Diva of Turkish art music Müzeyyen Senar continues to conquer hearts with her unforgettable songs.
It was December 1936. A young girl climbed into a large motorcar waiting at the door and rode to Dolmabahçe Palace. The well-known figures of the day were seated around a table in the great hall; Atatürk was in the center. Unable to conceal her excitement, the girl approached the edge of the chair on Atatürk’s right and handed him a list of her repertoire. He leafed through its pages and marked what he liked. Then he said, “Okay, let’s see. Sing a little and we’ll listen.” Tatyos Efendi’s song in the ‘hicazkâr’ mode resounded through the halls of Dolmabahçe Palace sung by Müzeyyen Senar, a young art singer just 18 years old: “Shame prevents me from expressing my condition/I’ve had enough, don’t make me more unhappy, I’m devastated already.”
Many years later she would describe that moment, when she sang for Atatürk, in a book about her life entitled ‘Diva of the Republic: Müzeyyen Senar’ and written by Radi Dikici: “I suddenly felt very happy. All I could see before me was myself, my songs and the Great Leader.”
FROM BURSA TO ÜSKÜDAR
The story of Müzeyyen Senar, the most powerful living voice of Turkish art music that Atatürk listened to with such awe, began in Bursa in 1918. Her parents’ third child after brothers İsmet and Hilmi, from the day she was born Senar fell asleep every night to the hauntingly beautiful songs sung by her mother, Zehra Hanım, who had a voice as clear as a bell.
When she was only six years old, she already knew all the popular Turkish folk songs by heart. And her sweet voice could always be heard at the family gatherings and weddings in which she took part with her mother. But at that tender age she suffered an unfortunate setback. For some reason she woke up one morning unable to speak except with a stutter. She could only explain herself with great difficulty, but when she sang the problem went away. Indeed she even resorted to singing as a way of expressing herself. Then, at the age of twelve, her life changed forever when she followed her mother to Istanbul. Her beautiful voice and musical talent were recognized immediately in Istanbul. She took the first step towards her musical education by entering the Anatolia (Üsküdar) Musical Society in 1931, which was later followed by further training at the Society of Oriental Music. As a fresh new page was opening in her life, Müzeyyen Senar also found an opportunity to make the acquaintance of the most prominent composers of the period: Mustafa Nâfiz Irmak, Osman Nihat Akın, Selahattin Pınar, Yesari Asım Arsoy and many others.
One thing led to another and in 1932 she passed through the portals of the state radio, which would ensure the recognition of the masses. She was only fourteen. Senar, who could only reach the microphone if she stood on a box, conquered listeners’ hearts in no time, learning all the major works of the art music repertoire as she did so and further developing her gifts by what she gleaned from such major artists as Safiye Ayla, Selma Hanım, Lale Belkıs, Nimet Hanım, Hikmet Rıza and Feriha Hanım, with whom she shared the same work. Before long the face of this child singer, whose beautiful voice charmed listeners, became a subject of widespread curiosity and nightclub owners began vying with each other to present her. She appeared in public for the first time at Ibrahim Dervişzade’s Belvü, an Istanbul music hall. She was only fifteen years old and had to inflate her age to get permission to appear on stage.
She cut her first record during the same period. In those early years when her career was taking off so rapidly, she met Sadettin Kaynak through Selahattin Pınar. Sadettin Kaynak would have a special place in the life of Müzeyyen Senar, for this great master would have her, the young girl who was advancing with such sure steps, sing all of the songs he composed from here on out. In 1938 she received an offer from Mesut Cemil Bey to work at the newly opened Ankara State Radio. Thus did Senar’s Ankara years begin.
SENAR TAKES THE STAGE
Another job she undertook in this period was that of singing songs for Turkish remakes of Arab films. Her first venture in this field was the film called ‘Leila and Majnun’. New songs were composed for Senar for this film, in the original of which the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum had sung the songs. Senar continued singing in films in years to come, recording the songs for such Turkish films as ‘Saladdin and the Grey Lion’, ‘A Thousand And One Nights’, ‘Osman the Fisherman in Baghdad’, Haroun-al- Rashid’s Favorite’ and ‘The Coffeehouse Beauty’. She also acted in films such as ‘Kerem and Aslı’, ‘Nasreddin Hoja at the Wedding’, and ‘A Mother’s Heart’. Although she thoroughly enjoyed her work for Ankara Radio, she eventually became homesick for Istanbul, a longing that she satisfied by accepting an offer from the Kristal Music Hall. This led to a round of performances at other clubs as well, and soon Istanbul was humming with the sound of Müzeyyen Senar as she heaped fame upon fame at Maxim’s, the Tokatlıyan Hotel, Çakır’s Casino, and the Istanbul and Tepebaşı Music Halls. Müzeyyen Senar also chalked up a first in those years by giving her very first concert abroad in Paris in 1947. The concert, which was given at the Lido, was widely hailed in the Turkish press, and the singer was welcomed with wild enthusiasm upon her return home.
Apart from music halls and the radio, Senar went on tour as well, traveling to the far corners of Anatolia where she bonded with the common people who loved her with all their heart—a love that has never faded despite the passage of the years. As new songs were added to the artist’s repertoire, her circle of admirers steadily widened. But time passed as well, until one day, following a program at the Bebek Casino in 1983, Senar bid farewell to the stage. She continues to make sporadic appearances on stage and television for special occasions.
Approaching ninety today, this grande dame of Turkish art music has lost none of her elegance or her voice. The countless songs that she has immortalized are still sung, and the crystal clear voice that echoed through the halls of Dolmabahçe Palace when she was only 18 years old continues to flow like an endless river and strum heartstrings even today.
We would like to thank Mr Radi Dikici for making his archive available for the visual materials.