Turkish Classical & Traditional Music

The Turkish language had its origins in central Asia, and the move of Turkish people to modern Turkey is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. Various Turkish cultures continue to exist in the region from Anatolia to Western China, and the fine classical tradition of Uzbekistan is Turkish. The present page concerns the music of modern Turkey, a country whose cultural roots include elements of Ancient Greece, Persia, Arabia, and Armenia, among others.

In this context, Turkish classical music refers quite specifically to the music cultivated by the Ottoman Empire. That empire included substantial territory which had been under Byzantine or Arabic control, and the substratum of traditional music in Turkey was conditioned by that history. Moreover, the music of the Arab Empires had already been strongly conditioned by Persian culture. The Ottoman Empire eventually became very cosmopolitan, so that classical compositions by Greek, Armenian, and other minority composers were featured at court. In addition, the Turkish people must have brought their own melodies with them to Anatolia. Consequently, Turkish music has a large & varied system of modes, overlapping the Arabic system of maqam, and spelled makam in Romanized Turkish.

The core classical repertory of the Ottoman Empire is currently undergoing a rebirth, and begins to appear on recording in volume. Much of this is orchestral music, tied to various functions, and not of the highest interest to me. Aside from that, however, Ottoman music is of definite historical interest, with developments paralleling many of those for European music. For instance, Ottoman court music underwent a distinct stylistic shift in the mid-1700s, and again in the very early 1900s, when it disappeared as a living entity. Besides the revival of this later Ottoman music, based upon direct remnants of c.1900 culture, there is the beginning of an "early music" movement in Turkey, concentrating on music from the 1600s and earlier. Structurally, together with the broader melodic framework of makam, Ottoman music is based on rhythmic cycles called usûl.

The Sufi influence has also been strong in Anatolia, especially in traditions which survived into the twentieth century. In the Sufi tradition, the reed flute ney is the most important instrument. The ney is used in one or more forms throughout the region, and whereas the Iranian technique features alternation between two positions (including the more shrill sound of holding the mouthpiece with the teeth), Turkish technique relies only on the airier sound achieved by positioning the instrument against the bottom of the lower lip. The ney is specifically connected to Ottoman court music through the ceremonies of the Mevlevis (whirling dervishes), which were supported by many Ottoman rulers. A superb recording illustrating the resulting solo repertory:

The Turkish Ney
Kudsi Erguner
Naïve Unesco (Traditional Musics of Today) D 8204

Kudsi Erguner is one of the most highly regarded Turkish musicians today. This disc is one of several of his recordings. It is a dreamy, mystical sort of rendition. The program consists of improvised preludes interspersed with compositions in various modes, selected to provide a pleasing development through the recital. This is representative of the direct Sufi-Ottoman solo tradition, to which Kudsi Erguner is connected by direct lineage.

Besides the Ottoman music, Anatolia provides a rich heritage of music in various styles. The raspy tanbur is the principal plucked-string instrument of the region, and is also prominent in Ottoman music. A solo recital, with more of a "folk" inspiration:

Turquie: L'art du tanbûr
Talip Özkan
Ocora (Radio France) C 560042

This is Talip Özkan's second recording for Ocora, and both combine tanbur playing with singing. The songs & modes are taken from throughout Anatolia, and have a closer resemblance to some traditions of Central Asia than does the Ottoman-derived music of Kudsi Erguner. The forms remain makam-derived, and improvisation is an important aspect of this style. The result is something of a folk anthology, but delivered with great sophistication.

There are many other similar recordings available, plus recordings in other styles. Despite others which have offered points of interest, the above two continue to be my main examples for Turkish music. Despite the limited selection, I hope the discussion proves useful. At some point, I would like to be able to recommend something more specific regarding the Ottoman "early music" movement.

To Near-Eastern menu.

T. M. McComb
Updated: 31 January 2002