Mozart and Enlightenment Thought
September 26, 1999
Good afternoon. Iím delighted to see that you have come to hear about Mozart, but thatís really no surpriseóhe has been one of the most compelling figures in music for over two hundred years, and his short lifeófrom 1756 to 1791, only thirty-six yearsóand his extraordinary talent have made him into one of only two dominant images of the genius/composer. The other image, of course, is that of Beethoven, the Romantic, tormented, deaf composer, unappreciated in his time, able to hear only the music of his imagination. Mozart, on the other hand, was the naïve genius, to whom everything came so easily, and for whom music was the triumph of the mind. Peter Shafferís play, Amadeus, along with Milos Formanís film version, is only one of many examples of this image of Mozart, which, while not exactly false, was not exactly true either.
I could easily list a number of Mozart myths that deserve debunking: Salieri didnít poison him; he was neither despondent nor entirely bankrupt when he died; the man in black who commissioned the Requiem has been identified, and didnít plan to pass it off as his own, and so on, but myth-debunking always runs the risk of painting an equally false, opposing version of the myth. Even though it doesnít have a play and a film, this myth is also fairly prevalent: the image of Mozart as the quintessential Enlightenment composer, eminently reasonable, demonstrating a cool, mathematical perfection in everything he wrote, a sort of musical Descartes. A more accurate picture of Mozart, both biographically and critically, that is, in what we know of him through his life and through his music, reveals that he was neither a tortured early Romantic, nor a cool, reasonable, dispassionate servant of the Enlightenment aristocracy. He belongs to a transitional period in the late Enlightenment, when composers, who formerly tended to work for a single church or noble patron as a sort of in-house artisan of music, began to write and perform for a more bourgeois audience and become independent contributors to intellectual life. This step in the direction of artistic and intellectual freedom was a central part of the Enlightenment, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century, at the end of the period, because it set the stage for the creation of the artist/hero myth so strongly associated with Beethoven and the Romantic era. Mozartís accomplishments and the emergence of the Mozart legend did much to create the conditions that Beethoven and other Romantic era composers would find essential to their artistic freedom; Mozart himself, however, held an ambivalent attitude toward the intellectual and social atmosphere of the Enlightenment in which he actually lived. Although his balanced phrasing, symmetrical forms, and clear resolutions indicate a deep-rooted and sincere belief in the Enlightenment ideals of reason and order, other elements in his work indicate an equally strong desire to subvert these ideals.
Before I go too much further, I should define a few of the terms I have been using. When I say "Enlightenment," I mean the principles embodied by the major European thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, particularly Descartes, Locke, Hume, Boyle, Leibniz, and Voltaire, who believed generally that humanity progressed through the rational acquisition and organization of knowledge, and that real knowledge resulted from observation and logic rather than tradition, speculation, or divine inspiration. When I say "Romantic," I refer to the artistic creations of the period immediately following the Enlightenment, from the end of the eighteenth century after the French Revolution in 1789, to about 1850, a date I pick arbitrarily because it was the year of the Wordsworthís death. These creations, such as the poetry of Hölderlin, Wordsworth, the late Goethe, and Shelley, the music of late Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann, and the painting of Constable, Turner, and Friedrich, have a characteristic emphasis on the subjective self and the ideal of the individual imagination.
Iím sure many of you noticed something odd about these definitions: first, that I omitted Immanuel Kant from the list of Enlightenment philosophers, and second, that I defined "Enlightenment" in terms of philosophy and "Romantic" in terms of art works. I did neither of these things by accident; Kant, like Mozart, had a curiously ambivalent attitude toward the intellectual atmosphere of his time, embodying its principles to a great extent (Kant even wrote an essay called "What is Enlightenment?"), yet setting the stage for those who would go beyond those principles.
I believe that Mozartís position as the last Enlightenment composer and a transitional figure to the Romantic era makes a strong analogy to Kantís position as the last Enlightenment philosopher and a transitional figure to Idealism, although I have found no evidence that Mozart spent much time thinking about philosophy, nor that Kant spent much time thinking about music. Indeed, Kantís grasp of music is exceptionally weakóhe calls it "the beautiful play of the emotions" in the Critique of Judgment, relying on an earlier doctrine known as the Affektenlehre, where elements of music have corresponding emotional statesóbut his contribution to the fields of metaphysics and aesthetics overall led the way to both the development of the Idealist school of philosophy and the Romantic reassessment of musicís importance as an art form. As I mentioned a little earlier, listeners of the Baroque and early Enlightenment eras generally did not consider music the supreme expression of sublime artistic genius that listeners of the Romantic era did, and that we continue to do, to some extent, in our own era. Instead, art music before the turn of the nineteenth century had two main functions: it decorated the homes and palaces of the wealthy and powerful, either as dance music or as entertainment, and it praised the glory of God in his churches. Most composerís positions were like those held by Johann Sebastian Bach, or both Mozartís and Beethovenís fathers: the office of Kapellmeister, or church composer, whose job was to turn out a steady supply of hymns and oratorios, and who occasionally wrote something on commission for the local nobleman.
