What does a Turkish Janissary band have to do with Mozart?

November 15, 2013

When I was 15, still happily taking piano lessons with the lady down the street after all my peers had long ago given up such endeavors, I fell in love with the third movement of Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 11. Mozart himself titled the rondo "Alla Turca." The title meant nothing to me at the time, despite the enormous presence the movement had in my house.

I practiced it every single day, sometimes for hours, trying to perfect the nimble fingering of the brisk allegretto tempo. It made me think of marching through grassy fields, a synchronized stomp teetering at the brink of a frenetic tearing away into frenzy and commotion.

It was ten years later when I realized how apt that mental image probably was. The name "Alla Turca" re-emerged out of my memory only after I began researching my Ph.D. dissertation, for which I wrote a chapter about the attempted invasion of Vienna in 1683 by Ottoman forces. "Turca" swam back into my head, as did the old mental images, and then I remembered that Mozart was Austrian. Some preliminary Googling revealed that the third movement imitates the sound of Turkish Janissary bands: steady strong tones with drums and cymbals, trumpets and bells, widely believed to be the oldest variety of military marching band. Now hold on a second, I thought. What business did an Austrian have imitating Turkish military music?

Actually, it turns out, quite a lot. Here's a quick-and-dirty historical run-down.

The Habsburg dynasty of the Kingdom of Hungary and the Austrian and Holy Roman Empires had a long and troubled relationship with the Ottomans. By the time Mozart composed Sonata No. 11, likely in 1783, various incarnations of the Austrian Empire had seen combat with the Ottomans more than two dozen times in two and a half centuries. The Ottomans had seen varied success in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries; Vienna nearly fell to the Ottomans in 1683, and the Habsburg and Holy Roman Empire forces took advantage of having successfully defended Vienna by regaining Ottoman-controlled Buda two years later. Botched and hurried sieges, poor leadership, and more than a few issues with drunken soldiers meant that by the middle of the 18th century, the Austrian Empire was just managing to lean into and stave off the Ottomans. Austria's embarrassing defeat at the Battle of Grocka in 1739 and their relatively inconsequential victory in the Austro-Turkish War of the late 1780s were the last throes of conflict between two behemoth empires that were each stagnating with the rise of industrialism farther West.

Confusing? Um, just a little! This was the fevered political atmosphere into which Mozart gave us the Ottoman-inspired "Alla Turca." The ongoing skirmishes were about more than building or maintaining an empire; from the Austrians' perspective, the survival of Christianity itself was at stake, pitted time and again against a powerful Muslim enemy.

Mozart's use of a style of music traditionally played by Ottoman Janissary troops (elite infantry fighters made up of the Sultan's household soldiers and bodyguards, strictly trained from childhood and often made up of Christian subjects) straddles the line between cultural appropriation and subversion. It simultaneously borrows from and legitimizes (for a western audience) a long-standing musical tradition, while undermining its integrity by westernizing its themes to produce something only loosely resembling Janissary marching band music.

Mozart's opera Singespiel Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), first performed two years prior, performs a similar move. It tells the story of the hero Belmonte's attempt to rescue his love Konstanze from the harem of a high-ranking official of the Ottoman Empire, and also westernizes an imprecise impression of Janissary music. Its lighthearted, comical nature falls in line with one of two common modes of presenting Turkish culture in European art present for centuries prior: the Turk as ruthless, bloodthirsty, and terrifying; or as exotic, backwards, heretical, and bordering on buffoonery.

Many European cultures navigated between these opposing tropes as a means of coming to terms with the ever-present threat, overblown or not, of the Muslim Turk in the east. Austria had only witnessed fleeting moments of quiet in its almost perpetual conflict with the Ottoman Empire, and Mozart's 1783 Sonata No. 11 ends with a perhaps surprisingly upbeat movement that nods toward the very forces who had been vying for control of his home for over two centuries.

Katie Sisneros is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Minnesota. She is a co-founder of The Tangential, and her writing can be seen at Paper Darts, Revolver, and MPLSzine.