Beginning in 1299, the elite corps of the Ottoman armies, the janissaries, used military bands made up of wind and percussion instruments to inspire their troops and terrify their enemies. (Not that different from a half-time show, right?) The music they played was called mehter, a stirring mixture of drums, horn and oboe with a distinctive marching rhythm based on the Turkish phrase “Gracious God is good. God is compassionate.” Often four to five hundred musicians accompanied the army. Sometimes the music alone was enough to drive enemy forces from the field.
The European troops encountered mehter music during the seventeenth century wars against the Ottomans on Europe’s eastern border. European civilians heard mehter music for the first time when Sultan Suleyman II presented Augustus the Strong of Poland (1670-1733) with a mehter band of his very own. Europe was fascinated by the new sound; by 1770 most European armies had bands featuring Turkish instruments and fanciful variations of Turkish costumes.
Turkish music also played into the taste for turquerie (otherwise known as “Turkish stuff”) that swept European society in the eighteenth century. Popular composers, including Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart, wrote “Turkish” symphonies, ballets, and operas using new percussion instruments borrowed from the Ottomans– bass drums, snare drums, cymbals, triangles, and Turkish crescent (also known as the “jingling Johnny”). The fashion reached its artistic height in 1777 with Mozart’s Escape from the Seraglio. The fad for turquerie soon ended, but Turkish percussion instruments found a permanent home in the western symphony orchestra.
In 1826, the janissaries mutinied against Sultan Mahmud II. They were slaughtered by troops loyal to the sultan and the mehter bands were dispersed. Today a mehter band is attached to the Istanbul Military Museum. The band performs several times a week in a specially designed auditorium. It’s well worth hearing, but take your earplugs. Mehter bands don’t have an indoor voice.
(In case a visit to Turkey isn’t in your immediate future, here’s a sample or two.
This post previously appeared in Wonders and Marvels.