Music and Death
Music and Death; drawing by David Levine

E. T. A. Hoffmann’s encomium for Don Giovanni attests to a pre-eminence that has never declined. But in spite of an impregnable reputation, the “opera of all operas” is imperfect in conception, a miscarriage as drama, defective in important features. Yet because the misshapen libretto has been endowed, even overendowed, with some of Mozart’s greatest music, the opera continues to occupy its unique position.

Some of the shortcomings are accounted for by the few known facts, such as Da Ponte’s simultaneous involvement with two other operas and the necessity of preparing a bowdlerized version of his Don Giovanni libretto for the censor. Beyond this, it might be deduced either that the composer was obliged to accept what his collaborator offered, for whatever reasons, or that the subject so appealed to Mozart that he overlooked the unevenness in the treatment of it. Scholarship has unearthed no hard evidence to substantiate theories that the Don Juan theme had a special attraction for Mozart, but, by the same token, there is no justification for assuming that it did not. The fact of Don Giovanni’s existence indicates something, however, and it is not impossible that Mozart could have had a Don Juan fantasy. After all, he was strongly attracted to women, both precociously and throughout his life, and was frequently rebuffed by them. Such speculations are automatically ridiculed, owing to a deification process that forbids attempts to separate the composer’s musical genius from his humanness, the sublimity of the one being equated with a saintliness in the other. The Mozart halo outshines that of any other artist.

Whatever the reasons why Da Ponte and Mozart chose the subject, they hoped that the new work would repeat the success of Le Nozze di Figaro. Edward Dent1 long ago drew some of the parallels between the two operas, though before him Kierkegaard had recognized correspondences between them, including that of Cherubino as Don Giovanni in embryo. Yet the differences between the operas are greater than the resemblances, and the inferiority of the later libretto soon becomes apparent. Don Giovanni’s is disjointed, marred by implausible incidents, peopled mainly with one-dimensional figures, and confused in its moral position. This last gives rise to most of the other difficulties: it is because of the absence of a philosophical basis for the character of Don Giovanni that the validity of his destiny is uncertain and the sequence of events is not well ordered.

The stylistic gallimaufry of opera buffa and opera seria is due to the same morally ambiguous viewpoint. Alfred Einstein, the leading Mozart scholar of his day, argued that the inclusion of seria elements within a buffa framework is not incompatible, but though this is true as a general principle, the mixture leads to incongruities in the case of Don Giovanni. Subtitled “Dramma giocoso” (“comedy”; surely not “gay drama,” as Einstein’s translators2 render it), Mozart himself listed Don Giovanni in the catalogue of his works as an opera buffa, thereby indicating his intentions as to genre even if imprecisely describing the result. “Opera buffa,” however, is contradicted by the very first chord of the overture, as well as by the murder of the Commendatore, by the accompanied recitatives of the high-born protagonists, and by the whole of the penultimate scene.

Above all, the stylistic categories determine the musical and dramatic interpretation. In the Quartet, for example, when the pursued Don Giovanni is mistakenly included among his pursuers, the performance may either amplify or mute the humor of the situation. Furthermore, the mere presence of Leporello, an essentially comic character, suffices to undermine the seriousness of a scene such as that of the final confrontation between Don Giovanni and the Commendatore. At this point the spectator identifies with Leporello and his fright, as expressed by his chattering and hiding under the table, but the combination of comic and tragic nevertheless perplexes the audience and provokes conflicting emotional responses. Furthermore, it is unquestionably a miscalculation to allow Leporello, at the opera’s most critical moment, virtually to steal the scene from Don Giovanni, unwittingly upstaging him simply through the prominence of the role.

Kierkegaard believed that the Don Juan theme was unsuitable for comic treatment, since this destroyed the ideality necessary to the concept of the seducer. The philosopher maintained that Molière’s Don Juan was a failure because of the irreconcilability of theme and genre. Yet the comic element is hardly less pervasive in the opera. And apart from that, surely it is a flaw of some consequence to cast as the central figure in an opera buffa an unrepentant sinner whose crimes include not only deception, exploitation of social advantage, and blasphemy, but also rape and murder. And, finally, how can any hero, let alone that of an opera buffa, end up permanently in Hell?


