Ruhi Su: Founder of Turkish folk opera music

Ruhi Su was the melodious voice of the oppressed
with his folk songs shaped by his experience in opera
Music was one of the major concepts of the Kemalist cultural revolution. During the second part of the 1920s, the Kemalist single-party rule changed the alphabet and the calendar, obliged men and women to wear Western clothing and reformed the education system from top to bottom. However, people continued to consume the traditional tastes of arts and culture in their daily lives.
So, President Mustafa Kemal and the political leadership of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) decided to create new institutions in order to intervene in and change the artistic and cultural tastes of ordinary people.
First, in 1924, the Kemalist state founded the Musiki Muallim Mektebi (School for Music Teachers) in order to educate music teachers for high schools. The initial teachers of the Musiki Muallim Mektebi were the musicians belonging to the Republic Philharmonic Orchestra (CSO) and had only six students chosen from the Erkek Muallim Mektebi (Boys’ School for Teachers). After a while, the number of students was increased with the orphans from the Balmumcu Orphanage of Istanbul. Musiki Muallim Mektebi was fundamental for the State Conservatory in Ankara.
Second, the state reformed the Ottoman Darülelhan (literally: “House of Melodies”) in Istanbul into a School of Music Teachers, which formed the fundamental of the State Conservatory in Istanbul.
These two institutions raised schoolteachers with a Western understanding of music and raised many musicians including opera singers, violinists and pianists, etc. Ordinary graduates of these two schools became schoolteachers while some of their classmates became compositors and music practitioners, most of whom continued the ways of the Western music styles, while a small group later created a synthesis of the Turkish and European music. Perhaps, the most significant individual belonging to the second group was Ruhi Su, who composed, arranged, played and sung Turkish folk songs within the framework of opera.
Early life
Mehmet Ruhi Su was born on Oct. 20, 1912, in southern Van province. He lost his parents during the Great War and was adopted by a family living in Adana province. Though not officially confirmed, his son Ilgın Ruhi Su thinks that his father was of Armenian descent since he was born in Van, adopted in Adana and had no relatives at all.
His foster parents were poor people, who had to flee from the Armenian gangs slaughtering the villagers in Adana after the French occupation of the province after the Great War. Eventually, Mehmet Ruhi was put into the state orphanage in Adana. As a child, Mehmet Ruhi learned a lot of Turkish folk songs in this city. He said later, “Singing folk songs is a love affair to me. I lived the best loves of my life as I was singing. I never betrayed the folk songs, neither did they betray me. I am greened, I am flowered as I sing.”
Mehmet Ruhi began to learn how to play the violin when he was at the state orphanage in Adana. After that, he enrolled at a military high school in Istanbul, which he left for Adana High School. He was admitted at the Adana School for Teachers before he eventually passed the exam for the Musiki Muallim Mektebi in Ankara. Meanwhile, he married a nurse, and they had a boy named Güngör.
Music teacher
Ruhi Su graduated from the Musiki Muallim Mektebi in 1936, and from the State Conservatory in 1942. During high school years, he made friends with Hamdi Konur, who was the founder of the left-wing Turkish Teachers’ Syndicate (TÖS) and came from a state orphanage, too. The two young leftists used to buy political books and journals from the Hachette Bookstore in Ankara province, which caught the attention of the police; the police raided their house and Ruhi Su was interrogated for being a communist for the first time.
He wasn’t charged of any crime and became a music teacher after graduating from the Musiki Muallim Mektebi. He taught music at several high schools in Ankara. He worked with Aşık Veysel Şatıroğlu, a famous folk singer, at the Hasanoğlan Village Institute. He also enrolled at the Singing Department of the State Conservatory.
‘Bass-baritone sings folk songs’
Su had to leave teaching after the State Opera Act was enacted in 1945. He became a full-time opera singer and sung in various operas as a part of the State Opera stage until 1952. Meanwhile, he divorced his wife. Su never gave up singing folk songs, he had a music show “Basbariton Ruhi Su Türküler Söylüyor” (“Bass-Baritone Ruhi Su Sings Folk Songs”) on Ankara State Radio between 1942-1945.
Su was arrested in 1952 for his affiliation with Turkey’s Communist Party (TKP). He was convicted to five years in prison and 20 months in probation. This was an end for him as an opera singer since the only opera stage was owned by the state and he was now a convicted felon, who couldn’t work as a public servant.
Ruhi Su fell in love with Sıdıka Umut, who was arrested and tortured like him at the infamous Sansaryan Han (Sansaryan Building). Su wrote one of his most famous songs, namely “Mahsus Mahal” (“Private Place”) after learning that Sıdıka Umut, the woman he loved, was being tortured at the Sansaryan, too. The two got engaged in prison in order to see each other since the government only allowed family members to see inmates. Su composed many of his folk songs in prison. Prison life made him more populist as he was closer to the ordinary people after being behind bars.
Ruhi Su composed Nazım Hikmet’s poetry beside to the authentic folk songs he arranged and his original folk compositions. He became a leftist public figure in the 1960s, when socialism was on the rise. Though he lost many of his relationships after he served several years in prison for being a communist, some people chose to work with him. Atıf Yılmaz had Ruhi Su compose the soundtrack of “Karacoğlan’ın Kara Sevdası” (“Karacoğlan’s Blind Love”). Besides, Kazım Taşkent, the director of Yapı Kredi Bank invited him to establish his own music club. On the other hand, political pressure was an obstacle for him. Su played and sung folk songs at various music halls in Istanbul.
Ruhi Su established the Dostlar Korosu (Friends Chorus) in 1974. Together they released various albums and gave numerous concerts, which made the “Ruhi Su” name popular even though he was stamped as a communist.
The military coup of Sept. 12, 1980, completely silenced Ruhi Su. He lived in silence until he died on Sept. 20, 1985. He left more than a dozen 45-rpm discs and 11 LPs behind. His family founded the Ruhi Su Foundation after his death. His son continued to launch newer albums with the help of private recordings of his.
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