What does the grand piano in the corner mean? Classical music in Turkish TV series
Author: Nevin Şahin
22 MAY 2020
In an elegant fine-dine restaurant, Zeynep Yılmaz (Sevda Erginci) and Alihan Taşdemir (Onur Tuna) are diving into a small talk on their idiosyncratic differences. Alihan, the owner of a big aviation company, is an NYU graduate and the son of a rich family whose sister was once married to the director of the biggest conglomerate, “the King” Halit Argun (Talat Bulut). Alihan tells how much he enjoys being among crowds while Zeynep, an executive assistant who happened to start working for Alihan when he bought the company she was working at, living in a rented apartment with her sister in a rather poor neighborhood of housewives in Cihangir, talks about her way of relaxing alone at home. “We are in constant conflict with you,” says Alihan flirtatiously. Zeynep sighs and responds ironically, “I wonder why.” Alihan pretends not to understand and insists on asking why. Zeynep replies “in a cliché Turkish movie manner”: “Because we live in different worlds, can that be the reason why?” Following this blunt expression, we hear the piano in the restaurant get louder. Zeynep keeps on explaining how socially different they are but Alihan continues with the conflict, saying that a good story needs conflict at the exposition so that it can proceed into the resolution. Zeynep doesn’t seem to surrender and Alihan abruptly grabs his head in his hands. Feeling uncomfortable, Zeynep asks what’s wrong with him but doesn’t understand the response “Pressing wrong!” Perplexed, she asks what’s going on. He explains further: “The man is pressing the wrong keys again and again.” She is suddenly astonished by the fact that Alihan, besides his gorgeous CV, is also into music. He doesn’t disappoint her, and the audience either. While they are waiting for their desserts, he gets off from his chair, says with a calm and assuring voice “With your permission!”, strolls towards the piano, and starts playing Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2.
“Alihan mesmerizes everybody – Yasak Elma episode 5”
The lockdown brought by the pandemic, closing all venues of entertainment instantly and straining the citizens home during rather long curfews, left most people with a small number of alternatives to watching series. I myself wasn’t out of that vortex and decided to take a semi-academic look into Turkish TV series, which are especially popular in the MENA region and have been recently becoming popular in the Americas. The script above is from a prime series named Yasak Elma (‘Forbidden Fruit’, literally: ‘Forbidden Apple’), aired on Fox TV since March 2018. Into the third season, the series is full of intrigue and power struggles among the rich and the poor, telling much about social stratification in a simple and shared code of Turkish TV series, music being among the most significant markers. Whenever you hear the Common Practice Period (1650-1900) timbre, you witness something related to the rich characters who are never out of the rich-poor conflict. I first recognized this relationship in Aşk-ı Memnu (‘Forbidden Love’), produced by Ay Yapım in 2008 for Kanal D upon Halit Ziya Uşaklıgil’s late 19th century novel. The Ziyagil family had a music room in their mansion with a grand piano, and the love affairs of the daughter Nihal (Hazal Kaya), the step-nephew Behlül (Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ) and the wife Bihter (Beren Saat) were associated with piano performances of Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 Op. posth. in episode 21 and 53, and Mozart’s Fantasia K. 397 in episode 59. A similar Bourdieusian distinction occurred in Doktorlar (‘Doctors’), adapted from Grey’s Anatomy. The cardiac surgeon Dr. Suat (Bekir Aksoy), with an aristocratic background, enjoyed classical music and was shocked by the fact that his girlfriend Dr. Zenan (Melike Güner), a poor village girl, didn’t know his favorite violinist İlker Aysel in episode 21. Zenan’s response to being criticized for not knowing this violin virtuoso was striking in terms of taste and social class: “Is it a crime not to know a famous musician? This is Turkey, classical musicians can’t get popular here.” Not only adapted scripts utilized classical music in that manner, though. Scenarist Meriç Acemi depicted Ömer İplikçi (Barış Arduç) of Kiralık Aşk (‘Love for Rent’) both as the rich and charismatic leading role and as a classical music enthusiast. A shoe designer with training in Italy and owner of the company Passionis, specialized in high heels, Ömer represents the high-class with his background and profession, and also with his routine of listening to Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia while drawing new designs. Of course, his story is full of class conflict, paralleling the other TV series mentioned.
“Aşk-ı Memnu episode 53 Hazal Kaya piano scene”
Associating high economic and cultural capital with taste in Western art music only is a relatively new trend in Turkish TV series. The cult series of the late 1990s, İkinci Bahar (‘Second Spring’), had an all-encompassing music selection from Baroque music to Ottoman court music to represent the aristocratic richness of side characters, having Bach’s violin concerto BWV 1043 in the fete at Murat’s (Devrim Nas) manor in episode 3 and having Gâzî Giray Hân’s Mahur Peşrev in the fete at Ceren’s (İpek Değer) villa in episode 29. Although having different historical and musicological connotations, this preference might have pioneered the trend in Turkish TV series to go for music in the public domain so as not to pay extra copyright fees to composers. But the aim of the music director not to exceed the series budget seems to be only one of the reasons of the recurrence of classical music in Turkish TV series. Şölen Şanlı’s analysis of Turkish TV audience reception neatly discusses two distinct consumption preferences among the Turkish audience and these preferences in terms of socioeconomic background and cultural taste reflect the contemporary representations of class dichotomy in Turkish TV series. A further understanding of classical music’s function in social stratification and taste in the Turkish media necessitates detailed analyses of the series, which means watching more TV for the researcher.
Another episode of Yasak Elma continues in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata Op. 27 No. 2, when Halit Argun, his wife Yıldız (Eda Ece), and his servant Aysel (Vildan Vatansever) are poisoned to death. Halit falls down the dining table, Yıldız manages to grovel past the grand piano in the corner.
 The Cihangir scenes were shot in a location quite close to the Orient-Institut Istanbul, some on the same street as the institute’s Moralı premises.
Şölen Şanlı: “Boundary Work in an Era of Transformation: Television, Taste and Distinction in Turkey”, International Journal of Communication 7 (2013): 906-928. https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/938/893
Nevin Şahin earned her PhD in Sociology in 2016 upon her research on music and power among performers of Mevlevi music, which was awarded Thesis of the Year by the Graduate School of Social Sciences at Middle East Technical University. In 2018, she joined the Corpus Musicae Ottomanicae team at the Orient-Institut Istanbul.