Issue 1, November 1997

CD review:
The Janissaries - Martial Music of the Ottoman Empire; Turkish military band music of the Ottoman empire

The Janissaries - Martial Music of the Ottoman Empire, CD: Ethnic B 6738. Turkish military band music of the Ottoman empire, CD: KICC 5101.


During nearly five hundred years of their existence (1362-1826)the janissaries (from Turkish yeni çeri = new army) were the elite troops of the Ottoman empire. For them there was no other way of life than strict loyalty to the Sultan, to whom they were bound by special privileges linked to their education and career, compounded by their total isolation from common life. At the very beginning they were recruited from children captured in battle, but soon also systematically raised from the children of subjugated Christian people within the empire. Hereby and by their obligatory conversion to Islam, they were alienated from their parental roots, whereas because of these same parental roots and because of the fact that they had strong ties with the Bektaşi sect of Islam, they could never assimilate with the Turks, the dominant people in the empire. Last but not least, they could not raise their own families because they had to stay celibate. So the Sultan became a kind of father to the janissaries who were a loyal and useful instrument in his power policy.

Depending on their abilities the janissaries could become mercenaries, statesmen, scholars, or artists. Some of them even achieved the high office of Grand Vizier. At the end of the seventeenth century the definitive decline of the Ottoman empire set in and some formerly conquered territories had to be given up the rules which governed them were relaxed and it became possible for men born Muslim to join the janissary corps. Consequently, during the eighteenth century the janissaries began to act like a state within the state which at last forced Sultan Mahmud II to dissolve the corps in 1826. During futile revolts against this decision, some 15 000 janissaries were killed and 20 000 exiled afterwards.

With the eclipse of the janissaries their orally transmitted music disappeared almost totally with the exception of some which had already been noted down. The Ottoman empire inherited the idea of using military bands consisting of shawms, trumpets, and percussion from Central and West Asian medieval empires, where these units used to symbolize the independence of the rulers to whom they were attached. In the Ottoman empire, the janissary sections which performed music were called mehter. There were many mehter, the size of which depended on the position of the authorities to whom they belonged. The mehter of the Sultan was the biggest, that of the Grand Vizier somewhat smaller, and that of a common governor simply small. They used to play their own type of Turkish traditional art music, which was performed during military expeditions and battles, as well as on the occasion of formal events in the palace.

After the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683, when the victorious Polish and Austrian troops drove the Turks back, complete sets of musical instruments of mehter were seized and later used in the newly established 'janissary bands' of many European courts. Thus the practice of military music in Europe was taken over from the Turks. However, what these occidental janissary bands performed was but a pale shadow of Ottoman mehter music, at most a clumsy, childish, imitation of it. Normally they played a new type of march music at that time totally unknown in Turkey.

After the annihilation of the janissaries, a modern Turkish army was created after the example of European armies. The organization of military bands performing occidental military marches was given to composers like Giuseppe Donizetti and Calliso Guatelli. Later Turkish composers tried to combine the occidental type of military march with Turkish modality, the so-called makam principle. Pleasant though they may have been, their light, popular tunes were of a far lower quality than the original Ottoman mehter music.

When the Ottoman empire was replaced by the modern Turkish republic in 1923 this east-west mixture came to and end (1935) and a radical Europeanization was introduced. Only since 1952, when an old-style mehter ensemble was re-established inspired by the equally historical Scots Guards, have efforts been made to perform what is left of the traditional mehter music. Often the march music composed after 1826 up to today is sung to actual texts which describe military events or heroic deeds of personalities in the time at which the composer lived (the Crimean War, Osman Paşa), but some texts deal with glorious victories of centuries ago (for example the conquests on the Balkans by Sultan Süleyman I in the sixteenth century).

The repertoire of the reestablished mehter as presented on 2 cd's consists of
  1. preserved ceremonial customs and compositions of the old janissary mehter;
  2. classical vocal and/or instrumental compositions which can also be experienced as somehow related to the military life;
  3. folk songs and tunes heard and adopted by the janissaries in their campaigns in the Balkans and elsewhere;
  4. military marches composed after 1826.

