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Flirting with Mozart

The Fascination of Mozart’s Seraglio

by Garnett Bruce

The Abduction at Peabody, February 20–23, 2004

Think of the Mozart tunes we cherish most: an inviting opening theme, a surprise change of key, a jaunty phrase turned on its ear and restrung like so many puns. We’re lulled by laughter and often unprepared for moments of poignancy, for so deft is the contrast in the music. Hear the horns whispering in Figaro’s fourth act aria warning of becoming a cuckolded husband, or poignantly as Fiordiligi suffers for her temptations in the second act of Così fan tutte. Once we are intrigued, we are hooked! We want more! Bring on the private jokes, remind us of our own foibles, and above all, give credence to our hopes.

  Portait of Konstanze Weber
Konstanze Weber
Would Mozart have consciously thought to tempt and tantalize us as listeners? Did he have a specific listener in mind? The delicious coincidence of his courtship of Konstanze Weber coincides with the creation of the noble Donna Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) – that opera in which a Spanish nobleman, Belmonte, journeys to Turkey and braves death to rescue his beloved from captivity in a harem.

In 1781, the 25-year-old Mozart moved to Vienna and set his sights on establishing himself within the musical and social circles which would propel his life and career. Die Entführung was his first big commission for the Viennese stage, written in collaboration with playwright/impresario Gottlob Stephanie and his resident company of German-speaking performers. Mozart took modest lodgings and subsequently fell in love with the landlady’s daughter, Konstanze Weber.

Is it an accident that Mozart’s fictional heroine shares her name with his own beloved? How much of Mozart’s creative genius was fed by his emotional one? He certainly pays great homage to Konstanze’s nobility, her steadfastness, her courage. The Act II marathon for any Mozart soprano of the back-to-back arias “Traurigkeit ward mir zum Loose” (Sadness has become my fate) and “Marten allen Arten” (Torture of every kind) is one of the more formidable scenes in any opera to that day. The physical demands on the artist ensure it will not be attempted without formidable preparation – only the most able will succeed.

Portrait of Mozart at about the time of his arrival in Vienna  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Around the time of The Abduction
But Mozart also needed a professional success – to win the hearts, if not the minds, of the Viennese. So, by providing a novel combination of German spoken theater and Italian-style Opera, he would be noticed. By choosing an exotic setting, he could arouse their curiosity. But an opera succeeds or fails on the merits of the music’s ability to connect with (and be remembered by) its audience. And here is where the flirtatious Mozart wins the public. Even from the overture of Die Entführung, the scintillation of cymbals grabs our attention, disorients our ear, and invites us to a foreign land – even tantalizing us with the possibilities of the Seraglio. If the music can appeal to us, perchance we can join him on the journey. And if that tension of expectation/anticipation can be maintained – not solved nor traded on – we can explore the nuances of bringing meaning to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, a very new idea at the end of the Eighteenth Century.

One of the joys of flirtation is its brevity. It flatters and either moves beyond the initial spark or fades away and can be dismissed as harmless. Yet we rarely dismiss this music – we return to Mozart time and time again. Perhaps we find comfort within his classical framework, but perhaps something more: a bit of wit or wisdom, a spark of intellect that beguiles and perhaps extends itself into our daily life. Mozart has established a language of musical flirtation not only for his opera characters, but also for his audiences. Each of us can recognize, even quote half a dozen of Mozart’s opening themes without a second thought. Innocuous enough, snippets from “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” or the “Rondo alla turca” encapsulate a light-hearted mood we keep returning to. We’re sold, and are content to keep listening, to stay engaged.

What are the roots of Mozart’s aural marketing? Personal or professional? I have found no documentation that Konstanze Weber was actually moved or motivated by Mozart’s musical gestures in Die Entführung, but no doubt she enjoyed his playfulness, his energy, and his intellect enough to want to share his life. And this is what Mozart shows to all of us: Life.