That the audience is on Don Giovanni’s side may be attributed to his music—which, as Kierkegaard wrote, “lets us hear the power of his seduction”—as well as to the attractions of his hedonism, to the fascination of his reputation as a lover (scarcely justified by the opera, where all of his amorous forays are failures), and to a personal appeal that seems to depend largely on charm and audacity; the latter, incidentally, has often been misinterpreted as bravery when Don Giovanni accepts the Statue’s final challenge, but the Commendatore correctly names the trait: “audace.” In any case, Don Giovanni’s redeeming qualities, if that is what they are, hardly excuse the appalling array of his crimes. Yet his situation is similar to that of Falstaff, who, despite the lying and the thieving, holds the audience in thrall. In the opera, the mind-altering drug is music; in the play, verbal wit.

Audiences react in the same fashion to these popular malefactors’ ultimate fates, Don Giovanni’s damnation and Falstaff’s rejection by the King (“I know thee not, old man”). These two shocks for the spectator are among the least easily absorbed in the repertory of the theater, despite the arguments of Shakespearians that such a reaction betrays a misunderstanding of the play, and of Mozartians that the outcome of the opera, part of whose title is “Il Dissoluto Punito,” should have been anticipated from the beginning.

But Mozart must share Da Ponte’s responsibility for the opera’s disturbing dénouement. The composer’s “fault” is in having filled Don Giovanni’s last scene on earth with such spellbindingly powerful music that to compose still more of it, and of comparable quality, to represent the subsequent triumph of rectitude and social order would have been impossible. Furthermore, this anticlimactic finale replaces the life of the party with his undertaker, Don Ottavio, the most vapid character for whom Mozart ever wrote glorious arias. This opinion is by no means a universal one, however, and Dent actually complains of the “relentless prolixity” of the Statue in the previous scene, though this lasts a mere five minutes. Since, as a child, Mozart had observed that the role of the Ghost in Hamlet was too long, it is unlikely that as an adult he would commit the same error—and, indeed, he did not.

Mozart’s evocation of the supernatural is miraculous. Dent ascribes the “awesomeness” of this apocalypse merely to the use of trombones, but in fact every aspect of the music is extraordinary: the harmony (with its emphasis on the “diabolic” interval of the tritone); the chromaticism; the eerie scales, particularly in the lower strings presaging Don Giovanni’s death and corresponding to those at the beginning of the opera before the death of the Commendatore; the syncopations, dotted rhythms, and explosive accents; the sepulchral octaves; the brooding bass line which finally dissolves into tremolos; and the sheer sound, for the volume of the orchestra is almost Wagnerian. Since this music can still terrify, its impact on Mozart’s audience, many of whom believed that Hell had a specific geographic reality, may scarcely be imagined. For the second production, in Vienna, Mozart ended the opera with this scene, probably because of its shattering effect. To do so today is regarded as sacrilege, but it must also be admitted that as a conclusion it compounds the stylistic problem.

Thus the very prodigality of the composer destroys the balance on which his “opera buffa” rests. The same abundance is also responsible for further damage to the opera’s dramatic cohesiveness. Partly to accommodate and gratify singers, Mozart composed a number of additional pieces for the Vienna production (May 1788), which followed the one in Prague (October 1787). “Dalla sua pace,” for example, was substituted at the request of a tenor who could not manage “Il mio tesoro“—which is like an actor’s asking for a less demanding soliloquy than “To be or not to be….” The opera was already overblessed with stellar arias, however, and did not need a new infusion of masterpieces further to retard the action and postpone the resolution of the drama. These Vienna bonuses have now become too popular to be cut, and the tenor of today insists on singing both arias even though neither has much relevance.

The inclusion of Elvira’s “Viennese” aria, “In quali eccessi” (appropriate title!), is defensible in that it develops the ambiguity of her feelings for Don Giovanni while adding stature to her role in the opera. Yet this piece inevitably competes with Donna Anna’s “Crudele?” (which is in the original Prague score). But the duet between Zerlina and Leporello, composed for Vienna, is music of a different caliber—in fact, Zerlina’s part is in the manner of Despina in Così—while its dramatic contribution is no asset.


