A SFEMS Medieval/Renaissance Workshop Preview

Early Turkish music at the Ottoman court

Sometime in the late 1620’s, a young cleric by the name of Wojciech Bobowski, who was studying to be a church musician in the far eastern Polish city of Lvov, became one the unfortunates rounded up by a marauding band of Crimean Tartars.  Their purpose, other than to incite pure terror into the hearts of the Slavs on the edges of Europe, was to sell their captives into the slave markets of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.  Bobowski must have fetched a good price, as he was a strong, healthy young man, who also happened to be well-educated, fluent in Latin and several other languages and a trained musician.  It is this last attribute that probably landed him, eventually, at the court of the Sultan Murad IV.  The Ottomans made a habit of using foreigners in the military (janissaries) and courtly establishments.

Bobowski clearly excelled as a court musician and functionary, and found a place in the musical establishment of the seraglio.  He relates an amusing story in his writings of playing in front of the harem girls wearing a blindfold.  Eunuchs were stationed behind them to whack them on the head with a stick if any of the musicians attempted to peek underneath their blindfolds!   He learned to play well several chamber instruments, specializing in the santur, and at some point, armed with his training in Western notation, decided to write down as much of the vocal and instrumental courtly repertory as he could.  The result is his collection of 1651, Mecmûa-i sâz ü söz containing several hundred pieces.  As the Ottomans had no system of musical writing, this is earliest source of music from this great tradition.

Bobowski became so immersed in Turkish culture that he eventually converted to Islam, taking the name Ali Ufki.  Although he honored his Christian heritage by publishing a collection of the psalms translated into Turkish (using the music of the Geneva Psalter), and by taking on the monumental work of translating the bible into Turkish.  He was esteemed at court as a translator, having by this time mastered 16 languages and in his later years, after officially gaining his freedom was honored to become one of the most important dragomans of the Ottoman Empire.

It is the music from this collection of Ali Ufki which will form the center piece of the repertory of faculty member Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol’s class on Ottoman court music.  Dr. Sanlıkol is a Boston-based specialist in Turkish classical and traditional music, a singer and multi-instrumentalist.  Any of the workshop participants are welcome to sign up for this class for a fascinating, hands-on look into a little known repertory!