When you have music, who needs guns?

When music trumped military force

4 minute read
Ottoman military band, c. 16th century: Would you rather fight these guys or join them?
Ottoman military band, c. 16th century: Would you rather fight these guys or join them?

It’s not unusual for war veterans and museums to collect souvenirs from the battlefield. However, the most unique collection from the battlefield probably occurred when an entire mehterhane (a Turkish marching band) was sent from the battlefield of the Ottoman Empire wars for the collection of a European King.

The Turkish Sultan Ahmed III sent Augustus II, King of Poland, a fully represented Ottoman Empire band during the early part of the 18th century. Also, the Austro-Hungarian military band was founded in 1741 when the Chevalier von der French marched into Vienna at the head of his troops but preceded by a band from Turkey in full regalia. This display started the demand for Turkish marching bands, which then spread to Russia, Germany, and France. By the 1770s, they captivated all of Western Europe.

Western military experts had long recognized the value of loud battlefield music to intimidate the enemy and to bolster morale among one’s own troops. Also, sound can convey orders and help direct troop movements under fire. Upon observing many battles in which mehter bands were used, Western generals realized that no instrumental ensemble could match the loud, high, ear-piercing wind notes, played in monophonic unison by Turkish bands accompanied by the precise and powerful beats of African slave drummers.

Traveling bands

The instruments of this “Constantinople Janissary music,” as it was known, varied between battle and ceremonial settings. Basically they consisted of a zurna (a piercing double-reed, like the western oboe), a boru (trumpet), nakkare (small kettle drums, usually in pairs), a davul (a large, cylindrical, bass drum), and zil (a pair of “crash” cymbals). One set of kos — a large kettledrum — usually played in pairs but was added only in ceremonial situations.

How was this Turkish music embraced by the West, which had so long been threatened by the Turks’ military might? After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the Ottoman Empire continued to expand over the next century until it controlled Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Eastern Hungary, Moldavia, Wallachia, Transylvania, the Caucasus, Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis. But after the Turks were repeatedly repulsed from the gates of Vienna in a series of battles between 1529 and 1683, Western Europe’s fear of the Ottomans was gradually replaced by an appreciation of Turkish culture and a desire for all things Turkish.

At that point, Janissary instruments were sent to European royal courts as diplomatic gifts from Constantinople. In turn, European court musicians offered simulations of Turkish music to visiting Ottoman diplomats. Nevertheless, some of these ambassadors travelled with their own musicians. In this manner, court composers like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven most likely became familiar with Turkish music.

Twelve-day wedding

Haydn, in his Symphonies 94 and 100, uses the triangle, cymbal, and bass drum as additions to the end of each second and fourth movement. Jean-Baptiste Lully uses a bass drum and tambourine to color the beginning of “La Ceremonie des Turcs” from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. In the middle of that piece, Lully inserted an exotic percussion featuring dotted rhythms, as well as various complex syncopations probably borrowed from the Turks. Mozart, in the final section of his Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219, switches to minor ornaments, using a melody in stepwise motion. The third movement of his Sonata No. 11 in A major, titled Alla Turca, often uses a single line for the melody without the usual thirds. Beethoven went a step further in his “Ode to Joy” — a singing version of a Turkish march — to reach out for brotherhood and forgiveness of all mankind.

At the same time, the Turkish musicians’ colorful sounds and costumes delighted European nobles. The bandleader wore a red turban, red binnis, a wide-sleeved gown, red felt leggings and short, slip-on boots of yellow morocco leather. The band musicians wore green turbans wrapped with white gauze and gowns of purple, navy, or black felt. Soon European nobles were imitating the Turks’ exotic band costumes at costume balls and festive occasions like weddings, births, and birthdays. Moors and Turks had a significant presence at the 1609 wedding of Johann Friedrich of Wurttenberg-Teck of Stuttgart to Margravine Barbara Sophia of Brandenburg. At that lavish 12-day affair, the Margrave Christian of Brandenburg himself appeared in Turkish garb, as did his court musicians.

This Turkish vogue was surely reinforced by the coming of Europe’s 18th-century Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, knowledge, freedom, and happiness. Or did this cultural diplomacy produce the Enlightenment? Whatever — in this age when the forces of peace seem helpless to cope with violence in Iraq, Ukraine, Israel, and Syria, it’s worth recalling that there was a time when cultural diplomacy bridged the gaps between erstwhile enemies.

And if music could trump military force in the 17th and 18th centuries, why not now?

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