"In Moorish lands a maiden fair" - Mozart's "Il Seraglio"

16 July 1782, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” (The Abduction from the Seraglio) premiered at the Vienna Burgtheater with the composer conducting.

“All our endeavour ... to confine ourselves to what is simple and limited was lost when Mozart appeared. Die Entführung aus dem Serail conquered all, and our own carefully written piece has never been so much as mentioned in theater circles.“ (Goethe)

Anton Hickel: "Roxelana and the Sultan" (1780)

not quite without irony that Mozart’s opera about hareem fantasies and lustful Turks premiered on the anniversary of the Tyrkjaránið, the Turkish abductions in Iceland. 155 years before, a flotilla of Atlantic-going Barbary pirate xebecs under the renegade Dutch privateer Murat Reis, née Jan Janszoon of Harlem, raided in the far north and herded together a couple of hundreds of islanders and carried them away to be sold on the slave markets of North Africa and the Middle East. Similar slave catching raids took place in Ireland, Murat Reis’ Sallee Rovers even established a permanent base in the Bristol Channel and the threat of slave catchers from North Africa led by Muslim converts like Simon de Danser, John Ward and Jan Janszoon continued well towards the end of the 17th century when the Royal Navy began to rule Atlantic Waters in earnest. In the Med, however, Barbary pirates continued to raid the Spanish and Italian coastal villages to stoke up the slave markets with white goods until the broadsides of battleships of a combined Anglo-Dutch squadron under the British naval hero Sir Edward Pellew finally put an end to it in 1816. Never the less, the whole subject had inspired an entire genre of “Christian-abducted-by-the-Corsairs” tracts and erotic penny dreadfuls that climaxed in the Orientalism of 19th century high art and the treatment in Voltaire’s “Candide” and Mozart’s “Il Seraglio”. By then, the high-water mark of Ottoman expansion on the Balkans was exceeded since a hundred years with the Siege of Vienna itself, the last wars between the Sublime Porte and the Habsburgs had been fought along the so-called Military Border at the back of beyond in Bosnia two generations before and during the 1770s and ‘80s, a fashion of Turquerie was firmly established in the Austrian part of the Danube Monarchy, à la mode in the whole west of Europe at that time. From Turkish tobacco and coffee, long caftan-like morning coats worn by the upper sets and architectural elements like kiosks to entire mock mosques, the mortal fear of the Ottoman conquerors was replaced by a fascination with the fashionable exotic. And even if Mozart himself stated that Ottoman music was “offensive to the ears”, he had already composed his famous “Alla Turca”, the Turkish March from his Piano Sonata No. 11, and various others pieces of so-called “Janissary Music” and when Emperor Joseph II ordered a national Singspiel to be composed to rival the dominant Italian operas, Mozart pulled the strings of contemporary pop culture together and composed what was to become arguably the first German opera.

A 17th century imagination of Europeans sold on an Oriental slave market

story of “Il Seraglio” is quickly told. Konstanze, a young girl from Spain, is abducted by Barbary pirates, along with her English maidservant Blonde and her bethroted Belmonte’s servant Pedrillo. They are sold to Bassa (Pasha) Selim and transported to the Turk’s palace by the sea. The girls go straight to Selim’s harem while Pedrillo manages to draw his former master to the set of the plot with a letter. Start of the performance. Pedrillo persuades Bassa Selim to employ the young Spaniard as an architect and Belmonte plans to abduct his beloved Konstanze and her hangers-on from the clutches of the Turk. While Konstanze and Blonde have to fend off the overtures of Bassa Selim and his Man Friday Osmin respectively, Pedrillo introduces said poor Mussulman to the allurements of forbidden alcohol, the Anglo-Iberian quartet manages to flee, they get caught again, and while Osmin is all for slaughtering the lot with stereotypic oriental cruelty, Bassa Selim turns out to be a bit of a surprise. Actually a Spaniard himself, the Pasha was forced into exile by Belmonte’s father, the Governor of Oran, turned renegade quite like the historical corsairs Jan Janszoon or John Ward, and now sees a chance to get even with his old enemy by putting the governor’s junior and his beloved to the sword. The Pasha lets the young couple wriggle for a while until he decides that magnanimity would be a far more delicate revenge and sets them free along with Blonde and Pedrillo. "Nie werd' ich deine Huld verkennen" – "Your noble mercy passes measure“ is the appropriate name of the opera’s final. End of the action and a remarkable parallel to Lessing’s liberal Muslim Sultan Saladin and the sage Jew from “Nathan the Wise”, premiering a year later in Berlin. A message from the Age of Enlightenment in an otherwise witty but somewhat trivial libretto with character stereotypes who are far more than they appear at first glance.

Mozart (the small one in the centre) attending a performance of "Il Seraglio" in Berlin (1789)

“Il Seraglio” was not only among the first German operas but lifts the curtain to Mozart’s mature masterworks. The start of his career’s climax with a Janissary drumbeat was slightly marred by the fact that the Salzburgian genius had simply commandeered one Christoph Bretzner of Berlin’s libretto known as “Belmont und Constanze, oder Die Entführung aus dem Serail“, published during the previous year. He and his librettist Gottlieb Stephanie reworked the whole thing completely, without asking Bretzner’s permission, naturally, and made it into an intricately woven, timeless masterpiece, copyright infringement or not. And intricately woven enough to make its enlightened absolutist commissioner Emperor Joseph II complain “Zu schön für unsere Ohren, und gewaltig viel Noten, lieber Mozart!", too beautiful for our ears and a mighty lot of notes and dear Mozart answered to his sovereign and eternity: “There are just as many notes as there should be.“ His Habsburg Majesty remained an ardent supporter and patron regardless and appointed Mozart as his “chamber composer” a couple of years later. A job that famously didn’t pay very much, just as the salary for writing “Il Seraglio” amounted to a rather manageable amount. The two opening performances in Vienna alone yielded three times of the 100 Imperial Ducats he was paid, about 10,000 Euros in today’s money, and Mozart saw nothing of it, neither did he earn something from the several booked-out performances staged already during his life and times across Europe. 100 Imperial Ducats, however, was about one third of an annual Viennese middle class income and not half bad for an artist in his twenties on the brink of his great breakthrough and most of the good people of Vienna lived from hand to mouth anyway. Meagre, admittedly, from an economic viewpoint for one of the most popular operas of all times.

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