Alla Turca

‘The path to the highest form of civilisation is art.’

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey

When talking about Turkey, the first thing that comes to mind is usually a large poultry bird, Istanbul or kebabs. If one thinks about it a little longer Atatürk, secularism and belly dancing may also come mind. What doesn’t come to mind however, is classical music.

When the Ottoman Empire was founded in 1299 and until the first half of the 16th century, prosperity, protection and security were widely spread across the state. However, the absence of the Renaissance, its discoveries and philosophy, in the region not only left the Empire weaker than other Western states – in fact it was never able to regain its former power – but it also developed a particular envy in Turks of resembling the west as much as possible in order to be civilised.

As the Ottoman army was at the gates of Vienna in 1683, the Empire’s Janissary band played traditional Turkish music in order to – unsuccessfully – motivate soldiers as well as intimidate opposing troupes. Thus, it is in the 17th century that the term alla turca – Italian for ‘in a Turkish way’ – developed as a means to qualify the particular sound of the band and most importantly, the cultural differences of the Ottomans.

The modern day Cumhurbaşkanlığı Senfoni Orkestrası (CSO) – Presidential Symphony Orchestra – is symbolically considered to have been founded in 1826, as the once powerful Empire was less than a decade away from its collapse. While Europe had been through industrialisation it had uncontestably become the symbol of civilisation and Ottomans were far behind.

As a move towards westernisation Sultan Mahmud II imposed many changes – such as the abolition of the elite infantry unit the Janissaries – and appointed Giuseppe Donizetti, who has played a significant role in the development of classical music in Turkey, as conductor of the CSO.

Although help from foreign chefs and musicians’ growing enthusiasm helped the orchestra develop into a renowned organisation, for the Empire, the changes came in too slowly. In 1923 following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Atatürk founded modern Turkey and religion changed from a political rule to a personal belief. The mainly Muslim country became secular.

Atatürk and his successor enjoyed modern culture and were in touch with the Turkish five, a group of pioneering musicians believed to have established western classical music in Turkey. Moreover, the CSO, which also benefited from the support of both presidents, became a symbol of the Republic and although it is still challenged today, Turkey, through multiple reforms for the sake of westernisation, forged itself a new secular identity.

As the country slowly developed, so did the meaning of alla turca – or alaturka in Turkish. Perhaps because it had sprung as a word pointing out the difference of the other, the non-western, today alla turca is a somewhat humoristic and sometimes pejorative approach to someone’s flaw. Redundant traditions can be alla turca, behaviours can be alla turca, outfits can be alla turca and even toilets can be alla turca. Thus, alla turca is a way of being.

One of the reasons why Turkey can’t get rid of alla turca is because in spite of an envy of modernisation, it has emulated dated European principles of progression instead of finding its own way. Moreover, it has not given the chance for its rural community to develop into knowledgeable urban citizens and mix with the somewhat patronising elites.

However, in 1948 the parliament created the ‘Harika çocuk yasası’ – literally the child prodigy act – a proposition for Turkish music wunderkinds to be sent abroad, often in Europe, for education. Along with cherishing individuals’ creative capabilities this act has had an impact in encouraging classical music and developing the country’s cultural presence abroad. Today Turkey’s most talented musicians have benefited from this act.

While the act was being used regularly to send children to foreign conservatories, destabilising years of left and right unrest and several coups gave way to the conservative religious party Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) – Justice and Development Party. With the party’s rise at the beginning of the century and its ongoing governance the current political climate in Turkey is intricate.

In fact, under the current president of the Turkish Republic the country has shown economic evolution however it has also witnessed civil unrest. While the party has fervent, mostly rural, supporters, a well-established secular elite opposes it – with no strong political candidates however. In 2013, following a peak of secondary laws – such as controlling alcohol consumption and restricting female flight attendants from wearing red lipstick – secular Turks felt threatened. When the government decided to replace the Gezi Park in central Istanbul with an Ottoman military barrack seculars were joined by environmentalists, Kurds and youths among others and protests burst all over the country. At protestors’ camps, the atmosphere was uniting, approving and open, everyone played their music, recited their poems and sang their songs but everyone was also critical of the government’s latest decisions.

While Turkish folk music and Western classical music have coexisted long enough now, the former style is much more widespread whereas the latter usually judged boring. Perhaps this difference in musical taste represents the various types of Turkish civilians and the challenge of unifying a country’s population. Just as its population is sometimes very contrary, so are the country’s policies and Turks’ desires. Recently discussions for the nation’s integration to the European Union have reopened but on the other hand, Ottoman language classes – a disused language, which was replaced by modern Turkish and the Latin alphabet during Atatürk’s reforms – have been made compulsory in public schools. Most notably, it was decided last year that publicly funded theatres and the opera will be shut down. Artistic projects which require backing now have to pass the government’s committee’s requirements and if not satisfactory are not funded. Since the AKP’s accession to power other entities committed to promoting culture have also suffered such as the child prodigy act – which was last used in 1998.

Meanwhile, the CSO, benefiting from its longevity and establishment will be one of the few publicly funded creative projects left and although the ensemble has been created under the yoke of the Ottoman it is undeniably an inspiring defender of the Republic and persists in promoting culture today.

With an irrefutable penchant for authority, the government has censored social media outlets and personalities such as pianist Fazil Say – which has benefited from the child prodigy act – have been indicted for sacrilegious tweets. As authorities insists that their country has the greatest liberty of press, although it is globally known for imprisoning journalists, they are often criticised for ruling in an undemocratic style, as if still in Ottoman times. Thus, one of the many ironies with current Turkish politics is that it exalts everything Ottoman while persuading itself it is at the edge of modernity.

Supporters of the culture and classical music are certain however, that thanks to the solid ground on which creative institutions were built, even if they were to no longer exist, their legacy would last. They trust the newer generations – to which Atatürk symbolically entrusted Turkey – which whatever the conditions is looking forward.

In a country divided between east and west, secularism and piousness, democracy and authority Turkey’s inalienable alla turca guarantees nostalgic discussions between the past and the present, between modernism and traditionalism.