Sunday 22 October 2017

How Mozart delighted in military march of the Turks

From Beethoven's bagatelle 'Für Elise', through any number of Chopin waltzes, to popular pieces by Debussy and Liszt, there's a whole catalogue of favourite piano music that is recognisable in an instant. The 'Rondo alla Turca' fills that space for Mozart.

This catchy little number is actually the final part of a piano sonata, music for Mozart's own performance at the small-scale soirées he'd put on when he was making a name for himself in Vienna. There were eighteen sonatas in all. The 'Rondo' -- a tune that keeps returning to its original theme -- is the conclusion of number 11.

To get an idea of why this stood out, you only have to think how things were in the imperial capital in the latter decades of the 18th Century, with infantry units marching about their business. This was the time bands were being introduced to accompany them.

The music of the elite Turkish troops that the Austrian batallions would have brought back from as long ago as the Crusades -- heavy on the percussion, with exotic, oriental colour -- had become very popular. Mozart took this as the starting point for the 'Rondo'.

He himself gave it the title 'alla Turca', pointing to the character of the music. The 'Rondo' -- now known also as Mozart's 'Turkish March' -- wasn't the only music of his to have a Turkish influence. His opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Harem) was a huge success when it was first performed around the time of the composition of 'Sonata No 11'.

Subsequently, Beethoven would dip into this well, including a Turkish march, in the incidental music he composed for a play, The Ruins of Athens.

And this was by no means a one-way street. Mahmud II, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire at this time, was mad about Italian music and did his best to try and ensure it would get a wider hearing in what was then Constantinople.

American jazz legend Dave Brubeck also produced a 'Blue Rondo a la Turk', though the connection with Mozart goes no further than a play on the title, since the piece was composed while the Brubeck band was on tour in Turkey.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning. ghamilton@independent.ie

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