Murad V: a new Turkish ballet based on the composer sultan’s life
Interview with Dr Emre ARACI, August 2012

“They describe him as one possessed, sitting on his sofa, motionless and speechless, smoothing his thin moustaches and beardless chin with his right hand hour after hour the livelong day, mediating on his abdication, and only wondering on which of his redundant brothers may devolve the burden which is too much for his shoulders” wrote The Times newspaper in August 1876, when the 33rd ruler of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Murad V (1840-1904), was deposed on the grounds of mental ill health, only after three months in power. Music historian and composer Dr Emre Aracı tells the story of how he turned the life of Murad V into an original ballet, using the sultan’s compositions.

What is the significance of Murad V in the history of Turkish ballet?

The tradition of classical ballet in Turkey is relatively young compared to other European countries, although in the Ottoman times, in the 19th century, foreign dance troupes occasionally visited Istanbul and instruction in dancing was briefly given at the sultan’s Imperial Military Music School. It wasn’t until the 1940’s, however, when Ninette de Valois was invited to form the first official ballet school in Istanbul which then became the foundation for the Turkish State Ballet, that classical ballet began to take root in Turkey. Ever since many classical works from the repertoire have been staged, including original ballets by Turkish composers. What makes Murad V different from other Turkish ballets is that its score is partly based on the original compositions of the sultan himself. Sultan Murad V was a composer of waltzes, quadrilles, polkas and galops, which survived in hundreds in autograph manuscripts, as well as his Érard pianoforte. So the ballet, created out of his music, is based on his tragic life story; the life story of an Ottoman sultan who was also a composer of Viennese waltzes and who lived under captivity makes a rather interesting and unusual plot.

Why tragic? Can you tell us more about Sultan Murad’s life?

Murad V was the shortest-reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire. History also remembers him for his mental ill health; as he was deposed following a 93-day reign in 1876 in favour of his half brother Abdülhamid II, after showing signs of hysteria and delirium, even though this was a temporary, curable condition, principally triggered due to his hypersensitive nature and strong reaction to the mysterious death of his uncle Sultan Abdülaziz, who was forced to relinquish the throne. Kind, courteous and open-minded, Murad in turn was deposed and placed at Çırağan Palace on the banks of the Bosphorus (ironically a five-star hotel today) with his entire family and retinue, where he lived under house arrest for the rest of his life, for 28 years, until his death in 1904. He seems to have spent his time reading books and composing short salon pieces with dedications to his family and friends. Some of these autograph scores even contain references, in French, to his captive life at the palace. I find it very moving that a century on, we have managed to create a ballet based on his life, using his original music. This is like a feeling of reconstructing a lost life from someone’s DNA.

Where did the idea for a ballet come from? Why not an opera or a play?

In a rather bizarre way it was Sultan Murad’s spiritual presence at a concert, two years ago, which I strongly felt, unleashed a chain of events and eventually lead to the creation of the ballet, also inspiring the story line in the production. The concert, I presented, featured a selection of Murad’s music and took place at the 70th birthday party of his fourth generation grandson Osman Selaheddin Osmanoglu. The event was hosted by his daughter Ayse Osmanoglu at her summer house in Bodrum. The following day I bumped into Erdogan Davran, who was then the director of the Ankara State Opera and Ballet Company and happened to mention the concert. At this impromptu meeting I also suggested perhaps his company might produce an original ballet to my libretto based on Murad’s life using his own music. This was an idea I had been toying with for a long time, but on the spur of the moment, it just came out. Davran was very enthusiastic about the proposal; he immediately invited me to Ankara, where I met the choreographers, the conductor, the set and costume designer. The project was also backed by Rengim Gökmen, the director-general of the Turkish State Opera and Ballet. In the meantime I prepared a draft score and libretto. All along I knew, Murad’s dance music would work very well in the medium of classical ballet.

How did you set Sultan Murad’s life in the storyline, the libretto of the ballet?

