Turkish Art & Culture: Past & Present

DANCE

Folklore

Turkey has a very ancient folk dance tradition, which varies from region to region, each dance being colourful, rhythmic, elegant and stylish. The following are among the most popular: “Çayda Çıra” from the Sivas region in Central Anatolia is performed by young girls dressed in silver and gold embroidered kaftans who dance in the dark with lighted candles in their hands. In the “Silifke Yoğurdu” from the Mersin region in the South Mediterranean, dancers click wooden spoons together above their heads. “Şeyh Şamil” from the Kars region in the East, is a beautifully dramatised legend of a Caucasian hero.

Kılıç Kalkan” is an epic dance performed with swords and shields from the region of Bursa, and “Zeybek” from Izmir is another epic and vigorous folk dance performed, by male dancers who bang their knees on the floor in between steps.

Folklore has also had a considerable influence on ballet. First imported from Europe and Russia, ballet became institutionalised in the Republican era along with other performing arts. The Turkish State Ballet owes its momentum and development to the great British choreographer Dame Ninette de Valois. The State Ballet in both Ankara and İstanbul has, for decades, performed many world classics. Several new foreign and Turkish productions have been introduced into the repertoire over the years and a number of modern dance groups like the infamous “Fire of Anatolia” (Anadolu Atesi) have recently begun to give performances all over the world.

MUSIC

Concert
Turkish music evolved from the original folk form into classical through the emergence of a Palace culture. It attained its highest point in the 16th century through the composer “Itri”. Great names in Turkish classical music include “Dede Efendi”, “Hacı Arif Bey” and “Tamburi Cemil Bey”. It is a form that continues to be professionally performed and one that attracts large audiences. Turkish music, locally called Turkish Classical Music, is a variation of the national musical tradition, played with instruments such as the tambur, kanun, ney and ud.

Folk music has developed gradually over the centuries in the rural areas of Turkey. It is highly diversified with many different rhythms and themes. Musical archives contain almost 10,000 such folk songs. Turkish religious music, mostly in the form of songs, is centuries old and rich in tradition, embodied most perfectly by Sufi (Mevlevi) music.

The Turks were introduced to western classical music through orchestras, which were invited to the Sultan’s Palace to celebrate occasions such as weddings. The great Italian composer, Donizetti, conducted the Palace Orchestra for many years. The first military band was founded in the 19th century. During the Republican era, the Presidential Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1924, and the Orchestra of the Istanbul Municipality Conservatory played a leading role in introducing and popularising classical music in Turkey. Turkish composers drew their inspiration from Turkish folk songs and Turkish classical music. Today, conductors such as Hikmet Şimşek and Gürer Aykal, pianists like İdil Biret and the Güher and Süher Pekinel sisters, and violinists like Suna Kan are internationally recognised virtuosos. Leyla Gencer was one of the leading sopranos of La Scala Opera, wildly acclaimed whenever she performed in her native Istanbul.

THEATRE AND CINEMA

Nuri Bilge Ceylan / Three Monkeys
Turkish theatre is thought to have originated from the popular Karagöz shadow plays, a cross between moralistic Punch and Judy and the slapstick Laurel and Hardy. It then developed along an oral tradition, with plays performed in public places, such as coffee houses and gardens, exclusively by male actors.

Atatürk gave great importance to the arts, and actively encouraged theatre, music and ballet, prompting the foundation of many state institutions. Turkey today boasts a thriving arts scene, with highly professional theatre, opera and ballet companies, as well as a flourishing film industry.

The making of films in the true language of the cinema, free from the influence of the theatre, began towards the 1950s. One of the first of these directors was Ömer Lütfi Akad. Towards the 1960s, some 60 films a year were being made. Starting from that time, directors such as Metin Erksan, Halit Refiğ, Ertem Göreç, Duygu Sağıroğlu, Nevzat Pesen and Memduh Ün produced successful films taking social problems as their subject matter. The period that began in the late 1960s, when television was having an adverse effect on the cinema, saw such prominent directors as Yılmaz Güney, Atıf Yılmaz, Süreyya Duru, Zeki Ökten, Şerif Gören, Fevzi Tuna, Ömer Kavur and Ali Özgentürk.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Fatih Akın, Ferzan Özpetek, Abdullah Oğuz and Semih Kaplanoğlu are successful directors of today’s Turkish cinema. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film “Uzak” won Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival in 2003. “The Edge Of Heaven” (Yaşamın Kıyısında) which directed by Fatih Akın (2006), won the Award for Best Screenplay (Prix De Scénario) at Cannes 2007. The record holder of Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival “Egg” (Yumurta), film of Semih Kaplanoğlu, was awarded with Best 2nd Film in Estoril European Film Festival, which took place in Portugal and honoured with Eurimages Award by the jury of Sevilla Film Festival in Spain. “Bliss” (Abdullah Oğuz, 2007) has been rewarded with European Council’s ‘Human Rights Award’. Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the best director award in the 2008 Cannes Film Festival for his Üç Maymun (Three Monkeys).

