he assisted in establishing several institutions including the Music Teachers School in Ankara, the new capital.

Saygun’s compositions at this time were strongly influenced by Turkish reform politics calling for the development of a national culture that would combine Western forms and ideals with elements and influences from Turkish folk culture. To some degree, the idea of the reforms can be seen as similar to those instituted by Sultan Mahmud one hundred years earlier. However, unlike the earlier reforms, which allowed Ottoman and Western music to exist side by side, the aim of the Republican reforms was to break entirely with the Ottoman past as an Eastern, and therefore antiquated, influence. Ottoman art and culture were shunned during this period, including music, which was banned for a short time from radio broadcasts, and attention was drawn to folk art, poetry and music from all parts of Turkey.

Although Saygun had already undertaken his own studies of Turkish folk music in the years following his return from Paris, a watershed event occurred in 1936, both for Saygun personally and for Turkish music scholarship, when Bela Bartok traveled to Turkey for lectures, concerts and a two-week expedition to rural parts of southern Anatolia to make recordings and transcriptions of folk music. Saygun served as Bartok’s assistant and interpreter, and he was undoubtedly influenced by Bartok’s music and his approach to research. In 1938 Saygun wrote the Sonatina, Op. 15 for piano, which includes a movement entitled "Horon" a fast-paced dance from the eastern Black Sea region where he traveled in 1937 to conduct his own fieldwork research. The movement includes several references to the sound of a horon, namely the irregular meter of 7/8 and the predominant use of quartal harmony to evoke the sound of the Black Sea kemence, a bowed three-string fiddle on which horons are performed. Irregular meters that combine odd and even numbers of beats are quite common in Turkish folk music, and Saygun refers to them as aksak rhythms, from the Turkish word for "limping," a term that is actually borrowed from Ottoman classical music as a label for various rhythmic modes, or usuls. As we see from this and later examples, Saygun often drew on his knowledge of and affinity for Ottoman art music in his own compositions despite the explicit calls by reformers to reject the style of music.

In a later piano work Anadolu’dan (1945) Saygun continues to explore the use of folk dances as a basis for composing. The title translates as "From Anatolia" referring to the peninsula that is most of the territory of Turkey. The work consists of three dances "Meşeli", "Zeybek", and "Halay" and the use of aksak rhythms is prominent in each of them. In addition Saygun relies on a consistent modal framework for the first dance—the pitches A, B, C, D, E-flat, F-sharp, G—which can be compared to a makam, or mode, in Ottoman classical music, called karcığar that is also found frequently in folk music. For the third dance Saygun ventures into more modernist directions, for example, by using bimodality to juxtapose contrasting melodies. He continues this trend toward modernism in his later piano works. Cycles such as the Ten Etudes on Aksak Rhythms, Twelve Preludes on Aksak Rhythms, and Ten Sketches on Aksak Rhythms still use various elements taken from folk music, but they are divorced from their original context as dances or songs and worked into more complex rhythmic and contrapuntal textures. (Saygun’s music can be purchased from Peermusic Classical and several scores are now available from sheetmusicplus.com.)

Saygun’s most well known work is the Yunus Emre Oratorio (1942) in which he set poetry of the fourteenth-century Turkish mystic Yunus Emre. To my knowledge it is the first oratorio based on Islamic texts and Saygun’s decision to compose such an overtly religious work at that time in the Republic’s history flies in the face of reform period policies, which rejected and banned Sufi orders, including the Bektashi order, of which Yunus Emre is considered the founder. However, since Yunus Emre wrote in Turkish, unlike the well known Sufi poet of the thirteenth century Jalal al-Din Rumi who wrote in Persian, he could be considered a folk poet and therefore an appropriate subject to explore as a source for understanding the origins of Turkish culture in Anatolia. This explanation should not detract from Saygun’s daring in choosing to compose the work and to use Sufi texts. Clearly, his intention was to present the words of the Islamic mystic as a means to bridge religious traditions and foster universal understanding. He purposefully chose to have English, German and French translations included in the score along with the Turkish, so as to make performances by European choruses and soloists more likely. The oratorio did not receive such international attention, however, until Leopold Stokowski performed the work at the United Nations in 1958.

Saygun was one among several composers who had been educated in Europe and who sought to create a national style representative of Turkey. Other prominent composers of his generation were Cemal Reşit Rey, Ulvi Cemal Erkin, Hasan Ferid Alnar, and Necil Kazim Akses. Together with Saygun they were dubbed the " Turkish Five" by the Turkish musicologist Halil Bedi Yönetken as a direct reference to the Russian "Mighty Handful." Indeed, the legacy of these composers lives on in Turkey today through cultural institutions that they helped establish and through the many students they taught. Saygun in particular educated many students as a professor at both the Istanbul State Conservatory and the Ankara State Conservatory. Several of his students now teach at those institutions and I have had the pleasure of meeting some of them as part of my research of Saygun’s life and music. Muammer Sun (b. 1932) has taught at the Ankara Conservatory since 1987 following positions at the Izmir and Istanbul Conservatories. He has been active in promoting choral music in Turkey and has helped establish over 150 children’s choruses. His works draw on folk songs and include several suites for orchestra, song cycles for chorus, and a four-volume cycle of piano pieces entitled "Country Colors." Six of these pieces are found on the Sonic Crossroads album, Silhouettes.

Hasan Uçarsu (b. 1965) was one of Saygun’s last students at the Istanbul Conservatory, where he now teaches. Following his studies with Saygun, Uçarsu came to the United States to study with George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania where he completed his doctoral degree. He has twice won the first prize in the Eczacibasi National Composition Contest for orchestral works. In 2001 Uçarsu received a commission to write a chamber work for the Silk Road Ensemble directed by Yo-Yo Ma. The result entitled "On the Back Streets of Old Istanbul" calls for a unique combination of instruments: clarinet, cello, harp, percussion, and kanun, a zither played in Ottoman classical music. The timbral effects are clearly influenced by Crumb’s music, and here, as in many of Crumb’s works, modernist techniques are employed in order to evoke the sound of an ancient world. By combining instruments from two different traditions, Uçarsu also points the way to a new direction for composers in Turkey, one that not only draws on elements from other styles and transfers them to Western instruments, but also allows the music in its original form to coexist and intermingle with Western genres and forms. Two piano pieces by Uçarsu are found on the Sonic Crossroads album, Journeys.


Pianist Kathryn Woodard specializes in 20th- and 21st-century repertoire and has been researching the music of non-Western composers since 1997.

Resources: Mahmut R. Gazimihal, Türk Avrupa Musiki Münasebetleri, Ankara, 193

Leyla (Saz) Hanimefendi, The Imperial Harem of the Sultan: The Memoirs of Leyla Hanimefendi, Reprinted by Hil Yayin, Istanbul, 1998.

Kathryn Woodard, "Creating a National Music in Turkey: The Solo Piano Works of Ahmed Adnan Saygun," D.M.A. Thesis, University of Cincinnati, 1999.

Recordings: European Music at the Ottoman Court, The London Academy of Ottoman Court Music, Emre Aracı, conductor, Kalan Müzik Yapım, 2000. www.kalan.com

Ottoman Music: Women Composers, Sony Music (Turkey), 2001. www.sonymusic.com.tr

Ahmed Adnan Saygun, Symphonies 1 & 2, Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Ari Rasilainen, conductor, CPO Records, 2002. www.cpo.de



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