Josephine Theatrical & Political Reforms

By Chanan Hanspal

The Impact of Josephine Theatrical and Political Reforms on The Abduction and Figaro

In this essay, the close proximity in which Joseph II’s theatrical and some of his political reforms stand will be reflected upon to see if there are any concurrent themes between the selected reading material in how and if the authors refer to the theatrical reforms as a result of a political agenda. This will parallel a loose chronological summarisation of the state of opera, particularly during the nationalisation of the theatre in Vienna. Also, some of the characters in Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Marriage of Figaro who supposedly bear a close relationship to enlightened ideals will be explored by way of contrasting source material on the matter.

The subject of German theatre had been raising issues amongst the advocators for Germanisation on which form it should take long before Joseph II decided to nationalise the Burgtheatre and establish Viennese Singspiel. In 1750, Lessing had expressed enthusiasm in establishing a German dramatic tradition, which he saw as being crucial to the contribution to education and culture; Herder believed the publication of German folksongs would be important in unifying a German theatrical tradition while Koch thought that simple, singable strophic songs were just the things for the new genre. However, in the quest for a new operatic experience in the form of Singspiel by which Joseph could pride himself and his country, it was very difficult to escape the Italian and French influence. The move to reform the Burgtheatre and rid it of non-German opera proved to be unpopular amongst the nobility who had assumed as standard for some time, Italian and French opera.

The German Society, formed in 1761, committed itself to furthering the cause of German culture; this popular cultural debate had embraced issues of language purification, literature and education. The domination of French culture in respect of its literature and language in and out of the theatre had become the centre of attention as a possible hindrance to the advancement of German culture. Some theatre enthusiasts such as Herder and Lessing had great aversion to the impinging French influence on German theatre and even mocked and trivialised it. Beales writes that ‘During the sixties and seventies, the German dramatic tradition gained strength in Vienna, isolating the French theatre as an aristocratic toy.’ (Beales, 1987, p. 231). By the mid-1770s standards at the Burgtheatre had declined to such an extent that in 1776 Joseph II ordered the removal of the French theatre company that had been presenting Noverre’s ballets and implemented a German troupe instead. This was to be the beginning of the nationalisation of the Viennese theatre which would further vernacular drama.

There was a considerable amount of dissent projected in response to Joseph’s radical theatrical reforms particularly amongst the nobility.

‘Since the nobility had made it plain its preference for French and Italian opera, the transformation of the Burgtheatre into the… Nationaltheatre must have been regarded as a blow to the nobility’s prestige and a slight but symbolically important shift in the balance of power.’ (Rice, 1989, p. 135)

In addition, in relation to the removal of the French theatre company from the Burgtheatre, ‘…the higher aristocracy were infuriated by Joseph’s attitude towards the French theatre.’(Beales, 1987, p. 231). Even though Joseph was notorious for his self-imposing autocratic style in affairs of state, why would he make such sweeping reforms? Elizabeth Manning addresses the question of an ulterior motive on the part of Joseph in instigating such radicalism at the theatre in her article ‘The politics of culture’,

'Why should the Emperor decide to establish German opera in Vienna if, as it was said ‘there was at that time no taste for German operas’ and if he himself preferred Italian opera buffa? Why should he have been so closely involved in the day-to-day running of such an enterprise when he chose rarely to stay for a complete performance? The answer lies in his concern to retain the influence of his empire.' (Manning, 1993, p. 15)

John A. Rice also states, ‘The establishment of a theatre for the performance of German spoken drama was a powerful symbol of the pre-eminence of German.’ (Rice, 1989, p. 135) However, If one was to consider Joseph’s sound musically cultured perspective and activity in things musical, it would seem that his theatrical reforms unveil a double agenda, from one perspective, one might perceive the reforms as partly, maybe even primarily political and from another, artistic.

Joseph came from a musical family and regularly practised music; he played the harpsichord and cello, the latter instrument being his favourite which he would often play in the company of his musician employees. He was fond of fugues and in general ‘…preferred the contrapuntal music of the late Baroque [period] to the classical style associated with Haydn and Mozart.’ (Beales, 1987, p. 317). Joseph had acquired enough of a musical education to be able to sufficiently judge and understand the music of others.

