I was very surprised when I received an invitation to the first concert given by the Presidential Classical Turkish Music Choral Society, scheduled for Jan. 18 at 7:00 p.m. at the Çankaya presidential palace. This was revolutionary, which is why I was so surprised. It was revolutionary in that President Abdullah Gül turned the attention of the highest office of the state to the roots of the Ottoman state via music.
It was during the reign of Sultan Mahmud II that Muzıka-ı Hümâyûn (Imperial Music) was established, in 1827. This musical society had a Western musical section headed by Guiseppe Donizetti, brother of famous Italian opera composer Gaetano Donizetti, as well as a Turkish musical section headed by Dede Efendi. Muzıka-ı Hümâyûn was linked directly to the sultan, and it wound up training some very important masters of music in the era. During the era of the Turkish War of Independence, Muzıka-ı Hümâyûn existed as an organization connected to the Ottoman palace. When the sultanate was eliminated, the name of this musical organization was changed to Makam-ı Hilafet Mızıkası. During the early years of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk brought the musical society under the umbrella of the presidency in Ankara, without changing its staff (this being the staff of the musical society.) at all. There were some changes made to the society's various names, though. For example, the word Hümâyûn (which referred to the sultan) was replaced by Riyaset-i Cumhur (a nod to the presidency), while the title of the Western musical section was changed in 1932 to the Riyaset-i Cumhur Philharmonic Orchestra. As for the Turkish musical section, its title was changed to the Riyaset-i Cumhur İncesaz Heyeti, or Riyaset-i Cumhur String Instrument Group.
Atatürk attached special importance to the Riyaset-i Cumhur İncesaz Heyeti. In fact, he brought this particular group along on his trips throughout Turkey. He also loved to listen to the music played by this group on evenings at the presidential palace in Ankara. The increasing focus on Westernization after the establishment of the Turkish Republic did, however, have an effect on Turkish music. The first official Ottoman school of music, formed in 1917, had been the Darü'l elhan, created with the intent of producing instructors of both Western and Turkish music, but it was closed down on Dec. 9, 1926. In fact, it did reopen on Jan. 22, 1927, as the İstanbul Municipality Conservatory, but there was no space set aside for training in Turkish music in this new incarnation of the school. In 1934, Minister of Internal Affairs Şükrü Kaya forbade the playing of Turkish music for two years on radio stations broadcasting out of Ankara and İstanbul. Since the death of Atatürk, the Western music orchestra that had previously borne the name Riyaset-i Cumhur Philharmonic Orchestra has carried on until the present day, under the name of the Presidential Symphony Orchestra. As for the Riyaset-i Cumhur İncesaz Heyeti, which had of course played Turkish music, it was silently eliminated altogether. In fact, the performance of Turkish music in this style seemed to have taken on a mantle of backwardness that almost didn't have a name. It was only in 1975, when the State Classical Turkish Music Choral Society was formed, that the state re-made its peace with Turkish music. This musical group was later re-named the Culture and Tourism Ministry's İstanbul State Classical Turkish Music Choral Society.
As for the re-enlivening of the Riyaset-i Cumhur İncesaz Heyeti, this has come about through efforts by the Turkish Musical Foundation and Cultural Council Association, as well as with help from the vision and intellectual curiosity of President Gül. What has happened essentially is that the president has become the patron once again of Turkish music. And on Oct. 12, 2012, the previously named Culture and Tourism Ministry's İstanbul State Classical Turkish Music Choral Society was changed to the Presidential Classical Turkish Music Choral Society.
The initial concert last Friday at the presidential palace started off with an overture – “Mahur Ağır Düyek” -- written by Crimean Giray Han (who lived between 1554 and 1608). The concert featured 12 works, including “Şehnaz,” a composition by Sultan Selim III, as well as works by master musicians and composers Itri, Dede Efendi, Münir Nureddin Selçuk, Yesari Asım Arsoy, Abdülkadir Meragi, Hafız Post, Sadullah Ağa, Hacı Arif Bey, Rahmi Bey and Emin Ongan. Under the direction of conductor Fatih Salgar, the choral society featured soloists Münip Utandı, Adnan Mungan and Dilek Türkan. Presentation through the evening was done by Mithat Özyılmazel. Some of the pieces done by the choral group were songs and yürük semailer (a style of classical Turkish music), all of which led to a wonderful evening at the presidential palace in Ankara.