Cantemir: Istanbul Savall

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Hespèrion XXI, Jordi Savall

At the time of Dimitrie Cantemir (1673-1723), the city which stands at the crossroads of the continents of Europe and Asia, ISTANBUL for the Ottomans and CONSTANTINOPLE for the Byzantines, already marked a veritable high point in history. Despite the memory and very palpable presence of the old Byzantium, it had become the true heart of the Muslim religious and cultural world. An extraordinary melting-pot of peoples and religions, the city has always been a magnet for European travellers and artists. Cantemir arrived in the city in 1693, aged 20, initially as a hostage and later as a diplomatic envoy of his father, the ruler of Moldavia. He became famous as a virtuoso of the tanbur, a kind of long-necked lute, and was also a highly-regarded composer, thanks to his work Kitab-i ilm-i musiki (The Book of the Science of Music), which he dedicated to Sultan Ahmed III (1703-1730).  

Such is the historical context of our project on “Dimitrie Cantemir’s The Book of the Science of Music and the Sephardic and Armenian musical traditions”. We aim to present the “cultivated” instrumental music of the 17th century Ottoman court, as preserved in Cantemir’s work, in dialogue and alternating with “traditional” popular music, represented here by the oral traditions of Armenian musicians and the music of the Sephardic communities who had settled in the Ottoman empire in cities such as Istanbul and Izmir after their expulsion from Spain. In Western Europe, our cultural image of the Ottoman Empire has been distorted by the Ottoman Empire’s long bid to expand towards the West, blinding us to the cultural richness and, above all, the atmosphere of tolerance and diversity that existed in the Empire during that period. As Stefan Lemny points out in his interesting essay on Les Cantemir, “in fact, after taking Constantinople, Mahomet II spared the lives of the city’s Christian population; what is more, a few years later he encouraged the old aristocratic Greek families to return to the district known as Fener or Phanar, the hub of the former Byzantium.” Later, under the reign of Suleyman – the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire – contacts with Europe intensified on a par with the development of diplomatic and trade relations. As Amnon Shiloah reminds us in his excellent book La musique dans le monde de l’islam: “Although Venice had a permanent diplomatic mission to Istanbul, the Empire turned its sights towards France. Towards the end of the 16th century, the treaty which was signed in 1543 between Suleyman and ‘the Christian king” Francis I of France was a decisive factor in the process of rapprochement which led to greater interaction. On that occasion, Francis I sent Suleyman an orchestra as a token of his friendship. The concert given by the ensemble appears to have inspired the creation of two new rhythmic modes which then entered Turkish music: the frenkcin (12/4) and the frengi (14/4).”   

From 1601, the Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church, the rallying point for the Greek aristocracy proceeding from all corners of the Empire – from the islands in the Aegean, the Peloponnese, Europe and Asia Minor – finally became established in the Phanar district, where the old aristocratic Greek families had settled after the fall of Constantinople. Thus, thanks to the presence of this Greek community, the ancient Byzantine capital continued to be the seat of the Orthodox Church throughout the Empire. In this sense the Patriarchate’s Academy, or Great School, was crucial in ensuring cultural hegemony. Based on his reading of Cantemir, Voltaire listed the disciplines taught at the Academy: ancient and modern Greek, Aristotelian philosophy, theology and medicine: “In truth”, he wrote, “Demetrius Cantemir reiterates many old myths; but there is no question of his being mistaken about the modern monuments he has seen with his own eyes, or the Academy where he himself studied.”  

Dimitrie Cantemir’s Book of the Science of Music, which has served as the historical source for our recording, is an exceptional document in many ways; first, as a fundamental source of knowledge concerning the theory, style and forms of 17th century Ottoman music, but also as one of the most interesting accounts of the musical life of one of the foremost Oriental countries. This collection of 355 compositions (including 9 by Cantemir), written in a system of musical notation invented by the author, constitutes the most important collection of 16th and 17th century Ottoman instrumental music to have survived to the present day. I first began to discover this repertory in 1999, during the preparation of our project on Isabella I of Castile, when our friend and colleague Dimitri Psonis, a specialist in Oriental music, suggested an old military march from the collection as a musical illustration of the date commemorating the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman armies of Mahomet II.   

