The Abduction from the Seraglio, K. 384 (1781-82)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, 1756; d. Vienna, 1791)
In the summer of 1781, Mozart wrote to his father, describing his excitement about the new opera libretto that he had just been given:”The libretto is quite good. The subject is Turkish [and] I intend to write the overture…in the style of Turkish music.” The Abduction from the Seraglio plays upon cultural misunderstandings between Islamic and Christian world views, a topic clearly not yet exhausted. In the city’s collective memory, the Ottoman Empire’s two- month siege of Vienna 1683 and the two-day battle that settled the matter in favor of the Holy Roman Empire still loomed large. By 1782 the Viennese had developed a fashionable taste for things Turkish; the Turks had, among other things, introduced Vienna to that most Viennese of beverages, coffee. The alla turca musical style, mimicking the percussive cymbal-and-triangle music of a Turkish Janissary military band, also remained popular in Vienna in Mozart’s day. Mozart had already composed his”Turkish” Violin Concerto (KV 219) and a”Rondo alla turca” finale to his Piano Sonata in A major (KV 331). A musical play involving a harrowing escape from the Pasha’s own harem, then, was just the thing.
Mozart could sometimes be an astute businessman as well as a great composer. Four days after the premiere of The Abduction from the Seraglio in Vienna, the composer received a letter from his father, with an urgent request to compose a new symphony and send it to Salzburg without delay. Mozart wrote back that he worried about losing money if he put off his planned wind-band arrangement of tunes from The Abduction. Someone else might do it first—a serious concern in the days before copyright. Mozart quickly composed the requested symphony but, alas, never did make the wind arrangement.
The Abduction calls for five singers, two speaking parts and, in a staged version in the opera house, a mute role. True to its origins in the German Singspiel (“Song-Play”), the action advances largely through spoken text, not through Italianate sung recitative, and the social classes of the protagonists are reflected in their musical styles. Higher-born figures get the most elaborate arias, while servants get more straightforward music; the Pasha’s overseer gets”Turkish” music. The opera’s finale, where each major character gets one more brief chance to shine in the spotlight, is also part of the Singspiel tradition.
The Abduction from the Seraglio gave Mozart an important professional success while he was still establishing a beachhead in Vienna. There were also personal considerations. In the opera, Belmonte rescues his fiancée, Constanza, from the Pasha Selim’s harem at the last, crucial minute. Three weeks after the first performance of the opera, Mozart married his own fiancée named Constanze (Weber). In a later revival of The Abduction from the Seraglio, Constanze Weber Mozart’s sister, Aloysia, sang the role of Constanza.
Who’s who in The Abduction from the Seraglio
Belmonte — A Spanish nobleman who rescues his fiancée from the Pasha’s harem. He poses as an Italian architect in order to gain access to the Pasha’s palace.
Constanza — A Spanish lady, eternally constant to her beloved Belmonte but also pursued by the Turkish Pasha, who holds her in captivity. She shows wit and mettle in her actions as well as in her music. She and Belmonte are reunited at the end of the opera.
Blonde — Constanza’s English maid, also a captive of the Pasha. She is engaged to Pedrillo. Osmin also has designs on her, too. She can sing extremely high.
Pedrillo — Belmonte’s servant, another captive of the Pasha. He now supervises the Pasha’s gardens. He is eventually reunited with Blonde.
Osmin — Overseer of the Pasha’s country house and the Pasha’s shady point man. He has his eye on Blonde. He can sing super-low notes.
Bassa Selim — The Pasha, a high-ranking official in the Ottoman Empire who loves Constanza. His father and Belmonte’s father were mortal foes. His goodhearted forgiveness at the end of the opera qualifies him for the role of Benevolent Despot.
Klaas — A sailor. When the two pairs of lovers (Belmonte/Costanza and Pedrillo/Blonde) make plans to escape and sail away, Klaas is persuaded to assist. However, Osmin foils the escape plan.
A few favorite musical moments
Overture — It sets a”Turkish” mood and introduces thematic material to be heard later in the opera. It elides into the first scene of the opera.
Janissaries’ Chorus — Musicians of the court serenade the Pasha and Constanza as they arrive by boat. The”Turkish” style, as understood by Western Europeans in the eighteenth century, calls for piccolo, percussion instruments and an unusual musical scale.
Blonde’s aria — With words directed at Osmin and his unwanted attentions, Blonde warns that girls’ hearts are won with tenderness and kindness, not with commands and tormenting.
Constanza’s arias — Hard on the heels of a heartfelt, despairing aria, Constanza finds new courage and resolves to defy the Pasha. If torture awaits her, she will find liberation in death.
Quartet (Act II Finale)
— The pairs of lovers rejoice at meeting again. Doubts overtake the men, who ask whether the women have been faithful during their captivity. The women become indignant, and Blonde slaps Pedrillo. Finally, there is reconciliation, as all sing,”Long live love!”
Belmonte’s aria — The lover calls on the power of love as he anticipates that he will soon escape with Constanza.
Pedrillo’s aria — Accompanied by guitar-like strings, Pedrillo describes his situation and tries to get Blonde to hurry up so they can escape.
Osmin’s aria — Having foiled the lovers’ plans, Osmin relishes his triumph. He thinks he foresees the captives’ execution.
Vaudeville Finale — In a”Vaudeville” finale, the primary characters individually deliver their parting shots, while all of them join together for the refrain that separates the solo moments. The order of delivery is Belmonte, Constanza, Pedrillo, Blonde and Osmin, but the Janissary chorus gets the final word, in praise of the Pasha’s mercy.
Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.