What changed this attitude toward music was a fortuitous combination of a number of factors, including Kantís philosophy and Mozartís extraordinary achievements, events which were, I should emphasize, simultaneous, but not directly related occurrences. In 1781, Kant published the Critique of Pure Reason, the first of his three critiques; the same year, Mozart obtained his release from the service of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg and settled in Vienna to become an independent composer. If we believe Mozartís own account of his dismissal, he got a kick in the pants on his way out, and, leaving aside Kant for the moment, Iíd like to examine the biographical, social, philosophical, and even musical importance of this historic kick in the pants.
First of all, why would Mozart want to be released from such a good, reliable position? It was, after all, the position his father occupied, and the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg lived well and would undoubtedly provide him with a steady income and both secular and religious assignments. Mozartís family, while far from poor, was concerned about money, and Mozart had no assurance of a steady income in Vienna. Here are Mozartís own words on why he was tired of Salzburg, in a letter to Abbé Bullinger of 1778, three years before he finally left for good:
In the first place, professional musicians there are not held in much consideration; and, secondly, one hears nothing, there is no theatre, no opera; and even if they really wanted one, who is there to sing? For the last five six years the Salzburg orchestra has always been rich in what is useless and superfluous, but very poor in what is necessary, and absolutely destitute of what is indispensableÖ
Basically, he was frustrated and bored. Having been the foremost prodigy in the history of music (a position he still holds), Mozart knew what it was like to be adored by kings and queens, and he knew most of all that he was a better musician and composer than anyone in the world. Salzburg was a dull outpost; Vienna was the center of the musical world, a cosmopolitan city with a steady flow of composers, musicians, and patrons from all parts of Europe, and a wealthy, enlightened, music-loving Emperor, Josef II. This city would give him the resources and the audience he craved, and ample opportunity to demonstrate the full range of his abilities.
As Iím sure you all know, Mozart didnít exactly become rich, nor did he gain the position of court composer to Josef II, although the Emperor appreciated his abilities and eventually gave him a small pension. However, itís fortunate for us that he didnít get what he wanted easily, because the uncertainty of his position forced him to compose and to perform in ways that enhanced his musical style, and I should explain what I mean by that in a little more detail. As a young child, Mozart was capable of writing fully realized compositions, and by the time he was a teenager, his compositions really reach a kind of perfection within the classical style. However, Mozartís mature works transcend even that level of perfection by introducing elements that reflect an increasing desire to go beyond the assumptions, constraints, and philosophy of music of his time. In other words, his frustration with his situation in Vienna, which had an active musical life, yet lacked a full appreciation of his musical genius, became elements of subversion and even transcendence in his music.
I realize this is a very abstract thesis, but let me tell you what I mean in very concrete terms. As a composer and performer, Mozart wanted to take Vienna by storm, and between 1781 and 1785 he performed more and more, and wrote more and more complex, dramatic, and powerful piano concertos to demonstrate his talent. To give you just a couple of examples, Iíll play just a brief excerpt from the Adagio movement of Piano Concerto No. 23, Köchel 488, one of six concertos he wrote in 1786: [Play Track 2 of Horowitz]. Iím sure you noticed the remarkable delicacy and depth of emotion in this movementóMozart isnít trying to be flashy here; heís demonstrating the expressive power of a carefully written, yet simple theme. Rather than burden you with my analysis, Iíll just quote Charles Rosen on this movement:
The structure of the melody may be two regular parallels, but its beauty and its passionate melancholy lie in the irregularity of rhythm and variety of phrasing which reveal every possible expressive facet of the two simple descending lines. (244)
Rosen goes on to describe exactly how Mozart accomplishes this in technical terms, and here Iíll summarize. What Mozart is doing is making more with less: he takes a relatively simple theme and does more complex, less predictable, and more reflective variations on the theme than his predecessors, or even his contemporaries would have done. In this, he is setting a precedent for Beethoven, for whom this became a central compositional principle. He is also stating by example that music, above all, is important and significant, in particular with regard to the display of the individual mind in relation to society. All good concertos, to some extent, have this dialectic between individual virtuosity and social ensemble at their center, but in Mozartís case, itís especially important to notice the restraint he shows toward flashy playing in favor of the integrity and complexity of the work as a whole. He is also taking full advantage of the technical possibilities of the pianoforte, a relatively recent invention, which enabled the player to use loud and soft notes, unlike its predecessor, the harpsichord. You should also notice the use of clarinets in the orchestra; writing for this instrument is also fairly new, and the instrument became one of Mozartís favorites; his clarinet concerto is, as Iím sure you know, one of the standards in the repertoire. As for this concerto and others of this period, the remarkable thing about them is the degree to which Mozartís clear intent is not necessarily to dazzle the audience with virtuoso playing, but to elevate the art form, and that these concertos were written for a subscription series of concerts, not for an individual patron.
