The History of Turkish Classical Music in the Republic

Music critic, writer, and academic Evin İlyasoğlu ACG 66 recounts the impressive journey of Turkish music, with the foundation of the Republic.

Polyphonic music, developed in the West over many centuries, is alien to traditional Turkish music. Initial Turkish works in Western style were operettas consisting of harmonized local songs, some polyphonic, some monophonic.

After the founding of the Republic, music, the branch of art that has an immediate impact on the masses, took first place in Atatürk’s reforms. He decreed that music should have a content arising from folklore and have a universal language. He invited the imperial military orchestra to Ankara, and it was renamed the Presidential Symphony Orchestra. The musical knowledge that had been passed on from master to apprentice gave way to formal training. Darü’l-Elhan (House of Melodies), established in 1917 to provide musical education, was reorganized as a conservatory. The Musiki Muallim Mektebi (Music Instructors School) established in 1924 in Ankara later became the Ankara State Conservatory. In 1926 the instructors were sent to Anatolia for thorough research into folk music, and they classified those tunes, creating a bibliography. In the same years, the Ministry of Education started to send talented students to European music centers. In 1935, the famed German composer Paul Hindemith was invited to Turkey to build up an organized musical life and music education. The inauguration of the Ankara State Conservatory took place on November 1, 1936, according to the curriculum prepared by Hindemith. Bela Bartok also visited Turkey to carry out ethnomusicological research.

The initial group of composers, known as the Turkish Five, were raised listening to traditional music. After studying in European cultural centers, they returned to Turkey and became the founders of modern Turkish music. They served as instructors, founders of musical institutions, experts on their instruments and conductors, as well as composers. They were Cemal Reşit Rey, Hasan Ferit Alnar, Ulvi Cemal Erkin, Ahmed Adnan Saygun and Necil Kazım Akses. These musicians focused on synthesizing traditional and Western music. The second generation, as a reaction to the first, preferred to follow the avant-garde language of the century. In the 1950s, Bülent Arel and İlhan Usmanbaş used the 12-tone technique and serialism. Arel became an international pioneer of electronic music. Usmanbaş, utilizing aleatory, minimalism and cluster tones, became the pioneer of modern music in Turkey.

There are those who make simple folk song arrangements, utilizing maqams, aksak rhythms and modal structure, as well as those using serialism, minimalism, electronics, combining acoustics with electronics, jazz and ethnic music. At the end of the 20th century ethnomusicology, searching for original roots, became interesting for Turkish composers as well. Today’s composer is an artist of the information age unlimited by trends. The new Turkish composers are dispersed through different lands creating their own style. One of them among many is Zeynep Gedizlioğlu, who lives in Germany. She keeps receiving new prizes for her works and composes with the new language of music today.

Published January 2024

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