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Greek Orthodox Music in Ottoman Istanbul: Nation and Community in the Era of Reform

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During the late Ottoman period (1856–1922), a time of contestation about imperial policy toward minority groups, music helped the Ottoman Greeks in Istanbul define themselves as a distinct cultural group. A part of the largest non-Muslim minority within a multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire, the Greek Orthodox educated elite engaged in heated discussions about their cultural identity, Byzantine heritage, and prospects for the future, at the heart of which were debates about the place of traditional liturgical music in a community that was confronting modernity and westernization. Merih Erol draws on archival evidence from ecclesiastical and lay sources dealing with understandings of Byzantine music and history, forms of religious chanting, the life stories of individual cantors, and other popular and scholarly sources of the period. Audio examples keyed to the text are available online.

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1 The City’s Greek Orthodox: An Overview

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1    The City’s Greek Orthodox

An Overview

The Rum Millet in the Era of Reforms

Around the mid-nineteenth century, Ottoman statesmen initiated extensive reforms to bring the empire into the fold of a new and modern administrative model. They were inspired by the system of state and society in Europe. More precisely, Ottoman bureaucrats introduced reforms and new institutions in the legal and fiscal realms with the aim of centralizing the administration and taxation of the empire’s subjects. Arguably, in order to save the empire, they tried to create an imperial system of governance based on universal laws. They introduced new notions of government and a new concept of authority that heralded radical changes both in the administration of the millets1 and in the relations between the sultan and his subjects. The reforms ultimately had important consequences for Ottoman subjects’ view of their polity and their imaginings of the future. The ground-work for this official attempt to redefine and reshape the nature of the Ottoman government was laid during the reign of Mahmud II (r. 1808–1839), which saw several separatist uprisings in the Balkans and the eventual emergence of an independent Greek state. With the promulgation of the Hatt-ı Şerif (Imperial Rescript of Gülhane) on November 3, 1839, a period of reforms began that is generally referred to as the Tanzimat era (1839–1876). With the edict, Muslim and non-Muslim subjects were made equal before the law, at least in principle, and the notion of a state based on law was promoted.2

 

2 Liturgical Music and the Middle Class

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2    Liturgical Music and the Middle Class

IN ANCIENT PHILOSOPHY, music was considered a privileged pedagogical field whose correct cultivation served the moral development of the person and consequently the flourishing of the collectivity in which he lived. In the early centuries of Christianity, music was also significant as an effective means of communicating with the divine. In various passages of their writings, the great fathers of the Church addressed Christians in musical terms: “Exalt Him with the voice of the trumpet…. Exalt Him with the psaltery and the cithara. Or, with the drum and the lyre.”1 In Basil the Great’s Epistles, the prayer of the congregation who confesses to God in pain, sorrow, and tears is followed by antiphonal singing rendering the Psalm.2 Reversibly, as opposed to the “beneficial” or positive ways of using the sense of hearing, as in the case of singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving to God, the “abuse” of this sense was severely forbidden by the Orthodox monastic tradition.

 

3 Confronting the Musical Past

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3    Confronting the Musical Past

FOR GREEK NATIONALISTS of the nineteenth century, the four hundred years between 1453 and 1821 were a time in which the Greek nation fell away from the scientific and cultural progress of Europe due to being under the oppressive rule of an oriental empire. Similarly to other post-Ottoman states, in the Kingdom of Greece, national history writing labeled this period “the Turkish yoke” and celebrated the rebirth of the nation that, supposedly, had essentially remained intact throughout the centuries of mixing with the “other.”1 The use of such terms as “Ottoman/Turkish tyranny or despotism” in Greek national historiography was, as an eminent scholar of the field has observed, a decontextualization of this term from its Enlightenment historical context and a usage that ultimately designated an eternal, divine Greek nation existing outside time and space.2

Not as controversial as the Ottoman heritage, yet still an uneasy past, was the medieval history. For some decades, until the middle link, Byzantium, was rediscovered, ancient Greece was the only reference for the identity of the modern nation. Notwithstanding, the appraisal of the merits of ancient civilization and the classical tradition was not taken for granted. This ambivalent attitude, which was owing to the strong shaping effect of the theological outlook of the Church on the Greek intelligentsia’s thinking, had a long history going back to the eighteenth century. In the words of the scholar of neo-Greek Enlightenment Paschalis Kitromilides, “in spite of its general receptivity to classical civilization, [the Greek Enlightenment] never managed to develop a unified posture on antiquity.”3 The Greek early Enlightenment, whose philosophical and ideological influence continued into the nineteenth century and later, was rather complex. Illuminating this, a well-known historian of the history of ideas in Europe has recently written that, in this era, Greek scholars were highly influenced by English philosophers such as Locke and Newton, and criticized the doctrines of the Greek Church yet still maintained a conservative theological and social outlook.4

