The Kennedy Center

The Abduction from the Seraglio, K. 384

About the Work

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
© Richard Freed

Mozart began work Die Entführung aus dem Serail ("The Abduction from the Seraglio";), using a libretto by Gottlob Stephanie, on June 30, 1781, and completed the score on May 29, 1782. The premiere was given on July 16 of the latter year at the Burg-Theater in Vienna. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed music from this work early in 1949: on January 23 of that year, in a concert conducted by George Enescu, the basso Salvatore Baccaloni sang Osmin's arias "Solche hergelauf'ne Laffen"; and "O, wie will ich Triumphieren,"; and ten days later Howard Mitchell conducted the orchestra's first performance of the Overture. The Overture has been performed by the NSO many times since then; the soprano Beverly Sills sang Constanze's aria "Martern aller Arten,"; with Antal Doráti conducting, on October 20, 1973, and on June 22, 1996, in the course of that year's Mozart Festival with Christopher Hogwood, members of the orchestra performed a suite of excerpts from the opera in an arrangement for wind band by Mozart's contemporary Johann Went. The orchestra's most recent performance of any music from this work was given at Wolf Trap on July 6, 2003, when the basso Morris Robinson sang Osmin's aria "O, wie will ich triumphieren,"; with Emil de Cou conducting.

The orchestra for this work comprises piccolo, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drums, and strings. Duration of this semi-staged concert performance, 95 minutes.

Mozart began writing for the lyric stage when he was eleven years old, and was always at home in the opera house, whether setting a text by Pietro Metastasio that had already been used by other composers or working collaboratively with his peerless librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. It was his prolonged absence from Salzburg to prepare for the Munich premiere of his Idomeneo, which took place there on January 29, 1781, that led at last to his break with his employer the Archbishop of Salzburg, Hieronymus Colloredo. The Archbishop was in Vienna for the celebration of the accession of Joseph II as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and summoned Mozart to meet him there. In Munich he had enjoyed the company and respect of the nobility; upon arriving in Vienna on March 16 he was obliged to take his place at a table reserved for those "below the valets but above the cooks."; A program of his music was given for the Emperor by such luminaries as the violinist Antonio Brunetti and the castrato Antonio Ceccarelli, performing pieces written for them, but the keyboard sonata Mozart had written for himself was not played because the Archbishop would not release him for that engagement. Following a stormy confrontation on May 9, Mozart petitioned for discharge from his position with the archiepiscopal court; Colleredo icily refused, but exactly one month later the desired release was granted, in the form of a contemptuous "you're fired"; administered by the Archbishop's steward Count Arco, according to a letter Mozart wrote to his father (the violinist-composer-pedagogue Leopold Mozart, still in the Archbishop's service in Salzburg), "with a kick on my arse . . . by order of our worthy Prince Archbishop."; Mozart, a son of Salzburg, thereupon became a Viennese, and so remained for the rest of his short life.

He could have won the Viennese easily enough with the brilliance of his keyboard improvisations, and a year later he would begin his phenomenal cycle of post-Salzburg piano concertos, but he set out fairly soon after settling in the capital to write an opera. His last such effort in Vienna had been a German opera--actually a Singspiel, a form sometimes defined as a play with music, sometimes as an opera with a good deal of spoken dialogue, more or less what the French call opera comique--which he left unfinished in 1780 and even without a title. Zaide, as that fragment came to be called when it was published posthumously in 1838, was a "rescue drama,"; and in particular a "Turkish opera";; it was to this genre that he returned for his first major effort in Vienna.

The term "Turkish music"; refers to a particular sort of instrumental color, unsually involving piccolo, cymbals, triangle, and bass drum. Haydn called for "Turkish music"; in his "Military"; Symphony; Beethoven indicated it at the end of his Ninth; Mozart wrote it into one of his sets of german Dances (K. 571, 1789). "Turkish music"; was so popular in the late years of the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth that some early pianos were fitted with a mechanical device that could be operated with the performer's knee to add a jangly, thumping accompaniment to the sounds the keyboard itself produced. Moreover, the effect was imitated without the use of any of the instruments cited here in many conventional works: an obvious example is the last of Mozart's violin concertos, No. 5 in A major, K. 219, which became known as the `Turkish"; Concerto because of such an episode in its finale. Operas whose settings provided opportunities for "Turkish music"; were called "Turkish operas";; the popularity of this genre among the Viennese was yet another consideration in Mozart's undertaking this work as his first Viennese opera.

