Shifting a Culture: The Turkish Five and Musical Westernization

Ahmet Adnan Saygun, Necil Kazım Akses, Ulvi Cemal Erkin, Hasan Ferit Alnar, Cemal Reşit Rey


History of Turkey is filled with many periods that shaped its cultural path, wars, coups, rebellions, and memorandums to list a few. Amongst these rather disturbing events, there is one era that shifted the region’s entire perspective to a different standpoint, which was The Turkish War of Independence, and lead to the sociocultural reforms that the first government of the new-born Republic instated in the aftermath of its victory.

Long story short, the Ottoman Empire and the Central Powers lost the First World War and Ottoman lands were carved up by the Allies. A revolutionary leader and former officer of the Ottoman Army, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk along with the peoples of Anatolia, took a stance against this Allied invasion and waged a war for independence. In 1923, Atatürk and his comrades were victorious, and the Republic of Turkey was established on October 29th of the same year, turning the lands of Anatolia, which were ruled by kings, emperors, and sultans until then, to a democratically governed state. Of course, a change as significant as this came with both good and bad consequences.

Map of the Turkish republic before the alphabet reform, 1927.

One of the most important challenges the young republic faced was the cultural inclination towards backwardness brought by the thousands of years of imperial rule. The republic wanted to alter that and saw the solution in the West, In Atatürk’s words “There [were] different cultures, but only one civilization; the European one.”  and this new Turkish state was meant to follow its examples where it deemed necessary. The only way to do that; however, was through the introduction of social reforms that would give extended freedoms to the people and allow them to become citizens of a modern state instead of subjects to a decaying empire.

The Turkish Five

Busts of the Turkish Five in the entry hall of the Ankara State Conservatoire.

These sociocultural reforms required the involvement of people with high qualifications in every aspect of life; from painting to agriculture, engineering to music. In order to create these highly-trained specialists, brightest minds of Turkey were sent abroad to countries where they can experience the sort of civilisation the republic wanted to introduce in Turkey. Amongst them were five talented musical minds; Ahmet Adnan Saygun, Ulvi Cemal Erkin, Cemal Reşit Rey, Hasan Ferit Alnar, Necil Kazım Akses, later known as the Turkish Five.

It is important to understand the background of the enterprise Turkey undertook to send these people for training before going into specific details regarding each musician. The Turkish Five were not selected randomly from a list, nor were they handpicked by some bureaucrat. They were already very much involved in music as teachers, instructors or talented students who took an examination from Turkey’s Ministry of Education that allowed them to study in foreign schools with government scholarships. This exercise was, and to an extend still is common in many developing countries; students are sent abroad to acquire the know-how and working culture from well established industries in foreign countries to build an intelligentsia raised through a meritocratic pedagogy. Before Turkish Five was so-named, they were scholars and observers in such countries and although their individual accomplishments would each require their separate essays, allow me to briefly introduce them.

Ahmet Adnan Saygun (1907-1991)

Ahmet Adnan Saygun giving an interview on TRT, 1968.

Adnan Saygun was an instructor in Ankara Music Teachers School (Ankara State Conservatoire after 1939) in the Composition Department. After taking the ministry exam for an education grant in 1928, he was sent to the Paris Conservatoire, where he attended to the lectures of Vincent d’Indy, Eugene Borrel, Édouard Souberbielle and Amedee Gastoue, some of which are the founding members of the school. He went back to Ankara Music Teachers School as a counterpoint instructor after his return to Turkey in 1931. He conducted the Presidential Symphony Orchestra for a short term in 1934, after which he composed the first example of a Turkish opera titled Özsoy Operası. The opera piece was specifically composed for the state visit of Shah Pehlevi of Persia upon a request from President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself.  The piece included motives from the Turkish and Persian mythologies and was composed under a month. In 1936, he was appointed to Istanbul State Conservatoire (present-day Istanbul University Conservatoire) where he taught for three years. Then in 1940 he founded the Sound and String Union Society (Ses ve Tel Birliği Cemiyeti) along with two famous Turkish authors, Yahya Kemal Beyatlı and Sabahattin Eyüboğlu, which aimed to organize concerts featuring Western-style Classical music composed by contemporary Turkish composers. He completed Yunus Emre Oratorio in 1942 which was staged for the first time in 1946. He was appointed back to the Ankara State Conservatoire as the head of the Composition Department the same year. He was awarded the Officier l’Académie medal by the French in 1951 and the Czechoslovakian Janacek medal in 1979. He was given the title of “State Artist” in 1971, awarded a High Award for Culture and Arts in 1984 and became and “Artist Professor” in 1985. Adnan Saygun contributed to the Turkish music, both by his compositions where he harmonised Hungarian and Turkish folk melodies and westernised the melodies of the Turkish Black Sea region and his academic work on ethnomusicology have served a great deal in creating the new face of the post republic Turkish music.