Whatever this achieved for Mozart personallyóhe abruptly stopped writing concertos in 1786, focusing his energies instead on operaóthey achieved something extraordinary for instrumental music in later years, and the intellectual framework established by Kant prepared the way. As Peter Kivy, the distinguished philosopher of music, has also noted, Kant himself on music is notable for a missed opportunity to abandon the already antiquated notion of the Affektenlehre, or "doctrine of the affections" for a more formalist view of music that would more closely correspond with his overall view of aesthetics. By 1795, only four years after Mozart died and five years after Kant had established a view of art as the disinterested contemplation of formal beauty in his Critique of Judgment, Schiller had this to say about music in the Letters on Aesthetic Education: "Music, at its most sublime, must become sheer form and affect us with the serene power of antiquity." In only five years, music, in particular instrumental music, with no accompanying text, has gone from being described a merely pleasant art to a "sublime" one, and instead of needing something to make the vague feelings it evokes concrete, it "must become sheer form." In 1795, Beethoven is only twenty-five and far from famous; this change in attitude, here in a text that openly acknowledges its basis in Kantian principles, results from the combination of a Kantian belief in form, rather than imitation, as the source of artistic beauty, and exposure to the purely formal pleasures of Mozartís music. Naturally, there is still a large debate over the degree to which musicís pleasures are "purely formal," and the position of absolute music, that is, works, such as symphonies and concertos without a referential text, but our conception of these works as having equal significance to that of visual or literary art comes from the terms set by Kant, Schiller, and the Idealists.
The final part of Schillerís statement, that music must "affect us with the serene power of antiquity" contains the prophetic beginning of another idea that would take hold of music aesthetics slightly later. Schiller, as is well known, in addition to writing the Letters on Aesthetic Education, also wrote Concerning Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, and defined two contrasting strains in art: the naïve, formal beauty of classical antiquity, and the sentimental, emotional, and symbolic beauty of Western art. The idea of this division gained a great deal of currency and was applied to a number of paired comparisons, not the least of which was that of Mozart and Beethoven. Mozart, as both a former child prodigy and Beethovenís Enlightenment-era predecessor, became the naïve genius of classical perfection in this formulation, and Beethoven, naturally, the belated, sentimental genius, who longs nostalgically for the Golden Age of his predecessor. The pervasiveness of this idea is extraordinary, and is somewhat responsible for the exaggerated and caricatured Mozart we encounter in Peter Schafferís play. By the way, the most egregious aspect of this mischaracterization is the notion that Mozart would have behaved inappropriately in front of social superiors; this idea runs absolutely contrary to what we know about him and the fact that he had been trained to be polite in front of important people from an early age.
In any case, the naïve-Mozart sentimental-Beethoven idea persisted, particularly among several important composers, including Schumann, Wagner, and Mahler, but it is in the nature of great artists to mythologize, exaggerate, and polarize their predecessors. The question that remains for us to resolve is what, precisely, did Mozart himself think of his society, its beliefs and belief systems, and his place in it, and how can this enhance our understanding of his music today? To answer this complex question, we should return to the year we left off late in Mozartís life, 1786, when he and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, completed The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart had written several operas before, both in the opera seria and the opera buffa style, but had never had tremendous success. This time, however, he was working with an experienced and skilled librettist, and they were using a subversive play by Beaumarchais as the operaís source. The Marriage of Figaro is the second of Beaumarchaisí Figaro plays that had caused a sensation across Europe. The first of the plays, The Barber of Seville, had already been made into an opera by Pasiello; just to keep things absolutely clear, I should mention that the version of The Barber of Seville that we hear in opera houses today is not Pasielloís, but Rossiniís, and is a nineteenth-century work. In The Barber of Seville, Figaro, a barber and servant, helps his master, Count Almaviva, gain the hand of Rosina, the ward of Doctor Bartholo, who wants to marry her himself when she becomes of age. The plot contains many of the familiar devices of French comedy that you will probably remember from Moliére, such as disguises, mistaken identities, and so forth, that were the elements of Italian comedy and classic opera buffa. Its resolution, when the Count marries Rosina thanks to his clever servant, restores everything to its natural order, and both master and man are happy.
