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This article was published in the EC Magazine 1/2016



A New Horizon: The Choral Scene in Turkey

by Burak Onur ErdemChoral Culture Association founder and chairman ECA-EC board member


For many Europeans it may be interesting to hear about the choral life in Turkey, a country with a 99% Muslim population and a limited tradition of polyphonic music. A typical question to a Turkish choral conductor in Europe would sound like: “Do you sing Bach in your country?” The obvious answer, “Yes, of course we sing Bach, Brahms, Bruckner, and many others!” would be rather a surprising one for a European citizen, who does not know much about the Turkish choral culture. Contrary to what the cliché suggests, Turkey is a country with a very rich choral culture and one of the fastest growing numbers of choirs in the last decades.

The first step in getting to know Turkish choral terminology is to distinguish between polyphonic and monophonic choirs. Unlike many cultures, Turkish choirs are mostly categorised as such in the country, and that is rooted in the musical heritage of Turkey. The traditional music is monophonic, with lots of ornaments, based on microtonal modes that are called maqam. Folk music is based on local maqams and also on mostly irregular rhythms like 5/8, 7/8, 9/8, or even 11/8. Choirs that sing folk or classical Turkish music use no polyphony and they represent a large percentage in the choral world of the region. Nevertheless, choirs that have a western repertoire and/or sing Turkish music with western arrangements have been around since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Since the Cultural Revolution in the 1920s and 1930s, many choirs have been founded, especially choirs of music teachers and conservatories. These choirs are called polyphonic choirs in Turkish culture and they have exactly the same setting and similar repertoire as their European counterparts. The first 30 years of the republic also coincide with the first arrangements of folk music for the choral genre, as well as to the first Turkish opera and oratorio in the following decades. Throughout the history of the republic, choirs were always present in different forms, including choirs of minorities living in the area formed by Armenian, Georgian, and Greek cultures.

Looking back a few decades, we see the irresistible fire of choral music in big cities, with a growing number of festivals, foundation of choral organisations, formation of new choirs, and expanding variety of repertoire. To pinpoint some of the major events, we must mention the annual choral festivals in Ankara, İzmir, Istanbul, and Mersin, bringing together hundreds of choirs every year under the name Polyphonic Choirs’ Festival. Alternative smaller but also international festivals are present in Istanbul: KoroFest, that has been recommended by the ECA-EC for some of its editions; Istanbul Choir Days, with an emphasis on foreign participation; Çanakkale Choral Festival, the 3rd edition of which has been held, and many more.

The participants in these festivals are mainly school choirs, from high schools or universities. But apart from the school choirs, in the last decades, there have been very successful, award-winning, amateur choirs that manage to survive for longer periods of time. The number of such amateur enterprises is increasing in the last 10 years. Now, Turkish ch oral enthusiasts have the luxury of selecting a choir to sing in among many good quality options. Turkish choirs have been able to attract and work with world-famous names like Jonathan Rathbone, Eric Whitacre, the Swingle Singers, Nigel Short, and many more. Many choirs also travel to Europe for festivals and competitions, representing the culture with stronger presence today.


Turkey has many small-scale choral organisations, but not an umbrella federation yet. One of the most active organisations has been the Choral Culture Association in Istanbul, organising World Choral Day gatherings, recruiting singers for the World Youth Choir and Eurochoir, representing ECA-EC in Turkey, and organising conducting courses. The association has recently hosted the 8th Mediterranean Choral Forum in cooperation with ECA-EC and Mediterranean Office for Choral Singing, with participants from Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, Jordan, Greece, Cyprus, and of course Turkey. There are also older organisations like the Turkish Polyphonic Choirs Association based in some cities, mainly organising annual festivals and working towards a richer choral life in Turkey.

Choral conducting is an improving area of study, despite some unsuccessful attempts at setting up academic departments in the recent past. There is no choral conducting department yet, but the choral conductors of the country mainly come from a music teaching background. In the last years, there have been new steps to build up training for choral conductors in cities like Istanbul, Çanakkale, and Ankara, but this is still in an emerging position. However, well-known teachers and pedagogues like Volker Hempfling, Brady Allred, Elisenda Carrasco, Panda van Proosdij, and many more have visited the country in recent years.


Looking at professional choral life, we see a limited but very solid structure: State Choir Turkey in Ankara. The choir has been present for 28 years, performed in numerous countries, recorded many CDs, and worked with all the major orchestras of the country. Apart from the State Choir, the Radio Choir in Ankara has also been active, not to mention that the professional choirs of the State Operas are also part of the choral life.


Choral composition in Turkey is a challenging field for two reasons: Firstly, the musical heritage of the country is not easy to adapt to the western idiom, and secondly, many composers have had difficult times getting their works performed by choirs. Yet, many famous composers have contributed to the choral repertoire; to name some of them, Ahmed Adnan Saygun with folk songs and the first Turkish oratorio, ‘Yunus Emre’, performed in UN Headquarters New York under the baton of Leopold Stokowski; Ulvi Cemal Erkin with folk songs and folk-style compositions; Muammer Sun with folk songs and larger works for orchestra and choir; Nevit Kodallı and Erdal Tuğcular with folk songs; and Hasan Uçarsu with many original compositions, including commissions from the Esoterics (Seattle, US) and BALTA Chamber Choir (LV).


As seen in this brief overview, Turkey has a very rich choral life and it offers very interesting opportunities for the European choral world with its unique musical tradition, newly founded young choirs, dynamic organisations, and festivals. I would strongly encourage choral music lovers to learn more about Turkish choral music, visit festivals, initiate exchanges between European and Turkish choirs, create a bilateral flow of repertoire—and sing some Turkish songs to get a taste of the culture.