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Radical, Conventional Mozart

Mozart Speaks: Views on Music, Musicians, and the World

selected and with a commentary by Robert L. Marshall
Schirmer, 446 pp., $35.00

Autonomy and Mercy: Reflections on Mozart’s Operas

by Ivan Nagel, translated by Marion Faber, by Ivan Nagel
Harvard University Press, 149 pp., $24.95


A few years before Mozart’s death in 1791, the emperor of Austria, Franz-Joseph, received the visit of a distinguished but uninteresting composer, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, and asked him what he thought of Mozart’s compositions. In his Recollections, Dittersdorf reported the conversation:

Dittersdorf: He is unquestionably one of the greatest original geniuses, and I have known until now no composer who possesses such an astonishing wealth of ideas. I should wish that he were not so spendthrift with it. He does not allow the listener to breathe; for hardly have we perceived one beautiful idea, that another more splendid already appears on the heels of the former, and this continues without ceasing until, in the end, we can retain none of these beauties in our memory.

Emperor: In his stage works, the singers have very often complained of a single fault, that he often drowns them out with his full accompaniment.

D: That surprises me….

E: Some time ago I madea comparison between Mozart and Haydn. Compare them yourself, so that I can see whether yours agrees with mine.

D: (after a pause) Will your Majesty allow me to put another question?

E: Go ahead.

D: How would your majesty compare Klopstock and Gellert [two of the most famous contemporary poets]?

E: Hmmm!—both of them are great poets—one must read Klopstock’s works more than once in order to understand all of his beauties—on the contrary with Gellert all of the beauties lie unveiled at first sight.

D: Your majesty has my answer.

E: Mozart is like Klopstock and Haydn like Gellert?

D: So at least I believe.

If Dittersdorf’s account (dictated on his deathbed to his son) is accurate—and I can see no reason why it would not be—it appears that Mozart’s and Haydn’s supremacy is not simply a judgment of posterity but was evident before Mozart’s death. It is interesting that the charge leveled by Dittersdorf against Mozart—too great a profusion of musical ideas—was to be one of the chief complaints about Beethoven only two decades later. The poet Ludwig Tieck, in a dialogue from his Phantasus of 1812, has one of his speakers claim that Beethoven “seldom continues a musical idea and settles down in it but jumps through the most powerful transitions and seeks to flee from imagination itself in restless strife.” These are not hostile comments even though the character had remarked that “if we are obliged to call Mozart insane, then Beethoven cannot be distinguished from the raving mad.”

What is emphasized in Dittersdorf’s discussion with the emperor is the essential difficulty of Mozart’s music, and this is a point that comes up again and again in the testimony of Mozart’s contemporaries. Technical difficulty in the first place: commissioned by a publisher to write six piano quarters, Mozart had to abandon the project after composing only two—the publisher found the music too difficult to sell. Even the admirers of Mozart’s string quartets acknowledged that they were unintelligible unless played by virtuosos of the highest technical mastery.

This leads to the second kind of difficulty, that of comprehension. After the first performance in Vienna on May 1, 1786, of The Marriage of Figaro, one newspaper reported:

Herr Mozart’s music was generally admired by connoisseurs already at the first performance…. The public, however (and this often happens to the public) did not really know on the first day where it stood. It heard many a bravo from unbiased connoisseurs, but obstreperous louts in the uppermost storey exerted their hired lungs with all their might to deaden singers and audience alike with their St! and Pst!; and consequently opinions were divided at the end of the piece.

Apart from that, it is true that the first performance was none of the best, owing to the difficulty of the composition.1

On the whole, Dittersdorf reflected general musical opinion, and his comparison of Mozart to Klopstock for the emperor’s benefit was suggestive: Klopstock was notorious as the most obscure and complex of contemporary poets, one admired but little read.

In the next generation, although Mozart’s glory was now unquestioned, the novelist E.T.A. Hoffmann, who loved Mozart so much he changed one of his middle names from Friedrich to Amadeus, was still obliged to defend him against the charge that the harmony in the opera was often so radical as to be incomprehensible for anybody except a professional musician. Hoffmann’s answer was perhaps his most brilliant essay on music. He took an example of Mozart’s dramatic modulation from the cemetery scene in Don Giovanni, the E major trio, in which the stone statue nods in response to Giovanni’s invitation to dinner, and the basses of the orchestra descend to a surprising and chilling C natural.

The professional musician, remarked Hoffmann, recognizes and names the technical procedure with no difficulty: the flatted sub-mediant holds no mystery for him. The general public, on the other hand, knows nothing of the technique, but shivers with terror at the sudden harmonic effect. It is the half-educated amateur who is puzzled by the chromatic change and is not sure what to call it. The connoisseur and the completely ignorant join hands in their understanding and admiration of the drama: the pretentious amateur is left behind by the complexity of the score. It was not to the great unwashed that Mozart’s scores presented problems, and it is, in fact, the most complex of his scores—the G minor and “Jupiter” symphonies, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, andThe Magic Flute—that have won the greatest and most enduring popularity.

