Inspired by the Ottomans:
Pedja Mužijević, piano

Share in the spell that Ottoman music cast on European composers, from Mozart’s famous “Rondo Alla Turca,” of the 1780s, to music written just after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Marco Tajcevic’s 1926 “Seven Balkan Dances”­—widely played as a virtuoso vehicle—reflects music from areas ruled by the Ottomans for five hundred years. The “Music of the Sayyids and the Dervishes,” from the mid-1920s, by mystic philosopher G. I. Gurdjieff and Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann, melds the improvisational style of Turkish taksim with the rhythms of Mevlevi devotion. This concert was presented in 2006 in conjunction with the exhibition Style and Status: Imperial Costumes from Ottoman Turkey.


Inspired by the Ottomans

Pedja Mužijević, piano

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Sonata in A Major, K.331 (1781–83)

  • Andante grazioso
  • Menuetto
  • Alla turca

G.I. Gurdjieff / T. de Hartmann
Music of the Sayyids and the Dervishes nos. 4, 5, 10, 9, 29 (1925–27)

Marko Tajcevic
Seven Balkan Dances (1926)

This concert was presented on January 19, 2006, as part of the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series and in conjunction with the exhibition Style and Status: Imperial Costumes from Ottoman Turkey.


In 2006, the pianist wrote, “I love the internet. Where else does a pianist turn when his agent asks him to propose a program relating to the Ottoman Empire? After a few hours of Web surfing, I had a list of composers and titles that looked very promising. On it were Hummel’s and Moschele’s variations and paraphrases on Mozart’s opera, Abduction from the Seraglio. There was Giuseppe Donizetti, elder brother of a certain Gaetano Donizetti of Lucia di Lamermoor fame. Giuseppe was Instructor General of Imperial Ottoman Music at the court of Sultan Mahmud II for nearly thirty years.

“I discovered marches published in London in the mid-nineteenth century by a mysterious composer known only as Her Excellency the wife of Omer Pasha. Then came Franz Liszt. Whatever the subject may be, one can always rely on Liszt. He played in Constantinople and, as a token of gratitude to his hosts, composed his Grande Paraphrase de la Marche de Giuseppe Donizetti composée pour Sa Majesté le Sultan Abdul Medjid-Khan. The title itself had my mouth watering.

“Next came the reality check. The Hummel variations were, at best, predictable. Moschele’s work was nowhere to be found. Giuseppe Donizetti wrote only military marches for wind ensembles. Liszt’s paraphrase would merely give more ammunition to those who claim that most of his music consists of shallow piano gymnastics. And Her Excellency had, by the time she divorced Omer Pasha and moved to London, lost any inkling of Turkish flavor. Nevertheless, the super­power status of the Ottoman Empire, and European fascination and infatuation with it, ensured that there was still plenty from which to choose for this program.”

Piano Sonata in A Major, K. 331

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

No piano recital on this subject would be possible without Mozart’s Sonata K. 331 with its Alla Turca finale. Completed in 1783 (a year after Abduction from the Seraglio), the work offers an interesting collection of styles and influences. The first movement is, atypically, a set of variations on a most gracious and very Western theme set to a siciliana rhythm. The six variations provide a glimpse into the world of Mozart the improviser. He elaborates on the theme effortlessly, from breathless sighs that Cherubino might have sung in the first variation and the subdued lament of the third variation in the minor key to the boyishly exuberant Allegro of the final variation.

The traditional Menuetto movement starts off as a formality. In reality, a number of contemporary composers could have written it. In the Trio, however, Mozart shows why we still revel in his music 250 years after his birth. Not only is the theme one of wondrous and simple beauty, the way he distributes the voicing is breathtaking.

The final movement, known as the “Rondo Alla Turca,” is one of the most famous and recognizable of Mozart’s works. What did Mozart or his audience in Vienna really know about Turkish music? Aside from accented rolled chords that evoke Janissary drums, certainly very little authentic Turkish music is found here. As the great musicologist H. C. Robbins wrote, “the alla turca music had the same effect on people as nowadays spy stories about Russia during the Cold War had for people in the West: a frisson of fear.”

Music of the Sayyids and the Dervishes

Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1872–1949)
Thomas de Hartmann (1885–1956)

Undoubtedly, the mystic, philosopher, and teacher Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff knew Turkish music firsthand. Gurdjieff thought of himself primarily as a teacher who helped his disciples reach a higher level of consciousness. He traveled widely, particularly in the Middle East. In his quest to understand human nature, he became convinced that music of different cultures carried the essential imprint of each other.

Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann was one of his pupils, and he helped Gurdjieff notate a remarkable amount of music. How much of it consists of their own musical ideas inspired by local music and how many are reliable transcriptions of actual folk music is hard to tell. According to Hartmann, “Gurdjieff sometimes whistled or played on the piano with one finger a very complicated sort of melody—as are all Eastern melodies, although at first they seem to be monotonous. . . . It was not easy to notate. While listening to him play, I had to scribble down at feverish speed the shifts and turns of the melody, sometimes with repetitions of just two notes. But in what rhythm? How to mark the accentuation? Often there was no hint of Western meters. And the harmony that could support the Eastern tonality of the melody could only gradually be guessed.”

Among all of Gurdjieff works, his Music of the Sayyids and the Dervishes is most characteristic of the musical idiom of the Middle East. The Sayyids are considered to be direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad. Dervishes are Sufi Muslim monks known for their extreme poverty and austerity. One way they try to reach religious ecstasy is through music and dance. Four of the five items selected for this evening’s performance are in a typical two-part form consisting of a taksim (a rhapsodic, introductory improvisation) and a rhythmic dance, one of which is a distinctive Dervish dance.

Seven Balkan Dances

Marko Tajcevic (1900–1984)

Serbian composer Marko Tajcevic wrote Seven Balkan Dances in the early twentieth century. These virtuoso miniatures, not unlike Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, take a stylized approach to the folk music from the Balkans. The Ottoman Empire ruled all the Balkan nations at one point or another from the fourteenth through the nineteenth century, so its influence on every aspect of life, including music, was enormous. The Seven Balkan Dances have enjoyed great popularity in their time: Arthur Rubinstein and Ignaz Friedman performed them, and Jascha Heifetz arranged them for violin and piano.

—Pedja Mužijević


Pedja Mužijević, piano

Born in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, Pedja Mužijević studied piano with Vladimir Krpan at the Academy of Music in Zagreb before continuing his education at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and the Juilliard School in New York City. His mentors included pianists Joseph Kalichstein and Jerome Lowenthal, harpsichordist Albert Fuller, and violinists Robert Mann and Joel Smirnoff. Mužijević made his New York recital debut in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall as a recipient of the Juilliard School’s William Petschek Award. He now lives in New York and performs around the globe.

In terms of repertoire, Mr. Mužijević has built a reputation as one of the most adventurous pianists, defining his career with creative programming, unusual combinations of new and old music, and lasting collaborations with artists and ensembles. In addition to performances of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century repertoire on period instruments, he also promotes the music of such contemporary composers as Knussen, Carter, Cage, Corigliano, Ades, and Wuorinen, among many others. Mužijević toured with ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov in “Solos with Piano or Not . . .” throughout the United States and Europe, and with Simon Keenlyside in modern dancer and choreographer Trisha Brown’s staged version of Schubert’s Winterreise in New York, London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Lucerne, and Melbourne.

His symphonic engagements include performances with the Atlanta Symphony, Dresden Philharmonic, Milwaukee Symphony, New Jersey Symphony, Orquesta Sinfonica in Montevideo, Residentie Orkest in The Hague, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Santa Fe Pro Musica, Shinsei Nihon Orchestra in Tokyo, and Zagreb Philharmonic. He has played solo recitals at Alice Tully Hall and The Frick Collection in New York; the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC; Casals Hall and Bunka Kaikan in Tokyo; Teatro Municipal in Santiago de Chile; Verbier in Switzerland; and the Aldeburgh Festival in Great Britain.

His solo recordings include Haydn Dialogues, Sonatas and Other Interludes, as well as two CDs on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fortepianos—a Schumann Salon and Mozart and Beethoven quintets for piano and woodwinds. His many honors include top prize in the Busoni International Piano Competition and a finalist diploma in the Naumburg International Piano Competition, as well as special prizes of the Chopin Society (Warsaw) and the Gulbenkian Foundation (Lisbon).

Currently, Mr. Mužijević is the artistic administrator at Baryshnikov Arts Center (New York), artistic advisor to Tippet Rise Arts Center in Montana, and a director of the residency programs at the Banff Centre.


This podcast was organized by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording and editing by Andy Finch and Suraya Mohamed. Web production by Gio Camozzi. Copyediting by Nancy Eickel and Ian Fry. Special thanks to the artist for granting permission to share his performance at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. The concert was presented in 2006 as part of the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series and in conjunction with the exhibition Style and Status: Imperial Costumes from Ottoman Turkey.

The Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series was established in memory of Dr. Eugene Meyer III and Mary Adelaide Bradley Meyer. It has been generously supported by Elizabeth E. Meyer, E. Bradley Meyer, and the New York Community Trust—The Island Fund; the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series Endowment; and numerous private donors.