Mozart and the Turks

By November 24, 2012History, Music, Society, Theatre

The first Mozart opera I acquired was Il Seraglio. At this point I had not actually seen any operas. I lived in Canberra, the Opera House in Sydney was under construction and involved in battles about how it was to be built, and records provided the source of virtually all my music. And I bought Il Seraglio simply because it was available in my record shop. I got to know it very well, and one aspect of the music that intrigued me was the jangling, percussive sounds that re-appeared in it. These were Mozart’s attempts to give a Turkish sound to his opera, which is set in Turkey.

These sounds, which feature cymbals, drums and shrill woodwinds, were based on the music of the janissary bands of the Ottoman Empire. The janissaries were the standing army of the empire, recruited mostly from Christian youths, highly trained, and given a distinctive uniform. They marched to their bands, which employed these sounds. What has further interested me is why Mozart himself found janissary music appealing. He also used it in the third movement, ‘rondo alla turca’, of his piano sonata no. 11 (KV 331). Mozart  wrote a lot of music for wind bands, which doubled in Vienna as military units and as court musicians. In time, because of the splendour of the sound that the janissary bands possessed, European military bands adopted percussion and even the piccolo, which helped to balance the deeper sound of the other instruments. How did they know about the janissary bands?

The answer lies in the long history of warfare between the Ottoman Empire and Vienna, which went on periodically for several hundred years. The city of Vienna was under siege in 1683, and was lucky not to be taken. There was another shorter siege in 1739, 17 years before Mozart’s birth. By the time he wrote his opera, 1781, all this had faded from memory, and things Turkish were now exotic, even fashionable. Constantinople, the Byzantine style and the exotic differences in art and architecture all put what was called ‘Turquerie’ into vogue. Mozart’s opera, whose English name is The Abduction from the Seraglio, builds on that contemporary interest, includes a Westernised version of Turkish janissary band music, and of course points to harems and despots with wicked designs on women. The Sultan turns out to be a noble, wise and merciful ruler, who gives back the heroine, Constanze (named after Mozart’s own wife), to her husband.

It’s not the best of his operas, but its music is appealing and different. Mozart was not the only composer of the time to draw inspiration from janissary music. Beethoven did it also in his incidental music in 1811 for The Ruins of Athens, which has a Turkish March that Beethoven later on used as the original theme for a set of variations. His best-known Turkish sound, in my view, is in the fourth movement of the Choral Symphony of 1824, where the ode of joy theme is picked up by a janissary band, perhaps to indicate that the peace-and-brotherhood message of the ode is to include even one’s traditional enemies.

Now for a digression. The Ruins of Athens is a play by the prolific German playwright August von Kotzebue (he wrote more than 200 plays), and Beethoven wrote incidental music also for his King Stephen. Unusually for a playwright, Kotzebue was assassinated in 1819, not for the quality of his plays, which were very popular, but because of suspicions that he was a Russian spy — he had had distinguished career as a diplomat and had done well in Russia.

If you know and love the works of Jane Austen, you will remember that in Mansfield Park some of the action is built around the way in which young people at a country house become involved in acting a play called Lover’s Vows, in which the parts played prefigure to some degree what will happen to the players in their real life. For Edmund Bertram, the hero of the novel, it is a shocking play, because it is about love outside marriage and illegitimacy of birth. And indeed, though Edmund is a square and the least attractive of Jane Austen’s heroes, the play was thought rather shocking in its time.

Who wrote it? It was an English translation, by Elizabeth Inchbald, of a play by August von Kotzebue, whose German title is Das Kind der Liebe, literally, ‘the child of love’. I know that this is a long jump from janissary music, but that is the wonderful way in which reading history moves us to create connections, for those who love history, as I do.




Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • […] leaps in my post the other day from the Turkish influence on Mozart’s music, to Beethoven and the German playwright […]

  • In the 1990 publication Mozart – Sonata in A Major, K 331 edited by the US music prof Maurice Hinson in the series “Anatomy of a Classic”, some rather compelling anecdotal evidence is printed (p4) that should support a credible conclusion that the strong (forte) theme in the third movement of ‘alla turca’ also known as ‘the Turkish march of Mozart’, which is also repeated in broken octaves to mimic the bands’ performance, was not merely inspired by janissary marching bands’ sounds but was an actual melody used by them, hence is likely to be an arrangement of it. It apparently suvived the Tukish period in Algeria as a folk song complete with text referring to Istanbul there, after they had left.
    The march beat even of any modern western drilling sargeant: i.e.,
    left, .., left,.. left right left,… . ‘ is the dominant beat in this piece and other janissary pieces. The possibility arises for this now so common beat as having Turkish i.e Ottoman Empire military roots.
    Plagiarism and inclusion of ‘foreign’ folk music themes into classical works was quite common during those periods, including by our most celebrated classical composers.

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