Half a century after his death, Mozart’s reputation for difficulty was gone. For many of Beethoven’s works, on the other hand—the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, the “Diabelli” Variations, the last quartets—the appearance of difficulty still persists today for both audience and performer. Mozart became an excessively easy composer, and his music thereby lost much of its dramatic effectiveness. In the late nineteenth century, Bernard Shaw remarked that no one believed that Mozart’s music could be powerful as it was so pretty. Tieck had written that Mozart’s style united heaven and hell: in 1811, everyone knew what he meant, but I think that few musicians or music lovers would find this intelligible today.

The bicentenary of Mozart’s death was an opportunity for a reassessment. No one would wish to accept or simply resuscitate the judgment of an artist by his contemporaries: this would often revive only the grossest misunderstanding. Nevertheless, we need to comprehend the reaction of Mozart’s audience and, in fact, of his colleagues. To interpret Mozart for today we have to understand the nature of the eighteenth-century resistance to his achievement. Some difficulties disappear with time and familiarity: others are merely rendered invisible or inaudible.

Unfortunately the bicentenary celebration was largely a commercial undertaking. Few advances were made in 1991 in Mozart scholarship.2 Many books were reissued without being brought up to date. Some of the most distinguished scholars contented themselves with writing prefaces to facsimiles of Mozart’s manuscripts, or compiling illustrated souvenir books or short guides to all of Mozart’s compositions with anecdotal information tailored to avoid provoking thought or any critical inquiry. There is no need to take a high moral tone about any of this. Mozart himself engaged in a good deal of hackwork.

Serious consideration of Mozart must start even today with Hermann Abert’s great two volumes of 1924, entitled W. A. Mozart. Seventy years later this is still not available in English—or French, for that matter. (The biographical section is a rewriting of Otto Jahn’s nineteenth-century book; the brilliant account of the music is Abert’s own.) Plans to translate it keep coming up but have always been shelved by publishers, convinced that it would be more profitable to commission either a shorter book or one with a more popular slant (although the chapter on Don Giovanni was translated and published as a separate book). In spite of all the recent research, Abert has not been superseded. He knew more about eighteenth-century opera than anybody else of his time—or, possibly, of our time for that matter, and, most remarkably, he understood Mozart’s music. A translation of Abert would improve the quality of writing on Mozart in English, particularly if it were possible to add annotations by a Mozart scholar to bring the book up to date.

No one would be better placed to annotate Abert than Robert Marshall. His recent studies of Mozart’s manuscripts, particularly those works that Mozart began and was unable to finish, have shown a combination rare in Mozart research of intelligence, good sense, and lack of dogmatism. His new volume, Mozart Speaks, is one of the few useful contributions to the Mozart bicentenary. This is an anthology of excerpts from Mozart’s letters arranged by subject matter, interspersed with contemporary accounts of Mozart and a wonderfully informative commentary by Marshall. It makes possible a reading of the Mozart letters that is more interesting and more instructive than a chronological one. There is perhaps no book except Abert’s from which one can learn what is most important about Mozart, and of course Marshall incorporates all of the research since 1924. His book cannot be praised too highly.

The only fault I could find—and it is a small one—is that on occasion Mozart’s words are accepted at face value without asking why he was writing them to the particular correspondent. Much of Mozart’s assurances to his father, for example, that his music will appeal not only to connoisseurs but to the ignorant as well are attempts to calm his father’s suspicious fears as well as a direct expression of faith. I believe, of course, that Mozart wanted popular success, but how much he was really prepared to sacrifice, or even to restrain his more radical inspirations, to get it is a different matter.

Marshall’s commentary is valuable on almost every aspect of Mozart’s music and life. What does not come out sufficiently in Mozart Speaks—largely because it was rarely and only insufficiently expressed by Mozarthimself—was the extent of his ambition. His projects were grandiose beyond those of any of his contemporaries. First there was his display of craftsmanship. At the end of his life, he was commissioned to write six easy piano sonatas for the Empress of Prussia. One of these, in D major K576, is often thought to be an independent work because it is so difficult to perform: however, it is difficult because Mozart miscalculated. The only passages that are hard to play are in two-part counterpoint, of which Mozart was the greatest master since Johann Sebastian Bach (whose two-part inventions were also written for beginners). Mozart evidently thought that if each hand had to play only one note at a time, the pianist would find the piece easy. He was wrong, partly because he wanted to display his ingenuity. Much of the two-part counterpoint is in canon form: that is, each hand plays the same melody but starting some distance apart. Mozart was intent on demonstrating his virtuosity as a composer with a single theme.

Similarly in the finale of the “Jupiter” Symphony: here we are dealing with five-part invertible counterpoint—that is, with five themes that can be played together with any one of them above or below any of the others. Leonard Ratner has shown, in a fascinating essay, 3 that Mozart in the coda exhausted all possible combinations. The counterpoint in the operas is even more astounding: toward the beginning of the finale in the last act of Così fan tutte, the lovers sing a canon as a toast to celebrate the ceremony of marriage that is about to take place—at least, three of the lovers sing the canon, one of the most exquisite and expressive of Mozart’s melodies, since the fourth, Guglielmo, is still too outraged by the recent betrayal of Fiordiligi to be able to do anything except mutter that he hopes they are drinking poison.

