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.