Women Composers’ Creative Conditions Before and During the Turkish Republic

Women Composers’ Creative Conditions Before and During the Turkish Republic

A Case Study on Three Composers: Leyla [Saz] Hanımefendi, Nazife Aral-Güran, and Yüksel Koptagel

Author: Nejla Melike Atalay

4 January 2023

Visual 1: Book cover of Nejla Melike Atalay’s monograph

My book[1] focuses on three Istanbulite composers, Leyla [Saz] Hanımefendi (1850?-1936), Nazife Aral-Güran (1921-1993), and Yüksel Koptagel (b. 1931), who lived and produced in consecutive and overlapping periods, from the Tanzimat Era of the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic of the 1980s. It explores the composers’ productive and creative conditions through the socio-political environments of their times, their familial and educational backgrounds, and the social environments in which they lived and worked.

In this post, I initially would like to share my motivation and the questions that led me to this study. I intentionally didn’t want to shorten this part, because I believe that we can go as far as the questions we ask. For this reason, I want to underscore the importance of questions. Depending on the nature of the questions, the fields we look at will also change.

Prologue My Background and Motivation for the Research

When I was a musicology student in Istanbul, I frequently contemplated the visibility – or, more to the point: the invisibility – of women in music historiography. The starting point for my thinking was a scorebook that I found in an antiques shop: Nazife Güran’s Mezzo Soprano için ‘Lied’ler [Lieds for Mezzo Soprano]. On the back cover of the scorebook, it was written that Nazife Güran was born in Vienna, studied with her mother A. Aliye Aral, Şuşik Abbas, and Cemal Reşid Rey, and eventually continued her education in Berlin and Cologne, and established the Diyarbakır Philharmonic Society.

Given these interesting keywords, I did what I always do as a musicology student: As I had not come across the name “Nazife Güran” before, I went over some Turkish encyclopedias and searched for music dictionaries for further information about her, but to no avail. This fact sparked my curiosity even more. The cover of the scorebook raised questions.

How many composers of the Ottoman period and in the Republic of Turkey, like Nazife Güran, who was not known to me were involved in polyphonic music? Have these women ever been the focus of a discussion? If so, where and how had these women been mentioned?

One day, I dared to ask my music history professor at university why we didn’t have a lecture on women composers. She replied, “Yes, there are some talented composers like Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler, but we have no time to allocate for them, I have to follow the curriculum, we have only five class hours even for Wagner operas”. Right then, I knew I would be getting deeper into this topic in the future. In the meantime, however, a lot has happened. Following my graduation, I moved to Vienna to continue my studies and to develop my composition skills, and meanwhile, this topic was still vivid in my mind. When I had completed my preliminary research, I had doubts about whether this would turn into an academic study, or not. The main reason behind this doubt was the uncertainty of accessing sufficient materials – there were language, content, time, and space problems regarding this access. In 2009, I met Prof. Dr. Annegret Huber, my first supervisor, who inspired and encouraged me to pursue my questions further. I reached Nazife Güran’s son through the annual memorial concerts sponsored by the Ekinoks Company for her, and the Güran family kindly agreed to open their private archives to me. This particular development determined the “destiny” of this research. Another door opened when Yüksel Koptagel kindly agreed to meet with me. Koptagel, who is ten years younger than Nazife Aral-Güran and studied with the same teacher, Cemal Reşid Rey, has relatively more visibility in music historiography. I was set on determining whether the music environment and the socio-political conditions these two composers experienced were similar or different, and how, if different. Comparing with Aral-Güran’s invisibility in music historiography, what were the differences in Koptagel’s conditions that made her more visible? To which kinds of networks and circles did they belong? What were the difficulties they faced as composers in Turkey?

Scope of the Research

In selecting the composers to include in the scope of my book, I had considered composers who received Western music education – to understand how they created a bond and interaction between the Western music tradition, which is also in line with their educational background, and their own music. Accordingly, the selection of the composers was especially subject to their interest and involvement in polyphonic music, and their production in this area. I started my preliminary research with these in mind, and I wanted to make sure that the availability of materials was sufficient enough to expand my study.

The Composers: Why These Three?

Several factors played a role in my examination of these three women, who are actually very different in their musical personalities. First of all, I wanted to look back a little further because I realized this gap in music historiography. Because even when I was talking to a contemporary composer and discussing the creative conditions of composers, I was looking for a historical basis to address issues and questions.

On the other hand, almost every third question eventually led me to music historiography. According to Turkish music historiography, Leyla [Saz] Hanımefendi was one of the pioneering women composers in Turkey who received a ‘Western’ music education, played piano, composed for the piano, and developed her musical identity with this educational background.

Visual 2: Leyla [Saz] Hanımefendi

Undoubtedly, Leyla Saz holds a special place in various disciplines, as her memoirs shed light on the ‘imperial harem’, a very private area of Ottoman history, rendering her an important source for Ottoman-Turkish historiography. However, the more pertinent question for me was: how, and to what extent, did the sources consider her œuvres? Until her death in 1936, she established close relationships with numerous writers, poets, musicians, and Tanzimat-era intellectuals of Istanbul, both as a result of her social status and via her works, and was regarded as one of the ‘celebrities’ of the period. What was the reason behind her fame, then and now? Was it because of her closeness to the imperial palace, her literary personality, or her musical personality? If she was famous for her musical personality, why are there no scholarly publications that extensively research Leyla [Saz] Hanımefendi’s compositions?

