Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756, and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. He began work on The Abduction from the Seraglio on July 30, 1781, and completed the score on May 20, 1782. It was produced for the first time on July 16, 1782, in Vienna and came to America in a performance at the Brooklyn Athenaeum on February 16, 1860. The San Francisco Symphony first performed the Overture in January 1949, under the direction of Pierre Monteux; the most recent performances, in November 2006, were led by Michael Tilson Thomas during the Symphony’s Mozart Journey festival. The Overture is scored for flute and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, and strings. Performance time: about six minutes.
The percussion that begins its pleasing jingle and thump a few seconds into the Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio, and that is so characteristic a part of its sound, was known collectively as "Turkish music." Or, if you prefer, "Janissary music," since that elite unit of the Turkish army survived into the 1820s. European military bands imported the sound and the style from Turkey early in the eighteenth century, and before long, composers of opera and concert music were captivated by this piquant addition to their orchestral thesaurus. The most famous classical piece in which we find it is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
Mozart used it in The Abduction from the Seraglio for the best of reasons: He was dealing with a Turkish subject. This is the story. Konstanze, a noblewoman, together with her own maid and her lover's man-servant, has been captured by pirates and sold to a Turkish Pasha. Konstanze's lover, Belmonte, locates the prisoners, succeeds by various ruses in gaining entrance to the Pasha's palace and even in effecting an escape for the entire party. They are caught in that escape, but the Pasha shows himself magnanimous, pardons his prisoners, and sends them on their way.
Like many eighteenth-century opera plots, this one had been knocking about in various forms for some time when Mozart took it on. A libretto with the title Belmonte und Constanze by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner had been set to music by Johann André and produced in Berlin in 1781; now Gottlob Stephanie Jr., the stage manager at the Imperial Court Opera in Vienna, adapted it for Mozart's use. Mozart composed it with special pleasure at the challenge of finding the appropriate music for the rage, the grief, and the rapture of the various characters, not to forget the comic scenes and the moments that needed a certain exotic coloration.
The Overture begins as preparation for comedy. A wistful Andante in a minor key tells us that shadows lie ahead; then the jingly C major Presto resumes. In the opera, this presto seems about to prepare another episode in minor, though what in fact happens is that the curtain rises and we hear the Andante, which was in minor before, now sung in a major key by Belmonte, who has found his way to the Pasha's palace and prays that his quest is now truly near its end. In concert we must abjure that delicious Mozartian ambiguity as we hear a simple and effective concert close by Johann Anton André, composer, editor, publisher, and son of the composer of Belmonte und Constanze.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
Recordings: The Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio is included in a collection of Mozart overtures performed by the Dresden Staatskapelle, under the direction of Colin Davis (on RCA Victor Red Seal) or Karl Böhm (on Deutsche Grammophon Eloquence)
Reading: The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, edited by Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keefe (Cambridge University Press) | Mozart: A Cultural Biography, by Peter Gutman (Harcourt) | Mozart: A Musical Biography, by Konrad Küstler (Oxford) | The Mozart Compendium: A Guide to Mozart’s Life and Music, edited by H.C. Robbins Landon (Schirmer)