Here, I think, is one of the keys to Mozart’s supremacy—a perfect realization of an extremely conventional form followed by a dramatic transformation. He was at once the most conventional and the most radical of composers. The vaudeville at the end of The Abduction from the Seraglio is another example: a vaudeville is a strict form in which all the members of the cast line up and each one successively sings one stanza while all sing the refrain in chorus. In The Abduction, it goes along conventionally until it is the turn of Osmin, the eunuch, outraged that these wicked Christians should get off scot-free; he bursts into a raging fit and rushes off. The rest of the cast sings a brief quartet in favor of forgiveness and condemning wrath and vengeance, and then finish the vaudeville without him.

The mastery of convention is as impressive as the revolutionary daring, although the former suits modern taste somewhat less, and requires familiarity with the style to appreciate. All composers who have mastered their craft fulfill the conventions of the musical language and style of their time, but many, like Haydn and Beethoven, disguise these conventions as they realize them, turn them into something more personal and more idiosyncratic. Mozart displays the conventions nakedly: his radical ideas coexist side by side with the most commonplace ones, the latter transformed only by his exquisite workmanship.

One might say that Haydn is always unpredictable, but that Mozart always does what one expects him to do—and then immediately afterward produces an original stroke that no other composer could bring off. In a Haydn symphony, the arrival of a new theme or the return of an old one is very often a surprise, but almost never in Mozart, where we can generally sense the return sixteen bars in advance. The lyrical theme in the exposition of the “Prague” Symphony is clearly prepared by a long and elaborate transition—and then, at the very last split second, we realize that the last notes of the transition are already the first notes of the new melody.

Mozart could match the achievements of any of his contemporaries, and he could even wonderfully mimic the style of past decades. It is the scope of his thought that went beyond anything seen before: even today, the ball-room scene of Don Giovanni seems an amazing tour de force, with three orchestras on the stage each playing a different dance in different rhythms, one for each class of society, peasant, bourgeois, and aristocratic, and each orchestra successively tuning up in harmony with the dance that hasalready started. Mozart’s ambition challenged not only his contemporaries but posterity as well. He began a comic opera like The Magic Flute with one of the most elaborate fugues ever heard in an opera, and in the second act, wrote a chorale prelude in Baroque style based on a Protestant chorale. Mozart was Catholic, but also a Freemason: Was this intended as a plea for religious tolerance in Catholic Vienna?


The seriousness of Mozart’s transformation in opera is evident in two books which are the most substantial of the recent offerings: Ivan Nagel’s Autonomy and Mercy and Daniel Heartz’s Mozart’s Operas. They are very different: Autonomy and Mercy is a concentrated philosophical work of 150 pages; Mozart’s Operas, a large collection of essays on the Italian operas by Professor Heartz, with two supplementary essays on the German operas by Thomas Bauman, 4 is one of the most important contributions to recent Mozart research.

Walter Benjamin once wrote that to understand the late eighteenth-century’s conception of marriage, one must oppose The Magic Flute to Kant’s definition of marriage (a contract between a man and a woman which allows each the use of the other’s genital organs for life): this, he said, gives the two poles of Enlightenment thought. The center of The Magic Flute is both the ideal and the reality of marriage. Pamina and Tamino pass every test successfully and are united; but Papageno, who fails every time, is given a wife too, because he is human and that is what he wants. I cite Benjamin because I think Ivan Nagel’s Autonomy and Mercy is strongly influenced by him, but he takes a very different approach. His book starts from the observation that the last seven of Mozart’s operas all end with a pardon, with the exception of Don Giovanni, where the hero refuses to ask for mercy. In several of these operas, the pardon is demanded by an act of autonomy in a Kantian sense. As Nagel writes:

This act knows, wishes, effects that the individual, by the sheer decision to affirm his or her own truth, is able to change his destiny, to burst the prison of fate—otherwise freedom would be only an enticement to failure…. When Goethe’s Iphigenie, Mozart’s Pamina confess, celebrate their truth “even if it were a crime,” they do not cause but rather compel (through the ritual of their offer to die) pardon from above.

Nagel’s book is an important one, sometimes profound, always imaginative. It places Mozart’s operas within the moral and political thought of his time. What is remarkable is that in doing this Nagel is able to attend to the music, even if his references to details of the actual scores may appear intermittent. As he writes:

Criticism of Mozart’s operatic forms should heed their sensuous detail, even while inquiring into the words of the libretto or the idea of the genre. The unity of idea and words (as the design for a world or the text for a coloratura) is precarious anyway. Although both idea and words precede the composition aesthetically and chronologically, their union triumphs or fails only with the birth of the music…. To grasp our particular problem—what opera becomes when all ideas and words begin to change—we should listen even more intently to what the sounds are telling us. We need to test whether the breakthrough of mercy (which seria, singspiel, and buffa promised and spelled out, each in a different way) has been proved true, or given the lie, by its own music.—In Tito, the praise of sovereignty made the music of mercy sound untrue. In Die Zauberflöte, the rise of autonomy helped mercy come true. This double paradox forces us to confront at last our most perplexing question: In the era of autonomy, what need is there for mercy?