On the first CD one may find these four categories in the following items (the underlined items of CD2 can also be found on CD1):

CD 1
a: track 1a, 1b, 1d, 7b
b: track 1c, 2a, 2b, 3a, 3b, 11
c: track 5a-g, 8
d: track 4, 6, 7a, 7c, 7d, 9, 10

CD 2
a: track 17 b
b: track 7
c: track 5, 8, 11a, 11b
d: track 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17a

The CD cover and the booklet included do not cover all the historical notes as presented above. The foregoing information is partly a summary of the text of the booklet with own additions necessary to help the reader understand better what follows. It is striking that in the booklet there is virtually no information about the works performed in the booklet. Moreover there are some mistakes and omissions with relation to the names of the pieces on the back cover of the CD.

To begin with the last, the piece Elçi peşrevi is mentioned twice (track 1b and 9b), where in fact it is not recorded. It is actually to be found on track 4a. The name of the piece not-mentioned on track 4b is Benefşezar, a military march. The song by the medieval composer Abdülkadir Meraği (1360? - 1435) beginning with the words 'Amed nesimi' is not a kâr but another form of composition called nakış beste (track 1c). The song of track 2 is not a yürük semai but a şarkı in the metre called yürük semai (6/8 or 6/4). The names of the folk songs and instrumental pieces of track 5 have not been noted.

I shall now give more detailed information about the items on the CD. The names will be given in the official Turkish spelling.

Track 1a: Davet. Greeting of the chief of the mehter followed by his command to play. First one hears the percussion announcing the arrival of the chief, here in a metre called evsat, 26/4 (5 + 4 + 4 + 5 + 4 + 4). The command to play has been omitted in this recording.

Track 1b. Peşrev (= overture) of the Chancelleries. This is a ceremonial piece. Usually a peşrev consists of four melodically different sections called hane, each ending with one and the same refrain, called teslim. In this recording only the first hane & teslim are heard. The usul, a metrical-rhythmic cycle of heavy and light beats, in this case is fahte, 20/4. Here, it is performed as 5 x 4/4 metre. The makam (mode) of the piece is Rast.

Track 1c. Nakış beste 'Amed Nesimi' Composer: Abdülkadir Meraği (1360? - 1435). Makam: Rast. Usul: Düyek (4/4). A beste is normally based on four verse lines, each followed by aterennüm, a refrain sung in meaningless syllables. In a nakış beste, however, this refrain follows only after the second and fourth verse line. In this performance only the first two verse lines and refrain are heard. The same music would have been repeated for the third and fourth verse line and refrain.

Track 1d. Son yürük semai (= instrumental final piece in usul Yürük Semai, 6/8). Makam: Rast.

Track 2a. Taksim in makam Uşşak on zurna (a shawm). The taksim is an ametrical improvisation and is considered to be the ideal means to expose the seyir (= melodic course according to traditional rules) of a makam.

Track 2b. Şarkı 'Ömrün şu biten neşvesi'. Makam: Uşşak; Usul: Yürük Semai (6/4), composed in 1952 by Süleyman Erguner (1902 - 1953). The text expounds on the blessings of being a dervish. The janissaries of old did not consider themselves only to being just soldiers, but they were also dervishes belonging to the Bektaşi order. Since about 1830 up to the present day, the şarkı has been the most popular song type of the traditional Turkish art music. It may have many musical forms which share the common trade that the sung poem has a rhyme scheme. However, the form used far and away the most often consists of one or more stanzas each of four verse lines, of which the second and the fourth, called nakarat, are set to the same melody. The third verse line, called miyan, is reserved for modulation to another mode or for exploring the high regions of the main mode. A change of metre in the miyan is also allowed, but this happens relatively seldom. The şarkı on the CD has the form described above. In the miyan there is a modulation to makam Hüseyni, of course the two stanzas of this composition are both set to the same music.

