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East Meets West: Turkish Influences on the Viennese Classics

We are all fascinated by the new and the mysterious. For the men and women of eighteenth-century Vienna, it was the East that satisfied their appetite for the unusual. Over the centuries, there had been ample opportunities, most of them military, for cultural interaction between the Austrian Hapsburg Empire and the large and powerful Ottoman Empire, which included Turkey. When the dust from their hostile skirmishes had settled, more civil relations were established. Viennese cuisine smacked increasingly of Eastern spices, fashions hinted at an Eastern look, and the city's music took on a distinctly martial sound, derived from the Turkish Janissary, or military, bands.

The Janissary band originated in Turkey in the fourteenth century as an elite corps of mounted musicians composed of shawm and bass drum players. (We have already noted in CP 4 the introduction of these instruments into Western Europe as a result of the Crusades and the establishment of early trade routes.) In the seventeenth century, the trumpet, small kettledrums, cymbals, and bell trees were added to this ceremonial ensemble, thereby producing a loud and highly percussive effect. The Turkish sound captured the imagination of the Viennese masters, who attempted to re-create it in their orchestral and theatrical works. Haydn wrote three "military" symphonies, Beethoven composed three orchestral works with Turkish percussion (including his monumental Symphony No. 9, which has a Turkish march in the last movement), and Mozart and Haydn, among others, used this military sound in their operas. Mozart noted that "Music must never offend the ear, but must please the listener, or in other words must never cease to be music. . . . The Janissary chorus [from Die Entführung] . . . is all that can be desired, that is, short, lively, and written to please the Viennese." The influence was felt even in piano music—notably in Mozart's appealing Rondo alla turca from his Sonata in A major, which we will hear. So popular was this style that some nineteenth-century pianos featured a "Janissary pedal" to add percussive effects.

Although the fascination with Turkish music proved to be a passing fancy, it nevertheless affected the makeup of the Western orchestra by establishing percussion instruments of Turkish origin (bass drum, cymbals, bells, triangle) as permanent members of the ensemble. It's hard to imagine an orchestra today without them! The Turkish Janissary ensemble also influenced the military band in the West; these same instruments now form the heart of every marching and concert band.

Beethoven was fascinated by another Turkish musical tradition—this one a mystical religious ceremony to which he alluded in his incidental music for the stage work The Ruins of Athens (1811). The ceremony derives from one of the sects of Islam, that of the Mevlevis, who were famous for their whirling dance ritual: dancing in a circle with a slow, controlled spinning motion as a part of their religious experience. This ceremony was sung to the accompaniment of flute, lute, and percussion, including kettledrum and cymbals. Beethoven's Chorus of Whirling Dervishes, a pale imitation of the original, is an example of exoticism filtered through Western culture.

Both the Janissary band and the whirling dervish ceremony are obsolete in modern-day Turkey, except as tourist attractions. The term "whirling dervish"— implying one who twists and turns, like a restless child—has, however, endured in the West.

Terms to Note

Janissary band
whirling dervish

Suggested Listening

CD iMusic Ode to Joy, from Symphony No. 9
Beethoven: The Ruins of Athens, "Turkish March"
CD iMusic Haydn: Military Symphony No. 100, Second Movement
Mozart: Rondo alla turca, from Piano Sonata in A major, K. 331
Mozart: The Abduction from the Seraglio, Overture
CD iMusic Sousa: Stars and Stripes Forever
Turkish music (Janissary ensemble)


This Cultural Perspective explores how musicians in eighteenth-century Vienna were influenced by the music of Turkish culture. Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven all heard this music, and they used it in various ways in their compositions.


All cultures borrow from other cultures. We saw how this worked in the Middle Ages in Cultural Perspective 4. In the eighteenth century there was a clearer perception that music from other cultures was "exotic." Here are some issues to discuss:

  • What is our idea of "exotic"? In our world of instant communication, are we losing a sense of the exotic?
  • Do we still value the exotic?
  • How do we deal with exotic ideas in art?


  • Attend a concert or an art exhibition dealing with another culture.
  • What makes them different from your own cultural experiences and expectations? Create two categoriesæthings that you liked, and things that you didn’t like about eachæand explain why.
  • Describe what you enjoyed most about this music or art, and explain how a contemporary musician or artist might use them in his or her own work.


  • The Music of Turkey
    This small site, maintained by the Turkish Student Association at the University of Arizona, has audio samples of Janissary Band music, and a "Turkish March" by Mozart.
  • A History of the Zildjian Cymbal Company
    Zildjian is the most well-known name when it comes to cymbals, and the company can trace its history back to 1623; a current example of East meeting West.

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