The Abduction from the Seraglio is sometimes referred to as a "study"; for The Magic Flute, the last of Mozart's operas to reach the stage, a mere nine weeks before his death, but the similarities between these two works are actually quite superficial--and not because the later one is so filled with Masonic symbolism. (Mozart did not join a Masonic lodge until 1784.) Alfred Einstein pointed out that the "distant ancestor"; of The Magic Flute is the music Mozart composed in the late 1770s for Tobias Philipp Freiherr von Gebler's drama Thamos, King of Egypt, and it has to be said that the Seragio is clearly more in the nature of an end product than of a "study"; for something more ambitious; there can be no question at all, in fact, of this work's very direct lineage from Zaide. The scenarios of the two works are quite similar, and there is even a character named Osmin with a similar function in both works. It may be further noted that the original story on which Zaide was based had served earlier for a failed Singspiel by Joseph von Friebert called Das Serail, oder Die unvermittelte Zusammenkunft in der Sclaverei zwischen Vater, Tochter und Son ("The Seraglio, or The Unexpected Encounter in Slavery of Father, Daughter and Son";).

The libretto for The Abduction from the Seraglio was adapted for Mozart by Gottlieb Stephanie the younger from one written earlier by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner for Johann André (1741-1799), who was the first of several composers to write operas on this tale and is remembered now as the founder of a famous publishing house in Offenbach. The Bretzner/André opera, Belmonte und Constanze, was produced in Berlin some fourteen months before the Viennese premiere of Mozart's Seraglio. Bretzner complained strongly about the changes Stephanie made in his text, but the good-natured André declared that both Stephanie's libretto and Mozart's music were superior to what he and Bretzner had produced together. With Mozart's approval, André even arranged the concert ending for the Overture to the present work (and for the one to Don Giovanni as well), and the firm he founded cultivated a Mozart tradition for generations. On the fiftieh anniversary of Mozart's death André's son published the thematic catalogue Mozart kept during the last eight years of his life, together with a supplementary list of the autograph scores the firm obtained form Mozart's widow.

Mozart seems to have enjoyed composing this opera. He wrote some parts of it with incredible speed, confident in his choice of subject and in the thought that the work would establish his credentials in the capital on the highest level. On October 13, 1781, he put into words his own very considered thoughts, at once both idealistic and very practical, on the path he would follow in creating this and his subsequent efforts for the stage:

I would say that in an opera the poetry must be altogether the obedient daughter of the music. Why are Italian comic operas popular everywhere, in spite of their miserable libretti--even in Paris, where I myself observed their success? Simply because in such works the music reigns supreme, and when one listens to it everything else is beside the point. An opera is sure of success when the plot is skillfully worked out, when the words are written specifically to suit the music and not simply shoved in here and there to accommodate some miserable rhyme (which, God knows, never enhances the value of any theatrical performance, but actually detracts from it)--I have in mind words or even entire verses that can ruin the composer's entire conception. Verses are indeed the most indispensable element for music, but rhymes, solely for the sake of rhyming, are the most detrimental. Those self-important personages who set to work in this pedantic fashion will always come to grief--both they and their music. The best situation is one in which a good composer, who understands the stage and is talented enough to make sensible suggestions, meets an able poet, that true phoenix; in that case no fears need be entertained as to the applause--even from the ignorant.