Track 3a. Peşrev in makam Rast; Usul: Hafif (16/2). Composed by Refik Fersan (1893 - 1965). Only the first hane and teslim are performed here. The complete peşrev comprises four hane and teslim. Sometimes a peşrev is performed incompletely (for example because there is only one following vocal piece or only a short vocal suite is connected to it) or other wise treated freely and not conforming to its traditional rules of composition and metre, in which case it is called medhal.

Track 3b. Kârçe (= little kâr) 'Gülyüzünde göreli' in makam Rast. Usul: Devrihindi (7/8: 3+2+2). composed by Münir Nurettin Selçuk (1900 - 1981), one of the most famous Turkish singers of this century. The kâr used to be one of the most difficult song types of Turkish art music and was in fact a test case for good composers. Selçuk's kârce has musically nothing to do with that traditional kâr and has much more in common with the şarkı form, but is apparently named kârçe because it is based as the kâr, unlike the şarkı on the text of a gazel and moreover to some degree its metre and mode are reminiscent to a kâr in makam Rast and usul Devrirevan (14/8, 2 x 7/8) composed by Abdülkadir Meraği. On the CD only the first stanza of this work has been recorded.

Track 4a. Elçi peşrevi (= Ambassador's peşrev) in makam Segâh and usul Düyek (4/4). Composed by Yildirim Gürses (born in 1940). In the middle section of this piece is heard makam Hüzzam with its augmented second between the fourth and fifth degree of the scale.

Track 4b. Peşrev 'Benefşezâr' (= Place abounding in violets) in makam Rast and usul Düyek (4/4). The modern style of the two peşrevs on this track are more suggestive of military marches, though these latter are preferably set in the usul Sofyan (4/4), than in the syncopating usul Düyek (4/4 = 8/8: 1+2+1+2+2).

Track 5a. Taksim preceding a suite of folk songs and dances from the Turks living on the Balkans. This taksim has a folkloristic mood and is because of this is not improvised according to the strict classical modal rules. There is a mixture of the makams Hicazkar, Mahur, and Suzinak.

Track 5b. Folk song 'Bülbüller ötüyor' (The nightingales are singing) in makam Mahur and in usul Aksak (9/8: 2+2+2+3). This song is supposed to have been brought back by the Turks after their occupation of more than 150 years of Hungary.

Track 5c. 'Estergon kalesi' (The fortress of Estergom). Folk song also believed to be from Hungary. For a long time Estergom, not far to the east of Vienna, was the first Turkish city after leaving Austria. The song is in makam Hicaz and in usul Aksak (see above).

Track 5d. 'Dayler dayler' (Mountains, mountains). Folk song from the Southern Balkans (Macedonia and Thrace) in makam Uzzal and in the rarely heard local 15/4 metre (4+3+4+4), here changed into 4 x 4/4 metre (see my comment on this song in the booklet of PAN 2007 CD algija. Music from the Balkans and Anatolia #2).

Track 5e. 'Kırmızı gülün alı var' (The red rose has the color of vermillion). Folk song from the Southern Balkans (Macedonia and Thrace) in makam Hümayun and in usul Sofyan.

Track 5f. 'Gelin havası'. Instrumental folk dance melody for a bride from Thrace, in a Hicaz-coloured makam Hüseyni and in usul Sofyan (4/4).

Track 5g. 'Edirune karşılaması'. Characteristic folk dance of the surroundings of the city of Adrianople (Thrace) in makam Hüseyni and in 9/8 metre (2+2+2+3)

Track 6. 'Eski ordu marşı' (= Old army march). 'Ceddin deden' (Your ancestor, your grandfather) in makam Hüseyni and in usul Sofyan. Composed by Kaptanzadı Ali Rıza Bey (1881 - 1934).

