Innovations in the Composition and Musical Style of Abduction
Lesson created by Dr. Luke Howard of the BYU School of Music.
Even though he was not yet a leading opera composer at the time he was working on Abduction, Mozart was already redefining what late 18th-century opera would sound like. The experience of writing Idomeneo the previous year, in particular, had reshaped his conception of both the make-up of the orchestra and his approach to vocal forms in opera.
Mozart wrote Idomeneo for Munich, not Vienna, which gave him the advantage of working with some of the finest orchestral players in Europe. The famed Mannheim Orchestra spent its summers in Munich, where the players were often engaged to play in the opera pit. So when Mozart worked on the score for Idomeneo, he had a larger and much more highly skilled orchestra than he had ever previously worked with, and it shows. The orchestration for Idomeneo is sumptuous and lavish, with special attention paid to the woodwind parts. No longer merely doubling the string lines and adding color, the winds are important contributors on their own as they help paint the action and drama in the orchestra. Mozart employs chamberistic effects as well as grand tutti statements that create an entirely new sound for the opera orchestra, making it almost another character in the drama. He also ends the overture in a different key than it started in, so that it segues seamlessly into the opera’s opening recitative.
And in the arias from Idomeneo, Mozart was able to infuse standard aria forms with new life. He experiments with adapting instrumental procedures for the voice. Instead of using the old baroque da capo aria form (ABA), he starts writing real two-part arias that end with a different emotion than the one they started with. This way, the drama is allowed to continue and develop through the aria rather than having to go back and repeat the first text/emotion. He even dabbled with applying sonata/allegro from to an aria, and in Ilia’s “Se il padre perdei,” he includes the voice as part of an instrumental concertino of chamber winds—a compositional device he’ll also employ the following year in “Martern aller Arten” from Abduction.
So when Mozart began work on Abduction from the Seraglio, he was ready to think of opera in a rather advanced fashion for such a young composer. There were some obvious differences: Idomeneo was in Italian (Mozart’s preferred language for opera), and was an opera seria with high-born characters and little opportunity for humor and wit. But from that work, Mozart began to think of the opera orchestra symphonically and dramatically rather than as mere accompaniment. And he also had a crop of the very finest opera singers in Vienna, including Caterina Cavalieri and Ludwig Fischer, to work with for Abduction. (Not all of his singers in Munich for Idomeneo were strong vocalists or talented actors!) Add to that the exotic setting, new instrumental colors, different styles of song for high- and low-born characters, and the opportunities for humor, and Abduction presented him with even more occasions to experiment.
The overture, with its inclusion of “Turkish” instruments, announces the new instrumental color and exotic locale immediately. This overture is in a two-part form—an unusual choice for an opera overture. The bustling C-major opening with its Janissary instruments leads into a melancholy slow section in C minor. The opening returns, in a kind of da-capo reprise, but then ends on the dominant, G. Clearly, Mozart intended the overture to segue seamlessly into the action, as he had done with Idomeneo.
When Act I starts, it repeats the slow section of the overture, only this time in C major, using the melody as part of Belmonte’s opening aria. This is before the time when operatic overtures generally employed themes drawn from the opera itself. And by eliding the overture so seamlessly into the first aria, sharing the musical materials, Mozart includes the overture as a necessary part of the drama, not just a curtain-raiser. He would then employ this technique more frequently in his future operas, including Don Giovanni and Magic Flute. (Note that there are several concert versions of the Overture from Die Entführung as dem Serail that are self-contained. None of these concert versions are by Mozart, though one of the most popular was, ironically, made by Johann Anton André, whose father had composed the music for the original production of this story.)
(Overture starts at 3:05)
In addition to innovations in the orchestra and overture, Mozart plays with audience expectations of the singing, starting in the opening exchange between Belmonte and Osmin. We expect to hear singing in an opera, of course—it’s the convention on which the whole genre is built. When Belmonte starts singing after the curtain opens, it’s clearly “operatic.” Then Osmin starts singing about love, and though it would be reasonable to assume he’s singing an aria, after three verses Belmonte interrupts and says “I’m tired of your singing—answer my question!” It turns out that Osmin was singing not because this is an opera but because, in the story of the opera itself, it calls for him to sing a song.
This is the distinction between “non-diegetic” music and “diegetic” music—a polarity that occurs quite frequently in opera and film. The “diegesis” refers to the story as it plays out in the world of the characters on stage—it is what the characters themselves are aware of in the fictional scenario they inhabit. Non-diegetic music, then, is music that only the audience hears, and that the characters on stage are unaware of. In film, it’s what is normally termed “background music” or underscoring. But in opera, non-diegetic music is almost all of the music all of the time. It’s one of the quirks of opera as a genre that the characters themselves are completely unaware that they are singing! So it’s something of a surprise, and a witty one, when the audience discovers that Osmin, the harem-keeper for the Pasha Selim, was actually singing in the story—it was a song that Belmonte could also hear.
10:26 – 13:15
Mozart wasn’t by any stretch the first opera composer to be aware of this distinction. Monteverdi’s Orfeo includes “songs” that the lead character sings to the others on stage. Cleopatra performs a song for Caesar in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, and so on. But this instance is an especially witty one in that the audience isn’t exactly sure whether Osmin’s singing is diegetic or non-diegetic until one of the other characters on stage makes it clear, and then ironically continues singing in dialog immediately after the on-stage “song” is ended. With other opportunities for diegetic music throughout Abduction –both Osmin and Pedrillo “sing” songs during the story—and the constant switching from spoken dialog into aria and song forms, there are ample opportunities for Mozart to toy with these notions and expectations of opera.
Mozart also experiments with through-composed forms for some of his arias and ensembles, following Gluck’s suggestions for operatic music that matches the dramatic moment. The quartet in Act II, “Ach, Belmonte!,” includes for example dramatic development through the quartet as the characters rejoice in their reuniting, question each other’s fidelity, experience something of a falling-out, and then reconcile, all during the one ensemble number. The quartet moves seamlessly from recitative-style to more structured passages—a freedom of form and expression that earlier opera composers tended to avoid. A similar freedom can be heard in the Act III duet between Belmonte and Konstanze, ““Welch, ein Geschick,” in which the dramatic development continues through the music.
Finally, while the Janissary music in Abduction is consistently used to evoke Turkey, and is associated directly with the characters of Osmin and Pasha Selim, the final Janissary chorus,”Singt dem grossen Bassa Lieder,” blends styles from both East and West. The chorus, with its Turkish percussion, recurs as a kind of ritornello in a concerto grosso form, with statements from the “Western” soloists in between. Just as the story itself concerns a rapprochement between Turkish and Spanish cultures, Mozart combines Near-Eastern and European forms and instruments in innovative synthesis.
Even the Emperor knew that Abduction represented something “quite new” in opera. And despite the Emperor’s assertion that there were “too many notes,” it remained Mozart’s best-known opera throughout his lifetime. (Some translations of the Emperor’s comment, which was marvelously played up in Amadeus, suggest the Emperor had merely noted the opera had “very many notes,” not “too many notes,” making it an objective comment rather than a criticism.) Goethe, who saw a performance in Weimar in 1785, conceded that his own efforts at writing opera libretti paled by comparison with Mozart’s Abduction which, he noted, “knocked everything else sideways” with its genius and vibrancy.