At the time that statement was written, in a letter to his father, an early opportunity to have The Abduction from the Seraglio performed had passed, because Mozart had not completed the work. It had been suggested by the director of the Court Opera, and apparently with the eager approval of the Emperor himself, that the opera would receive its premiere in August or September 1781 as part of the royal entertainment for the visiting Grand Duke of Russia, Prince Paul, the son of Catherine the Great. (The title Grand Duke had replaced the old Russian term Tsarevitch as the designation of the crown prince.) Although Mozart entertained Prince Paul with keyboard improvisations on Russian folk songs, the opera was not finished by then; Mozart was able to circulate on a fairly exalted level, though, and the months between the Grand Duke's visit and the opera's premiere the following July were marked by other significant activity, both professional and personal. In November 1781 Mozart composed and introduced his Sonata for in D major for two pianos (K. 448) with his pupil Josepha Auernhammer, at the home of her father, the Councilor of Finance to the imperial Court. In the following month there was the celebrated competition of improvisation between Mozart and the visiting pianist-composer Muzio Clementi in the presence of the Emperor, who declared Clementi the winner. In the middle of that same month Mozart wrote to his father for the first time of Constanze Weber--and his intention to marry her.

Mozart's relationships with both his own father and his intended mother-in-law during that period were burdened by degrees of parental unpleasantness. Old Leopold simply had a low opinion of Constanze's family; Constanze's mother introduced such niceties as a marriage contract with severe punishments for failure to fulfil the commitment, and even threats of arrest. The wedding, which might have taken place earlier if Mozart had not had to wait to be paid for The Abduction from the Seraglio, was solemnized in St. Stephen's Cathedral on August 4, 1782, less than three weeks after the opera's premiere; Leopold's grudging permission arrived by mail from Salzburg a day or two later. Mozart was not able to take his bride to Salzburg to meet his family until a year later, and their three-month visit was not very harmonious, as neither old Leopold nor young Constanze was inclined to make any conciliatory gesture. But Constanze sang in a performance of the unfinished Great Mass in C minor (K. 427) in St. Peter's Cathedral in October, and on the way back to Vienna the young couple stopped in Linz as guests of the hospitable Count Thun, for whom Mozart composed and introduced his Symphony No. 36 in C major (K. 425) in the space of four days.

In that sector of Mozart lore that touches upon the mythic, the composer's first Viennese opera may or may not have been the work whose premiere provoked the Emperor Joseph II to remark, "Too many notes, Mozart, too many notes!";--a remark to which Mozart may or may not have replied, "No, Your Majesty, not too many, just enough."; No matter who said what, or was alleged to say it, Mozart was of course the better judge. He introduced himself to the Viennese as a consummate master of the most ambitious of musical forms, and by the time his century came to its close only he himself had surpassed what he had achieved in this work.

Despite his father's opposition to his marriage, Mozart always revered and respected him, and he reported to him frequently on his progress in composing his first Viennese opera. In one letter he focused on the Overture, describing it as very short with alternate fortes and pianos, the Turkish music always coming in at the fortes. It modulates through different keys, and I doubt that anyone, even if his previous night had been a sleepless one, could go to sleep over it.

While the Overture, with André's concert ending, has been a staple of the concert repertory for two hundred years, Mozart composed it without an ending. As he would do again in Don Giovanni, he simply had it lead directly into the first vocal number, in this instance Belmonte's aria, "Hier sol ich dich denn sehen,"; whose theme is introduced in the middle of the Overture, between episodes of "Turkish music.";Belmonte, the hero of this drama, is a young Spanish nobleman who has just made his way to the square in front of the palace of Pasha Selim on the Mediterranean coast. He has arrived there because his fiancée Constanze, together with her English maid Blonde and the latter's Spanish boy friend Pedrillo, have been bought by Selim from the pirates who had captured them and sold them as slaves. The Pasha (Bassa Selim in the German text), himself a Spaniard converted to Islam, has so far treated these three more as guests than as slaves, and Pedrillo has been able to get a letter to Belmonte, who now has arrived with the intention of performing a rescue in the form of a counter-abduction.

Belmonte is soon confronted by the Pasha's overseer, Osmin, who is suspicious of Pedrillo, the recipient of his master's good will, and discusses his thoughts on assassinating him. Sooner than expected, Belmonte gets to see Pedrillo, and is dismayed to hear that the Pasha has singled out Constanze as an addition to his harem, and intends to give Blonde to Osmin. Constanze and Selim then return from an outing on a boat, and are greeted by a chorus of Janissaries singing the praises of the Pasha. Selim's approach to Constanze has been that of a thoughtful and patient suitor; she nonetheless remains steadfast in her devotion to Belmonte, and his patience has about run its course. As Selim wants Constanze to accept him by choice rather than through force, he allows her another day to come to a decision. At this point Pedrillo introduces Belmonte to Selim as a visiting architect--whom the Pasha engages on the spot. The alarmed Osmin fails in his attempt at preventing Pedrillo and the "architect"; from entering the palace, bringing Act I to its end.