It is clear that Nagel does not bend to fashion, and that he refuses to accept the present evaluation of La Clemenza di Tito as equal in interest to Figaro and Don Giovanni. The old view still seems correct to me: Mozart was tired, sick, and in a hurry when he wrote Tito and it was not a subject that he chose for himself, as he had done with the five previous operas. It is true that Mozart’s music is always competent and, indeed, always beautiful, but some of it is not very interesting. Some admirers of Tito have tried to defend it by observing that Mozart was trying to imitate Paisiello and achieve an easysuccess: Paisiello’s style was much less complex than Mozart’s, and he avoided the famous reproach thrown at Mozart, “Too many notes.” For example, he generally wrote the same line for first and second violins, while Mozart almost always made the second violins independent, and, in addition, gave the violas great importance. This richness disappears in Tito, which has, of course, great things: a wonderful duet, a sublime slow opening to one of the long, brilliant arias (called “rondos”), and an astonishing first act finale—which is too short, and suddenly comes to an unexpected halt. (About a chorus in this finale, E.J. Dent wickedly but accurately remarked that it sounds as if it were composed by an English organist of the 1860s.)

Nagel is at his finest with The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni. I do not remember any book that demonstrates so well how much relevance the subject matter of an opera can have to its music. His treatment of the relations of Mozart’s operas to contemporary European culture—to Goethe, Kleist, Gluck, and Beethoven—is exemplary. His only failure is with Così fan tutte, perhaps because the characters in this opera cannot decide their own fate but are only manipulated. The great achievement of da Ponte and Mozart in this work, however, was to reveal how the men gradually realize that they cannot control their own feelings: their autonomy is an illusion. Ferrando, in fact, succeeds in conquering Fiordiligi only because of the shock and anguish at Dorabella’s betrayal. The shock endows him with a new power reflected in his music.

Nagel understands the tragic form slightly better than the comic. Everything he says about the Marriage of Figaro carries weight, but he does not see the extent to which Figaro emancipates himself from the very tradition of comedy. The relation of valet and master is an ancient comic tradition, and the resentment and opposition conveyed are integral to the genre. But the relation before Beaumarchais was a stable one: the clever valet works to realize his less intelligent master’s desires. Figaro, however, works against the Count. Most astonishingly, he loses control; he himself is fooled, and by the women who take over the opera. Mozart as well as da Ponte treats the countess and her maid Susanna absolutely as equals (there are even doubts about who sings which line in the ensembles).


The great strength of Mozart’s Operas by Daniel Heartz is his understanding of how Mozart undertook the composition of his operas, his choice of subject, his interventions in the construction of the libretto, his attempts to accommodate the singers. I do not think that the complicated process of dealing with librettists, opera impresarios, and singers has ever been explained with such lucidity, or that any other musicologist has shown so deep an understanding of the various pressures on a composer in the composition and mounting of an opera. Heartz also demonstrates the planning that went into the composition, particularly the way that the different tonalities in the operas were to a certain extent laid out in advance. This has been discussed before, and perhaps more cogently, but Heartz shows that it was practiced not only by Mozart but even by Mozart’s great rival, Salieri.

The difficulty with Heartz’s treatment of the tonal plan is that he views it formally rather than dramatically, as a way of creating symmetries instead of articulating the action. In The Marriage of Figaro, for example, he emphasizes a series of juxtapositions of G major and B flat major and, as a result, he observes the dramatic introduction of G major in the finale of the last act, when the Count surprises Figaro making ostentatious love to a woman dressed as the countess. But Heartz’s static conception of tonal order has nothing to say about the preceding shift, which is even more impressive dramatically, from G major to E flat a few minutes before, when Figaro sees the Count leave with a woman he takes to be his wife, Susanna. This introduces a brief nocturne, placid and tranquil, with an orchestration of an unparalleled soft richness; the air is saturated with the sound of clarinets and horns, and Figaro muses on what he imagines to be happening.

The dramatic and musical center of the finale occurs at this moment, just before everything starts to unravel. According to the comic tradition an act of sexual intercourse should be taking place behind the scenes, with the Count still believing that the Countess is Susanna. Itis a basic principle of classical comedy that all women are alike in the dark, as in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and All’s Well that Ends Well. But in fact the Countess dressed as Susanna has gone into the pavilion on the right while the Count looks for her in the woods.

Da Ponte follows Beaumarchais here: in an early sketch for the play, however, Beaumarchais had the Count and Countess leave together, although in the final version prudery or prudence intervened. In any case, the music portrays not Figaro’s emotions, but the scene he imagines. The composer was less prudish than the playwright or librettist: the sudden change to a slow tempo, the unexpected quiet, the wonderfully rich sonority—all conspire to set the imaginary erotic scene.

E flat is a key most dissonant to D major, which is the basic tonality of the finale and of the opera as a whole—the basic harmonies of each key have almost no notes in common. The two keys clash profoundly. After Mozart reached the age of nineteen he established for himself certain fundamental principles of organizing his operas tonally. Each opera begins in the key in which it will end; except when separated by recitative in the Italian operas or spoken dialogue in the German, every number must end in the key with which it began,5 and every finale—the succession of numbers at the end of an act—must close in the key in which it opened, even if the finale includes several changes of scene. There are always two large finales in a Mozart opera, and the first one is always composed in a tonality only distantly related to the tonality of the opera as a whole. The central finale concentrates the harmonic tensions of the work, and the harmonic tension explicitly reflects the dramatic tension.

