Timur and Bayezid I: Vivaldi’s Turkish Delight

Today’s musical November post takes us back again to Italy, however this we will be promenading down the 18th century alongside the music of one of my favourite composers since I was a child: Antonio Vivaldi. My dad used to play a lot of classical music to me when I was little, and I grew big in my affection for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, being Autumn- fittingly enough- my chosen one. Nevertheless, I will be talking in here about a piece of his, which perhaps is a bit less known, which is the opera Bajazet. Bajazet, also known as Il Tamerlano was composed in 1735, and tells a story of love and war during the 14th century, with the stage for the action being Turkey and the Balkans area. From the musical point of view Bajazet is a very interesting piece of its period due to its arias. In the 18th century, it was quite a common practice to re-use areas from other operas and musical pieces, creating what is known as a pastiche: so a pick-and-mix of your suitable and favourites from other artists- a bit like creative plagiarism. This may sound bad, but it was quite common; not only Vivaldi but other great composers such as Handel used this technique in their work. However, this is not to say it was not an original piece- it was- and in fact Vivaldi himself did compose the arias for some of the characters in his opera, mainly those for Bajazet, Asteria and Idaspe.

So what is this opera about? Very quickly explained, it narrates the event during the conflict between Tamerlane or Timur, ruler of the Tartars, and Bajazet- better known in history as Bayezid I- who was the lord of the Turks. Bajazet is presented as the now captive of Tamerlane, who is instigating him not only for his land but for his daughter’s (Asteria) hand in marriage, even though he has already made arrangements to marry Irene, princess of Trebisond. To sort out the problem, Tamerlane- a real charmer- gives Irene to his Greek ally, Andronico who, of course, happens to be in love with Asteria too. With the setting for a classical tragedy, Asteria ends up with Tamerlane, which alarms his father as he fears his daughter has betrayed him, however only to find out that Asteria actually plans on murdering the tyrant that has her father captive. Unfortunately, the plot is revealed and both father and daughter are jailed, but Asteria has not given up yet, and as servant of Tamerlane, tries once again to poison him…She would have succeeded if it wasn’t for Irene, who notices and warns him, getting into Tamerlano’s good book again with a bran new and shiny promise of marriage. All three, Bajazet, Asteria and Andronico are then taken away…Bajazet unable to cope with this torture kills himself. His daughter, in despair, comes back to their cruel lord to beg for her death, but in a sudden twist of events Tamerlane decides to forgive her and Andronico and let them be together…Poor Bajazet, is the only casualty of this story, yet his name is in the title…So who was Bayezid I?!

Bayezid was indeed the Sultan of the Ottoman empire from 1389-1402. He came to the throne right after the Battle of Kosovo, which made Serbia become a vassal of the Sultanate. In essence, he was engaged in continuous bellicose acts trying to pacify and gain control over the Ottoman areas of influence. He reinforced Ottoman power in the Anatolian peninsula, and conquered Bulgaria and norther Greece by 1395. But his desire for conquer took him further up to Wallachia, where he dared crossing the Danube and going to war with Mircea the Elder. But Wallachia did not fall to his control, and Bayezid had to push back after the defeat at the Battle of Rovine. Going back home, Bayezi then turned his interest to the ever lasting power in the Middle East: the Byzantine Empire. Thus he launched what is known as the Second Ottoman Siege of Constantinople, that lasted until 1402. He was effectively the man with the most powerful army in the Middle East and the Muslim world…But such a power makes more enemies than friends rather quickly. The Anatolian beyliks had been subjugated to Ottoman control for a long time, and as it happens in history, people who are oppressed for long, wait for any opportunity to turn the tables. Fate’s name was Timur (Tamerlane in Vivaldi’s opera), and he was determined to see the Sultan’s army crushed and turned to dust. Timur’s base of power was in Central Asia. He was aware of the issue between the Sultan and the beyliks, so he rallied his men and joined forces with the oppressed….Fate knew his name…

At the Battle of Ankara, 1402, Timur’s army walked over the troops of Bayezid I and captured him, creating therefore the plot for our musical piece. As an interesting side note, it has been disputed by specialists on the subject that the accounts show a bad treatment of Bayezid by Timur and his people, which fits perfectly with our story. Nevertheless, it seems that there are some records from Timur’s own court that suggest this was rather the opposite and that the Sultan was well treated and cared for even at his death. But, of course…History is written by the winners…is it not? Such a juice story has been reinterpreted thousands of time. Not only Vivaldi brought back to live these two warlords. As an example, the Habsburgs commended a cycle of paintings narrating his story, shortly after the Ottoman Empire pressed onto Europe once more, and  in fact at the Habsburgs doorstep…Whether you prefer the facts to the idealized version of the story, or even if you are skeptical about who was the bad guy in here, if there was a bad guy at all, one things still prevails: Western delight with the stories from the East, either as lovers or as evil tyrants, has been fascinating the minds of musicians, artists and writers, up to our current times.


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