 

4 The Music Debate and Tradition

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4    The Music Debate and Tradition

NEARLY TEN YEARS after the dissolution of the Musical Society of Constantinople, the city’s Greek Orthodox intelligentsia and its wealthy and educated strata rolled up their sleeves in order to solve what they considered the “musical issue.” The profile of the musical commission they created within the Greek Literary Society of Constantinople (GLS) in 1877 is remarkable for the large number of its members with European education. The scholar of Byzantine hymnography, Matthaios Paranikas, was one of those who joined the ranks of this educated elite calling for musical reform, and were far from agreeing on one model.1

The Greek Orthodox upper classes whose residences and center of life were concentrated in and around Pera/Beyoğlu began to express their demands for westernized church music in a more pressing and visible way. It may seem oldfashioned to attribute the Ottoman upper classes’ adoption of European cultural novelties to their sense of uncertainty caused by lost wars and internal political turmoil, especially on the eve of the Russo-Ottoman War (1877–1878), which had disastrous consequences for the Ottoman Empire. Yet it is also true that the optimism of the reform period faded first in 1871 with the death of Âlî Pasha, the ambitious reformer of the Tanzimat, and later with the abrogation of the constitution by Abdülhamid II, who used the war with the Russians as an excuse. The San Stefano Treaty of March 3, 1878, sealed not only the biggest Russian expansion into the Ottoman Balkans, but, by stipulating the establishment of an autonomous Bulgarian principality and by ceding territories to Romania and Serbia, it minimized the Orthodox ecumene under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate in Istanbul.

 

5 Music and National Identity

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5    Music and National Identity

THE DISCOURSE ON music and its representation of the nation was, in fact, part of a larger discourse on identity in the Greek Orthodox populations of the Ottoman Empire who, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century, strove to come to terms with the meaning of Greekness and the conceptions of East and West. The Greek Orthodox learned elite presented traditional ecclesiastical chant and anonymous folk music as the two main repositories of the memory and authentic self of the ethnos (ethnic-religious community). The boundaries of the ethnos, of course, encompassed the Orthodox Christian populations living in Ottoman Anatolia and the Balkans and were targeted by the leaders of the Greek Orthodox millet, who pursued the goal of disseminating Greek language and culture as well as Orthodox faith to those communities.

The nationalization of the ethnic-religious community mentioned here is different from nation-state–sponsored nationalism. Large segments of the Ottoman Orthodox Christian populations did not identify themselves with the irredentism of the Hellenic state. Indeed, these communities who lived in Anatolia were generally far from seeing themselves as extensions of the Hellenic nation; nor can they be seen as cohesive communities of coreligionists. In many of them, the uniting and homogenizing role of the common Greek language and Orthodox faith was limited.1 Moreover, particularly among Turkishspeaking Orthodox Christians, locality, birthplace, occupation, and experiences of religious syncretism were more decisive in the everyday lives and choices of individuals rather than their imagined ties to remote political entities and collectivities.

 

6 Singing and Political Allegiance

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6    Singing and Political Allegiance

STATE SURVEILLANCE and censorship of music and popular entertainment in late Ottoman Istanbul affected a multitude of the citizens of the empire. However, conjecturally, this control sometimes particularly targeted suspect “minority” populations. Pursuing a delicate foreign policy toward the Great Powers, Abdülhamid II was careful to keep seditious and provocative public discourse under control, especially in regard to precarious regions such as eastern Rumelia, Macedonia, Crete, and so on. Thus, in the Hamidian era, concomitantly with the increased institutionalization of surveillance methods, parks, streets, entertainment places, and private houses came under the strict gaze of the state authorities. As a result, Istanbulite Greeks’ fund-raising concerts, their theatrical and musical venues, and places of entertainment came to be strictly watched over and censored. Simultaneous developments were new uses of urban space and the emerging hierarchies, growth of the public sphere, the legitimation crisis of the state, and the problem of managing rival national symbols.

 

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