As both history and society have conspired to label Itri a true musical leader, to assert anything to the contrary certainly does not fall to us. The nickname “Itri” is like a spiritual incense that has settled over our society. No one wants to question his legendary status. But now is the time to talk about him. Our aim is not to shake the throne on which Itri sits, but rather to lift some of the mystery that surrounds his life and times.
When UNESCO declared 2012 the year of Itri and Yusuf Nabi, I set out to learn what I could; it was more difficult than I expected.
Buhurizade’s early life
What is really known about him? His real name was Mustafa and he picked up the nickname “Buhurizade,” a family nickname. He was born sometime around 1630 or 1640. Who were his parents? Did he ever marry or have children? We don’t know. There is an imagined drawing of him printed on TL 50 bills, but nothing firm on which to really base our ideas about him, not even a miniature.
Nothing is known about his education either. Researcher Yılmaz Öztuna says that Buhurizade was definitely not a graduate of a madrassah (religious school). Archives from 1680 show that Buhurizade was at one time a music teacher for women in the harem at the Imperial Palace.
During the era of Sultan Mehmet IV, Buhurizade was invited often to the palace, though it is really not clear for whom he played or what he played.
Itri was also a master of the special “talik” style of calligraphy, as well as being a talented wordsmith. His various poems, written in the historical styles “naat,” “gazel,” “muamma,” “tahmis” and “nazire,” have all made their way to modern times. But since there were really three famous poets living during the same period as Buhurizade, it is actually difficult to say with certainty that these poems are all his. The final sheik of the Yenikapı Mevlevihanesi (dervish lodge) refers to Buhurizade as “Itri dede,” and though there is no confirmed documentation of this, musicologist Yalçın Çetinkaya believes that he was in fact a Mevlevi dervish himself. First and foremost, he composed Mevlevi ceremonies that have survived until today. Çetinkaya said, “In order to compose such a ceremony, one would have to be breathing in that atmosphere, and to be familiar with the traditions, the rules, the manners.” He goes on: “Had he never become accustomed to that atmosphere, this fact would be apparent in the music. What is important is to be able to capture that spirit in the music.” One must remember that during Ottoman times, the music coming out of the lodges used by Mevlevi dervishes were tolerated by many Ottoman institutions. So, whatever he was, it does not appear likely that this poet stayed far away from the Yenikapı Mevlevihanesi, as a composer born in Mevlanakapı.
And as with so much information we have about him, the actual date of death for Buhurizade is also unclear: some sources say it was 1711, others say 1712. In other words, on this the 300th anniversary of his death, we are not actually all that sure.
We also are not clear on whether or not he played an instrument. While some sources stress the beauty of his voice, Şeyhülislam Esad Efendi writes to the contrary. In those times in the Ottoman era, musical notes were still not used. In fact, not just Itri’s, but no other composers’ pieces were recorded as written music. This piece of information is what surprises us the most. It begins to look impossible to prove as true the oft-repeated “the greatest Turkish composer was Itri.” In the end, it seems that if we are to talk about Itri at all, we have to discount many of the natural question marks that arise in doing so.
Itri’s effect on Turkish composers
Musician and orchestra leader Professor Ruhi Ayangil says of Buhurizade: “He is someone who turned from being just an individual to representing a whole league of people. … In one sense, all of the composers are aspects of Itri … which is why one must evince respect for this constantly reconstructed identity of his. Itri, like a torch, gets passed from hand to hand. … If the voice of a musical country is genetic, then Buhurizade corresponds with the gene map of Turkey.”
Analyzing Mustafa Itri Efendi alongside the time and society into which he was born makes our work a bit easier. Buhurizade did live during the most shining period of the Ottoman civilization, from culture to art and literature.
Up until those days, Iranian music greatly influenced the Ottoman Empire. Musicologist Fikret Karakaya notes that this influence did not end with the conquering of İstanbul, or the setting up of the empire. The music of the period was thus hard-edged, with stark ups and down. Çetinkaya notes that both Itri and Hafız Post, another prominent musician from the time, began to soften this style with their works, making edges more rounded. It was thus in the wake of Itri that Turkish music took on the character with which it was later to be identified.
But there is an important problem here. It is not possible to base our understanding of Itri on pieces that are attributed to him today. In the years after his death, pieces he had written were passed down from hand to hand, and updated constantly to fit with the times. Karakaya compares this to carrying water along a road in a bucket. As the water splashes out of the bucket along the road, the missing water is replaced from different sources, thus changing its color, flavor and even character as it moves down the road.