Some music scholars mention in their writings that Leyla [Saz] Hanımefendi’s works are seldom performed because they require “superior” and “virtuosity”, and state that performers of such quality could rarely be found, while others claim that – just as in her poetry and prose – she has a clean [temiz], sincere [samimî], and intimate tone in her compositions.[2] Is it possible to analyze the values and parameters on which these judgments are based? Such questions steered the direction of this research and motivated me to investigate Leyla [Saz] Hanımefendi and the inconsistencies in her portrayal.

Visual 3: A New “Leylâ Hanım”. Source: Hayat, No. 101 ( 17 December 1973), 23

During my research in the Güran family’s archive, I happened to stumble upon a news article entitled “Bestecilikte Yeni bir Leylâ Hanım [A New Leylâ Hanım in the Field of Composing]”[3] which led me to the idea of connecting the two composers and taking a ‘continuity’ approach. Although Nazife Aral-Güran (1921–1993) was born before the proclamation of the Republic, she was raised in the period of construction of a nation-state, and so became the second stop after Leyla [Saz] Hanımefendi in my historical journey. This selection allowed me to examine the socio-political/socio-cultural circumstances, and the music policies of the early Republican period, and to compare and contrast such factors in the early Republic with those of the late Ottoman Empire.

In Aral-Güran’s case, she was situated historically, socio-politically, and with regard to cultural and musical aspects, right in the midst of the large-scale fractures, transformations and transitions, projects, expectations, and disintegrations that began in the 1850s and lasted until the 1980s. In line with the improvements on women’s rights after the proclamation of the Republic, Atatürk’s perspective on the issue of ‘women’, his support of elevating women’s social status in a variety of areas, and his patronage of women have been examined and analyzed in numerous academic and non-academic works. While there are various examples of representatives of such women in medicine, history, literature, archaeology, aviation, engineering, law, etc., are there any women he supported in the field of music? Particularly composer women?

Visual 4: Nazife Aral in Berlin (1938-1942): Nazife Aral’s student ID (left), Nazife Aral at the piano, in Prof. Tiessen’s class (right) Source: Güran Family Archive

My desire to investigate whether a decade – there is a ten-year age difference between Nazife Aral-Güran and Yüksel Koptagel (born 1931) – had any bearing on the productive/creative conditions between these two composers was my first motivation for including Yüksel Koptagel in my selection of case studies. Later, realizing the inclusion of Koptagel’s name and her productions in the music historiography as a representative of Polyphonic Music of Turkeyraised new questions about what the criteria of inclusion into the representatives of this genre were. Thus, when comparing Nazife Aral-Güran’s exclusion from the music dictionaries or encyclopedias within Turkey, one is led to wonder whether Koptagel’s inclusion was a coincidence, luck, or that she captured the interest of the music circles.

Could there be a conscious choice to include or exclude a composer in the music historiography? What were the values that brought a person or their works to the fore?

Visual 5: Yüksel Koptagel in publications

As a result, my questions had gained in facets and the biographical research that initially gave me orientation proved to be no longer sufficient.

Overview of Book Chapters

Since this research focuses on a specific genre of music, exploring and defining the “polyphonic music of Turkey” is a necessary starting point. Hence, Chapter I focuses on polyphonic music [çoksesli müzik] as a genre within the other genres of Ottoman/Turkish music; it contains definitions and explanations of this genre; and provides a perspective on the categorization styles of non-Turkish sources. While the problem of “multiplicity of definitions” in Ottoman/Turkish music and its genres construct the framework of this chapter, the ideological origins and dimentions of various approaches that generate this multiplicity of definitions are also discussed.

In Chapter II, the institutionalization process of ‘Western Music’ and its education from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic is depicted, while its causes and effects, political and ideological background, how it functioned, and its results are addressed. To this end, the contributions of European experts invited to the Ottoman/Turkish lands, and their influence on the institutions both in the Ottoman Empire and in the Turkish Republic are discussed.

Chapter III follows the traces of the women musicians in Istanbul both within and outside the imperial palace from the 19th century until the fall of the Empire. In this chapter, Leyla Hanımefendi emerges as the key figure. The sections containing perspectives on music in her memoirs on the daily life of Istanbul’s 19th century Çırağan and Dolmabahçe Palaces are discussed and examined as a ‘glance into the palace’. Since Leyla Hanımefendi’s experience does not include the Yıldız Palace, Sultan Abdülhamid II’s daughter Ayşe Sultan [Osmanoğlu]’s memoirs are used to gain a perspective specifically focusing on music in the Yıldız Palace.

