The Genius with Nowhere to Go: The Music of Tatyos Efendi


One raw morning in March 1913, a group of musicians gathered within the walls of the old Armenian cemetery in Istanbul to pay their final respects to their friend, who had died of cirrhosis of the liver.

During his life, Kemani Tatyos Ekserciyan (also known as Tatyos Efendi) was one of the best-known composers and performers of Turkish classical music in the Ottoman Empire. He was born in 1858 to an Armenian family in Istanbul, and learned violin and Kanun (Turkish lute) from an uncle and from other local musicians. He showed promise from an early age, though opportunities for advancement were few and far between: Mozart might have toured Europe at the age of seven, but there was little such international interest for Turkish music outside of Anatolia; the furthest one could get was Istanbul.

So, as an adult, Tatyos eked out a living playing in taverns and teaching pupils. As one can imagine, his life was neither prosperous nor stable. At some point, whether driven mad by the misfortune of being born the genius of a dying tradition in a dying empire, or perhaps for reasons more prosaic, drink came to equal music for his few pleasures. He died unmarried, with only a few close friends, mostly musicians.

Ekserciyan, as was common in Turkey back then, never wrote his music down. As a consequence, much of it has been lost, records of his life along with it in the great tumult–the war with Europe, the genocide, the abolition of the caliphate, the war with Greece, the social reforms–that destroyed so much of his world–the old, orientalist notions (to him, fatal realities) of Istanbul as a city sheltered from modernity, separate from Europe–in the years following his death.

His work survived for years through his students, but, in time, the notes grew vague–just as memories of his voice, his mannerisms, his face grew vague; passed from first hand to second hand to third; and, at last, without anyone having noticed, the tunes and the man one day had suddenly disappeared long ago.

We can only wonder if he would have preferred our world to his.


2018: An Update

It’s a new year, and I’m excited to spend it expanding my musical world, and sharing my finds with you! Just so you have an idea, here are some of my goals for the blog in the coming months:

-Post a new bio (at least) every month.

-Examine more composers from outside the European tradition.

-Devote each month to a “miniseries,” setting a group of composers in conversation based on a shared aspect of their life and/or work: two clarinet concertos, two Transylvanian composers–that sort of thing, or something like it, to lend an arc to the content.

Well, that’s about it. Have a suggestion or request? Comment below or tweet me! I’m all ears.


P.S. And to hold you over before the new posts arrive, here’s Balakirev’s Overture on Three Russian Songs:

For the Fourth: Variations on “America” – Ives

While Charles Ives likely wrote this piece with serious intentions, it is difficult not to see it as a caricature of the tremendous energy the country exuded around the turn of the century — that time when we deprived the first European kingdom to colonize the Americas of its last holdings on that continent, built giant canals, and had a president who hunted bears.

Teddy personifies the piece quite well, in my opinion — though Ives’ composition precedes him by a decade.

The piece offers several variations on “America,” more commonly known today as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” the de facto national anthem in 1891. Throughout, Ives bends and distorts the original melody in novel and, at times, ridiculous ways. The spirit of the opening theme persists to the end — the composer makes sure of that — but the notes, rhythm and harmony are transfigured into something unthinkable at the first bars — allegorical of the changes the country would undergo in the next twenty years, and the twenty years after that, and so on, and so on.

(My favorite is the flamenco interlude at 3:56).

The same music is also the basis for several other anthems around the world:

The tune also provided the music for the German imperial anthem, Hail to Thee in Victor’s Crown or Heil dir im Siegerkranz — at the same time when both countries were fighting each other in the First World War, no less. And the UK, as you probably know, has used it for God save the Queen (or King) since 1745. In fact, the melody originated there, and some argue that the germ of the tune can be found in English plainchant, as far back as the Renaissance or earlier.

The Russian Empire and Switzerland both used it for national anthems at one point or another as well. In Norway it continues to serve as the royal anthem; in Lichtenstein, the national anthem.

