Soundscapes of War and Worship: Mozart and the Call to Prayer

Sounding History

Dec 15 2021 • 46 mins

We begin with a famous (and very beautiful) aria from the Abduction from the Seraglio K. 384by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (Mozart nerd alert: he never called himself “Amadeus,” ever, and we aren’t going to either). It’s from the beginning of Act 3, as the tenor hero, Belmonte, prepares to rescue his kidnapped bride Konstanze and her companion Blöndchen from the palace of Basha Selim. We are in an obviously sticky–and potentially deadly–situation. The music, beginning with a serene yet at times painfully dissonant introduction in the winds, takes listeners to a different place, where, although time moves at different speed, things sound absolutely familiar.

Much ink has been spilled on Mozart’s relationship to the music of his native Austria’s near neighbours, the Turks. Tom suggests here that, in the late eighteenth century, the sound of the Islamic world was not far away at all, especially not from Vienna, the city in and for which Mozart wrote the Abduction. In fact, while writing the opera Mozart was living right in the middle of an unstable and fluid borderland between the “West” and its Ismamic “others.” The Ottoman Empire was only a few days’ journey away. Today you could cover the distance in a matter of hours.

In fact if you map the performances of the Abduction in its early years, you see the routes of the traveling troupes who made the opera a hit across Europe heading closer and closer to the Islamic world that lay on Mozart’s doorstep. Thinking about Belmonte’s aria as a musical sign of the “in-between” opens up new historical perspectives on a beloved opera and, potentially, on how sound divides (or links) people who share the occupation of geographical spaces.

The theme of shared space takes us East for our second postcard, to contemporary Singapore. Drawing on recent fieldwork by the Singapore musicologist Tong Soon Lee, Chris explores how the Islamic call to prayer, repeated five times daily across the Muslim world, delineates sonic space in the city-state, which, like the borderlands of Austria two centuries previously, has a long history complicated by empire, commerce, migration and ethnic/religious diversity. The difference is that cities are smaller, tighter, and sonically far more dense than are the sprawling pastures, fields, and forests of agriculture. In the urban cityscape, borders can be perceived between neighborhoods, streets, or even individual people in their houses. Since independence, Singapore’s semi-democratic/semi-authoritarian government has found itself playing the role of sonic referee, seeking to leave room for the city’s Islamic majority population to live their beliefs in public via the Call to Prayer, while preserving a soundscape with uninvaded spaces for everyone.

Referencing Lee, Chris talks us through how the Call to Prayer itself has implicated contested claims to  public religious sound in Singapore’s multi-ethnic environment, and the ways that new conceptions of “space,” technology, and privacy yield renewed modes of religious expression. In Singapore, via the direction/redirection of the Call’s loudspeakers (first outward toward the city, and then later inward toward the mosque), and subsequently via the broadcast of the Call, on its five-times-daily schedule, on radio and then television, Muslims can enter shared sonic space–a “virtual mosque” whose religious community is real and renewed. When competing imperial, democratic, or authoritarian soundscapes collide, as Tom suggested and Chris elaborates, there are no easy answers. But some of the solutions, both past and present, offer fascinating clues to how sound makes, unmakes, and reinvents community.

In a fascinating preview of an upcoming episode, Chris and Tom pivot to a related discussion of the power of electronic media–and specifically of radio–to create not only a shared “virtual” environment (for Muslim worship, for example) but even a new national identity. Colonial and postcolonial sounds are a key theme in the podcast, so we chat briefly about the great singer Umm Kulthum (1898-1975), an icon of modernizing Egypt who used powerful Cairo-based radio, and then television and film, to forward a vision of the nation whose political power its second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-70) himself recognized and exploited. On Thursday nights during her broadcasts, traffic would halt in the streets, and shops would open their doors, as the broadcast voice of Umm Kulthum poured forth across the Arab world, literally sounding a new Egyptian nation into being.

When competing imperial, democratic, or authoritarian soundscapes collide, as Tom suggested and Chris elaborates, the sonic consequences can be complex. But listening carefully to sound as history, both past and present, can offer fascinating clues to how what we can hear makes, unmakes, and reinvents community.

Key Points

  • It is easy to fall into overly black-and-white categories when thinking about how people define themselves in sound. If you take a closer look, mapping soundworlds across political spaces, sometimes you can come to surprising and historically enlightening conclusions.
  • Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio K. 384 (1782) is sometimes thought of as an “East vs. West” kind of piece. We argue that the opera can also be understood to reveal how much the European and Islamic worlds had in common, and–even more significantly–how much they saw themselves as sharing a common geography.
  • Contemporary cities yield complex soundscapes. Attempts to regulate public religious sound, for example the Islamic call to prayer in Singapore, indicate how delicate the politics of a shared soundscape can be.
  • Electronic media has a huge power to make new identities across borders, and disrupt older ones. One great example is the Arab-language singer Umm Kulthum, whose special brand of song and music played an enormous role in the birth of Egypt as a nation after decolonization.


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