Detail from the The Baptism of the Selenites (1507?) by Vittore Carpaccio

“Venice gateway to the music of the East?” by Giovanni De Zorzi

[Tempo di Lettura: 7 minuti]

If in architecture and in the history of figurative arts, the relationship between Venice and the East is unambiguous, in music it is not so. Rather, it almost seems that the city sought to reaffirm its Western and “Flemish” character in contrast to the “other” music that rang out in the Mediterranean and beyond, along the Silk Roads: a comparable and deliberate deafness that calls to mind that Saint Mark’s lion, with hard nose quivering whiskers, and drawn sword, which stands even today in those ports of the “Gulf of Venice” in which coexistence was most difficult.
Yet, listening closely, there are some points of musical contact between the East and Venice: therefore (etc etc): therefore I accept the challenge of “Finnegans” and, in the extreme brevity required of me, I will point them out to the reader without allowing myself to linger longer than is necessary. First of all, a conceptual commonality between Venetian music and the musical traditions of the Mediterranean must be pointed out: from its origins to the late seventeenth century, Venetian music is modal, that is to say, regulated by the general organizing principle of Modality which all the neighbouring musical traditions of the Mediterranean and the Near East rest on. The reader will, of course, know that such a general conceptual system is typical of all music that is not subject to Tonality and tonal harmony.

Cultured Venetian music, as, in general, that of the rest of Europe, was based for centuries on the modal system. This was gradually replaced, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by music founded in the harmonic- tonal system, exemplified in the works of Jean Philippe Rameau (Traité de l’harmonie, 1722) and Johann Sebastian Bach (the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier, also in 1722 ). In the history of Venetian music, in particular, three specific modal systems were referenced: first was the Greek-Byzantine liturgy of the oktoechoi; then the medieval Latin modal system, also typical of liturgy, known as “Gregorian”; and finally, the European modal system which blossomed on the Gregorian system in the late Medieval and Renaissance eras – it is expressed especially well in polyphony, in which the “Venetian School” shines in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is important to note that a little further away on the other side of the Mediterranean, in the musical Koine of the nearby Islamic world (Arab, Ottoman-Turkish, Persian and Central Asian), music was regulated by an analogous modal system, which grew from identical ideas and notions of ancient Greek and Hellenistic matrices. This modal system iscalled maqâm, has not been abandoned to this day.
In the absence of reliable data, little can be said about the influence of the Byzantine tradition of the oktoechoi. According to the most current hypothesis, the Patriarchate of Aquileia, together with the Byzantine / Ravenna tradition, would have exerted a firm influence on the nascent Venetian liturgical music. If this is the current idea, for the musicologist Giulio Cattin, the Ancient Roman, Gallican
and Franco-Roman models are also, however, considered the same. Whatever the reason, it is remarkable that over the centuries a particular liturgical repertoire, connected to the Patriarchate of Aquileia, was developing, then it became Venetian, and even now, is called canto patriarchino (“patriarchal singing”). A similar and very particular liturgical repertoire, quite different from the “official” Roman one, caused repercussions of an oral nature and is quite noticeable even today in the Veneto, Friuli and Istria.

Detail from the The Baptism of the Selenites (1507?) by Vittore Carpaccio
Detail from the The Baptism of the Selenites (1507?) by Vittore Carpaccio (ca. 1465-1525/26), Venice, Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. The king and princess of Libyan town Selene greeted with honours, and therefore with music, the Saint George. The musicians with trumpets and small double headed drums with mallets (so close to the davûl) are very probably inspired by the mehter ensembles typical of Islamic culture, moreover of Ottoman, Persian and Central Asian area.

A second very special moment in the relationship between the music of Venice and that of the East seems to be that of the Greghesche, a poetic vocal genre that existed for a short period towards the end of 1500. The key component of this genre was the lyrics, composed in an artificial language that blended the various dialects spoken in the territories of Venice, including that spoken by the Greeks. An early Greghesche book was published in Venice in 1564 based on texts by Antonio Molino (1495 / 1497- 1571?), who under the pseudonym “Manoli Blessi” wrote the lyrics to music by some of the greatest exponents of the “Venetian School”. Later came the book of compositions for three voices by Andrea Gabrieli, once again based on texts by Molino, entitled Greghesche et Iustiniane (Venice, Gardano, 1571). In general, the Greghesche are a parody of people and cultures who were in contact with one another in Venice, a practical joke by authors whose genre was generally considered “lofty”, but at the same time it seems to demonstrate the attention given to the languages and customs of “others”, even if it is parody.
Let us now go down to the alleys and squares of Venice: over the centuries Venice has always been a cosmopolitan metropolis where a community of nations and religions lived side by side. It was known that many of these communities made music and one notices how, even today, the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish communities continue their liturgical and musical traditions. Now, by its nature, music vibrates and resonates throughout the air and one therefore wonders if it was really possible that the many talented composers and musicians of Venice, for centuries the capital of European music, could not hear the sounds that came from the various “ethnic” communities of the city: they only needed to keep the windows open. In this sense, the peoples of the East, among the various ethnic communities in Venice, could have unconsciously, unwittingly even, influenced her musicians and composers. In this subconscious environment, there is a body of work that testifies, in fact, to a very conscious interest in the music
of the “others” that enlivened the city: there are the Jewish psalms that Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739) collected together in his Estro Poetico-Harmonico (Venice, 1724-1727 ), set to music, for voices and basso continuo, translated into Italian by Girolamo Ascanio Giustiniani.