The interior form is governed by this dramatic concern. The tonal symmetry that frames the beginning and end of the opera is generally rendered easily audible by Mozart, set in relief for all to hear. The concluding scenes of Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni quote the overture, and The Magic Flute and The Abduction from the Seraglio return at the end to the sonority of the opening pages of the overture. The interior symmetries that Heartz finds so important, however, seem to me trivial: there is no point in noticing that Marcellina’s and Basilio’s arias in the last act of The Marriage of Figaro are harmonically parallel to the letter duet and a peasant’s chorus in the third. These pairings only occur because they relate to the opposition of D major and E flat major, which governs the fourth act finale as we have seen, and which also governs the total structure of the opera—the second act finale is in E flat major, and is the point of greatest harmonic tension. In other words, these pairings in The Marriage of Figaro are not mirrors of each other, as Heartz claims, they are cumulative in nature, offshoots of the harmonic plan of the opera. They have individually a local dramatic significance, and are part of the total plan. They do not refer to each other, but only back to the whole.

The question of the harmonic significance may perhaps be clarified by referring to Heartz’s discussion of Susanna’s aria just before the last act finale: “Deh vieni non tardar” (“Come, do not delay”). This is in F major, but an earlier version of this aria (with different words but a similar content) exists, much longer and more brilliant and with none of the simple lyricism of the one now performed: the early version is in E flat and not in F. Heartz remarks: “Since [the earlier version] follows Figaro’s E flat aria (or preceded it at one stage, still reflected in the autograph), the result was an anomaly; two successive arias in the same key.” He suggests that Mozart wanted his soprano, Nancy Storace, to sing the simpler lyric form all along and hoped to bring her around and abandon her desire for a brilliant display, and that the E flat aria “was only a feint.” It seems to me impossible to believe that Mozart wrote a long elaborate aria knowing that it could never be performed.

Heartz has not remarked another impossibility: the finale begins in D major, and it could not begin after an aria in E flat. Mozart could not have intended to initiate a very large form down a half-step from whatprecedes it—this would make everything sound flat for several bars. Neither the original version of Susanna’s aria nor the present one of Figaro, both in E flat, could immediately precede a finale in D. It should be clear that the soprano display aria in E flat was written before Mozart had decided to give an E flat aria to Figaro, and that he must have planned an aria in F or B flat for Figaro to follow Susanna’s aria and precede the finale. Since Figaro’s aria is about cuckoldry, E flat is the proper key as it is the traditional key for horns—the standard symbol of cuckolds. Nancy Storace was then given an aria in F; the relation of F to D major is similar to the B flat–G Major pairing Heartz finds so significant, but it is local effect not symmetry that determines Mozart’s planning.

The only symmetry that has any importance in the tonal structure of a Mozart opera is the frame: the beginning and end of individual numbers of the finales, and of the opera as a whole. The frames are important because they establish the meaning of what happens inside. Within these frames there are only three aspects of key change that count: the dramatic effect of the movement from one tonality to another, which articulates the action on the stage; the rate of change, so that the speed of the musical action can be controlled in order to fit the drama; and, finally, the coherence of the changes, so that distant tonalities can mark the extreme points of tension and the return to the initial key is both convincing and intelligible. No other composer has ever managed to coordinate these three aspects as Mozart did and claims made on behalf of Haydn or Paisiello always fail to take into account the supremacy of Mozart’s organizing powers.

Writing about a work of music is, at least in one sense, like performing it: both writer and performer must decide which aspects of the music are the most interesting, choose which details to emphasize, and attempt to convey the vitality of the work. It is the effectiveness with which this vitality is represented that is the test of both analysis and performance. It is not the presence of harmonic symmetries in Mozart’s tonal plans which is in question, or even whether they can be perceived by the listener who looks for them, but how they act within one’s experience of the work. This applies even more strongly to Heartz’s other preoccupation in his study of Mozart’s operas: the thematic and motivic relationships. He is persuaded that Mozart uses motifs to refer to the characters in the opera or to certain ideas.

He finds, for example, a phrase in the overture to I domeneo that reappears a few times (sometimes radically altered) in connection with Idamante, the young prince who must be sacrificed to placate Neptune. The phrase is ordinary enough in late-eighteenth-century style, and it is not clear why it should represent Idamante. At the time Mozart was writing, André Ernest Modest Grétry and Etienne Nicolas Méhul in France were developing the use of leitmotifs or, rather, mottoes that appear throughout an opera. In their works, however, the initial appearance of the motto and most of the later ones are isolated and set in relief. It is difficult to accede to an analysis that would make Mozart a much less effective composer than Méhul. These recurrences in Mozart may not be fortuitous—it is just possible that Mozart involuntarily recalled a trivial phrase from an earlier scene when composing a later one, but he certainly made no attempt to call it to the attention even of the connoisseurs whose opinion he prized.

