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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 9 Enlightenment and Reform
Richard Taruskin

Mozart’s first operatic masterpiece was Idomeneo, re di Creta (“Idomeneus, King of Crete”), an opera seria composed in 1780, first produced in Munich in 1781 and extensively revised five years later for performance in Vienna. By then, having quarreled over terms with the Archbishop of Salzburg and having requested and ungraciously received release from his position (“with a kick in the ass,” he wrote to his horrified father), Mozart, with a wife and eventually a child to support, was living in the capital as a “free lance” musician, accepting commissions and giving “academies,” or self-promoted concert appearances. Although he had craved the freedom to compose as he saw fit, the precariousness of his livelihood (exacerbated by gambling debts) and the attendant stress and overwork undoubtedly contributed to his early death, adding another leaf to the legend of his life—a legend that maintains, romantically but erroneously, that he died a pauper.


fig. 9-5 Act II of Mozart’s Idomeneo as staged at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York.

Idomeneo, a tragedy of child-sacrifice, was composed to a translation of a very old libretto, one that had served almost seventy years earlier as the basis of a tragédie lyrique (with music by André Campra) that was performed before Louis XIV during the last years of his reign (see Ex. 3-5). Mozart cast his opera, accordingly, in the severe style of Gluck’s neoclassical “reform” dramas, two of which (on the myth of Iphigenia) had also treated the painful subject of a father sworn to sacrifice his child. By modeling his opera on Gluck’s, Mozart completed his assimilation of all the theatrical idioms to which he was heir.

At Mozart’s request, his librettist, a Salzburg friend, added several choruses to the original libretto and also provided some exalted accompanied recitatives for a high priest and an oracle. As Daniel Heartz has shown, prototypes for all of these interpolations and more can be found in the French version of Gluck’s Alceste, performed in Paris in 1776. This was the opera that carried, in the first edition of its score, the preface that set forth Gluck’s famous principles of operatic reform. It had enormous prestige. Mozart’s successful appropriation of Gluck’s ideals and methods, in a manner that vividly illustrates the eighteenth century’s outlook on artistic creativity, not only transcended his predecessor’s achievement but at the same time went a long way toward transforming the reformer’s innovations into conventions.

Both Mozart’s indebtedness to Gluck and the astonishing boldness with which the twenty-four-year-old former prodigy exceeded his model can be judged from the High Priest’s chilling recitative in the third act of Idomeneo, in which he exhorts the title character not to shrink from his obligation, incurred by a rash vow, to sacrifice his son Idamante to the god Neptune. It is modeled on the lengthy temple scene in the first act of Alceste, in which the high priest of Apollo issues a similar exhortation to the title character to prepare to sacrifice her life so that her husband, King Admetus of Thessaly, may recover from an illness and continue his propitious reign. Mozart in effect conflates several moments from Gluck’s scene, of which the most prominent is an imperious unison arpeggio figure that modulates to the dark key of B♭ minor (Ex. 9-5).


ex. 9-5a Christoph Willibald Gluck, Alceste, Act I, scene 4, High Priest’s exhortation, mm. 1–18


ex. 9-5b W.A. Mozart, Idomeneo, no. 23, mm. 2–23

Mozart’s intensification of the harmony, his transformation of the leading motive by obsessively repeating a nasty unison trill, and his antiphonal deployment of it over a restless modulation all contribute to a gruesome effect that some have interpreted as sarcastic, in keeping with the composer’s presumed enlightened attitudes. The trills, according to Heartz, “tell us pretty plainly what Mozart thought of this particular high priest and how we are to respond to the ‘holy’ crime he exhorts.”16 Heartz relates this observation to a remark by Mozart’s older contemporary, Baron Melchior von Grimm (1727–1807), one of the leaders of the German enlightenment who, as a result of his devotion to Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, became a naturalized citizen of France. “What I want to see painted in the tragedy of Idomeneo,” Grimm wrote, “is that dark spirit of uncertainty, of fluctuation, of sinister interpretations, of disquiet and of anguish, that torments the people and from which profits the priest.”17

Whether Mozart’s portrayal of the high priest actually intends or conveys such a judgment may be debated. What is certain, however, is that dramas like Idomeneo were becoming unfashionable in enlightened Vienna, where Mozart would shortly establish his permanent residence. Joseph II had an aversion to the opera seria (ostensibly because of its costliness). Although Mozart made an elaborate revision of Idomeneo in hopes of a performance in the capital, he succeeded only in having it done privately (possibly in concert form, as a sort of oratorio) at one of Vienna’s noble residences during Lent in 1786 when the theaters were closed. Not until the end of Joseph’s reign would Mozart have another opportunity to compose in the tragic style.


