Gulistan Ensemble

Horizon Series 28.10. - Gülistan Ensemble

”Playing in harmony and UNISON”: Kudsi Erguner and the Gülistan ensemble bring forth the rich tradition of Ottoman women composers.

On October 28, 2023, the Gülistan ensemble, the renowned ney flautist and musicologist Kudsi Erguner, and musicians from the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra will perform works by Ottoman women composers from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. In this short interview, Erguner offers insight into the rich cultural heritage of Ottoman music – and, specifically, women’s role in it.

First of all, Kudsi Erguner underlines, in order to appreciate and understand this varied repertoire, it is necessary to understand the specific historical, social, and stylistic contexts in which the music was created. Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, was for centuries a very important site for all the arts, poetry, music, calligraphy, miniatures, architecture, and for musical creation, bringing together elements from, for example, heritage of all the capitals of many kingdoms, court music from Khorossan, India, Persia, Arabic, Byzantine, with the contribution of all the population of the empire: Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Jews.
In addition to (typically anonymous) popular music, this cultural ”synthesis” produced the rich classical tradition of Ottoman music, with its ”intimate melodic system”, as Erguner puts it. This tradition is built on the modal system of maqams, of which there originally existed more than four hundred. ”The maqam – derived from the arabic word meaning ’place’ – is a melodic itinerary with specific intervals having a specific hierarchy between them”, enlightens Erguner.

The tradition of classical Ottoman music flourished and developed both in Ottoman palaces and in the Sufi religious communities, but in different ways. Women’s impact in music-making was especially important in the cultural life of the palaces, where music was seen as a suitable endeavour for women from different social backgrounds. ”Most of the composers were instrumentalists, and women were especially encouraged to study singing and the oud”, says Erguner. Furthermore, he underlines that ”the Western, orientalist phantasm of [Ottoman] women is absolutely untrue. [...] Every palace had a harem, but it was the intimate, family part of the building, which housed the women – including aunts and mothers”. Consider, for instance, the vast creative output and career of composer Dilhayat Kalfa (b. 1737), the word ”kalfa” referring to her high position in the palace hierarchy. ”She composed more than a hundred pieces, but, unfortunately, only a few of them survive”, tells Erguner.

The question of archival sources and scores is particularly interesting in the case of women composers, often neglected in music historiography. In the case of Ottoman classical music, Erguner explains, there was a strong ”tradition of memory”. This tradition thrived simultaneously alongside written notation, which, in turn, became more common from late eighteenth century onwards. Some of the material has survived as transcriptions by collectors and inventors of their own musical notations such as the Moldavian Dmitrie Cantemir, the Armenian Hamparsum Limoncuyan, and the Polish Wojciech Bobowski.
Many compositions were transcribed by them such as the works of the seventeenth-century composer Reftar Kalfa, among others, says Erguner.

In nineteenth- and twentieth-century Istanbul, women had access to high-level musical training. As Erguner tells us, they had the chance to study with prominent, ”great masters”, such as Tanburi Cemil Bey. ”Famous teachers would also come to the palace, to the harem, to teach women, which sometimes resulted in social scandals”, says Erguner. Furthermore, as Western influences in music-making gained more foothold, the first Western-style conservatory was founded in Istanbul. One of the conservatory’s graduates, Erguner tells, was Leylâ Hanım (1850–1936), whose works we will hear in the concert.

Simultaneously, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, there was an ongoing new interest in classical Ottoman music, especially as settings of classical Ottoman poetry. Erguner gives an example: Sultan Mahmud II’s sons Abdulaziz and Abdulmejid, for instance, had considerably differing views on 
Western influences in Ottoman musical life, and traditional musical life was driven out of the palaces. However, ”this coexistence of two musical traditions was banished after the creation of the Republic, in order to create a  national music issued from a sythesis between traditional and European musics, says Erguner. Works by Sultan Abdulaziz’s granddaughter, Gevheri Osmanoğlu (d. 1980), a markedly cosmopolitan composer, are also featured in the concert programme. ”She was exiled first in Egypt, then in Nice, Southern France, so she received a French musical training as well”, tells Erguner.  

Kudsi Erguner has himself played a ground-breaking role in reviving the tradition of classical Ottoman and Mevlevi Sufi music – not only in his role as a ney flautist, but also as a musicologist, historian, and composer. Indeed, Erguner sees ”musical expression as the nectar of civilization”, its mental and spiritual influence being of special importance in today’s global culture hegemonised by Anglo-American trends. ”Music is the only moment of relation between the past and the present, the continuity of the inner life of the civilization”, he summarises. Thus, it is crucial that the focus of this concert remains in appreciating the music of classical Ottoman women composers on its own right: ”One of the objectives of this particular project [in Helsinki] is asking the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra’s musicians to respect the intervals of our song and to play in harmony with us.”

The concert is part of the Horizon series curated by Ceyda Berk-Söderblom, and it will take place at the Helsinki Music Centre at 6 pm on Saturday, October 28, 2023. For more information please see

Text: Nuppu Koivisto-Kaasik