“(…) We heard Rossini’s music, executed in a manner very creditable to Professor Signor Donizetti. (…) I was surprised (…) on finding that they were the royal pages, thus instructed for the Sultan’s amusement. Their aptitude in learning, which Donizetti informed me would have been remarkable even in Italy, showed that the Turks are naturally musical.” (Sir Adolphus Slade, British naval officer, late 1820s)
Giuseppe Donizetti, the elder brother of the famous composer Gaetano Donizetti, was one of the major figure that contributed to the Westernization of the Ottoman Empire. He was not only the Instructor General of the Imperial Ottoman Music at the court of Sultan Mahmud II from the 1828, but he also had the role of teaching music at the court, as can be deducted from the quote above he equally had a role in oganizing concerts and performances at the palace.. One of his greatest achievements is the composition of the military march for Mahmud II, known as Mahmudiye. It was treated as a national anthem, but actually it was more like a royal anthem. Indeed, it changed on the accession of Abdulmecid, the new sultan. When this happened, Giuseppe Donizetti composed a new march for him, the Mecidiye.
If you wonder why an Italian musician has been welcomed at the Ottoman court in Constantinople for a period of more than twenty years, the answer is quite interesting. But let’s start from the beginning.
Giuseppe Ambrogio Donizetti was born in Bergamo on 6 November 1788, as the first child of Andrea and Domenica Nava.. They lived in a house outside the city near Borgo Canal in financially restrained conditions. Giuseppe was trained as a tailor, according to the Lombard tradition. His interest for music began when he started to take lessons from his uncle Giacomo Carini, but he was to old to attend the classes at the “Pia Scuola di Musica”, the free music school of the town founded by Johann Simon Mayr. Nevertheless, Mayr, struck by his talent, managed to arrange these lessons on an individual basis.
The financial difficulties experienced were the principal reasons that moved Giuseppe to join the army in 1808. He enlisted in the Seventh Line Regiment of the Italian Army enrolling as “Musicante e Sarto” (musician and tailor). His military career continued and he was at the service of Napoleon’s forces as flutist on the Isle of Elba and in all the battles of “the Hundred Days”, except the Battle of Waterloo. On the first of May 1815 he left the military service in France and he returned to Italy. In October Donizetti joined the army of the Kingdom of Sardinia and Piedmont, later becoming the bandmaster in the Reggimento Provinciale di Casale. After the dissolution of the Reggimento, he joined the Primo Reggimento della Brigata Casale, again under as a bandmaster of the military army. Thanks to his visibility in the international military scene, he received the lucrative offer (8000 francs to become the Instructor General of the Imperial Ottoman Music) from Mahmud II came, which he accepted.
This calling was the consequence of the Janissaries carnage which happened in Istanbul under the orders of Sultan Mahmud II. After the disappearing of the Janissaries, also the Mehterhane (its marching band) had been erased and another musical institution, school and orchestra at court had been found: the Musika-i Hümayun. The idea of the Sultan was to find an european musician of a high rank to hireas a director in order to promote the westernisation process that was implemented in the social, political and economical spheres in the area of music as well . So, to adapt to the western musical system, Mahmud II employed an established western musician in his court to teach European music to the military band and court people. This is the reason behind the choice of the Italian musician.
Despite his brother’s disapproval of the city and the context of Islam, Giuseppe decided to move to Turkey. “(…) His decision seems to me altogether bad at times in which we find ourselves. I will never applaud such a decision, and it must be that the 8000 francs have blinded him (…). I highly disapprove of such a resolution not for the journey, not because he would lose a regiment that he loves so much, but for the dangerous times in which we find ourselves.” Gaetano Donizetti, Giuseppe’s brother, letter no.37
Actually, the conditions that Giuseppe met were quite different. He lived with his wife in Pera (Beyoglu), in a small building in Asmalimescit, amongst a large Christian community, of which the majority was Italian.
If Donizetti contributed to spreading the western and italian music at court, it is also important to say that he tried to explore and understand the structure and mystery of the traditional Ottoman music. Indeed, it appears that the great dervish musician Ismail Dede Efendi was his teacher.
Giuseppe Donizetti fulfilled his role with high competence and modesty, qualities that brought to him a close friendship with the Sultan and a bright career full of declarations and honorary mentions , like the Nisan-i Iftihar from Mahmud in the 1831 and the Tugra from Abdülmecid in the 1839. When he died, the 17th february 1856, the Sultan Adülmecid ordered the funeral with the military honour. The corpse was accompanied with the execution of a march composed by the Sultan himself as a tribute to his great Italian master. His body was buried in the vaults of the St Esprit Cathedral in Taksim, near the district of Beyoglu, and it is still preserved there.
Mario Casari (2008). Un musicista alla corte ottomana: Giuseppe Donizetti. Quaderni di Oriente Moderno, n. 6, p. 101-110.
Emre Araci (2002). Giuseppe Donizetti at the Ottoman Court: A Levantine Life. The Musical Times, Vol. 143, No. 1880, pp. 49-56.
After a master’s degree in the fields of Arts and culture, I am interested in doing research, writing and sharing knowledge