Thatís how it goes in comedies; social order is restored, everyone ends up with the right person, bad people learn their lesson, and the audience goes home with the feeling that all is right with the world. Last year, UCSB put on a wonderful production of a much earlier Mozart opera, La finta giardiniera, under the direction of Simon Williams, which has all the characteristics of classical Enlightenment opera buffa: a moment of passion and unreason has thrown everything into disorder; people threaten constantly to lose their reason if order is not restored; there is a lot of hiding, dissembling, and eavesdropping, but in the end, everyone pairs off in a beautifully symmetrical manner, nobles with nobles, servants with servants, and, as Alexander Pope once put it, "Everything that is, is right." We are left with a "best of all possible worlds" of clear social order and responsible behavior according to oneís well-established station in life.
"The best of all possible worlds," of course, is the phrase Voltaire used ironically in Candide to illustrate what was wrong with a lot of Enlightenment philosophy: the assumption that the world as it is represents a kind of perfection. The world of the late eighteenth century was far from perfect, and as we find out in The Marriage of Figaro, those who are noble in birth are not always noble in character. Beaumarchaisí second play in the trilogy, as everyone knew by the time Mozart and da Ponte began to adapt it for the opera, was far more subversive than the first, and far more complex. Even working on it risked the displeasure of the Emperor, who at first wanted to ban it completely, but was later convinced by da Ponte to allow it to be staged, at least according to da Ponteís account. Also according to da Ponte, it was Mozart who first suggested putting this controversial play to music, and da Ponte later explained their objectives in taking on such a challenging project. Here are his own words on the subject:
the opera will not be one of the shortest to have been exhibited in our theatre for which we hope sufficient of excuses the variety of threads from which is woven the action of this drama, the vastness and size of the same, the multiplicity of musical pieces which had to be made in order not to keep the actors excessively idle, in order to reduce the boredom and monotony of the long recitatives, ion order to express on occasion with diverse colour the diverse passions which there stand forth, and our desire particularly to offer a virtually new kind of spectacle to a public of such refined taste, and such informed judgement.
What da Ponte says in this long and complex sentence is that The Marriage of Figaro was that they intended to transcend the genre of opera buffa, introducing a far more integrated, carefully written, and varied musical art work, which would expand the taste of the public. You should also notice da Ponteís acute awareness of the formal constraints on opera composers imposed by the singers, who would object to being "excessively idle," that is, not having sufficiently prominent roles, and the difficulty in keeping the action going without resorting to long recitatives to explain plot developments. These ambitions would require an extraordinarily complex opera, and that is exactly what they produced.
They also produced a work of such importance to the history of opera that it is really impossible to overstate it. The Marriage of Figaro has never gone out of repertory, that is, somewhere in the world, a major opera company has had a production of the opera on its schedule since its premiere in 1786 to the present day, and it is the oldest opera for which that is the case. What accounts for this achievement, and why is this opera so much better than anything that preceded it?
First, the subject matter of the libretto is perfect, and the timing was also perfect for Mozart and da Ponte to put it on stage in musical form. In The Marriage of Figaro, the action is several years after that of The Barber of Seville, Count Almaviva has grown tired of the Countess, and has decided to seduce Susanna, the fiancée of his faithful servant Figaro, on her wedding night, asserting his privilege as her lord and master according to ancient custom, even though he had recently renounced this custom publicly. Letís listen to how Mozart and da Ponte set up the exposition in the first scene of the opera, where Figaro is measuring his new room for a bed, and Susanna explains the countís designs. I have provided a copy of the libretto for you in the handout so you can follow the dialogue better. [Play Tracks 2 and 3 of Disk 1 of Figaro]
As the curtain opens, we see Figaro and Susanna; Figaro is counting off the measurements necessary for fitting a bed in his new room, and Susanna is admiring how she looks in the new hat she made for herself. You can already notice several things that indicate that something different from standard opera buffa is going on: this scene of domestic tranquility emphasizes Figaroís and Susannaís capabilities as the makers and doers of this world. You can assume he will build his own bed; Susanna has made her own hat, and this opera, based, as you know, on a subversive play, appeared at precisely the time in history when a new bourgeois class of traders, bankers, craftsmen, and merchants were gaining power and significance in European society, and the necessity of having a noble class was being questioned very seriously for the first time. The workers of the world and the bourgeois created wealth, and got things done; the sovereign provided them with a stable government, but what did the aristocracy do any more except hoard valuable resources and put on airs?