'Joseph’s thoroughness with the [Singspiel] venture extended to his own personal attendance at rehearsals as well as performances, and the insistence… on acquiring the best possible singers…’ (Warrack, 2001, p. 131)

Clearly, Joseph took an active part in the Singspiel venture, to the point of recruiting musicians himself. Manning in ‘The politics of culture’ makes reference to Joseph’s appointment of the Stradler brothers, ‘…the finest clarinettists of the day [who] Mozart composed his clarinet concerto for’. Joseph’s close involvement with the theatre would imply that he played an active role in the artistic development. Yet, it is difficult to approximate how important the advancement of music was in relation to that of national unity. It is plausible to conceive the idea of his motives as being political because we know he preferred Italian opera buffa and if one looks at the poor quality of some of the Singspiel’s and adapted operas staged at the Nationaltheatre, for example, Ignaz Umlauf’s Welches ist die beste Nation? which was rejected after only two performances, and a German version of Florian Gassman’s La Notte critica, also rejected. While Manning and Rice’s articles make reference to the political agenda and Josephine reforms, Warrack in ‘German Opera’ explores in more detail his artistic penchant, commenting on Joseph’s inspirational visit to Paris and on experiencing the flourishing operatic activity there encouraged him to develop Singspiel.

An important factor of Joseph’s theatrical reforms was the favourable condition it bestowed on Mozart who was free to develop a new type of operatic experience by way of simultaneously embracing and repudiating structural considerations of preceding forms of opera.

'[Mozart] could…develop a contemporary music theatre that was both dramatically and musically capable of portraying individuals instead of types. He could depict conflicts between characters who bore responsibility for their own actions and were not subject to laws of fate. He could take up themes that corresponded to contemporary reality or were drawn directly from it and would reflect on it.' (Braunbehrens, 1986, p. 77)

In Vienna, and before The Abduction Mozart was virtually unknown as an opera composer. He was very anxious to present himself to the Emperor and was well prepared to compete for commissions with the most respected opera composers. On hearing that Joseph had instigated a German-language Nationaltheatre Mozart realised he could write an opera that could go beyond the constrictions of a specific form of opera and mix a number of disparate elements which would give him an increasing amount of freedom to express himself musically. Mozart was so keen to make an impression in Vienna, even with the knowledge that his librettist Gottlieb Stephanie had a reputation as a ‘slanderous man’ who treated people unfairly still did not deter him, ‘ It may well be true… However, he’s very much in with the emperor’. (Mozart 16 June 1781). Another figure of much less ill repute, and who strongly believed in Mozart’s abilities was Countess Thun. The Countess had helped greatly in bringing Mozart to the attention of significant figures by arranging a gathering at one of her salons where Mozart played through Idomeneo with the attendance of Count Rosenberg-Orsini (Theatre Director of the Burgtheatre) who later commissioned Mozart to write an opera which would become The Abduction.

Joseph II had requested that The Abduction be completed in time for the Grand Duke Paul of Russia’s visit to Vienna in September 1781. How much of a coincidence Duke Paul’s visit in order to fortify Russia and Austria against the Turkish, and the Turkish musical elements in The Abduction is, and if at all The Abduction was a piece utilised by Joseph for the purpose of political propaganda is potentially an argument of great proportions.

‘It was highly appropriate that Mozart’s first work for the Viennese stage had a Turkish subject. Against the background of Grand Duke Paul’s visit, at a time when the Russian-Austrian alliance against Turkey was being strengthened, the libretto for [The Abduction] appears not only as a clever exploitation of currently relevant themes…but as a kind of political statement, a warning about concerted action against Turkey.’ (Braunbehrens, 1986, p. 74)

It could however, be merely coincidence that Bretzner’s libretto dealt with Turkish themes and that Mozart was apt to introduce music of a Turkish element to compliment the characters and themes of the libretto. In none of the correspondence with his father on the development and progress of The Abduction does Mozart mention he was utilising Turkish elements in order to represent the Russian-Austria alliance against Turkey. The content of his letters express an enthusiasm for the new methods he was dealing with, primarily the use of the orchestra to portray characters of greater complexity. However, Gottlieb Stephanie who chose the libretto was exceedingly patriotic and it is possible his choice might have had something to do with the utterances of a Russian and Austrian merge against Turkey prior to Duke Paul’s visit. There is no direct evidence that supports this, but it is difficult to find any other reason why Braunbehrens would have made the correlation. Incidentally, Braunbehrens is the only author out of the selected material who makes this connection between Mozart’s opera and Joseph’s political reforms. Maybe the connection is too nebulous and consequently not addressed by that many writers; nevertheless, the Turkish elements could be viewed as an interesting coincidence.