That is the trouble with any criticism which discovers something in a well-known work that no one seems to have noticed before: it is not likely to be important, or to have anything to do with why the work is considered a masterpiece. The only recourse for the critic is to claim that we have been noticing it at least semiconsciously without putting it into words, that it has been acting upon us. or that previous audiences noticed it but that we have lost the knack or the understanding. The latter is what Heartz attempts to do with his favorite leitmotif, a descending chromatic fourth that he finds many times throughout Mozart’s work, and, indeed, throughout the eighteenth century. In chapter twelve he writes:

To Mozart’s audience themotif meant pain, suffering, and death—it could not be otherwise, since they and their forebears had for several generations heard similar chromatic descents in mass settings to convey the words “Crucifixus, passus et sepultus est,” corroborating their experience in the opera house on the demise of heroes and heroines (e.g., Dido). The descending fourth with chromatic steps is present as a bass from the first notes of the Andante of the overture to Don Giovanni, which is of course modeled on the music to which Anna’s father, the Commendatore—slain by Giovanni at the outset, to the accompaniment of many chromatic “dying falls” in the orchestra—makes his entrance as a statue in the finale of act 2.

No one would deny that slow music in the minor is sad and that slow chromatic music in the minor is even sadder, and that slow music in the minor with a descending chromatic bass is sadder still. What is at issue is the interval of a fourth, which is the shape of Heartz’s motif. I do not know how many settings of “Crucifixus” with descending chromatic fourths Heartz knows, but I have no doubt there are several. There is the Bach B minor Mass, of course, which Mozart did not know, and I presume that Heartz’s Dido is Purcell’s, which Mozart did not know. In these works, and most of the others with chromatic descending fourths that I am aware of, the bass descends a fourth from tonic to dominant. This is not surprising: all music in the eighteenth century goes from tonic to dominant and a chromatic bass generally goes chromatically down a fourth from tonic to dominant. There is nothing significant or expressive about the interval of a fourth. The representation of “pain, suffering, and death” requires the minor mode as well as a chromatic descent to make its effect—and if it is “death” that is meant, then words are required as well.

Heartz, nevertheless, hears “death” with every chromatic descent and the next step is clear: rising chromatic fourths. Some pages earlier he writes:

In this opera [Don Giovanni] chromatic lines spell death, but also the related phenomenon of love death, or the sexual act, as is made abundantly clear in the great sextet,…and where the descending chromatic line is complemented by the rising chromatic line.

And Heartz later returns to the same point:

Sudden chromatic surges upward, such as help characterize the hopes and fears of Elvira at the beginning of the sextet, have less clear meaning than chromatic descents, yet Mozart’s audience surely understood these too as affective symbols. An example from the year before Don Giovanni was written will help place the figure in context.

For the revival of I domeneo at Vienna in March 1786 Mozart rewrote the love duet to take advantage of a tenor Idamante. Near the end of the piece (K. 489), the lovers sing of their union to the words

Non sa che sia diletto
Chi non provò nel petto
Si fortunato amor.
(He knows not what delight is
Who has not felt in his breast
Such fortunate love.)

Between these innocent-sounding lines (which may be by Da Ponte), Mozart allows his orchestra a sudden chromatic ascent marked crescendo…. This makes the surging emotions of the lovers more explicit than do their words or the melodic lines they sing; indeed, if the same degree of passion were to be expressed in words, one suspects they would not pass the imperial censor.

Part of this chromatic surge comes from placing all the violins in unison in their lowest range. Playing on the bottom G string, they produce a gutty sound, all the more penetrating when reinforced by the violas in unison and the cellos and basses at the octaves below. The combination of the timbre, the crescendo, and the upward-striving chromatic surge bespeaks a sensuality that is at home somewhere below the petto mentioned in the words.

If I understand Heartz’s interpretation of a rising chromatic line correctly, with his shy reference to a sensuality at home somewhere below the breast and his vague suggestion that we are dealing with censorable matters, then I think he is erecting a construction, or construing an erection, upon very flimsy foundations. I do not believe a banal chromatic rise of a fourth even played on the G string is all that exciting.6

Furthermore, it takes a very literal mind to argue, as Heartz does, that an occasional descending chromatic line in Don Giovanni‘s infectiously brilliant “champagne” ariasignifies anything like the sexual act, or that a simple phrase descending a C major scale from the Turkish music in The Abduction from the Seraglio can function, radically altered, at the beginning of Così fan tutte as a hint that the two young men will get disguised as Albanians later in the opera. I have no doubt that Heartz has trained himself to listen this way, and that he responds to what he is convinced is the meaning of falling and rising chromatic fourths. (He is like the man in the old Viennese joke who asked the doctor if he could take the Rorschach tests home to show the dirty pictures to his friends.) But what would Heartz do with the last page of Mozart’s Viola Quintet in D major, a very jolly rondo in Haydn’s style, where a series of falling chromatic fourths are answered over and over again by rising chromatic fourths?

For the late eighteenth century, extra-musical meaning in music almost always worked metaphorically; the music imitated some aspect of nature—babbling brooks, cuckoos, the patter of raindrops, the moaning of wind. By extension bagpipes signified a rustic pastoral atmosphere, soft horn-calls implied distance, particularly when echoed. Neither rising nor falling chromatic lines sound like the sexual act. Heartz is succumbing to the perpetual temptation—that is, tempting only to musicologists—to decode the music, and Mozart does not need to be decoded but listened to.