In order to develop an understanding of the Palace’s interest in and support of Western Music, various documents such as takdim [rewards], taltif  [honoring], and other petitions from the Ottoman State Archives were consulted; a list of compositions dedicated to members of the Ottoman dynasty as well as a list of artists who had been decorated by the dynasty are also provided in this chapter. The traces of daily lives of women musicians outside the palace are also examined within the framework of the newspaper ads of the period, registrations at the Annuals of Commerce of the Orient, and petitions in the Ottoman State Archives. Additionally, a list of female students who were sent to Europe for receiving a music education, and music scores of women who composed during the late Ottoman Empire are provided to evaluate the general situation of women composers in the 19th and 20th century Ottoman Empire in the axis of their interactions with Western music.

Chapter IV expands on the first phase of examining the productive/creative conditions of the composers in this research, focusing on the socio-political environments in which the composers lived. The totality of political, economic, and social changes, which begins with the reform period called Tanzimat in Ottoman Turkish is examined and analyzed through modernization, Westernization and Europeanization approaches in Ottoman Empire/Turkish Republic historiography. In this chapter the new institutions, their interactions, the manifestations generated by such interactions, and their transmission, from the monarchy to the Turkish Republic are surveyed, while emphasizing the distinctive factors within this long process that affected the works of the three composers. From time to time, the narrative in the chapter takes the road less traveled, leaving the path paved by the official historiography and gives space to composers’ personal experiences, allowing their voices to be heard.

Chapter V, on the other hand, contains a perspective on two other conditions that determine production and creativity: familial and educational backgrounds. These approaches include analyzing the existing biographical sources and allows rereading them, and bring their functions as materials to the foreground.

Chapter VI provides a perspective on the historical and contemporary literature about woman composers and musicians in the Ottoman Empire/Turkish Republic; discusses the extent of such surveys/studies/researches with regard to music and gender, and the dimensions of the content of such studies. The section “Implicit Biases Against Women Composers” make up a significant part of Chapter VI, thematizes the manifestations of fundamental issues and questions in gender and music studies, samples of which became visible after the 1980s, in the case of Turkey, also some possible issues and questions to be raised specifically for this case. While reading the essays and articles included in this section, a method of investigating the possible questions to be posed to the texts is pursued.

In the final chapter, Chapter VII, the sample composers’ production spaces are surveyed, based on the concept of space, with particular attention paid to the limitations of space and its relation to place. This chapter puts forward the similarities and differences of the production spaces of the composers in a continuity, while investigating real or potential results of experiences in public and private spaces, by forcing the borders between the two. The social dimension of space is emphasized by investigating the social networks/circles of the composers, and the relationships established with and within these circles; while examining these aspects, the practices of meclis [assembly], toplanma [gathering], and salon are surveyed, along with their effects and contributions.


At the beginning of my post, I mentioned the importance of questions. As you can see, the initial questions I asked entirely shaped this work. Being aware of the fact that there may still be questions overlooked, omitted, unasked or unanswered, I wanted to emphasize the importance of the materials as well as the narrative in developing different perspectives.

In order to raise questions about women composers in Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, my book provides data on topics and fields of research. I hope that it will be used as an interdisciplinary resource beyond the scope of my research.

Thank you for your interest!

[1] Nejla Melike Atalay, Women Composers’ Creative Conditions Before and During the Turkish Republic: A Case Study on Three Composers: Leyla [Saz] Hanımefendi, Nazife Aral-Güran, and Yüksel Koptagel, Vienna: Hollitzer Verlag (2021)

[2] As a selection: Kam, Ruşen Ferit.”Bestekar-Şair Leyla Hanım,” in: Radyo Mecmuası. No:55. 1946, p. 8. Özalp, Mehmet Nazmi. Türk Musikisi Tarihi [History of Turkish Music ] , Vol 2. Ankara: TRT Pub. 1986, p. 24. Öztuna, Yılmaz. “Leyla Saz,” in: Akademik Klasik Türk San’at Musikisinin Ansiklopedik Sözlüğü [Encyclopedic Dictionary for Academic Classical Turkish Art Music]. Vol.2. Ankara: Orient Press. 2006, p. 266.

[3] Hikmet Münir Ebcioğlu, “Bestecilikte Yeni bir Leylâ Hanım [A New Leylâ Hanım in the Field of Composing]”,
Hayat, No. 101 (17 December 1973), 23.

Nejla Melike Atalay studied musicology in Istanbul (Mimar Sinan University) and Vienna. She completed her doctoral research at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna (mdw). In 2021 she has joined the Corpus Musicae Ottomanicae project, a collaborative research project based at Westfälische Wilhelms Universität Münster and the Orient-Institut Istanbul.

Citation: Atalay, Nejla Melike, Women Composers’ Creative Conditions Before and During the Turkish Republic, Orient-Institut Istanbul Blog, 4 January 2023, https://www.oiist.org/women-composers-creative-conditions-before-and-during-the-turkish-republic/

Ottoman Empire; Turkey; Istanbul; 19th/20th centuries; research; publication; music historiography; women composers; gender; Leyla (Saz) Hanımefendi; Nazife Aral Güran; Yüksel Koptagell; OII-MUSIC; OII-History & Life Narratives


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