The 1780s, then, became Mozart’s great decade of comic opera, a genre he utterly transformed. First to appear was a singspiel, composed in response to Joseph II’s avid patronage of vernacular comedies, for which the Emperor had established a special German troupe at the Vienna Burgtheater (Court Theater), henceforth to be officially—though never colloquially—named the “Nationaltheater.” It was there that Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (“The abduction from the Seraglio”) was first performed, on 16 July 1782. (The production was to have been mounted in honor of the visiting Grand Duke Pavel Petrovich of Russia, who would later reign briefly as Tsar Paul I, but the visit was delayed.)

Although composed in the national language and performed in the national theater, the opera has an exotic rather than a national subject and locale. There had long been a great Viennese vogue for “Oriental” (or “Turkish”) subject matter in the wake of the unsuccessful siege of the city by the Ottoman Turks in 1683. Making fun of the former enemy was a national sport, and Turkish military (or “Janissary”) percussion instruments that had once struck fear in the hearts of European soldiers were now appropriated by European military bands—and eventually by opera orchestras. (The Janissaries, from the Turkish for “recruits,” were originally Christian captives pressed into military service by the Ottoman Empire and forced to convert to Islam; the drafting of Christians waned during the seventeenth century, and the regiment gradually became the hereditary elite corps of the Turkish army.)


fig. 9-6 The Vienna Burgtheater in 1783, engraving by Carl Schuetz (1745–1800).

The raucous jangling of the Janissary band (also imitated in a piano sonata by Mozart, concluding with a famous “Rondo alla Turca” that children often learn) is a special effect in the merry overture to Die Entführung (whose orchestra includes timpani, bass drum, cymbals, and triangle) and at various colorful points thereafter. The plot of the opera revolves around the efforts of Belmonte, a young Spanish grandee, to rescue Constanze, his beloved, who has been kidnapped by pirates, together with her English maidservant Blonde and Belmonte’s servant Pedrillo, and sold into the harem of Pasha Selim—who turns out to be a runaway Christian himself and shows the lovers mercy. In the end the Christian lovers are reunited: Belmonte with Constanze (who, true to her name, had remained faithful to him despite temptation) and Pedrillo with Blonde (who had been wooed by the blustery and ridiculous Osmin, the keeper of the harem).

While at work in Vienna on Die Entführung, Mozart kept up a lively correspondence with his father, back home in Salzburg. One of his letters, dated 26 September 1781, has become famous for its very revealing descriptions of the arias he was writing for the various characters. About the frenzied last section of Osmin’s rage aria in act I, where the “Janissary” instruments have a field day, he wrote:

Just when the aria seems to be over, there comes the allegro assai, which is in a totally different measure and in a different key; this is bound to be very effective. For just as a man in a towering rage oversteps all bounds of order, moderation and propriety, and completely forgets himself, so must the music too forget itself. But as passions, whether violent or not, must never be expressed in such a way as to excite disgust, and as music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear, but must please the hearer, or in other words must never cease to be music, I have gone from F (the key in which the aria is written), not into a remote key, but into a related one, not, however, into its nearest relative D minor, but into the more remote A minor.18

The oft-quoted words italicized above have been justly taken as a sort of emblem of “Enlightened” attitudes about art and its relationship to its audience. Bach, on one side of the Enlightenment, would have heartily disagreed; but so too would many composers on the other side of it, as we shall see, and even Mozart himself in at least one famous instance that we will encounter at the end of this chapter.