How misleading Heartz’s approach is may be appreciated by the way he has influenced his colleague Thomas Bauman, who writes the chapter in Heartz’s book on The Magic Flute. He is describing the little postlude to Pamina’s wonderfully despairing aria, where she announces her intention to commit suicide. Bauman has noticed that the opening of the postlude resembles a phrase in the seventeenth bar of the aria with the words “See, Tamino.” He therefore calls it a “Tamino” motif and places the words “Tamino Tamino…” over the violin part of the opening of the postlude in his printed example (he does not seem to have noticed that the same pattern is used twice for other phrases in the aria with different words):

The closing ritornello is deeply indebted to the aria it concludes…the melodic motif employed here is a direct elaboration of her interjection “Sieh, Tamino!” from the passionate middle section of the aria.

For whom does the orchestra speak in these moving final measures? The obvious answer would be Pamina. As in earlier ritornellos, this passage derives a psychological subtext from key verbal phrases in her aria. In this case, however, the process is far more thoroughgoing. Tamino’s name seems to repeat itself obsessively in Pamina’s mind, and through the octave descent…his name is linked with her aria’s opening thoughts of lost happiness.

Compare these remarks with Ivan Nagel’s on the same aria and postlude in Autonomy and Mercy:

Mozart did not have much time when he wrote Die Zauberflöte: some weeks left to compose, some months to live. His late style creates a fluid alternation of melodic shapes which emerge from and are submerged in one another, yet without thematic contrasts to define or hold back the flow. The music which has overcome all unrest still has no time to linger; this strangely reverses the listener’s sense of time. Because the lovely flow of sound glides all too soon to an end, we experience it as if in retrospect—full of blissful regret that it is passing, that it has already passed. Thus in each moment of Pamina’s aria, the melodies that move “in an undisturbed stream without any clearly defined motifs” (Jahn) yearn for the phrase which has just faded away, permitting memory to draw delight even in pain….

When the music is all farewell, no threshold should warn the listener before the end and give him time to separate. Therefore the last gesture is compressed, simplified, almost omitted. The orchestral coda of Pamina’s G minor aria lasts only four measures. Finally resolving in despair and weariness the diminished seventh chord’s tormented question, “Fühlst du nicht der Liebe Sehnen” [If you no longer feel the yearning of love], the orchestra confirms the ultimate answer offered by Pamina’s now mute voice: “So wird Ruh’im Tode sein.” There will be peace in death. The orchestra bows its head: amen.

Whom shall we believe, Heartz and Bauman or Jahn and Nagel? Is there “an undisturbed stream without any clearly defined motifs” or is there a motif that says “Tamino, Tamino” even in the orchestra?Can we separate and decode specific meanings or is there only a fluid alternation of melodic shapes?

The answer to these questions depends essentially on a decision how to listen to Mozart: Which way of listening is the most rewarding, most coherent? Another question may help to determine our answer. Does the postlude repeat the name Tamino six times or does it resign itself to death? Here there is no contest (and Bauman’s own excellent observations on metrics and dynamics confirm it while denying his claim to hear the orchestra repeat Tamino’s name): the metric displacement and the crescendo both attempt to resist the inflexible movement downward, and finally yield in the last two bars.

The way to hear Mozart is not to attach a finicky set of references to the melodic formulas, but to be aware how these formulas—largely banal, conventional, and commonplace, although there are astonishing exceptions—work within a larger harmonic movement to allow the dramatic action to unfold, to establish the most extraordinary dramatic strokes by rapid changes of harmony and texture, and to allow both the passion and the irony of the music to move easily within the spacious frame created by Mozart’s manipulation and transformation of conventional form.

Mozart’s melodic shapes are rarely as idiosyncratic as Haydn’s, and his passage work is almost always banal. Beethoven knew how to make the most ordinary tonal formulas seem as idiosyncratic as Haydn’s more individual motifs, largely by a ruthless employment of accent, naked reiteration, and dynamics. Mozart needed his motifs to sound ordinary; it allowed him to release the latent expressiveness in the tonal language with ease, so that moments of concentrated energy could act as a shock. Heartz does not see that his liberal quotation of Mozart’s borrowing of dozens of phrases from Gluck, Puccini, and Paisiello and from his own earlier works does not establish Mozart’s borrowing of meaning: all these phrases show how commonplace his material was (and even more examples could have been added from other composers, particularly Johann Christian Bach). They demonstate his reliance on almost meaningless formulas, motifs that are expressive, but whose expressive content remains vague and diffuse, so that the significance would have to be drawn from each new work.

Daniel Heartz is a historian of great distinction and stature. If he goes so wide of the mark, it is because he is trying to realize an impossible dream, one that keeps returning to musicologists and even composers: to give music a very specific referential power, to enable it to act exactly like language. Richard Strauss once said that eventually one would be able to distinguish musically between a fork and a spoon. Deryck Cook in The Language of Music tried to identify melodic shapes which would signify specific sentiments—unsuccessfully, because he neglected rhythm, and for every one of his examples dozens of counterexamples can be found which clearly express very different sentiments.

Heartz fails to take into account the large scale on which Mozart works. It is not with tiny motifs that Mozart represents sentiment, and he does not characterize a hero in passing with four or five notes. He may indicate Donna Elvira’s shudder with the gesture of a few notes in the sextet, but it takes him a long aria (turned into a trio by sardonic comments from Leporello and Don Giovanni) to begin to portray her character.