Detail from the carry of the ark, XVI century.
Detail from the carry of the ark, XVI century. Varlaam principal monastery, Meteoras complex. From the left: fiddle; lute; Pan flute; the Prophet David playing a plucked zither; frame drum with cymbals (zîl); aerophone, very probably a double reed zurna; bagpipe.

In the puzzling silence on the musical cultures with which Venice was in daily contact, two works stand out, and they are actually studied with some care. I am thinking, first of all, of the pages dedicated to the music of the Venetian diplomat, Giovanbattista Donado (1627-1699) in his Della Letteratura de’ Turchi (On the Literature of the Turks), (Venice, Andrea Poletti, 1688), culminating in eight pages of musical transcriptions. And I am thinking especially of the Jesuit abbot, Giambattista Toderini
(1728-1799), who arrived in Constantinople in the retinue of the diplomat Garzoni Augustine, who in his Letteratura Turchesca (Venice, Giacomo Storti, 1787) devotes a long chapter XVI (thirty pages and two recordings with musical transcriptions) to Ottoman music, describing the musical instruments, reconstructing the history, the great musicologists, and who personally interviews interpreters of Ottoman classical music. Curious, too, that the song he selected for transcription comes from the tradition of the Mevlevî Dervishes, better known in the West as the “whirling dervishes”.
Music often performed a diplomatic function between Venice and the East: musical diversions played on the spinet were offered, here in the city, to the Ottoman ambassadors, while on the other side the Ottomans welcomed Venetian ambassadors (or foreigners, tout court [bluntly]) with the sound of the Mehter, a military ensemble consisting of oboes (zurna), trumpets (boru, nefîr), double-sided cylindrical wooden drums (tabl, davûl), medium sized copper timpani (nakkare) and large sized ones (kös), to which were added various idiophones, such as the cymbals known as zîl and halîle. As in other parts of the Islamic world, the Ottomans viewed the Mehter as a symbol of royal power, the auditory personification of the Sultan: in this sense it was an honour to be received in this way, and in this sense the diplomatic gift to vassal states that was the entire Mehter ensemble must be understood.
Beyond the courts and diplomacy, however, in the heat of the battlefields, the military bands of the Mehter, joined by the retinue of fearsome Janissaries (from Yeni Çeri, “young troops”), were the first opportunity to hear “other” music in Europe: with the clash of trumpets and piercing oboes above the deep and anxious roll of the drums, the Mehter were intended to instil fear, and this music was the expression of an ancient martial strategy (first Chinese then Persian), an Oriental strategy that was designed to frighten enemies and to strengthen the minds of the attackers. In at least one case, however, the Venetians did not need to be so afraid: the troops led by the Capitan da Mar (and later Doge)
Francesco Morosini around 1687 defeated the Ottomans at the very beginning of the war of Morea (1684-1699) and they returned home with the musical instruments of one mocked Ottoman Mehter as part of the spoils of war. The instruments are still preserved in the archives of the Museo Correr and after years of neglect have experienced a recent revival of interest: they were exhibited in Istanbul between November 2009 and February 2010 at the Sakı Sabancı Museum, and were then the subject of a study day held in Paris in April 2012 at the Musée de la Musique.
That which is frightening fascinates, and the fascination with the sounds of the Mehter is one of the elements behind the season of so-called “Turcherie” that ignited Europe between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth century. In this regard, too, Venice played a role: in 1680, well before the war of Morea, Domenico Freschi (1634-1710) utilised discs, instruments of the family of idiophones popularized in the West by the Mehter, in his Berenice Vendicativa, performed for the first time in the private theatre of the nobleman Marco Contarini in Piazzola sul Brenta on November 8, 1680.
I would like to conclude this article in the present, with the particular case of Bîrûn, the seminar of higher education in Ottoman classical music which was begun in 2012 thanks to co-operation between the Istituto di Studi Musicali Comparati (IISMC) (the Institute of Comparative Music Studies ) of the Giorgio Cini Foundation, and the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Heritage (DFBC) at the University “Ca’ Foscari” in Venice. Bîrûn is divided into five phases: an international call for six scholarships
(heavily subscribed); a study day held at the University that highlights the connections between the culture and the music of the chosen theme; a week of work in residence for scholars under the guidance of Kudsi Erguner, Artistic Director of the project; a public concert for the citizens; recording of the concert; and, finally, the publication of a CD-book published by Nota Edizioni, Udine. The name of the Ensemble and the project were inspired by the past: the Palazzo (Seray), the residence of Sultans, contained an internal, intimate section, called Enderûn-i Hümâyûn: this housed the school of music education which shaped many of the musicians and composers of the Ottoman world.
The term Bîrûn, on the other hand, alluded to the “external”, to the “periphery” and it seems fitting that Venice is once again such a “periphery”, because she has been in an ongoing relationship with Byzantium / Constantinople / Istanbul for millennia. The circle is closed, and beyond time and space, a new turn of the carousel begins, to the delight of music lovers.


Detail from the Sûrnâme-i Vehbi of Ahmed III (1720-1730).
Detail from the Sûrnâme-i Vehbi of Ahmed III (1720-1730). Miniature by Abdulcelil Levnî (d. 1732). From the bottom: long necked lutes tanbûr, obliquely held rim-blown flutes ney and frame drums daire with cymbals (zîl). Library of the Topkapı Palace, Ms A. 3593 fol. 58a.
Music scene from the poem Haft Peykar (“The Seven Beauties”)
Music scene from the poem Haft Peykar (“The Seven Beauties”) of Nezami-ye Ganjavi (1141-1209). From the bottom: frame drum daire with cymbals (zîl); long necked lute setâr and plucked zither qanûn.