A year later, on our first visit to Istanbul to give a concert with Montserrat Figueras and Hespèrion XX, when we visited the Yap? Kredi Cultural Centre, our friends in Istanbul, Aksel Tibet, Mine Haydaroglu and Emrah Efe Çakmak, gave us a copy of the first modern edition of the music contained in Dimitrie Cantemir’s The Science of Music. I was immediately fascinated by the music in the collection and by the life of Cantemir, and I subsequently set about studying both the music and the composer in order to learn about a culture which, despite its proximity, seems remote to us as a result of sheer ignorance. I was determined to find out more about the historical and aesthetic context with a view to embarking on an interesting project. Six years later, during the preparation of our Orient-Occident project, I selected four magnificent makam which gave the project a new dimension in that it was the only Oriental music to come not from an oral tradition, but from a contemporaneous written source. Finally, in 2008, as a natural continuation of our original project on the dialogue between East and West, we succeeded in bringing together an exceptional group of musicians from Turkey (oud, ney, kanun, tanbur, lyra and percussion) together with musicians from Armenia (duduk, kemance and ney “Beloul”), Israel (oud), Morocco (oud), Greece (santur and morisca) and our principal specialist soloists in Hespèrion XXI, with whom we have prepared and carried out this recording. I would like to take this opportunity to express to them all my heartfelt gratitude, since without their talent and knowledge this project would never have been possible.  

To begin with, we had the difficult task of selecting about ten pieces out of a total of 355 compositions, choosing the most representative and varied pieces from among the makam which struck us as being the most beautiful, although we are aware that this preference was influenced by our Western sensibility. After this “bewildering” choice, we had to complete the pieces chosen for the Ottoman part with the corresponding taksim, or preludes, improvised before each makam. At the same time, we had also selected Sephardic and Armenian pieces for the Sephardic repertoire we chose music from the Ladino repertory preserved in the communities of Izmir, Istanbul and other regions of the former Ottoman Empire, while for the Armenian repertoire we selected the most beautiful of the various pieces proposed by the Armenian musicians Georgi Minassyan (duduk) and Gaguik Mouradian (kemance).   

Nowadays, all of this music is probably performed very differently from the way it was at the time of Cantemir. Therefore, in our quest for other possible performance techniques, we had to rely on various accounts, often written by European travellers, which describe the specific characteristics of Ottoman music during those historical periods and provide a series of interesting considerations on musical performance, practice, instruments, court orchestras and military bands, as well as the ceremonies of the mystical confraternities. One such account is that of Pierre Belon in 1553, who remarks on the Turks’ extraordinary skill at making bow and lute strings from gut which “are more common here than in Europe”, adding that “many people can play one or several types [of instrument], which is not the case (he observes) in France and Italy.” He also mentions the existence of a great variety of flutes, remarking on the wonderfully sweet sound of the miskal (panpipe), although in 1614 the Italian traveller Pietro Della Valle wrote that the sweetness of the instrument “does not match that of the long flute (ney) of the Dervishes.” Around 1700 Cantemir himself observes in his History of the Ottoman Empire: “Europeans may find it strange that I refer here to the love of music of a nation which Christians regard as barbarian.” He concedes that barbarism may have reigned during the period when the Empire was being forged, but remarks that, once the great military conquests were over, the arts, “the ordinary fruits of peace, found their place in men’s minds”. He concludes with the following words, which must have come as a shock to his European readers: “I would even venture to say that the music of the Turks is much more perfect than that of Europe in terms of metre and the proportion of words, but it is also so difficult to understand that one would be hard put to find more than a handful of individuals with a sound knowledge of the principles and subtleties of this art.” (HOE, II p.178)...       


Edinburgh, August 2009


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