Mozart was just 26 years old when he was commissioned to write the opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail or The Abduction from the Seraglio and it was not only a huge success, but also a trendy work the likes of which hadn’t been seen before. Everything Turkish was all the rage and not only did Mozart set the opera in a Turkish harem, but he also flavored the music with unconventional instruments like cymbals, triangles, and big drums to evoke the Janissary bands of Turkey. The poet Goethe said that it “knocked everything else sideways.” But it was the words of the Emperor Joseph II (who commissioned the work) that are forever associated with the opera.
In the movie “Amadeus”, the Emperor said of the opera, “Too many notes. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.” While there are many aspects of the film that are at the very least, exaggerated, this quote is actually based somewhat in truth (although disputed). Reportedly, the Emperor complained to Mozart that the work was “too fine” for his ears, remarking that “there are too many notes” to which Mozart replied, “There are just as many notes as there should be.” The exchange was recorded in Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes, but some scholars doubt the authenticity of the story because the reference book contained the original German and the translation was dubious. Still, whether true or not, the legend has stuck with the work and certainly comes to mind when listening to even just the overture (which you can hear us perform on February 23!).
Another interesting legend around “Abduction” is the similarity between the story in the opera and Mozart’s personal life, almost like he purposely infused his own experiences into the work. At the time he was commissioned to compose it, Mozart was trying to take his life into his own hands. He had just moved to Vienna after being dismissed by his employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg Hieronymus Colloredo, a man he was said to have “hated to the point of madness”. He rented a room from the Weber family, and fell in love with the family’s daughter Constanze. Much like the the opera’s female protagonists who wish to be rescued from their harem, Mozart himself knew the feeling of being confined and wishing for freedom.
During this time, Mozart was also waging a battle via letters with his father. His father continued to try to exert influence over him while he attempted to convince his father to agree to his marriage with Constanze Weber. This is very much like the hero, Belmonte, who struggles against Pasha Selim to win freedom and the right love Konstanze. It’s also worth noting that the opera’s heroine bears the same name as the composer’s love interest (and future wife). Perhaps the composer was making a statement about his own life in writing “Abduction” or maybe he was just drawing on it for inspiration.
The Abduction from the Seraglio was a triumph from its opening night, becoming Mozart’s most popular and legendary work in his lifetime. It greatly raised Mozart’s standing with the public as a composer. The first two performances brought in a large sum and the work was repeatedly performed in Vienna throughout the rest of his life. It is firmly ensconced in the opera repertoire today and there are at least 52 complete recordings in circulation.