Akhnaten – Philip Glass

Just as the Pharaoh Akhnaten sought to simplify Egyptian religion, so too did Philip Glass and the other minimalists seek to simplify twentieth century classical music–to steer it away from the serialism of the previous two decades.

This piece comes from the 1984 opera by American composer Philip Glass, a retelling of the reign of Akhnaten, whose bold attempt to abandon traditional Egyptian polytheism in favor of the warship of a single god, the sun, resulted in his overthrow. It was a rejection so complete that evidence of the man and his deeds were not rediscovered for over two millennia.

The work exudes a two-fold sense of novelty: that of a revolutionary idea and a revolutionary understanding of music. The minimalist accompaniment, the cutting edge during the 1980s, complements the lyrics with hypnotizing repetition and thin texture, evoking a sense of ritual. To complete the effect, many of the numbers are sung not in Italian, English or German, but in ancient Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew.

What do you think? Personally, I find Glass good once in a while, but he tends to get repetitive. Any other minimalist whose piece you’d like to see featured?

Either way, it’s a far cry from the other major Egyptian Opera in the repertoire, Handel’s Giulio Cesare, which takes place in Ptolemaic Egypt, several hundred years later…perhaps it’s more our speed?

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Mahler, Gabrieli, and the End of History

Giovanni Gabrieli was born in Venice in 1557 and studied in Munich with Orlande de Lassus. He returned to Venice as a young man and became an accomplished organist in the great churches of Northern Italy. These positions gave him an immense influence over the future of the European musical tradition. He died in 1612.

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The man himself

Gabrieli occupies a similar position in Renaissance music to that of Gustav Mahler in Romantic/nineteenth century music; namely, he was the summation of the movement.

The chief difference between the two composers is that, to paraphrase Leonard Bernstein, Mahler had an acute awareness that he was the end–his musical intensity came from his vantage point at the end of the Romantic era, at the advent of the twentieth century.

Seeing, along with Kafka, that man had lost control of machine, he articulated with his music the last great, heroic cries of the romantic movement before the sea crashed down and all the glimmer, idealism, and hope of the nineteenth-century world disappeared beneath the dark grey of two world wars.


We see no such prophecy in Gabrieli’s music, though his world was approaching a similar cataclysm.

Like Mahler, Gabrieli made art during that borrowed time at the end of an era–which in hindsight seems unbearably eerie–when a set of ideas has become maximally preeminent and when the world order appears to have settled (though we know it has not, yet we cannot conceive what will replace it).

However, whereas the catastrophes of the twentieth century were man-made and therefore predictable (at the very least, speculable), the cataclysms of the first half of the seventeenth century resulted predominantly from imperceptible environmental shifts (namely, the ‘little ice age’), which, by engendering resource shortages, brought about (via war, strife, and general instability) most of the far-reaching alterations Europe saw during the seventeenth century.

Gabrieli could not anticipate any of these changes, and he died before most of them had begun.


Within a few years of his death, his home city of Venice would begin to decline, the overland trade routes, to which the Italian states had played the middle men for centuries, becoming unneeded for the sea-commerce of the Dutch and English…

The Renaissance would soon give to the Baroque, and the grand polyphonic style of the Venetian composers would vanish, superseded by Bach, Purcell, and Telemann…

In 1648, the crowns of Europe would at last place themselves above the Catholic Church with the treaty of Westphalia…

But here Gabrieli is, at ‘the end of history’, waving his arms at the void, singing to it of the nativity…

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Gabrieli’s Venice

Obscure Classical: Ignace Lilien, ‘Mietskaserne’

Can you hear the opening theme from ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ here? Sounds like he’s making fun of it…

Image result for ignace lilienThis is Ignace Lilien, a Ukrainian (Austro-Hungarian) pianist who, at the age of seventeen, had the wise idea to take a bicycle trip across Europe in the summer of 1914.