The country enjoys numerous performing arts festivals throughout the year, the most prestigious of which is the Istanbul International Festival and the Antalya Film Festival.

FINE ARTS

Istanbul Pera Museum
Until the 18th century, painting in Turkey was mainly in the form of miniatures, usually linked to books in the form of manuscript illustrations. In the 18th century, trends shifted towards oil painting, beginning with murals. Thereafter, under European inspiration, painting courses were introduced in military schools. The first Turkish painters were therefore military people. The modernisation of Turkish painting, including representation of the human figure, started with the founding of the Academy of Arts under the direction of Osman Hamdi Bey, one of the great names in Turkish painting. In 1923, following the proclamation of the Republic, a society of contemporary painting was set-up, followed by many other such schools. Art exhibitions in Turkey’s cities multiplied, more and more people started to acquire paintings, and banks, and companies began investing in art.

LITERATURE

Haldun TANER
Literature has long been an important component of Turkish cultural life, reflecting the history of the people, their legends, their mysticism, and the political and social changes that affected this land throughout its long history. The oldest literary legacy of the pre-Islamic period are the Orhon inscriptions in northern Mongolia, written in 735 on two large stones in honour of a Turkish king and his brother. During the Ottoman period, the prevailing literary form was poetry, the dominant dialect was Anatolian or Ottoman, and the main subject beauty and romance. The Ottoman Divan literature was highly influenced by Persian culture and written in a dialect, which combined Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Separate from the aristocratic Divan literature, folk literature continued to dominate Anatolia where troubadour-like poets celebrated nature, love and God in simple Turkish language. Towards the 20th century, the language of Turkish literature became simpler and more political and social in substance. The great and politically controversial poet, Nazım Hikmet, inspired by the Russian poet Mayakowski, introduced free verse in the late 1930s. Nowadays, the irrefutable master of the Turkish popular novel is Yaşar Kemal, with his authentic, colourful and forceful description of Anatolian life. Young Turkish writers tend to go beyond the usual social issues, preferring to tackle problems such as feminism and aspects of die East-West dichotomy that continues to fascinate Turkish intellectuals.

The most well-known and widely-read writers of the 1950-1990 period can be listed as follows: Tarik Dursun K., Atilla lhan, Yasar Kemal, Orhan Kemal, Kemal Tahir, Tarik Bugra, Aziz Nesin, Mustafa Necati Sepetçioglu, Firuzan, Adalet Agaoglu, Sevgi Soysal, Tomris Uyar, Selim Ileri, Cevat Sakir (Halikarnas Balıkçısı), Necati Cumalı, Haldun Taner. Prominent poets in this period are: Behçet Kemal Çaglar, Necati Cumalı , Oktay Rıfat, Melih Cevdet Anday, Cemal Süreya, Edip Cansever, Özdemir İnce, Ataol Behramoğlu, Ismet Özel, Ece Ayhan, Turgut Uyar, Sezai Karakoç, Bahaettin Karakoç, Ümit Yasar Oguzcan, Orhan Pamuk .

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2006 was awarded to the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.

OPERA AND BALLET

Ballet
In the period prior to the proclamation of the Republic in Turkey, opera, ballet and the theatre were mostly centred around Istanbul and Izmir. The first showing of opera at the imperial court was by artists trained by Guiseppe Donizetti (1788-1856) from the Italian opera. During the Republic, Ahmet Adnan Saygun, Necil Kazım Akses and Cemal Reşit Rey were the first composers of opera, operettas and musicals.

A. Adnan Saygun’s first two operas, Özsoy and Tasbebek, Necil Kazım Akses’s Bay Önder staged in Ankara, a Mozart musical Bastien and Bastienne staged at the Ankara State Conservatory with pupils playing libretto in Turkish (1936),and the staging of western operas such as Madame Butterfly and Tosca (1940-1941). The orchestrations, chorus and solo recitals of 1950-1952 all contributed to form a foundation for the establishment of today’s State Opera and Ballet.

Meanwhile in 1947, the famous ballerina and teacher Ninette de Valois was invited to Istanbul and through her efforts, the National Ballet School at Yeşilköy was set up. In 1956-57, the first dancers graduated from Ankara State Conservatory and in 1959-60, the State Opera formed a corps de ballet. “Çesmebaşı” which is one of the most important works in Turkish ballet history was first performed in 1965.

Notwithstanding the short history of opera in Turkey which only spans 56 years, the General Directorate of State Opera and Ballet counts amongst its members many artists of international fame, and aside from Ankara and Istanbul, many other branches have been set up in cities around the country and the results everywhere have been very successful.