You can also notice a particular motif of Mozartís that gains increasing emphasis in his operas. The two characters, Figaro and Susanna, begin the opera fully occupied by their work or its results, Figaro with his counting and Susanna with her home-made hat. Youíll also notice the way the orchestra anticipates and echoes the dialogue, especially Figaroís counting. Counting and numbers had an extraordinary significance at this time in intellectual history. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, mathematicians had made enormous advances on problems that hadnít changed since ancient times, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz (who was the basis for Professor Pangloss in Voltaireís Candide), Newton, Fermat, líHopital, and a number of others had astounded the world with their accomplishments. In particular, Newtonís Principia had made an extraordinary advance in connecting the natural world with the mathematical world, and philosophers everywhere were trying to emulate him by finding the mathematical basis for everything, including, and almost especially, music, whose connection with mathematics had been a mystical subject since Pythagoras.
The notion of Figaro the mathematician may seem a bit far-fetched, but I assure you, there is more to this idea. About the middle of the eighteenth century, the makers and doers of Europe were swept by the idea of Freemasonry, the organization of groups of skilled people to discuss matters of mutual intellectual importance without the interference of either church or state. In December of 1784, Mozart joined the lodge called "Zur Wolhtätigkeit" or "Benificence," the second most important lodge in Vienna, the first being "Zur wahren Eintracht," or "True Concord." Above all, these lodges were dedicated to spreading the ideals of the Enlightenment, including the idea of a civil society of practical people pursuing secular knowledge, especially the mathematical and philosophical knowledge underlying the world of real things and people. It would therefore be very important to Mozart to establish two things right at the start of Figaro: first, that Figaro and Susanna are not operatic versions of the stock clever-servant characters, but independent, practical people, and second, that the music itself, in the form of these anticipations and echoes and in numerous other ways, would not merely support the text, but participate in the action of the opera.
I realize thatís quite a claim to be made for the music, so let me tell you what I mean by that. You just heard Susanna and Figaro discuss the significance of the ringing bellófor Figaro, before he knows of the Countís intentions, the "ding-ding" of the bell and the proximity of their room to the Count and Countessesís chamber makes for a very efficient arrangement, but Susanna makes it clear to him that the Count intends to use these bell signals to get Figaro out of the way and summon Susanna to the Countís bed. So, what Mozart and da Ponte have established in this duet is that a musical signal, "ding-ding" controls the action, and that control in the hands of the idle aristocracy is not necessarily for the good. Figaroís response, which I didnít play for you, but comes up right after what we just heard, is another musical metaphor, the famous aria, "Se vuol ballare," whose lyrics say "If you want to dance, dear Count, Iíll play the guitar for you," meaning that Figaro intends to direct the action, and that music is in charge.
The shift in attitude for Figaro in this first scene has a great deal of significance, in my view, because it represents a sudden coming to self-awareness on Figaroís part that parallels Mozartís own changes in attitude toward his relationship with noble patronage and the increasing sense among the intellectuals of Enlightenment Europe that they, and not those appointed by feudal tradition, were the guardians of civil society and the leaders in the improvement of humanity through increased secular knowledge. I know, thatís a big claim to rest on about five minutes of a comic opera, but think of it this way: When we begin, the faithful servant is diligently counting the numbers, then he becomes aware that the authority that keeps his world in order plans to abuse that authority; he then puts his intelligence to work restoring order through music, saying that the Count will dance to his tune. What better metaphor for what Mozart wants to accomplish with Figaro, that is, to establish his rightful and dignified position as a distinguished maker of music, and what better vehicle for this objective than an opera performed in front of the Emperor and the aristocracy of Vienna? I suppose itís just a coincidence that the administrator of the kick-in-the-pants I mentioned earlier was in fact, a CountóCount von Arco, the Prince-Archbishopís chancellor, and I like to think of the venom in Figaroís "Signor Contino" as directed at him.
I could go on about Figaro for a long time; the dancing-to-the-tune motif recurs, and there are many disguises, role reversals, and mistaken identities before everything is resolved. At one point, fairly early in the opera, Susanna and the Countess are trying to get Figaro to play along in their deception of the Count about the authorship of a letter, say "Hold your tongue, stupid, /This comedy must be ended," "La burletta ha da finir," and he replies, "Then to end it happily/ According to theatrical practice, / Let a marriage ceremony/ now follow." Throughout Figaro, there is a clear consciousness not only of the conventions of society that are implicit in comedyówho has what station, what is expected of people in each social level, what constitutes good and bad behavioróbut an increasing self-consciousness about the role that theatrical and operatic representations of that social order do to shape it, confirm it, or subvert it.
