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Mehter (Modern Turkish) or Mehteran (Ottoman Turkish مهتران literally "pre-eminences") was an Ottoman army band which played martial tunes during military campaigns. The mehteran was usually associated with the Janissary corps. The music of mehteran is called "mehter marşı".
The documents which show that the mehter musikisi expresses the feeling of Turkish soldiers go back to very early times. "Mehterhane" is the name that was used for the group of players before the acceptance of the military band by the Ottomans.
Mehter as Ottoman military music arose in the era of Osman Gazi and had been played in the wars and in ceremonies customarily organized for various everyday purposes. There is not, however, any definite information about this organization until the era of Fatih Sultan Mehmed. With Fatih, while the establishment of the empire was developing, a radical improvement began, as well, in the organization of the mehter.
Mehter tunes are found as far back as the 16th century. Nevertheless, it is known that Abdülkadir Meragi, the great Turkish music master, came to the Ottoman lands during the era of Yıldırım Beyazıd Han and composed some mehter melodies for the Turkish military. In that period, Nefiri Behram Ağa and Emir-i Hac also wrote some mehter tunes. Mehter bands played some compositions of Hasan Can and Gazi Giray Han of Kırım, as well. There was great development of Turkish music in the 17th century. In the mean time, mehters such as Zurnazenbaşı (head of the zurna players) İbrahim Ağa, Zurnazen Daği, Ahmed Çelebi from Edirne, Mehter Ahmed from Edirne also composed mehter tunes.
Evliya Çelebi provided important data about the mehterhane and mehter musikisi in the middle of the 17th century. "There are 300 artists in mehterhane-i Hümayun (the mehterhane of the palace) in Istanbul. These are quite precious and well paid people. There is additionally a mehter takımı of 40 people in Yedikule since there is a citadel. They are on duty three times a day, in other words they give three concerts, so that public listens to Turkish military music. This is a law of Fatih. Moreover, there are 1,000 mehter artists in addition to them in Istanbul. Their bands are in Eyüp Sultan, Kasımpaşa (kapdan-ı Deryalık, the center of [the] Turkish Naval Forces), Galata, Tophane, Rumelihisarı, Beykoz, Anadolu Hisarı, Üsküdar and Kız Kulesi. These mehter bands are on duty (i.e. give concerts) twice a day, in the daybreak and sunset hour."
Mehterhane preserved its existence, changing continuously, until the Janissary corps was abolished. According to its final form, each one was composed of nine davuls, nine zurnas, nine nakkares, nine cymbals and nine horns. This band was called Dokuz katlı mehterhane (mehterhane composed of instruments, each instrument's number is nine). Mehter had many improvements in its music and performance parallel to its organization and establishment. Furthermore, renovations in the areas of art and culture influenced the music also. The studies and compositions of the music teachers of the palace in the 17th century such as Hanende Recep Çelebi, Zurnazenbaşı İbrahim Ağa, Eyyubi Mehmet Çelebi, Solakzade Mehmed Hendemi (who was also a very famous historian) and Selim III, the sultan and one of the great music masters of 17th century, had influence on the renovation of the mehter musikisi and the growth of the repertoire.
This well known and traditional organization was annulled while the radical and western types of reforms took place in the Ottoman Empire in the era of Mahmut II (1808–1839). As European-style music shows became more commonplace with the impact of the reformist efforts of the palace and its environment, Mahmud II left the mehter aside and wanted a military band to be established in accordance with Western precedents. Muzıka-i Humayun (Royal Band in Ottoman Turkish, the military band of the palace) began officially to function in 1831 and this was the beginning of an obscure period in the history of the mehter', which goes back at least 500 years.
Documents from ancient times to the present indicate that yurağ (zurna), sıbızgı (sipsili nefir, the horn), the horn of Hun (şahnay), burguv (the horn), kuğruv (kös), tümrük (davul) ve çeng (the cymbals) were the instruments in the tuğ band of the Turks in central Asia.
There were two types of zurna used by the Ottomans. One of them called the kabazurna having a low tone was played in the mehterhanes of the Ottomans and Kırım. 100 instrumentalists had played the kabazurna in the 17th century in Istanbul. The other, called the curazurna, small in size and high-pitched, was accompanied by the davul or the çifte na'ra. Evliya Çelebi wrote "There are boathouses belonging to the sovereigns. If the sultan wants to go to the new-palace or somewhere else, he travels at the back of a light galley under the precious dome on the jewel throne by watching the waterside houses, vineyards and orchards and shipyards on the side of Haliç with the accompaniment of only the curazurna and the çifte na'ra performing", while he was talking about the garden of the shipyard in Istanbul. The curazurna as the small zurna was planned to be added to the military mehter takımı, which was intended to be established by Enver Paşa in 1917. Kabazurnas were made in Istanbul in the 16th century.
The musical instruments played in the mehterhane of the Ottomans could be classified as follows:
The Kabazurna, the Cura zurna, the Horn, the Mehter pipe, the clarinet
The Kös, the Davul, the Nakkare, the Tabılbaz, the Def
The Cymbals and the Rattles
The Cymbals, the Çoğan
The Mehter bands were divided structurally into squadrons having a commander called bölükbaşı. The number of these squadrons was equal to the number of the kinds of the musical instrument; squadrons of the zurna players, of the horn players, of the nakkare players, of the cymbal players, of the davul players, of the kös players, of the çoğan players.
Zurnazenler Bölüğü (the squadron of the zurna players) had a squadron master called the zurnazen who was also called the mehterbaşı (head of the mehter). Other members of the squadron were called zurnacı or zurnazen whose rank was that of a soldier. Zurnazens were dressed in a purple quilted cap wrapped with a white destar on their head, a white robe, a sash around the waist, a red shalwar, yellow Yemeni (light, flat heeled shoes) and a red biniş (cübbe).
The zurna is the most fundamental music instrument of the mehter band. It can play all the melodies in solo. Its sound is colorful, lively, pastoral, imposing, emotional and frisky. Sliding sounds as well as short and sharp sounds can be obtained. Many masters of this musical instrument, which is the most convenient instrument for virtuoso playing among Turkish instruments, such as zurnazenbaşı İbrahim Ağa and Daği Ahmed Çelebi from Edirne, whose names are still very well known, come to mind. Moreover, there were great zurna masters among the Ottoman pashas such as zurnazen Mustafa Paşa.
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