Act II opens with a confrontation between Osmin and Blonde in the palace garden. The feisty Englishwoman rebuffs all of Osmin's pleas and demands, laying down her own rules for how a suitor should behave toward her. Osmin, visibly frustrated by her gutsy self-confidence, cannot thwart her determination to be with Pedrillo, and he is at a loss to understand how European men put up with such independent women. He runs off when she threatens him with bodily harm. Constanze enters the garden and bemoans her fate: a captive, with an ultimatum from a man who has shown patience but whom she cannot love. In the opera's most celebrated aria, "Martern aller Arten,"; she declares herself willing to suffer torture and death rather than be coerced into the Pasha's arms. (In the extended orchestral introduction to this aria, the woodwinds give us a "pre-echo"; of the first half of the "Ode to Joy"; theme in the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony; in an earlier Mozart work, the Misericordias Domini, K. 222, composed in Munich in 1775, the Beethoven theme is prefigured in full.)

Meanwhile Pedrillo is able to inform Blonde of Belmonte's presence and his plans for their rescue. Blonde sings of her elation over this development which will at last bring hope to her distressed mistress. Her aria, "Welche Wonne, welche Lust,"; is strongly related to the finale of the Oboe Concerto Mozart composed in Mannheim in 1778 and subsequently adapted as his Second Flute Concerto (K. 314). Pedrillo now turns to his own heavy responsibilities in abetting Belmonte's plans. His first step is to immobilize the ever watchful Osmin, whom he persuades that it is not strictly forbidden to enjoy a bit of wine. Osmin's inhibitions fade with a few sips and he and Pedrillo sing a lusty duet in praise of Bacchus before the drug Pedrillo had put in his drink takes effect. At last Constanze and Belmont are reunited. A hint of doubt from the men as to the faithfulness of their lovers bring answers that both shame them and reassure them, and their courage is redoubled by their renewed confidence.

Act III opens once again in the square facing the palace, where Belmonte and Pedrillo now count down to the moment they must take action. As a signal to the two women, Pedrillo sings a lovely Moorish ballad, one of Mozart's most affecting serenades, the romance "In Mohrenland gefangen war."; Osmin, however, awakens a bit earlier than he was supposed to, and alarms the entire palace. The two would-be rescuers are taken prisoner, and Osmin sings in jolly anticipation of the fiendish punishments he will mete out, in the lusty aria, "Ha, wie will ich triumphieren,"; which had its echoes, or near-echoes, in the finale of the "Haffner"; Symphony (No. 35 in D, K. 385), which Mozart composed about a month before the opera's premiere.

The final scene takes place in Pasha Selim's chambers. When Osmin tells the Pasha of the escape plot he had nicked in the bud, Selim expresses rage over what he regards as an abuse of his trust. Belmonte only feeds the fires when he offers to pay a ransom for the women's release, and identifies himself as the son of Lostados, commandant of Oran--and Selim's hated enemy. Constanze and Belmonte do not hesitate to resign themselves to their terrible fate: to die together will be their ultimate joy. But now it is time for the "noble savage"; turn: the Pasha, who all his life had nourished thoughts of vengeance against Belmonte's father for the wrongs he had done him, suddenly declares that he will not repay evildoing with more of the same. Over Osmin's protests Selim grants freedom and safe passage to the four captives, and accepts their gratitude with unself-conscious dignity. In the colorful finale, the freed Westerners take their leave over Osmin's ineffectual sputtering, saluting Pasha Selim for his noble generosity and triumph over the temptation toward revenge. The final chorus of the Janissaries further exalts their ruler:

Long live Pasha Selim! Let honor be his due!

May jubilation, joy, fortune and fame surround his gracious brow.

And may his noble head be decked with jubilation and with fame.

In this week's performances, all the musical numbers are sung in the original German, and the spoken dialogue is in English.