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Mozart’s Turkish Side

The 18th century was a period of unprecedented contact between Europeans and subjects of the Ottoman Empire, a situation that spilled over into all areas of society. “Turkish” customs and art became the popular rage in Vienna, as the fear of actual Ottoman a superior opera, with his creation of Die Enfuhrung aus dem Serail conquest abated. Mozart sought to tap into this current, and produce (The Abduction from the Seraglio). The work presents an interesting window into the Turkomania that existed at the time.

Mozart incorporates Turkish music into the opera, and he also includes many of the prevailing stereotypes about Turks and all Moslems. While some of the caricatures may seem crude and/or offensive to current-day sensibilities, Mozart was a product of his time, and there can be no argument as to the beauty of the music. To fully understand this work, one must analyze the situation in European politics at the time. Vienna was besieged a number of times by the Ottomans, the last in the late 17th century.

For a long time there a genuine fear of marauding Turk soldiers destroying the beautiful city. This feeling abated as the strength of the Porte declined, and cultural links began to flourish, as relations between the Empires assumed a more normal position. Many Turks adopted “Western” dress and mannerisms, while the systematic study of the “East,” which came to be known as Orientalism, began in Europe. Basing much of its ideas on the Enlightenment and, later, the French Revolution, Orientalism sought to record, classify, and codify the chaos and disorder of the non-European world.

Much has been made of the underlying racial and unequal power elements of Orientalism, but that is not our concern here. Suffice to say that Orientalism oftentimes did not give a very true account of what was actually happening in a foreign land; rather, it represented what the author wanted the piece to exemplify. For instance, the Near East was seen as “exotic” and “sensual,” so almost every piece on the region would play up this popular image, seeking to make the area even more strange and wonderful, in direct opposition to the Europe of the time.

The desire to define something according to its differences is at the root of Orientalist thought. Mozart used this to his advantage in the opera, employing traditional stereotypes while subtly tweaking them for his benefit. Mozart adopts much “Turkish” music for this opera. It was not what was being played in the halls of Istanbul, but to the European ear it was a novel innovation. The janissaries’ choruses especially strike the listener as being from somewhere different, somewhere more exotic.

The juxtaposition of minor and major chords throughout the opera is a superb way of characterizing the Orient and the Occident. The music for Osmin is some of the greatest “Turkish” music ever; all his songs are memorable. Mozart may not have known what real Turkish music was, but the kind he includes in Die Entfuhrung is wonderful indeed. The relationship between the Turkish characters and the European ones is a fairly straightforward one. Previously, Turks and Moslems were portrayed in popular theater as bumbling, selfish, hedonistic, or some combination of the above.

Around Mozart’s time, however, probably coinciding with the diminishment of fear of the Turks, the image of the Middle East softened. More well-rounded characters were displayed, and less negative archetypes were employed. Mozart’s Turks fit this description. The Pasha, though he keeps Constanza captive, is shown to be a generous and merciful man, especially at the end of the opera. He attempts to win over Constanza by demonstrating his devotion to her, a tactic that may have worked had she not been so in love with Belmonte.

He releases her at the end even though he finds out she is the daughter of his greatest enemy, a man who exiled him from his native country (Spain). In contrast to his master, Osmin more fits the Turkish stereotype of the time. He desires Blonda and will not let her go, despite her strenuous objections. He is more impetuous, bordering on the reckless, as when he gets drunk with Pedrillo. This scene demonstrates perhaps the prevailing attitude of the day: the smarter European is able to dupe the hot-headed but dim Turk.

Mozart’s use of Turkish music and characters comes off extraordinarily well in Die Entfuhrung. The music is a fantastic combination of old-style opera and “eastern” influences. The characters are believable and sympathetic, even the Turkish ones. This may appear unremarkable to out ears, but at the time is was not very common to portray Turks in such a favorable light. This reason may be why the opera works so well. The Pasha is the key figure, because his generosity allows Belmonte and Contanza to reunite. Only Osmin is unhappy at the end, but where would a story be without a bad guy?

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