The Marriage of Figaro was certainly a success in Viennaóthe Emperor actually had to forbid encores to prevent it from running all nightóbut it was an outstanding, tremendous success in its next production in Prague. There are several reports that it was all anyone could talk about in Prague. To follow this success, Mozart decided to use the same librettist, da Ponte, and the same impresario in Prague, Bondini, for his next opera, Don Giovanni, whose full title is Il dissoluto punito, ossia Il Don Giovanni, or The Libertine Punished, or Don Juan. Again, Mozart had chosen the subject, and this time it was well-worn; there are at least three eighteenth-century operas about Don Giovanni, and da Ponteís libretto closely resembles that of Bertati, whose collaboration with the composer Gazzaniga had been produced only a few months before.
Despite the strong resemblance, the Mozart/da Ponte Don Giovanni is, of course, a much better opera, and in a way, itís a much more subversive opera than The Marriage of Figaroóitís as if Count Almaviva in Figaro has gone absolutely wild, and has no social controls on his behavior. Figaro is very much a social play; people are constantly coming and going from the Countís household, and the Count, along with everyone else, is extremely concerned with appearances and propriety, and in several instances his plans are put off by other peopleís entrances, including the chorus who sings his praises for being a good lord and suspending the custom of taking the bride on her wedding night. Don Giovanni is entirely to the contrary, and Leporello possesses none of the intelligence and self-worth that Figaro so vividly demonstrates. The opera even begins with Leporello alone on the stage, waiting for Don Giovanni to accomplish his seduction, or rape, depending on your interpretation of this scene, and complaining that he has no peace because his master is so immoral, and threatening to quit. But Leporello neither quits nor reforms his master, even though Don Giovanni doesnít seem to have any other friends, confidants, or even any other servant he calls by name. Thatís one of the most disturbing and compelling things about Don Giovanni, the terrible sense of isolation one senses about him. Even when he throws a party, itís for people he doesnít really know.
How can such a successful seducer be anti-social? Perhaps more to the point, what are Mozart and da Ponte doing by making him so antisocial, and what do his seductions mean? First, we need to keep in mind that this opera was written in 1787, two years before the French Revolution, and the sense that the aristocracy performed no particularly useful function was growing all across Europe. Don Giovanni gives audiences an exaggerated version of an aristocrat who does nothing but consume, and does so almost joylessly; he seduces, he drinks, he eats, but almost as a compulsionówe donít really see him taking much pleasure in his conquests, or even his meals, although he begrudges Leporello even a taste of his food. The fact that we have other, honorable aristocrats pursuing him, either to punish him or to get him to behave, seems only to make societyís utter inability to control his abuses even clearer.
Second, we should also keep in mind that although the Don Juan legend had already been around for a long time, libertinism was fairly new and decidedly an Enlightenment phenomenon. Casanova himself is said to have been in the audience at the premiere of Don Giovanni, and the Marquis de Sade is from this era. According to Roy Porter, a historian of medicine, "inÖthe age of MozartÖcommentators the length and breadth of Europe were struck by the universal profligacy which seemed to be infecting all ranks and sectors of society." However, it was not quite universal, and itís interesting to note the biographical elements in this case. Mozart was somewhat of a prude (another thing Schaffer got wrong); he was a devout Catholic, wrote a long letter to his father about how getting married was far better than misbehaving as the other young men in Vienna do, and wrote his wife a steady series of letters about the importance of propriety and modesty. Da Ponte, on the other hand, had some adventures that would have done Don Giovanni himself proud. Originally from Venice, he had been a priest until he was defrocked and banished for having affairs with married women. He became a court poet and professional librettist in Vienna before moving on to a number of other cities, including London and eventually New York, escaping either angry creditors or angrier husbands. He became a grocer in Brooklyn, but then founded the Columbia University Italian Department, and died in New York in 1838. If you plan to write an opera about a libertine, I suppose itís good to have a librettist who knows the territory.
