Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On the Overture to Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Overture to Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (KV.384)

Die Entführung was commissioned in 1781 by Joseph II, Emperor of Austria, and premiered with the Nationalsingspiel at the Burgtheater in Vienna on July 16, 1782.

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 clarin trumpets, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, strings (2 violins, 2 violas, cello, bass.)

Incipit. Violins.

Zubin Mehta, conductor.

The overture [. . .] is quite short, and changes from forte to piano all the time, the Turkish music always coming in at the fortes. It keeps modulating, I doubt if anyone could fall asleep during it, even if they hadn't slept a wink the night before.
- W. A. Mozart. (26 September 1781.) [2]

There is a new feature here that not only keeps the Turkish element in check but determines the basic character of the overture as a whole. This is the secretive, fantastical whispering with which the theme – built up on simple triadic intervals – begins. A fairy-tale atmosphere envelops us, as it will later do in the allegro section of the overture to Die Zauberflöte, casting its spell on us and holding us in thrall till the very end with its secretive whispering and brightly darting flames. [1]

Only by a willful obstinacy can you avoid getting swept up by the opening of this overture, a 118-bar presto in 2/2 time. The piece opens with jovial and venturous little tune but piano and against a giddy repeated 8th note figure in the bass. It is like a friend telling you of a fantastical discovery, barely able to repress his excitement. We do not wait long, though, for the theme is repeated only once, though higher as if the secret is about to burst out, when it is joined forte by the whole orchestra and we are swept off and away at the urging of the timpani and the jangling of the triangle. The main theme repeats piano in the violins and clarinet with the other strings repeating the 8th note figure, then it is once more joined forte by the rest of the orchestra. The second half of the main theme is then repeated two extra times by only the piccolo and 1st violin, with the 16th note element leading right down into another forte and a rising scalar passage in the strings, piccolo, and bassoon, and topped off with a whole-note doubled by the remainder of the orchestra. Without rest, though, we dart into a more skittish version of the main theme which is repeated piano:

mm. 39-42. 1st violin.

Then another forte, and another variation on the theme:

mm. 44-46. 1st violin.

The rest of the section whizzes by in like fashion, with modulation, alternation between forte and piano, and variation on the main theme. It concludes in a whirlwind, with a little figure repeated over and over by the woodwinds and strings,

mm. 84-86. Violins

rising each time, until it gives way to a full version of the main theme with the whole orchestra.

Where the first section was a hasty tour of fantastical sights the next section, starting in m.119, in C minor and marked andante, is a deeper look into this new world. It begins as someone walking into a foreign land, with footsteps both cautious and weary:

mm. 119-123. Violins.

This theme is then taken up by the oboe piano, in whose hands it is less urgent but more vulnerable and full of longing. Abert draws proper attention to the "outburst on the fermata [m. 128], where the whole sense of yearning finds finds particularly concentrated expression." [1] We will later hear this same theme, in C major, from Belmonte when he makes his entrance. As Abert notes also, the  interplay between winds and strings is especially effective here, with the winds both coaxing out and then supporting another sad little phrase from the strings. This phrase is repeated in the violins who play it an octave apart and alternate it a tone each measure until they take it up still higher at a crescendo leading into a forte for all the strings and woodwinds. The theme is then repeated again by the strings before the clarinet and flute heighten the moment with an ascending passage of 16th notes and a dotted G crotchet hovering above as the violins and oboe now together play the little theme, now dotted, in a sublime moment.

Yet we do not dwell in this wondrous land of heightened senses for long and after another "outburst" on a fermata we dive back into the opening material tempo primo. The last notes of the overture fade away with just one lone half-note on the triangle ringing on to remind us of the great fanfare as Belmonte enters like the figure in the andante. 

The overture to Die Entführung is a remarkably efficient and effective piece, first catching the listener's ear and whisking him off to a far away land, and then giving him a slight hint of an exotic, passionate world. So transported, we eagerly look on as the scene hinted at in the andante unfolds  before us.

[1] Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007. (p. 668)
[2] Cairns, David. Mozart and His Operas. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 2006. (p. 74)

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