Of Missed Opportunities and Burned Bridges

© Charles Thibo

For many years, I had the firm conviction that Turkey should belong to the European Union. I had my reasons: Firstly, the destiny of what is today Turkey has been linked to the fate of the European continent for over 2000 years. Christianism spread to Europe via Turkey. The Ottoman Empire brought new ideas, new technologies and the knowledge of the Greek, that had been lost, to Europe. It brought us into contact with different languages and philosophies, a different religion and a different music. Our culture became richer and so did the Ottoman culture. Today, we still have to learn from each other – about our intertwined past. Secondly, I was convinced that an integration of Turkey (and of Bosnia-Herzegovina) into the EU could prove wrong those who claimed that democracy, the rule of law, and Islam are incompatible: Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

A double betrayal

I have changed my mind. Turkey is not ready for the European Union. Not any more. The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is turning the clock back and all the progress Turkey has made since 1963 is at risk. Half a century ago, the European Economic Community, the EU’s predecessor, concluded an association treaty with Turkey that would have paved the way for a membership. But the European Union hesitated and finally missed the window of opportunity. An early membership would have given the European Union much tighter control over Ankara’s domestic policies and might have prevented the slide into a dictatorial form of government. We have betrayed Turkey and we have betrayed ourselves.

Atatürk, promoter of Arts

I can only watch helplessly and with immense sadness how Mustafa Kemal Pascha Atatürk’s dream of a secular republic with close relationships to both Europe and the Arab world is about to be shattered. Atatürk was a remarkable man. Like all politicians (and most humans), he had his deficits and erred on many occasions, but the founder of modern Turkey was a great promoter of Arts. “Culture is a basic element in being a person worthy of humanity”, he said. He encouraged Turkish artists to use elements from the national heritage, including the ancient indigenous cultures, and the arts and techniques of the entire world civilization, past and present.

While reflecting Turkey’s current situation and its relevance for Europe, I looked for Turkish composers. With the help of a Turkish blogger and violinist, I discovered the album “La Sublime Porte – Voix d’Istanbul 1430 – 1750“, music from the Ottoman Empire, recorded by Jordi Savall. Beautifully exotic, meditative, evocative. And then there are the composers who took up the European music traditions, Vienna and Paris being the landmarks.

Studing with Vincent d’Indy

Enters the stage Ahmed Adnan Saygun (1907-1991). He was born in Izmir and at school, he learned to play the piano and sang in the school choir. At the time when Atatürk initiated a cultural revolution by promoting Western style polyphonic music, the country needed music teachers, and Saygun saw his chance. He qualified for a scholarship in France. In the late 20s, he studied in Paris under Vincent d’Indy  and returned to Turkey in 1931, where he held various teaching posts. In 1936, he assisted the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok with his scientific expedition through Turkey. Bartok wanted to explore Anatolian folk music, but his own compositional style had a lasting impression on Saygun.

Saygun’s works include four operas, four symphonies, a piano concerto, a violin concerto, string quartets and a number of sonatas. His aim as a composer was to achieve an international outlook in Turkish music without breaking away from its roots. He made international headlines with his “Oratorium for Yunus Emre”. It was composed in 1942 and made Saygun known to a broader audience when it was performed in 1959 in New York at the anniversary of the fondation of the United Nations.

Turkish post-romanticism

The piece I would like to highlight, is Saygun’s Symphony No. 3, op. 39, composed in 1960. The French influence is obvious in the light-flooded themes for example, but there are elements that have a different origin. The drum rolls in the first movement, recalling marching soldiers, might well have been a reminiscence of the long military music tradition of the Ottoman Empire. The third movement has a lot of tension and is interesting since one of the melodies, played by the clarinet, can be easily associated with Persian music. Overall, the symphony fits into the general post-romantic style of Saygun, but the composer used a kind of collage technique to give it a distinct appeal.

The Finnish conductor Ari Rasilainen has recorded all of Saygun’s symphonies and a few other works with the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz. A good song shortens the way, says an old proverb from the Caucasus. May Saygun’s music rebuild the bridges that politicians are currently burning down.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.