Ulvi Cemal Erkin (1906-1972)

Ulvi Cemal Erkin, composing on his piano, 1930s.

Cemal Erkin was born to a family of music lovers; his mother played the piano, and his older brother was taking violin lessons. Cemal began taking his piano lessons at the age of 8 from a famous piano teacher named Adinolfi in Istanbul. He was only 19 when he passed the ministry exam and went to Paris Conservatoire where he studied piano under Isildor Philip and Camille Decreus; harmony with Jean Gallon and counterpoint with Noel Gallon. He then continued his education in Ecole Normale de Musique and studied composition under Nadia Boulanger. After his graduation in 1930, he returned to Turkey and was appointed to Ankara Music Teachers School as a piano teacher. His first composition, “İki Dans” (Two Dances), which he composed while he was in Paris, premiered in 1931 by the Presidential Symphony in Ankara. His most famous orchestral suite, Köçekçe was composed and premiered in 1943, the Presidential Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Ernst Preatorius and Erkin’s wife, pianist Ferhunde Erkin was the soloist. In his compositions, Ulvi Cemal Erkin successfully adopted the syncopated structure of the Turkish folk music by adding Taqsims (improvisational sections) in between or behind the existing structure, and his use of memorable Turkish tunes over decorous harmonies enabled him to merge the Anatolian sound with the Western technique.

Cemal Reşit Rey (1904-1985)

Cemal Reşit Rey, taking a photo break next to his piano.

Unlike his contemporaries in the Turkish Five, Cemal Reşit Rey didn’t leave his country for an education in a foreign land via the ministry exam. He and his family were forced to leave Ottoman Jerusalem after the Raid on the Sublime Porte (Ottoman coup d’état) and settled in Paris in 1913. There, Rey began his education at the Paris Conservatoire, studying piano under pianist Marguerite Long. When WWI began in 1914, Cemal and his family had to relocate once again, this time to Geneva, Switzerland. Cemal studied at the St. Antoine College while also attending the Geneva Conservatoire. When the war ended in 1919, he returned to the Paris Conservatoire and continued taking piano lessons from Marguerite Long. Rey also took composition classes from Raul Laparra; studied aesthetics of music with Gabriel Faure and orchestra management with Henri Defosse. His service to the Turkish music began in 1923 when he returned to the newly founded republic and was appointed to the Istanbul Municipal Conservatoire to give composition and piano courses, where he established a choir in 1926. He was then asked to become the chief of Western Music broadcasts in the newly found Ankara Radio in 1938 and remained in this position until his return to Istanbul in 1940 to continue teaching, composing, and conducting. After his return, his choir grew into a symphony orchestra in 1946 with the addition of strings and brass sections. In 1945, he helped the foundation of Istanbul Philharmonic Association, which aimed to improve musical culture, spread polyphonic music, research musicology, support orchestras, organize concerts, conferences, and courses, and to encourage Turkish artists by promoting new composers. This organisation that embodied not only Cemal Reşit Rey’s, but all Turkish Fives’ hopes and ambitions for the future of Turkish music. Rey taught composition in Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University until his death in 1985.

