Kecskés Együttes
Ancient Turkish Music in Europe
16–18th centuries


Ancient Turkish Music in Europe (16–18th centuries)

For nearly 150 years the Turks occupied a third of Hungary's territory. They were our neighbours, conquerors, friends and enemies, all in one. The evil memories and sufferings of the past are preserved in the chronicles, but these days one also bears in mind the things with which they enriched the Hungarians – the early spread of the cult of bathing, and all the many fine architectural relics, including the ornate mosques and slim minarets. They ensured religious liberty, supported Prince Rákóczi's fight for liberation, and later gave shelter to him during his exile, just as they did for Kossuth Lajos after the overthrow of the War of Independence in 1848-49. Many words taken from the Turkish still exist in Hungarian. Today the Turks show fraternal feelings to the Hungarian people. All these antecedents added justification to our intention to search for old Turkish musical sources to be found in Europe, to collect them and to make the finest works public property.

Like Arabic, Turkish classical music is the offspring of Persian musical culture. Persian poets and musicians were welcome guests both at the Sublime Porte and the distinguished Turkish country seats. Since Persian was the common language of "oriental humanism", it was used by the Turks as well, both in writing and speech.

Al-Fārābi (c.870-c.950), who wrote the Great Treatise on Music (Kitabu l-musigi al-kabir), was the child of Turkish parents. His Arab theory of music fed on Persian roots, and to the present day, with minor modifications in nomenclature, his theorems form the bases for Persian, Arabic and Turkish music.

European music advanced along roads different from oriental music, and as early as the Middle Ages made use of musical notation, which at the same time determined its future path. Persian, Arabic and Turkish classical music was never written down, only the mode (dastgha in Persian and maqām in Arabic) was marked, and the work was born in the form of an improvisation dictated by traditions of form and flair for improvisation, so that it could never be repeated in the same way.

Knowing the antecedents, it is not surprising that Persian, Arabic and Turkish music should have first appeared in print, almost without exception, in Western Europe. Thus a march of the soldiers of the Bey of Belgrade from 1608 has survived in a travelogue of a merchant by the name of Salomon Schweiger, published in Nuremberg.

At the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries "Christian and Turkish music" lived side by side at the court of the humanist Prince Dimitrie Cantemir of Moldavia. The prince, having been brought up in Constantinople, was imbued with Turkish culture. Later, as an "expatriate prince", he went into exile in Russia, and in St Petersburg published nearly fifty works, along with a notable summary of Islamic musical theory. Some of his works found their way into a number of Western European publications, transferred into European notation.

The lively maritime trade the Republic of Venice conducted with the Turks gave great impetus to cultural relations as well, as was borne out by Donado's comprehensive literary history [/i]Turkish Literature[/i] published in 1688, and by Toderini's work of the same title, issued in 1789. Both works have preserved in their appendix love songs in Turkish and a Turkish orchestral work, the latter, as was by that time customary in Europe, complete with tempo and dynamic markings.

Kálmánfi Béla of Esztergom has called our attention to a love song and a soldier's heroic song about Pasha Osman, which have been perpetuated to the present day in the living tradition of Turkey. The one that begins Estergon kalesi, with a Hungarian context, is a most valuable relic for Hungary too from the time when the country was occupied by the Turks. It presumably dates from the 17th century.

Perhaps the most valuable treasures of Turkish-Hungarian relations are the two 16th century poems which preserved Turkish texts written in Roman letters many centuries before Kemal Atatürk's reform of writing. One is a bilingual (Hungarian-Turkish) flower song, by Hüsrew Āšiqī, a Turk who lived in Hungary, and the other is by the great Hungarian poet Balassi Bálint, who drew the inspiration for his love poem from a Turkish flower song.

Hungarian-Turkish coexistence in the 16th and 17th centuries brought forth related features both in literature and music; at entertainments Hungarian and Turkish minstrels made equal use of the fiddle, lute, koboz (a lute-type instrument), cimbalom and Turkish pipe (of the oboe family). Hungarian aristocrats acquired musician prisoners in the battles against the Turks. Turkish music was heard at the Hungarian courts and examples of the opposite also occurred.

The expulsion of the Turks from Hungary did not put an end to musical relations. For example, in 1714 Turkish musicians and dancers provided entertainment at the court of Augustine the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. On one occasion the king commissioned Trenk, the chief of the pandours in Southern Hungary, to bring him Turkish dancers and comedians from Hungary, who were, it is recorded, accompanied by a whole janissary orchestra. The Linus Manuscript, thought to date from 1729, includes three dances marked as "Turkish", and these, until recently could still be found among Hungarian folk wedding melodies.


Turkish instruments

The instruments of the military bands consisted of kettledrums, drums, trombones, Turkish pipes and cymbals, but from the 17th century it is also recorded that Turks played the hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes, lutes of various types and even the Baroque violin.

The classical Turkish instruments, of Persian origin, were played alongside the odalisques by virtuoso artists. These are the 'ūd (the ancestor of the European lute), the santur (the Persian dulcimer) and the classical Turkish tanbur (a lute type instrument with long neck). The panpipes, graded in size, the knee-violin called the kemânçe, the small harp, and various kinds of hand drum (tombak, def) were to be found in every Turkish court orchestra, mostly in twos, and the drums and percussion instruments were present in even larger numbers.

The origin of these instruments has been lost over the millennia. Today's Moslem musicians still preserve the practice of improvisatory performance, which is inherited from father to son and reveals an instrumental practice more than a thousand years old.

András „L.” Kecskés

"Estergon kalesi" / Esztergom városa, 1543, miniatúra
Topkapu Szeráj Múzeum, Hazine 1608, 90b