Mozart continues, in the same letter, with a description of the very next item in the singspiel, the brilliantly scored aria in which Belmonte expresses his anxieties about Constanze’s fate (Ex. 9-6a and b). This passage from the letter has also become a locus classicus—a place everyone cites—for its account of how finely Mozart calculated the orchestral effects to imitate the physical manifestations (or, as psychologists would say, the “iconicity”) of Belmonte’s feelings.

Let me now turn to Belmonte’s aria in A major, “O wie ängstlich, o wie feurig.” Would you like to know how I have expressed it—and even indicated his throbbing heart? By the two violins playing octaves. This is the favorite aria of all those who have heard it, and it is mine also. You feel the trembling—the faltering—you see how his throbbing breast begins to swell; this I have expressed by a crescendo. You hear the whispering and the sighing—which I have indicated by the first violins with mutes and a flute playing in unison.19


ex. 9-6a W. A. Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Belmonte’s aria, “O wie ängstlich,” mm. 1–8

Mozart’s list is far from exhaustive. He might also have mentioned the harmonic shifts toward the minor as Belmonte’s thoughts darken, recalling the pain of separation. He might have mentioned the continuing heartbeat rhythm that underlies the “whispering and sighing” violins and flute, played by divided violas plucking four-part chords, pizzicato (Ex. 9-6b). (Such detailed writing for the lowly viola was practically unheard of at the time.) He might have mentioned the strangely lurching dynamic patterns and accents—an irregular pulse?—when Belmonte sings of trembling and wavering. The list could go on.

While not exactly a new technique—in cruder form we encountered it in the final duet from Pergolesi’s Serva padrona—Mozart’s mastery of iconic portraiture set a benchmark not only in subtle expressivity but in refinement of orchestration as well. These were new areas in which one could “move an audience through representations of its own humanity.” Mozart’s success was a dual one. In the first place it attracted, and continues to attract, an unprecedented “human interest” in the composer as a person. His portraits of his characters have been read, persistently though of course unverifiably, as self-portraits.


ex. 9-6b W. A. Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Belmonte’s aria, “O wie ängstlich,” mm. 29–37

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the biographical interpretations often advanced to explain his composing, in swift succession, exemplary works in two such contrasting genres as opera seria (Idomeneo) and singspiel (Die Entführung). With another composer, adept powers of assimilation and mastery of convention might suffice to explain it. With Mozart, “mere” mastery of convention does not seem sufficient to account for such immediacy and versatility of expression. And so the grim Idomeneo is associated with Mozart’s unhappy courtship of the German soprano Aloysia Weber, who spurned him in favor of the court actor and painter Joseph Lange, whom she married in 1780. And the blithesome Entführung is associated with Mozart’s marriage, a couple of weeks after its premiere in 1782, to Aloysia’s younger sister, whose name happened to coincide with that of the leading feminine role in the opera, Constanze.

Are such explanations necessary? Perhaps not, but they are certainly understandable. Not only do Mozart’s uncanny human portraits in sound seem to resonate with the reality of a concrete personality; they inspire empathy as well—and this was Mozart’s other breakthrough. One is apt to respond to a work by him not only by thinking “it’s about him,” but also by thinking that, somehow, “it’s about me.” The bond of kinship thus established between the composer’s subjectivity and the listener’s—a human bond of empathy seemingly capable of transcending differences in age, rank, gender, nation, or any other barrier—is supremely in the optimistic spirit of the Enlightenment. When the feat is duplicated in the wordless realm of instrumental music, as we shall see in the next chapter, instrumental music is invested with a sense of importance—indeed, of virtual holiness—it had never known before. We can begin to see why Mozart could be worshiped, particularly by his nineteenth-century posterity, as a kind of musical god who worked a beneficent, miraculous influence in the world.


(16) Daniel Heartz, Mozart’s Operas (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), p. 9.

(17) Melchior von Grimm, Correspondance littéraire, Vol. V, p. 461 (1 March 1764); quoted in Heartz, Mozart’s Operas, p. 9.

(18) Eric Blom, ed., Mozart’s Letters, trans. Emily Anderson (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1956), pp. 181–82.

(19) Blom, ed., Mozart’s Letters, p. 182.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09006.xml