The opera moves sporadically. An adventure begins but is soon stalled by an extraneous, though magnificent, aria or ensemble. Thus Donna Anna’s “Rondo,” matchless as music, has scarcely any dramatic function; it would have had this if the character of Don Ottavio had been explored, or the idea—on which E. T. A. Hoffmann based his story—that Donna Anna is really in love with Don Giovanni. But the lady exists almost entirely in Mozart’s music, and, once again, the embarras de richesses of his genius overwhelms a drama whose requirements are too small. A few short pieces such as Elvira’s “Ah fuggi il traditor!” help to leaven the grander, more soaring and spectacular arias, thus quickening the pace. Of these galvanizing numbers, the most distinctive is “Metà di voi quà vadano,” which begins in medias res (as its first word suggests) and is all movement and suspense achieved by means of syncopation and the switching of the tonic accent to the middle of the bar.

But what was Mozart to do with such characters as Don Ottavio, as they came to him on Da Ponte’s pages? And what are these people besides fixed attitudes—high principle, righteous indignation—or, as Henry James remarked of Donna Elvira, “tone”? Even Masetto and Zerlina are no more than peasant stereotypes of the blockhead and the conventional flirt; so far as the lyrics are concerned, those of Zerlina’s “Vedrai, carino” are lewd enough to be acceptable on Broadway. Yet the very incompleteness of the aristocratic personae is obviously what has inspired so many fantasies about the opera. These begin with Hoffmann, who gives an off-stage credibility to Donna Anna, and continue through Shaw to Edmond Rostand in his La dernière nuit de Don Juan. For today, it would be easy to imagine a John Fowles novel, Elvira, The Wandering Masochist, or one by Gore Vidal exposing the secret life of vice of that noble nonentity Don Ottavio.

Fantasy has also played an inordinate part in criticism of the opera, which is further blemished by the tendency of philosophical and psychoanalytical interpretations to confound the actual opera with the Don Juan story in its pre-Da Ponte treatment by Tirso de Molina, Goldoni, and others. Fantasy, too, has blinded even the greatest thinkers to the opera’s realities. Thus Kierkegaard’s analysis of Don Giovanni as the embodiment of the erotic principle neglects to say that he was a philistine blackguard as well, willing to allow an innocent person to take the blame for him. So much for the “parfit” knight. Today, of course, the Don has been properly unmasked as the archetypal oppressor-class, male-chauvinist pig.

Any re-examination of Don Giovanni that ignores Kierkegaard will be the poorer for the philosopher’s many valuable insights, though his main tenet, that the subject of seduction was uniquely musical and uniquely Mozartian, is now discounted. Briefly, Either/Or differentiates between language as a reflective medium and music as an immediate, as well as abstract, one. Distinguishing the Greek world from the Christian, Kierkegaard argues that the former “lacked the idea of a seducer” because

the whole of the Greek life was posited as individuality. The Greeks did not have the concept of the sensuous-erotic genius [which] in its mediate and reflective character comes under language, and becomes subject to ethical categories. In its immediacy, however, it can only be expressed in music. [Therefore the immediate is] really the indeterminate, and therefore language cannot apprehend it; [this] imperfection…is indirectly acknowledged…thus…we say: “I cannot really explain why I do this or that…. I do it by ear.”

Whether or not this is the origin of the “play it by ear” modus operandi, the statement is the first step in Kierkegaard’s attempt to define the “absolute subject” of music. The next, which seeks to establish the relationship between the sensual and the musical genius, involves the philosopher in various conflicts with his puritanism:

…the stronger the religiosity, the more one renounces music and stresses the importance of words…. It by no means follows that one needs to regard music as the work of the devil, even if our age does offer many horrible proofs of the demoniac power with which music may lay hold upon an individual….