When I set about writing the libretto of the ballet, I deliberately avoided a didactic life story, but rather wanted to give key moments from Murad’s life in flashbacks. I therefore focused on a single day in his captive life, 21st September 1890, in other words his 50th birthday, also remembering the inspirational connection in Bodrum. I created two characters for Murad; real and imaginary, in conflict with each other - that is to say with himself - referring to the unstable nature of his mental state. On the one hand there is the captive, real Murad, imprisoned at Çırağan, feeling weak and sensitive; on the other we find the imaginary one: strong and confident, who challenges him, emphasising the dual tensions within his psyche. The ongoing battle between the two, danced by two leading dancers in the ballet, is intertwined with moments of happy memories from his childhood and adolescence. In essence Murad’s tragic life, also serves as a metaphor for the solitary artist’s reflective path through personal struggles towards self acceptance in an isolated, lonely existence.

How about the ballet within a ballet idea? How did that come about?

The old Imperial Palace of Dolmbahçe complex at one time also had a magnificent private theatre built for Sultan Abdülmecid, father of Sultan Murad, where he attended opera and ballet performances, as a young prince. Sadly the building no longer exists; it was gutted by fire in the 19th century, within a decade after its inauguration. I always imagined a reconstruction of its sumptuous interior somehow, at least on a modern theatre stage, based on designs from a detailed lithograph published in L’Illustration. This ballet gave me a perfect opportunity. In Act I, therefore, I decided to create a ballet within a ballet, where Sultan Murad imagines a scene from his past, attending a ballet performance at this old theatre with his father. I discovered from the newspapers of the time that a ballet called La Chasse de Diane was performed there by a visiting troupe. So this gave the inspiration to the scene of our miniature ballet within the ballet. There is also a scene at the beginning of Act II, where we have depicted Sultan Abdülaziz on his “state kaique” (barge) in an early morning Istanbul mist, being deposed to Topkapi Palace, to the strains of his own composition La Gondole Barcarolle, which was incidentally played by the band of Grenadier Guards when the Sultan visited London in 1867.

What about the score? Did you only use Sultan Murad’s compositions?

Apart from Sultan Murad’s compositions, the score is created out of a compilation of several different works by other composers, all of whom have some kind of an association with him or the Ottoman court. For instance the overture to the ballet is a piece entitled Pričre, which was composed by Rıfat Bey, on the occasion of Murad’s accession to the throne, with the sultan’s tughra (imperial cipher) displayed on the cover of the score. A piece of such ceremonial music obviously has great relevance historically and makes a fitting introduction to the ballet. Similarly, several compositions by the Italian Callisto Guatelli Pasha, who was Murad’s music teacher, are integrated into the score. These are rather unusual pieces, as some of them are harmonisations of traditional monophonic Turkish songs originally composed by the sultans, Selim III and Mahmud II. So in the ballet on the one hand we have Sultan Murad’s Viennese waltzes, on the other, traditional Ottoman songs as captured by an Italian; a true cross-fertilisation of cultures and musical styles, in other words. There is also the birthday march composed by Hadice Sultan for his father Sultan Murad and further compositions by Bartolomeo Pisani, the wife of Ömer Pasha and Charles d’Albert. But the key musical composition which holds the entire ballet together is the symphonie-fantaisie Aux Bords du Bosphore by the Istanbul-born Hungarian composer August d’Adelburg (1830-1873), who dedicated his lush and romantic work to Sultan Abdülmecid, with subtitles like Méditations et Ręveries, Chanson turque (Maneh), Grande Marche du Médjidié and Lever de la lune et Chant nocturne sur le Bosphore. Apart from this symphonie-fantaisie, all the other works, originally in piano score, have been arranged for full orchestra, partly by myself, but mainly by Bujor Hoinic, the conductor of the Ankara State Opera and Ballet. The choreography is by Armağan Davran and Volkan Ersoy. The impressive set designs are by Savaş Camgöz.

Any plans to bring the ballet to London?

Who knows, maybe one day, I hope! Afterall Sultan Murad did visit London in 1867 among the entourage of his uncle Sultan Abdülaziz, when he was a 27-year-old prince. Why not again after all those years?