“Itri, as an individual, is sort of imaginary in a way,” says Karakaya. “There are pieces attributed to him that could not possibly be from him. …We need to question the relationship between this imaginary figure and the pieces said to be his, and the concrete vision of this man that we have in our minds.” There is some important grounding for these assertions. First and foremost, among the pieces attributed to Itri, there are many versions that are a bit and even very significantly different from one another. The best known of his compositions is Segâh swift poetry and the Tuti-i Mucize Guyem. The melody to which we are accustomed belongs to the version approved by Darülelhan (the official music school of the Ottoman State). There are also three versions of a Nühüft (secret) slow melody. Karakaya characterizes these three slow melodies as all being different from one another.
Controversy over compositions
But this is not the extent of the problem. The sources on these pieces are full of conflicting information as to who is behind them. But how is it that these problems are so ignored by so many?
An anecdote provided by Dr. Ayangil from composer and music expert Sadettin Heper shows how these problems with sourcing Itri’s music are passed down from teacher to student. At a 1978 conference at Bosphorus University on Itri, Heper told Ayangil: “I have my own suspicions and doubts about the actual greatness of Itri as a composer. What I am trying to say is that I do not hold the same convictions as others on this front. I do not believe that “Neva kar” was by Itri.” But rather than making these assertions in the written text he sent to the conference, he chose to remain silent.
The hesitations voiced by Heper show that, underneath the legend of Itri, there are some who doubt that he is actually the name behind so many pieces. These doubts are whispered from ear to ear. But why are people afraid to speak them loudly? It is because, says Karakaya, “Turkish music has the need for a master on which they can construct everything, and it was Itri who was seen as appropriate for this station.”
The real Ottoman musical style began to be defined in the 17th century, and it was Itri who was accepted as the greatest representative of this style at the time. Very important religious pieces -- Segâh Bayram Tekbiri, Segâh Salat-ı Ümmiye, Cuma Salatı, Dilkeşhâveran Gece Salası and Rast Naat -- are all from Itri. It is even said that some of the rituals put into practice in mosques at the time were due to Itri. So on what basis would we deny any of this? Karakaya asserts that the written music we have in our hands now does not reflect the style of the period in which some say it was created.
Dr. Ayangil supports Karakaya’s views. He believes the current compositions attributed to Itri are a definite reflection of another era. Ayangil says this is due to the anonymity gained by the pieces over time, as the “meşk” (model) system under which teachers and students worked in music saw many changes occur to pieces over time. Ayangil compares what happened to these pieces to what happens to a small snowball, as it takes on a different form as snow is added to its diameter.
In the end, Itri is said to be the “greatest composer in Turkish music.” But this does not rescue his pieces from being forgotten over time either. Still though, Dr. Ayangil says: “Do you know where I see the true greatness of Turkish music and culture? Despite much forgetting, much lack of fidelity on our parts and much neglect, it still protects itself like some sort of valuable seed. It really is quite miraculous.”
Professor Ruhi Ayangil
The pieces really are not known. Those that are known are either played incorrectly or with missing parts. It is as though these days the pieces are played and listened to only on a sea where ships no longer sail. … A musical country has a genetic voice. Itri is the map to those genes, those who figure him out can figure out the country as a whole … which is why he is discounted. In comparison to the West’s [respect for composers], it makes me sad. In Germany, the entire works of Bach were published on 152 CDs and 2 DVDs. That is how we should respect great composers.”
Turkish music artist, orchestra leader and kanun expert Faris Akarsu
Looking at music in a vacuum does not give us the answers we are looking for. In western music there is this all-encompassing view. The composers of each era are examined alongside the writers, painters, architects, historians, important political figures, philosophers and so on of that era. When you do this, you see the whole picture. … But when you try to get people to talk about Itri, for example, they hesitate. … In the end, our national composers are treated in a way that you would never see Western musicians treated.
Western musicians and orchestra leader Karakaya: Something which you do not know cannot be yours
Artistic pieces are the soldering that hold a society together, and makes the individuals in that society. It is because of these pieces that nations come together. We have very great poets and writers, but if younger generations don’t know the language they speak, it means they are no longer ours. Ask yourself: do today’s generations read Ahmet Haşim, Cenap Şehabettin and Tanpınar? Names like Nef’i, Fuzuli, Baki, Nabi and Şeyh Galip are basically no longer ours! If we want to see Itri remain ours, we need to ensure our younger generations get to know and love his work.