Hasan Ferit Alnar (1906-1978)

Hasan Ferit Alnar, conducting.

Alnar’s interest in music began at the age of 8 when he started playing the qanun. His first teacher was his mother Saime, also a qanun player. Later he took classes from Vitali Efendi and gained fame as a qanun virtuoso at the age of 12. He composed his first pieces in 1922 and took courses on harmony from Hüseyin Saadettin Arel; and counterpoint and fugue courses from Edgar Manas. Around this time, he started to show interest in polyphonic music. He dropped out from Istanbul Architecture Academy in 1927 and went to Austria to study music in Vienna Academy of Music, where he took courses on composition and orchestra management from Josef Marx and Oswald Kabasta. He began composing his first orchestration, Türk Süiti (The Turkish Suite) during his second year in Vienna. He returned to Istanbul following the completion of his education in 1932 and worked as the music chief of the Istanbul Municipality City Theatre and gave music history and harmony classes at the Istanbul State Conservatoire. He composed Prelüd (Prelude) and İki Dans (Two Dances) in 1935 which brought him more international recognition, and around this time Alnar visited Prague and Vienna to conduct as a guest maestro. In 1936 he moved to Ankara and become the secondary conductor of the Presidential Symphony Orchestra. In 1939, during the Modern Turkish Music Festival in Ankara, all members of the Turkish Five conducted and performed their pieces. This event may be considered as the unofficial formation of the Turkish Five as they were often referred with their collective title after the festival. Due to the decaying health conditions of the chief conductor of the Presidential Symphony Orchestra, Ernst Preatorius, Alnar started to conduct in his place more often and become the chief conductor in 1946 after Preatorius passed away. He stepped down as the chief conductor due his own health problems in 1952 but started teaching in the Ankara State Conservatoire and kept his position until his death. During his time as a teacher, he also conducted orchestras in Vienna, Munich, Stuttgart, Athens and Sofia as a guest conductor representing Turkey.

Necil Kazım Akses (1908-1999)

Necil Kazım Akses, composing on his piano, 1940s.

Youngest member of the group started his musical journey with the cello lessons he took from Mesut Cemil at the age of 14. During his high-school years, Akses attended to harmony classes of Cemil Reşit Rey in the Istanbul State Conservatoire. After Akses completed his secondary education in Turkey, he went to Vienna Music Academy and studied cello with Kleinecke and harmony and counterpoint with Josef Marx. He transferred to the Prague Conservatoire following his graduation from the academy and studied composition with Josef Suj and worked on microtones with Alois Haba. Akses returned to Turkey to aid Paul Hindemith with the foundation of Ankara State Conservatoire in 1933 and started to teach composition after its establishment until 1948 when he became the headmaster of the school. In 1949 he was appointed to the General Directorate of Fine Arts, he was sent to Bern as a cultural attaché in 1954, and then in 1955 he was re-assigned to Bonn. When he returned to Turkey in 1958, he became the Director of Ankara Opera. In 1971, he was made a “state artist” by the ministry of education and was designated as the general director of the State Opera and Ballet, which he continued to direct until his retirement in 1972. Akses died in 1999, putting the Turkish Five to their final rest.

Turkish Five’s Legacy

It is clear that these five composers have paved the way for the next generation of musicians by bringing a global understanding to Turkish music while combining it with the local elements of the Anatolian land. Their marks can still be seen in Turkey through the scholarships their foundations provide to students following careers in music and in the concert halls and theatres constructed in their names to keep their legacy alive. It would be safe to claim that they fulfilled Atatürk’s vision when he said “We should find a way for making [foreigners] listen the Turkish compositions that we enjoy, using their science, their strings, their orchestras, whichever works. We shall make Turkish music an internationally recognized art.”

Thanks to their efforts, Turkish music hasn’t remained entirely regional. They may no longer be amongst us, but the spirit of making Turkey an international outlet of music keeps living on with the artists, composers and academics striving for global recognition of Turkey’s domestic tunes.


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