Still, Mozartís behavior was less typical of members of high society, or even low society, than da Ponteísóthe Enlightenment had brought in a new era of sexual freedom by loosening the churchís control on morality and creating many rational argumentsóor rationalizationsófor more active and varied sexuality. But there was something empty and strange in all this, and Mozart captures the strangeness of libertinism in Leporelloís famous catalog aria, where he explains to one of Don Giovanniís heartbroken conquests, Donna Elvira, that he keeps a careful list of all his masterís amorous adventures, organized by country of origin. Let me play a little of that for you: [Play No. 4 Aria from DG]
Of course, this is played for laughs, and an eighteenth century audience would have no qualms at all about finding the sight of this heartbroken woman and the endless list of conquests funny. Still, thereís something in here that weíve already seen in Figaro, a lot of numbers. This catalog, in my view, represents what many Enlightenment intellectual projects lacked, and what was wrong, not from a moral, but from a philosophical perspective, with libertinism: the arbitrary nature of sheer numbers. Leporello goes on a little about Don Giovanniís preferences and the reasons for themóthin women for summer, fat ones for winter, and so forthóbut these reasons donít come close to justifying the endless need for cumulative carnal knowledge. What new experience comes from the six hundred and fortieth conquest in Italy alone that didnít come from the six hundred and thirty-ninth?
For me, this represents a subtle critique of the cumulative and arbitrary organization of Enlightenment thought that has counterparts elsewhere. Kant, whom I hope you havenít forgotten by now, made a particular point in his three critiques to counteract what he considered the arbitrary and ungrounded nature of empiricism, where an accumulation of observations of external phenomena leads to knowledge that you can infer about the worldóthis is the basis for the scientific method, and it relies heavily on numerical measurements, repeated experiments, and reliance on sensory information. For Kant, empiricism begged the question of whether you could trust your senses, and whether the methods of organization you used had any real basis in the thing you were trying to understand. In particular, he was offended by Alexander Baumgartenís use of the empirical method to study the arts in what was really the first systematic treatment of aesthetics, Baumgartenís Aesthetica, because merely listing the kinds of arts there are does nothing to explain how and why people understand them and take pleasure in them.
You can also hear Mozartís disapproval of this kind of rapacious accumulation in the difference between the music of the peasant chorus that immediately follows Leporelloís catalog aria, where they are preparing for the wedding feast, and Don Giovanniís short, extremely fast aria to prepare his own version of the feast, where he will try to dance Zerlina, the bride, away from the party and into his bed. Unfortunately, we donít have time to play them both now, but I urge you to make the comparison yourselves the next time you hear the opera. The chorus is in a bright tempo, but not too fast, an allegro, and uses 6/8 time, a two-beat triplet meter often used in folk dancesóIrish jigs, for example, are in 6/8. The chorus, which also has solo parts for Masetto, the groom, and Zerlina, the bride, leaves plenty of time and space for the sheer enjoyment of soundólong syllables, tra-la-las, and so forth, and establishes a clear, healthy, joyous, and peaceful atmosphere.
When Don Giovanni hijacks their wedding and sings his aria about the preparations, the peaceful joy turns to a kind of frenzy. His aria, known as "Finchíhan dal vino," or "Fetch the wine," is also in a two-beat meter, but itís 2/4 and prestoóvery, very fastóhardly leaving time for the singer to breathe. In the film of the Peter Sellars production, where Sellars sets the opera in New York and makes Don Giovanni a heroin-addicted drug dealer, Don Giovanni shoots up during this aria. Iíll leave aside the question of the aesthetic pleasure of seeing someone stick a needle in his arm on stage, but itís clear that for Sellars, Don Giovanniís preparations for a party show his addiction, not his sensual pleasure, and that there is something diseased about his compulsive needs. Youíll also notice that his preparations call for music in very specific termsóminuets, sarabandes, and allemandesóand once again, as in Figaro, the ability to call the tune and make people dance to it puts you in control.
When Don Giovanni sets the dance in motion in the finale of Act I, the result is one of the most technically complex and intriguing scenes in the history of opera. As the other party guests dance a minuet to one on-stage orchestra, including the masked family of the Commendatore, whom Don Giovanni murdered at the beginning of the opera, Don Giovanni begins to dance a contredance with Zerlina to another on-stage orchestra in a different time signiature, 2/4, against the minuetís 3/4. The pit orchestra is also playing, the characters are singing dialogue in several different conversations, and the whole thing fits together and works marvelously. The two on-stage orchestras run off when Zerlina cries for helpóonce the sound of her cry overwhelms the dance tunes, his control over them ends, as does this strange moment where Don Giovanni dances to one beat and everyone else dances to another. The rules for Don Giovanni are not so different after all.
