13 September 2009

How Turkish is Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca?

(Image from the National Library of Turkey)

How would we associate a song or, just a passage of melody, with a nation, geographic or cultural area? It certainly has much to do with our listening experience.

Our upbringing, daily lives and the context in which we encounter a new sound, can decide how music is imprinted in our minds and thus form a commonsensical notion of musical identity, which we simply take for granted. Most people are very much influenced by external factors, such as the media, peer groups or their social affiliation.

For example, the frequent use of a resounding gong as a cue of the appearance of a Chinese kung fu master in Hollywood films has made, at least to many Western ears, the tone of the instrument an unquestionable musical image of China.

Another historical example is Mozart’s piano piece ‘Turkish March’—the third movement, Alla Turca, of Piano Sonata in A major, K. 331. It may not sound Turkish to us today at all, but concertgoers or socialites at Mozart’s time would accept the idea because they were told so.

I read long ago in the textbook of music history that ‘Turkish March’ imitates the Turkish instruments used in the military march music of the Janissaries. The music was once very popular with the Viennese during the 17th and 18th centuries and many composers in all parts of Europe wrote alla turca passages or pieces.

Listen to the famous 'Yine de Şahlanıyor Aman' (There the horse rears again) delivered by a march band and chorus, and see if you can associate the style to Mozart's alla turca. I suppose that what Mozart presents is the general impression of sound and rhythm created by Turkish percussion and reed instruments.

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