Turkey had been an adversary of Austria for some time and the depiction in The Abduction of Selim as the Turkish ruler capable of magnanimity might have been disorientating for the Vienna audience. It might also have been uninteresting, since Turkish elements had been incorporated into many other operas prior, in particular Gluck’s The pilgrims of Mecca, if it had not been for the metamorphis of Selim from imposing aristocrat-type into enlightened ruler. This transition exemplifies Mozart’s aversion to stereotypes in the way Selim has revolted against emulating the behavioural patterns of his worst enemy, Belmonte’s father, as opposed to the type of behaviour an audience at the time might have expected of a Turkish ruler. The fact that Selim develops an enlightened point of view has been linked to the pervasiveness of enlightenment philosophy at the time. Brigid Brophy in ‘Mozart the Dramatist’ writes,

‘The Abduction is tinged with the most delightful and one of the most influential of enlightenment themes, the exotic; a theme which acted as aperitif to enlightened society’s quest for both ‘lumières’ and ‘plaisirs’…Mozart has built his Pasha Selim to the precise specification of Voltaire’s ideal: the noble, pagan, philosophic, exotic, benevolent despot who is amenable to education.’ (Brophy, 1964, p. 210, 223).

Inherent in this extract is a suggestion that this enlightened feature of Selim can be seen to reflect aspects of the socio-political atmosphere if we take into consideration Joseph’s enlightened reforms and the impact they had on society at the time. The philosophic, noble and benevolent despot are attributes which in various permutations have been applied to Joseph II, and those very attributes helped shape his political reforms which had proclaimed total religious freedom, relaxed censorship, and improvements for the serfs; reforms which were inflected with the enlightenment school of thought. Even Joseph’s speech behaviouralisms were sometimes tinged with a Rousseauesque tone,

‘I have sought to implant in all servants of the state the love that I have for the general good and the zeal that inspires me to promote it; from which it necessarily follows that, in accordance with my example, each man should have no other aim in all his actions but utility and the welfare of the greatest number.’ (Joseph II, 1783)

‘The general will…must both come from all and apply to all…it should be seen from the foregoing that what makes the will general is less the number of voters than the common interest uniting them…’ (Rousseau, 1762)

As Josephine objectives paralleled eighteenth century enlightenment so too did the plots within German opera, ‘Weisse provided Hiller with…Rousseau-inspired texts, in which humble rustic innocence prevails over aristocratic urban corruption.’ (Warrack, 2001, p. 88) This kind of plot suggests a move from the haggard stories often found in opera seria of mistaken identity and unlikely coincidences to a more realistic premise reflecting the times, and this was captured to a certain extent in The Abduction even more so in Figaro. ‘[German opera]…moved towards greater literary respectability and regularity of subject matter and structure, as well as towards musical complexity,’ (Libby, 1989, p. 37) qualities abound in Mozart’s first Singspiel.

As far as the success of the theatrical reforms, not even the commercial success of The Abduction could substantiate the National- Theatre. The radical changes Joseph had inflicted on the Burgtheatre were carried out with little regard for public opinion and the nobility, who were the people financially supporting the theatre; and although reforms reduced court expenditure the Singspiel venture could not deliver consistent good quality entertainment. In his desire to further German language and culture through the theatrical experience, Joseph had to face defeat. The operatic backdrop in which didacticism would prevail had been somewhat of a failure,

'Not even nationalist feelings could overcome the realisation that there were too few Singspiels which could compete seriously with French opera or with Italian opera which began returning to the repertory in translation, so that matters were left substantially as they had been before the opening of the National-Singspiel.' (Warrack, 2001, p. 134)

In 1783, unable to sustain the Singpiel venture Joseph turned to comic opera and installed a group of comic opera singers while continuing to stage German opera at the Kärntnertortheatre. In ‘Mozart in Vienna’ Braunbehrens refers to the division between the nobility and the bourgeoisie. Therefore, it is conceivable, in order to make a deduction from Pezzl’s ‘Sketch of Vienna’ excerpt, in which he writes about the antagonism within the theatre audience, to infer he is addressing that division. And, how aspects within a given opera addressed issues pertinent to the distaste of behaviour by a certain group within society who would be in attendance at the theatre. ‘A part of the audience has adopted a mean and nasty habit which verges on the insolent. When, during a play, derogatory remarks are made about the aristocracy, these empty-headed people applaud’. (Pezzl, 1786) Pezzl does not refer to who exactly is applauding at those moments, but taking into account the theatre was mostly attended by the nobility and middle class, one could make a reasonable assumption as to where it emanated from. ‘[The nobility and middle class] made up only about seven per cent of the [Vienna] population, [and] represented 90 per cent of the Burgtheatre’s audience.’ (Rice, 1989, p. 128) It is fair to assume that the scene in which Prezzl sets in the theatre, where aristocrats are frowned on because of the content of an opera which shows them in a light contrary to public perception, might have been the case in the performance of The Marriage of Figaro.