Things end badly for Don Giovannióhe escapes the party guests in Act I, continues escaping angry mobs in Act II through a series of disguises and tricks, including letting Leporello take his punishment for him, but meets his match when he invites the statue of the man he murdered to dinner. The statue shows up and drags Don Giovanni down to Hell when he refuses to repent, and this time the music that controls the action is no longer a danceóitís the solemn knock on the door at the appointed hour, and Leporelloís inarticulate cries of "Ta-ta-ta" when he is too afraid to tell Don Giovanni who is at the door. Don Giovanniís mistake is to discount the possibility that the statue might actually respond, that there is something in the universe beyond the mere material of stone and sensuous pleasure. Don Giovanniís character, like the thing-in-itself and the conscious subject in Kantís philosophy, is famous for being empty, that is, the true essence of his character, like the true essence of objects and consciousness itself, is inaccessible to a strictly materialist philosophy, leaving a void that the Romantics and Idealists will try to fill. The statue is not just a phenomenon of stone, and mistaking art or music for merely sensuous pleasure can lead to dire consequences.
However, Mozart didnít just concern himself with empty sex and hollow statuesóhis final opera, The Magic Flute, is an optimistic testament to the ability to gain wisdom and transcend outmoded ways of thinking, including both the rigidity of feudal and religious dogma and the barren abstractions of extreme Enlightenment rationality. The opera begins with a classic fairy-tale situation, but in reverseóthe handsome prince, Tamino, instead of slaying the dragon, is running away from it and crying for help. He is rescued by three powerful ladies, who celebrate their triumph by fighting over who gets to take home the handsome prince. This is a hilariously funny inversion of medieval heroics, and the inversions of the heroic quest continueóTamino is soon charged by the Queen of the Night with rescuing Pamina, her daughter, who has been kidnapped by the evil sorcerer, Sarastro.
Of course, Sarastro turns out to be a wise ruler, not a villain, and Pamina doesnít need rescuing from him after all, and the beginning of The Magic Flute can easily be understood as a cautionary tale about getting your heroes and villains straight and learning something about how to perform heroic actions before you go off on a quest, but itís more complex and more subversive than that. The rest of the opera, which concerns Taminoís initiation into a clearly Masonic brotherhood, and the Queen of the Nightís unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Sarastro, seems to outline a clear dialectic of masculine rationality versus feminine irrationality, light versus dark, and so on, but on close examination, these binary pairs make less and less sense, as does any interpretation that would see the opera as a clear, unequivocal endorsement of Enlightenment rationalism. The rule-bound world of The Magic Flute turns out to be fairly flexible: Pamina gets to join Tamino in the final stages of his trial, although women are specifically banned from these manly proceedings; Papageno fails his trial, yet receives his reward anyway; and the magic flute itselfógiven to Tamino by the Queen of the Night to help him rescue her daughteróhelps him instead to pass the trial. But what kind of trial is it that can be overcome by magic, rather than the qualities of the person undergoing the trial? For all the abstract pieties urged on the characters, they are allowed to get away with a lot.
Then there are the ambiguities about the Queen of the Night and royalty in general. Why does the Queen get such moving arias, if she really harbors only ill will and irrational hatred? Why must Tamino be a princeóisnít this realm governed by Enlightenment, rather than feudal principles? You may well ask if I am pressing this light fairy-tale of an opera too hardóafter all, Mozart and Schickaneder, the librettist, who also played Papageno in the first production, meant it to be popular entertainment, and performed it with a great deal of fun and leg-pulling. But the real point of these odd contradictions is the heart of The Magic Flute and the heart of what I have been trying to establish for you today. The magic, is, of course, music, and its beauty lies neither in cold rationalism nor in hot emotion, but in the combination of passion and form that Mozart so amply demonstrates the more spectacular moments of The Magic Flute. The Queen of the Nightís arias, for instance, make their dramatic point in a few words, but go on in marvelous, purely musical runs of vocal and compositional skill for many more measuresóit becomes music for musicís sake, art with a passion for formal beauty and elegance, but with a heart. We donít have to agree with the Queenís objectives to be moved by the sorrow of a mother who has lost her daughter, and in moments like "La ci darem la mano," a beautiful duet in Don Giovanni, where he first tries to seduce Zerlina, we are nearly as vulnerable as she is to the beauty of the melody, even though we know he is lying and has no intention to marry her. Similarly, Cherubino, the fickle page in The Marriage of Figaro, sings a stunning canzonetta called "Voi che sapete" and itís as sincere and strikingly beautiful as anything in the entire opera, even though we all know how changeable his moods are. Music, for Mozart, is about constructing your own world through melody and harmony, not reflecting the empirical reality of the world outside, and if thatís illusory, then we will love the illusion all the more for how temporary it is and how sweet it was to believe it. As for the world of the Enlightenment in 1791, when Mozart died, that world died with him, to be replaced by one in which the imagination became more important than the cold hard facts of empirical reality, the world of Romanticism. Thank you for listening, and Iíd be glad to answer any questions you have.