Kierkegaard’s incidental observations about Don Giovanni are less well known but often remarkably acute. He writes, for example, that

It would be a foolish girl who would not choose to be unhappy for the sake of having once been happy with Don Juan,


No power on earth has been able to coerce Don Juan; only a spirit, a ghost, can do that,


Leporello’s number 1,0033 is comic and it indicates that Don Giovanni is in a hurry,

and, finally, that

There is…something erotic in Leporello’s relationship to Don Juan…a power by which he captivates him, even against his will.

This last statement begs for elucidation, for which the reader may turn to Otto Rank, though first it must be said that, like Rank, Kierkegaard believed that Don Juan is “heard through Leporello…. Mozart has…permitted Leporello to reproduce Don Juan.”

Yet to go too rapidly from the depths of Kierkegaard’s philosophical fantasies to the superficies of Rank’s psychoanalytic labeling is to risk an attack of the bends, or—when Professor Winter reveals that Rank identified Don Giovanni’s abuse of Leporello with Freud’s mistreatment of him—of the giggles. The editor explains that Rank outlines an

“Oedipal” interpretation of Don Juan…. [The] many seduced women represent the one unattainable mother, and…the many whom he deceives, fights, and kills represent the father.

So far, so bad. Then, regarding Leporello, Rank himself describes the relationship between master and servant as a “psychic unity,” and elaborates on this symbiosis to the effect that

It would be impossible to create the Don Juan figure, the frivolous knight without conscience and without fear of death or the Devil, if a part of that Don Juan were not thereby split off in Leporello, who represents the inner criticism, the anxiety, and the conscience of the hero.

But is it not obvious that Leporello’s sole “anxiety” is for his own skin? And certainly Rank is mistaken in claiming that Leporello acquiesces against his will in “the dissolute life of his master.” Leporello is his master’s Doppelgänger, but he is also the most venial of mercenaries, who utters not a word of regret at Don Giovanni’s death. Rank further sees Don Giovanni’s “behavior with Leporello’s wife” as evincing a “deep motive of revenge, clearly illuminating the interchangeability of master and servant.” But this “behavior” is no more than hypothetical, since, whatever happened with Don Giovanni, Da Ponte does not say whether or not the woman was Mrs. Leporello. Moreover, Rank himself correctly observes that “the action in Mozart’s opera portrays anything but a successful sexual adventure.”

What ought to have been said about Leporello is that, for some reason, the weaknesses he displays, the corruptibility and the cowardice, endear him to the audience; and, more important, that he alone perceives Don Giovanni’s true obsession—as Kierkegaard, and all other writers on the subject except Rostand, failed to do. What the servant recognized which the philosopher missed is that Don Giovanni’s real satisfaction is not attained in the heat of his conquests—the identity and attributes of his victims being a matter of indifference to him—but from the list of them that he keeps. In short, and as Leporello sings, Don Giovanni seduces “pel piacer di porle in lista.”

A considerable portion of Rank’s study is devoted to a discussion of beliefs about the dead who return to avenge their murders. This, he says, documenting his claims, explains the attempt to build indestructible sarcophagi. But the relevance of this background to Don Giovanni seems slight since the Don is extremely hospitable to the man he murdered—or is it to his effigy?

Mozart’s father died at the time of the beginning of the composition of Don Giovanni, and, accordingly, Rank addresses himself to the coincidence of the killing of the Commendatore at the beginning of the opera:

According to our psychoanalytic experience, the death of the father arouses deeply ambivalent stirrings of affect, especially in the creating artist. These affective stirrings explain the artistic penetration and mastery of the subject matter, an attainment that is made possible only on the basis of a far-reaching identification with the father.

But how do these “affective stirrings” explain Mozart’s mastery of the subject? To this reviewer the statement is simply so much verbal pollution, still another indication that the time is nearing for readers’ gas masks.

Yet Rank redeems himself, at least to some extent, by one observation that is worth bearing in mind by all those who plan to attend performances of Don Giovanni. This is that the Don is never at peak form during the opera, and that “The happy, gratifying time of the real Don Juan is left to the fantasy of the audience.”

(This is the second of three articles on Mozart.)

This Issue

October 30, 1975