Track 7a. Mehter marşı 'Gafil ne bilir' (What a stupid man knows) in makam Mahur and in usul Sofyan (4/4). Composed by Ismail Hakkı Bey (1866 - 1927).

Track 7b. Conclusion of Gülbank duasi, the final prayer after a mehter concert ending with the words 'yektir Allah' (= there is only one God).

Track 7c. Yeni Malazgirt marşı 'Ya Allah bismillah' (In the name of Allah). Malazgirt is the name of a place in eastern Anatolia (province of Muş, north of Lake Van) which gave this 'new march' its name. In makam Rast and in usul Sofyan.

Track 7d. Hücum marşı (march on the advance) in makam Neva and usul Sofyan (4/4).

Track 8. Genccedil; Osman. Folk song from Aydın, near the Aegean coast of Western Anatolia, in makam Nişabur and in usul Sofyan (4/4). The song text deals with the young Turkish hero Osman, who fought in Bagdad.

Track 9. Ordunun duası (the prayer of the army). March in makam Rast and in usul Sofyan (4/4).

Track 10. Atatürk marşı in makam Acemkürdi and in usul Sofyan (4/4), composed by Cemal Cümbüş (1912-1981). Kemal Paşa who liberated Turkey from its occupiers and founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, ordered every subject of the state to take a surname. For himself he chose the name Atatürk (= father of the Turks). In this march he is honoured. The concluding phrase of this piece has been transposed upwards by one octave. This has nothing to do with the prescribed melodic course of makam Acemkürdi which is in fact blurred by this transposition, but should merely be seen as a search for a final theatrical effect of which many Turkish singers make use.

Track 11. Taksim on zurna (a shawm), showing a mixture of the makams Segâh, Hüzzam, Müstear, and Maye, which despite some differences in their scales are certainly closely related to each other in having the same final tone (segâh) and the same dominant (neva, the third step). This taksim has a rhythmical metrical base provided by the percussion above which the zurna, supported by a second zurna, which performs the drone of the final tone segâh, improvises the melody in a seemingly free manner in order to stress the in essence ametrical taksim character, but ultimately obeying the given metrical pattern.

Although in its repertoire the CD represents all types of compositions and improvisation nowadays performed in mehter bands, the selection of the pieces performed from the point of view of their musical quality and their recording, is less satisfying. In nearly all the pieces which are sung, the choir has been recorded far too softly in relation to the instruments and, adding to the imbalance the acoustics are to hollow. The upshot is that the words sung cannot be distinguished properly. This is all the more amazing because in Turkey a series of five cassettes has been issued, completely free of these recording faults. Furthermore on these cassettes, many works of which the musical quality is better than of those on this CD are to be heard. Of the entire 24 works on the CD, six mediocre pieces in makam Rast are too much. More makams should have been expected in the repertoire, than the 11 makams in total which are represented. The excellent and clearly written general information about the janissaries is strangely at odds with what the CD repertoire actually offers.


The second CD, Turkish military band music of the Ottoman empire, consists of the repertoire announced, complemented by six pieces taken from the branch of the so-called ince saz music, a refined classical chamber music performed at the court of the sultans. As far as the military pieces are concerned, their selection, musical quality, and recordings are hardly different from those of the CD discussed above. The booklet of this CD comprises only a very short summary of the foregoing text in Japanese, which I cannot understand. However, within the systematic discussion of the items on the CD, some words printed in the latin alphabet according the Turkish spelling do occur. They concern names of composers and makams. Together with the information on the back of the CD, the most essential information can at least be gleaned. In the following survey, I will discuss only some additions and corrections to that information.