We ought not to confound the suitability of a musical phrase to render an emotion with a specific fixed meaning. A brilliant passage of coloratura is a wonderful way to express the rage of the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, but those rapid high notes do not signify rage. Chromatic lines aptly disturb the calm surface of more simple harmonies, and they are suitable to render violence, terror, erotic excitement, and despair—but they do not mean any of these emotions unless the composer, like Wagner, has deliberately isolated motif and words, and linked the two by repetition, and that is not how Mozart proceeds.

Heartz calls Bernhard Weber one of the best early critics of Don Giovanni, and quotes him: “Never can one find in his works an idea that one has heard before.” Oddly, Heartz seems to be trying to prove the opposite by showing how much Mozart’s turns of phrase resemble ones by Paisiello and others. Heartz is right insofar as these motifs are commonplace, the stock-in-trade of every contemporary musician—but Weber was right, too, since he was considering the music from alarger viewpoint. Nobody ever controlled music over such a long span of time as Mozart did, not even Beethoven, but it is less by use of motifs than by blocks of tonality, and by rhythm and texture. His sense of long-range movement was unsurpassed, above all in the first versions of his operas. The cuts and additions he was often forced to make for a second production invariably weaken the structure, no matter how beautiful the additions were.

A musical recall or reference in Mozart to an earlier act—or to anything outside the opera—is very rare and always unmistakable. A Mozart opera does not function like an opera by Wagner, Strauss, or Berg as a complex system of cross-references, and Heartz’s attempt to construct such a system only distracts one from seeing (or hearing) how the music works.


The reunion of Pamina and Tamino was, for Edward Dent, the most moving number of The Magic Flute, and it is the center of Ivan Nagel’s meditation on this work: this is the moment when, as Nagel says, “the official myth of a man’s initiation by saving a woman” reverses itself; “the woman in need of rescue becomes the rescuer.” This scene is indeed, for me, the greatest moment in the opera, and in its combination of austerity and ambition, it reveals the nature of Mozart’s genius. It follows the extraordinary chorale sung by two armed men, a pastiche in Baroque style and yet one of Mozart’s greatest achievements in religious music. The finale of the last act, of which this scene is a part, is in E flat major, and the chorale is in the closely related key of C minor. The reunion arrives in the distant tonality of F major, and creates the greatest harmonic tension with E flat major. It is, harmonically, the culmination of the finale—what follows moves toward resolution. We do not need perfect pitch, or a memory of the basic key of E flat or any technical training to realize that something astonishing is taking place: the sudden change in harmony and texture will alert any sympathetic listener.

The opening of the reunion is electrifying in its simplicity: each lover sings nothing but a short scale and a bare cadence. There is not a trace of original melodic invention in these opening bars, nothing but the most commonplace melodic shapes. If it appears heartbreaking, that is only because of the sudden stillness, the radical change in tonality, and the soft, transparent instrumentation. Then the orchestra begins a steady quiet pulsation, and Mozart’s originality of melodic invention asserts itself in a supple form of declamation that some critics have felt as an anticipation of Wagner, as Pamina explains to Tamino how her father made the magic flute, and declares her resolution to stay at Tamino’s side through the trials. The sound of the flute will protect us from the shadows of death, she sings with Tamino and the two armed men, and Mozart writes a passage that represents an overflowing happiness that even surpasses the end of the great sextet in The Marriage of Figaro, when Susanna realizes that Figaro has found his parents and there is no longer any obstacle to their wedding. The music seems simple, a banal figure repeated over and over as the harmony rocks back and forth between the most commonplace harmonies, tonic and dominant, and for a half-minute time seems to stop.

The richness of texture here for Tamino, Pamina, and the two armed men betrays Mozart’s ambition: all four vocal parts are in double invertible counterpoint. The long phrase is sung twice: the second time Pamina and Tamino exchange their melodic lines, and the tenor and bass of the two armed men exchange theirs. I do not think that there is a single unusual or idiosyncratic motif anywhere at this point: every melodic shape is ordinary, but nothing like this section had ever been heard before. The motifs are common property, but the long sustained line, the repetitions, the fullness of texture are all Mozart’s own. Marianne Moore once wrote: “Ecstasy affords the occasion and expediency determines the form.”


Friendly Corrections January 30, 1992

  1. 1

    From Otto Erich Deutsch, Mozart: A Documentary Biography (Stanford University Press, 1965), p. 278.

  2. 2

    A recent book by Andrew Stoptoe, The Mozart-Da Ponte Operas (Oxford University Press, 1988), is particularly good and original on the social background of the operas. New Mozart Documents: A Supplement to O.E. Deutsch’s Documentary Biography, edited by Cliff Eisen (Stanford University Press, 1991) brings together many new documents on Mozart’s life and the reception of his work.

  3. 3

    Compleat Mozart, edited by Neil Zaslaw (Norton, 1991), p. 196.

  4. 4

    Bauman is the author of a very fine recent book on Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

  5. 5

    The first aria of the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute has a B flat opening, but finishes in G minor, which has the same key signature.

  6. 6

    Abert says the rising chromatic line in the sextet is “uncanny,” and so it is. Heartz absurdly reproaches him with not observing that there was “an echo” of the sextet’s chromatic rise an hour earlier in the opera in Don Ottavio’s aria “Dalla sua pace,” with an entirely different sound and rhythmic shape. I think everyone would agree that Heartz is the first to make this observation.

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