Music of Turkish-Ottoman Women Composers

May 7, 2018
Ottoman Turkish music performance

On the evening of April 26, nearly 100 members of our community gathered for a concert that brought to light the underappreciated contributions of women composers to Ottoman music. The event was held as part of the continuing Sohbet-i Osmani series organized by Vehbi Koç Professor of Turkish Studies Cemal Kafadar.

The evening began with an introductory lecture by Zehra Tülin Değirmenci, professor of musicology at the Haliç University Institute of Social Sciences in Istanbul. In her talk, titled “A Woman Composer in the Hamparsum Manuscripts: Reftâr,” Değirmenci recounted how years of research on musical manuscripts in the Ottoman archives led her to the discovery of a previously unknown female composer, Reftâr. Reftâr lived in the seventeenth century and was a concubine in the harem of the Ottoman sultan at Topkapı Palace in Istanbul. Harem ladies commonly received musical training, Değirmenci explained. But beyond this, little is known about Reftâr’s own life. After describing the texts she used to construct Reftâr’s identity, Değirmenci turned to the musical notation in which the composer’s few surviving works are preserved. Hamparsum notation, as it is known, is indecipherable to non-experts, but Değirmenci has transcribed several pieces written in it to current notation.

Ottoman Turkish music performance

Two of those pieces, composed by Reftâr, were brought to life by the quartet of Boston-based musicians who organized the evening’s program: Ceren Turkmenoğlu, Volkan Efe, Michael Harrist, and Tev Stevig. All have performed classical Turkish and world music internationally, and recently developed the Turkish-Ottoman Women Composers program to bring attention to female composers whose names—and often works—have remained anonymous. It is likely, Turkmenoğlu explained, that the second of the Reftâr pieces, the instrumental Saba Saz Semaisi, had not been performed in hundreds of years, since Değirmenci discovered the composition deep in the archives.

The program continued with ten more pieces composed by Ottoman women between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. These selections showcased the variety of Ottoman music, from Adile Sultan’s (1826-99) “Gizlice Şaha Buyur” to Leyla Saz’s (1850-1936) “Nerdesin Nerede Acep.” The former is an ilahi, or hymn, in the hicaz makam, the latter a şarkı, song, in the hicazkar makam. Ottoman and Turkish music is typically classified according to its makam, a melodic pattern constructed around a certain set of notes and intervals that governs the progression of a composition.

Most women composers whose work has survived had connections to palace patronage. Adile Sultan, for example, was the sister of two sultans, Abdülmecid I (r. 1839-61) and Abdülaziz (r. 1861-76). Leyla Saz was a poet from an aristocratic background.

In addition to the familiar violin, double bass, and oud, the concert featured several Ottoman-Turkish stringed instruments and drums that are less familiar to American audiences. The rebab, for instance, is a more than one thousand-year-old bowed, stringed instrument made of coconut shell and horsehair, and the saz, a larger stringed lute, is commonly used in Anatolian folk music.

— by Chloe Bordewich, PhD candidate in History and Middle Eastern Studies