  The Turkish Bath; painting by Ingres
Inside a Turkish Bath
Painting by Jean-Dominique Ingres
Much of the playfulness in Die Entführung comes in Mozart’s treatment of the supporting characters, whom he uses to tease, amuse, and delight us, providing a lightherted counterpoint to the heroic story of Konstanze and Belmonte. Blonde, Konstanze’s maid, beguiles with her coloratura in Act II, and her feisty treatment of her captor Osmin, custodian of this Seraglio. Her own love interest is Pedrillo, Belmonte’s servant, also a captive. Pedrillo is the descendant of Harlequin – scheming, subverting authority, chasing the girls, outwitting the fools; Figaro, Leporello and Papageno will follow in his footsteps. Osmin is created as both fool and authority figure, but not from the aristocracy, the fears of the French Revolution being still a few years off. The triangle of Blonde, Pedrillo, and Osmin is repeated at a higher level by Konstanze, Belmonte, and Pasha Selim – a dethroned aristocrat in exile in Turkey – who represents the ultimate power in the Seraglio.

Before we’ve heard Donna Konstanze sing a note, her fiancé Belmonte announces his life’s mission: to find her again. He sets her on a pedestal in both his first-act arias. She is the reason for his troubles, for his travels. When their reunion is imminent he sings “O wie ängstlich, o wie feurig klopft mein liebevolles Herz ! ” (How anxiously and ardently my heart is beating). His feelings confuse and baffle him, allowing the repetition of her name to provide comfort, calm and clarity. His life lacks point or purpose without his love. Belmonte will acknowledge this during his Act II aria: “the pain of separation is made only more apparent by the joy of this reunion.”

Konstanze’s first aria “Ach ich liebte” (Ah, I was in love) allows her to confess to her captor – the Pasha Selim – how her separation from Belmonte is the source of her sadness. But this rival for Konstanze’s affections never sings, only speaks, so (at least in opera) he is at a disadvantage. But in this story, even the Pasha plays against type – he refuses to command her to love him, rather allowing her the space to come to love him of her own free will. Drama applies the deadline of “tomorrow morning” to his noble gesture, but nonetheless, by allowing Konstanze free will, his response implies that her presence has brought about a change, if not within the Seraglio, then certainly within the Pasha.

But the road to Enlightenment is neither easy nor straight. The largest ensemble from this opera is the quartet sung by the four lovers at the conclusion of Act II. The noble reunion of Belmonte and Constanze has its counterpoint in the embrace of Pedrillo and Blonde, but then both men begin to doubt their lovers’ fidelity. Hurt and anger are followed by abject apology; pardon and relief return triumphantly, and four-part harmony ends the act. The vicissitudes of flirtation yield apparently to the triumph of love!

The plot has one more reversal in store. In Act III, the abduction (or rescue) promised in the opera’s title is attempted and thwarted. Konstanze and Belmonte are condemed to death. The strongest testament to their love is their final (and only) duet. Belmonte realizes that his urgent desire to reunite with Konstanze will lead to her demise. In the face of their foiled escape and imminent punishment, she consoles the guilt-ridden Belmonte and redeems his actions by forgiveness, countering that she would rather die with him than live without him. Triumphantly, she changes his despairing, dour D-minor phrases into confident, consoling B-flat major, her text a harbinger of Liebestods to come.

Nineteenth-century performance of The Abduction in London
The final scene of The Abduction
Nineteenth-century performance in London

At the very end, however, Pasha Selim pardons the lovers, delivering the authoritative wisdom of the Age of Enlightenment from the most unlikely source. East meets West, and each finds something to learn from the other. Mozart’s music, like Stephanie’s story, involves a similar tension between classical order and something surprising, less easily controlled; it offers a window to our imaginations, if we play along. It provides a framework that can focus our attention, reset our rhythms if we let it, and then seduce us with melody that may turn on us, that may diverge from our way of thinking, that may engage us in its journey, or provide the introspection that amplifies emotion beyond definition.

Oh yes – just three weeks after the premiere of Die Entführung, Wolfgang and Konstanze were married. It would be a great leap to assume the abstract of music provided their concrete connection, but his expressions of ardent love and devotion never seem more genuine than in the opera he wrote during their courtship.

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