One of the most well-known stories in all of music has to be the infamous exchange between Austrian Emperor Joseph II and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Emperor had just heard an opera by Mozart and complained, “That is too fine for my ears – there are too many notes.”. Mozart’s famous reply was, “There are just as many notes as there should be.”. The interaction is dramatized in the 1984 movie Amadeus like so:
The opera that was subject of this discussion was Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which in English is known as The Abduction from the Seraglio. The Emperor Joseph II commissioned the creation of The Abduction from the Seraglio for his German language opera project, the Nationalsingspiel. The Abduction is a Singspiel, a music drama in the German language with spoken word and text set to music. One of the goals of the Nationalsingspiel was to promote more German language opera, at a time when the most prevalent and popular form of opera was Italian language opera (even in Vienna). The opera company itself ended up failing, but Mozart’s contribution was a huge success. The Abduction from the Seraglio was the most popular and longest running opera during Wolfgang’s lifetime.
A seraglio is the quarters in an Ottoman Sultan’s palace where you would find his harem of women. Sometimes the opera is known as The Abduction from the Harem, and the story follows a man named Belmonte as he seeks to rescue his beloved Konstanze from the harem into which she has been sold. The Turkish Ottoman Empire was clearly in the minds of Europeans in the 18th century. Residents of Vienna, Mozart’s audience for this work, surely were keenly aware of the Austro-Turkish War of 1716-1718. There are several times in Mozart’s operas that “Turkish” themes or characters are used to represent the exotic, and often the bad guy in the plot. These representations are almost never historically accurate, but do reflect the attitudes of Mozart’s audience.
As famous as the Emperor’s “too many notes” complaint is, the translation is probably not very accurate in itself. The original quote comes from Mozart’s earliest biography by Franz Niemetschek, which itself is a bit of a slanted view of Wolfgang’s life. Niemetschek’s book was written with the approval of Mozart’s widow Constanze, but also with her spin on matters. In any case, the Emperor’s quote in the original German quote reads:
“Zu schön für unsere Ohren, und gewaltig viel Noten, lieber Mozart!”
The phrase “gewaltig viel Noten” probably doesn’t translate best as “too many notes”, rather more like “very many notes” or “an extraordinary number of notes”. The result of the poor translation is that Emperor Joseph II is painted in a not so flattering light, as a man of poor musical skills and worse judge of music. In reality, the Emperor was a big supporter of Mozart, and his commission of The Abduction from the Seraglio brought Wolfgang the financial success to stay in Vienna and marry his wife Constanze. The opera has a similar happy ending, where Belmonte is reunited with the object of his love, his Konstanze.