Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal



telling tales

turkish delight

September 17, 2013

turkish delight

photo Michal Maňas

A while back, dubstep — a subgenre of electronic dance music whose origins date back to the late 1990s — was all the rage. If you turned on any pop radio station in the middle of this fad, you would have noticed hints of dubstep in many of the songs in heavy rotation. Of course, the version of dubstep that made it into the mainstream was a watered-down version, easily digestible and only tenuously connected to the original music. This kind of musical appropriation happens all the time, and it’s not at all something new.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Europe, Turkish culture became very popular. The culture, art and music of the Turks seemed interesting and exotic to the Europeans, and the trend, Turquerie, became part of elite society. Not only did Turkish influences show up in fashion, visual art and food (coffee’s popularity grew), the music of the Turkish military began to make its way into the compositions of the time. Europe, specifically Austria, had been embroiled in conflicts with Turkey for centuries. The Austro-Turkish war of 1526-1552 began the conflict and was followed quickly by the Austro-Turkish war of 1566-1568. Another war happened in the 1660s, with others ensuing, leading up to the Austro-Turkish war of 1787-1791. With this many points of conflict and contact, it’s no wonder that there was an exchange of cultural ideas. In music, this appropriation of some elements of Turkish music resulted in musical novelties labeled Alla turca. One of the pieces on LACO’s opening concert is Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, whose last movement contains a section marked with this designation.

Like most cultural appropriations of what is perceived as an “exotic” style, the fad tends to focus on the most easily digestible and perhaps even stereotyped elements of the original. In this case, it was the instrumentation and overall rhythmic patterns of the Turkish military’s music that filtered into Austrian music. Janissary bands, as they were called (Mehter, in Turkish) featured at least one big timpani-like drum like (kös), a bass drum (davul), cymbals (zil), and perhaps woodwinds (zurna), and a triangle or bells (çevgan). Other instruments like the trumpet (boru) and smaller drums (nakkare) were added later.

Among the composers influenced by the rhythms and instrumentation of Janissary bands were Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn. The Alla turca movements of these composers and others tended to be lively marches, often requiring percussion not usually found in the ensembles of the day. The addition of bass drums and cymbals (and sometimes the piccolo standing in for the Turkish woodwinds) into the Classical orchestra helped to enrich the sound palate of the time. Haydn’s opera, L’incontro improvviso (The Unforseen Encounter) and Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) both feature Turkish themes and Alla turca music. Haydn also explored the style in the second movement of his “Military” Symphony.

In the Alla turca piece on our program, Violin Concerto No. 5, Mozart mimics the percussion of the Janissary band by having the low strings play with the wood of the bow rather than the hair, an effect now called col legno. A later piece by Mozart, the Piano Sonata in A, features another Alla turca finale, although with no added instrumentation. Beethoven, coming into his own at the end of the Turquerie fad, included a Turkish march in the incidental music he wrote for a play called The Ruins of Athens. Most famously, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (fourth movement) features a march that the composer may have written to suggest Turkish bands with its instrumentation and march rhythms, but it was not marked Alla turca. Most musicologists today just refer to it as a generic march. By the time Beethoven composed this piece in the 1820s, the Turquerie fad was all but over.

The Janissary band eventually fell out of favor is its native land, and by 1826 Mehter bands were no longer in official use. In fact, in the 1830s, the Turkish military adopted a more European style military band. But like other traditions that fall out of fashion, Janissary bands had a revival. In the 1950s, the Istanbul Military Museum formed a new Janissary band, called Mehterân. A living cultural artifact, they play at Turkish national holidays and special events.

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