Track 1. Eski ordu marşı. Ali Riza Bey (1881 - 1934)

Track 2. Ordu marşı 'Ordumuz etti yemin'.Makam: Rast. Usul (metre): sofyan. (4/4) Kâzım Uz (1872 - 1938)

Track 3. Devlet marşı 'Askerlerim'. Makam: Rast. Usul: sofyan.(4/4)

Track 4. Tekbir ve cenk marşı. Ismail Hakkı Bey (1866 - 1927). Makam: Rast, Usul: nim sofyan.(2/4)
"Eyşnli ordu, ey şanli asber"

Track 5. Genç Osman. Folk song from Aydın (West Anatolia). Makam: Nişabur; Usul: sofyan.(4/4)

Track 6. Sivastopol marşı 'Sivastopol önünde'. Makam: Rast. Usul: sofyan.(4/4) Composer: Rifat Bey (1820 - 1888) The text of the song deals with the siege of Sebastopol during the Crimean war (1853 - 1855).

Track 7. Peşrev in makam Rast. Usul: hafif (16/2). Composed by Refik Fersan (1893 - 1965). Only the first hane and teslim are performed here.

Track 8. This is not as indicated a peşrev in makam Saba, but a zeybek, the dominant folk dance of the Aegean region of Anatolia. There are many zeybek. This one has the name Tavas zeybeği, after a town in that region. Its usul is Ağır Oynak (9/2: 3+2+2+2) and its makam Hicazzirgüle. Atatürk made the zeybek into the national Turkish dance.

Track 9. Cihad-ı ekber marşı, 'Artar cihatla şanımız' (Our happiness grows with the holy war). Composer: Kâzım Uz (1872 - 1938). Usul: sofyan. Makam Acemaşiran

Track 10. Fetih marşı 'Yürekler kabarık'. Makam: Rast; Usul: sofyan.(4/4)

Track 11. Hicaz taksim and Estergon kalesi (Balkan-Turkish folk song from Hungary) also in makam Hicaz. Usul: aksak. 9/8 (2+2+2+3).

Track 12. Mehter marşı 'Gafil ne bilir'. Makam : Mahur. Usul: sofyan. Composer: Ismail Hakkı Bey (1866 - 1927).

Track 13. Zafer marşı 'Tarihi çevir'. Makam Segâh. Usul nim sofyan (2/4) Composer: Cemal Cünbüş (1912 - 1988)

Track 14. Süleyman marşı, 'Düstü vaktaki rahmni mâderden'. Makam: Segâh; Usul: nim sofyan (2/4). Composer: Kâzim Uz (1872 - 1930)

Track 15. This piece is not as indicated a sazsemai, but a march which is called Hücum marşi. It is in makam Neva and Usul sofyan.

Track 16. The same piece as on track 11. Estergon kalesi

Track 17. Same piece as on track 1, followed by the final part of gülbank duası, the prayer which concludes a mehter concert.

Track 18 - 21. Examples of ince saz music. Track 18: Bestingâr taksim kemençe ile; Track 19: Isfahân tabsim kemençe ile.

Track 20. Şarkı in makam Nihavend 'Gülzare salın' composed by Halûk Recâi (1912 - 1972) on a text of Nedim. Usul: alternating four bars of Türk Aksaği (5/8: 2+3) and two bars of Aksak (9/8: 2+2+2+3).

Track 21. Şarkı in makam Kürdili hicazkar 'Kaldi yollarda', composed by Hafız Yusuf Efendi (1857 - 1925). Usul: Aksak (9/8: 2+2+2+3)

About this CD, as far as it comprises military music, exactly the same has to be said as of the one reviewed above. The selection of the repertoire is too one-sided, the musical quality of most works is poor, and the sound quality of the recordings is unsatisfactory, because the choir is too soft in relation to the instruments. Moreover, the acoustics are too hollow, meaning that the words sung cannot be heard properly. The ince saz part on the CD, however, shows two interesting taksim (improvisations) in relatively seldom heard modes (makam) and two introductory taksim to a following şarkı. They give an idea of how the ince saz music survived in the homes of music-lovers in Istanbul.

Cite as: Wouter Swets: [Review of Cd's] The Janissaries - Martial Music of the Ottoman Empire and Turkish military band music of the Ottoman empire. Oideion; Performing arts online, issue 1 (November 1997), <>