Janissary (Mehter) Music

Janissary (Mehter) Music

In the Turkish tradition, janissary music is a sign of majesty, splendour and might, rather than a vehicle for merriment. The majestic and sacred nature of the state are reflected in the banging of the drum. The unity of the people and the greatness of the state are particularly important concepts in the Turkish view of the nation. This belief and tradition was also to be found in the pre-Islamic Turkish states, and those of the Seljuks and the Ottomans, and very little has since changed.

There are three important symbols in this framework:

The ‘Otak’ was a large pavilion or tent housing the ruler or commander in chief. It emerges as a symbol of war, since it was only erected in times of conflict.

The Ruler’s Drum (Kös) – This large drum stood in front of the ruler’s tent and belonged solely to him. The ruler’s Janissary Band (Mehter) play under the standard and before the tent in order to instil courage into the troops.

The standard and the band were two inseparable components of the Turkish state. The beat of the mehter accompanied the leaving of the tent and the first steps to war. In the Central Asian Turkish tradition, the banging of the big drum in front of the ruler’s pavilion on certain specified days in order to demonstrate his power was known as ‘beating the nevbet.’ This was regarded as a means of demonstrating the ruler’s might to friend and foe alike, and was particularly intended to strike fear into the hearts of the enemy.

The mehter was no less sacred to the Ottomans than the standard. As well as representing independence and the existence of the state, the mehter also encouraged martial feelings with uplifting airs during battles, sieges and naval engagements. It would not only raise the morale of the Turkish troops and fill them with enthusiasm for the fray, but also instill a feeling of terror and defeatism into the foe. During battles, just a single ‘kös’ formed a mehter of its own. The drum would signal the attack or the halt. The mehter was composed of drums and pipes, and would lead the army to war. The plundering of the mehter was regarded as a sign of military defeat. That meant that even the most terrible conflicts took place in the framework of the standard and the mehter. As well as being a military band during times of war, the mehter’s musical aspect came more to the fore in times of peace. When there was peace, the mehter was a sign of the ruler’s sultanate and the continued existence of the state. Drums and mehter also served the purpose of spreading news and announcements on behalf of the state.

The Ottoman mehter contained wind instruments such as the zurna (similar to the oboe), the boru (bugle), the kurrenay and the mehter whistle. It also contained such percussion instruments as the kös, the drum, the nakkare (a small kettledrum), the zil (cymbals) and the çevgan. The number of instruments was kept equal, which determined the total number of instruments used. For example, the largest and most important mehter, the Sultan’s Mehter or ‘Tabl ü alem-i hassa,’ consisted of nine of each instrument. In later periods, the number of instruments could be as high as 12 or even 16. As well as the sultan’s own mehter band, the grand vizier (equivalent to the prime minister), ordinary viziers (equivalent to cabinet minister rank), the defterdar (head of the Treasury) and the reisü’l küttab (in charge of the state’s foreign relations) would also have their own, and other bands were to be foundd in various provinces and castles.

The Europeans were impressed by the influence of the mehter, and military bands modelled on them were established in a number of countries. We also know that such composers as Gluck, Mozart and Beethoven were also inspired by mehter music.