When it came to Joseph’s attention that Da ponte and Mozart had prepared an opera based on Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro he prepared a decree that expressed in no uncertain terms his denunciation of the project.

‘Since this play contains much that is offensive, I order the censor to either reject it entirely, or to have changes made that would enable him to take responsibility for the performance of this work and the impression it might create.’
(Joseph II, 1786)

On reading this decree, one is confronted with a perceptual ambiguity and left wondering exactly how Joseph felt about Figaro because of conflicting accounts by some authors. In Braunbehrens ‘Mozart in Vienna’ he writes, ‘ …Joseph had a special interest in bringing [Figaro] to the stage.’ (Braunbehrens, 1986, p. 213) While in H.C Robbins Landon’s ‘Mozart The Golden Years’ he note’s, ‘Whatever we may think of the political and moral content of the piece [Figaro], it is clear that Joseph II considered it too dangerous to stage.’ (Landon, 1989, p. 158) Was the above decree a precaution in order to avoid responsibility for possible seditious outcomes? Did Joseph dislike the play? Was he concerned about causing controversy among the general public? Uncertainty aside, Da Ponte had been told to ‘tone down’ the play, and after doing so presented Joseph with a few extracts, Joseph then supposedly satisfied there was nothing offensive allowed the opera to be staged, interestingly, Joseph remained adamant in regards to the theatrical production banishment. Further questions may be asked as to why the opera version was fine but not the play. Although there is clear evidence imparted by some authors on the gravity of Joseph’s reforms within the enlightened framework, why did Joseph reject Beaumarchais’ play in the theatre? Does this not repudiate the enlightenment ideal of natural rights and individual freedom?

The implications Figaro had in its depiction of Count Almaviva’s attempted indulgence in uncompromising promiscuity were far reaching. Count Almaviva is quite deplorable in his actions which prove hypocritical as he simultaneously abolishes the Droit du Seigneur (Right of the Lord) and enacts it. However, Beaumarchais’ stage directions caution that although Count Almaviva is pining for Susanna and is projecting his unwanted desires toward her in a unflattering manner he must hold a ‘lightness and freedom… the corruption of his heart must not remove the [good form] of his manners.’ (Beaumarchais, 1778) Even though the Count represents the antithesis of the common perception of noble good behaviour, at the end of the final act the countess’ insubordination is embodied by the count's wish for forgiveness, an act of redemption perhaps, that might exemplify ‘the good form of his manners’. The analogy of bourgeois morality and the aristocratic abuses of power in relation to Susanna and the Count are addressed by Dellamora and Braunbehrens. Susanna and Figaro represent ‘middle class energy, wit, and intelligence in successfully resisting the count’s clandestine attempt to reassert feudal privilege.’ (Dellamora, 1997, p. 256) Braunbehrens opines that Figaro contrasts bourgeois values against feudal rights. Since Joseph had abolished Serfdom, a pernicious form of exploitation endorsed by land occupying lords whereby peasants are bestowed the luxury of working the land for no wages, the conceptual transference of feudalism to the liberties of Count Almaviva by Dellamora and Braunbehrens is appropriate, so too is the bourgeois moralistic likeness with Susanna and Figaro.

The resemblance of social and political aspects in Figaro concur that Mozart had an interest in presenting topical issues alongside complex characterisations, and although he respected Joseph and his reforms, he was somewhat ambivalent. If we take into account Almaviva’s self interest pursuit for gratification, although it holds a mirror to the less redeemable features of aristocratic life it does not abide with enlightenment ideals. Perhaps this was a concern for Joseph, if doctrinal components of enlightenment philosophy pontificate rationality and good moral judgement Count Almaviva’s behaviour is anathema to it. At the same time as has already been established Figaro reflected and justified the very abuses of power Joseph’s reforms were to eradicate. ‘Joseph II could be content with the opera’s criticism of the nobility; it fitted beautifully into his program…he could not accept the nobility’s insistence on special rights and privileges…’ (Braunbehrens, 1986, p. 280)

The enlightened ambience of Joseph’s Vienna had permitted a number of concessions in lieu of the type of operas staged. John A. Rice writes,

‘Without Joseph’s direction Viennese opera in the 1780s would certainly have developed differently from the way it did; we have Joseph as well as Da Ponte and Mozart to thank for Le nozze di Figaro.’ (Rice, 1989, p. 153)

Joseph had made possible through his reforms, the emergence of significant works by composers who went on to bequeath to Vienna an era of creativity energy which would institutionalise this period of opera and impart a wealth of inspiration to subsequent composers and audiences.


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