When the war began, he was stranded in the Netherlands, where he decided to study chemical engineering and began work at a large chemical plant in Rotterdam, a Job he held for his entire working life.

He found time, however, to continue training as a pianist and composer, and even for a time studied with Joseph Suk (renowned violinist and son-in-law of Antonín Dvořák) while serving as a company representative in Czechoslovakia, but was forced to return to the Netherlands after the German invasion in 1938, where, despite his Jewish ancestry, he survived that occupation as well.

Following the war, he toured Europe and South America, continuing to maintain a commendable output despite his primary career–technically, he was once again traveling as a company representative…pretty sweet deal…

He eventually retired in 1962, and died in 1964.

Much like his life, Lilien’s music, as you’ll hear, is highly unpredictable and eclectic; from the 1930’s onward, much like Ernest Bloch, who I profiled last week, he drew heavily from folk music, though, where as Bloch preeminently dealt with Jewish themes, Lilien found joy in the music of his adoptive people, the Dutch.

Next week, we’ll break this streak of twentieth-century and head back to the Renaissance…

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Lilien at his interbellum home of Rotterdam.




Art At This Moment: Experiencing ‘The Mountaintop’

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We went to see this play in the capital one slushy January afternoon. We were in the building two hours and we came out our faces dirty with dried tears.

We had seen The Mountaintop, an imagining of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night in a Memphis hotel room before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, written by Katori Hall and performed by the Trinity Repertory Company. The play has only two characters: Dr. King, and Camae, a maid, sent by the hotel to deliver his late-night coffee.


After a brief exchange, the two begin a prolonged and eclectic conversation, drifting between different matters of different sizes, from the complications of the present political landscape to whether or not King should shave his mustache. Sometimes, they flirt; other times, they fight. For nearly an hour, Hall lets them talk, carving out her vision of the complicated man and, through Camae, the ethos of the people he is fighting for—juxtaposes battered optimism with nonchalant realism.

Highlights from the 2011 Broadway production, staring Samuel L. Jackson.

As the conversation reaches its climax, Camae reveals herself as an angel, sent to shepherd the civil rights leader away to heaven. In denial at first, King quickly turns to his unfinished work, and to his family. He resolves to ask God for more time; after a heated exchange over the hotel telephone, she (yes, she) refuses, but offers to show him the future.

King accepts.

Then, the motel room disintegrates, and Camae launches into a final speech, covering the fate of King’s cause up to the play’s premier, backed by images and video clips appearing on different surfaces around the hall—her final words: ‘Black presidents’. After marveling, King delivers a final rhetoric, asking us, imploring us to carry on his work.

So ends the play. Heroic. Bold. Moving.

But between Camae’s Speech and King’s final address, as if something has broken or become corrupted (we are not sure if this is a stage direction or the director’s choice), the images continue past “black presidents” on to the present day.

Then King makes his speech, issues his call to action, and then the play ends.

The Mountaintop premiered in 2009. June 2009 to be precise–the peak of the post-‘08 high and the precipice of all that has led to our present moment.

The play derives its title from King’s final speech, where, prophetically, he warns that he might not live to see his work to completion; at the same time, however, he reassures his audience that their goal will be achieved eventually: God has allowed him to “go up to the mountaintop”, from which he has seen “the promised land”.
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Image result for the mountaintop gifNo doubt, when the play was first performed, the actors, the director, maybe even the playwright thought the country had arrived or were about to arrive in this “Canaan”. That last speech likely assumed an almost vestigial role: just make sure to keep building the buttresses under the upward-soaring arc.

But those were not the words we heard on January 18th, 2017.

Works of art mean different things to different people at different times. Though a text or score may persist unchanged, the interpretations and the very meanings we find in them vary infinitely—arise from within our momentary selves.

The production runs until February 12th. Go see it. Please.

Buy tickets here: Trinity Repertory Company production page


An exerpt from the titular speech