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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 9 Enlightenment and Reform
Richard Taruskin

After Die Entführung, Mozart did not complete another opera for four years. Part of the reason for the gap had to do with his burgeoning career in Vienna as a freelancer, which meant giving lots of concerts, which (as we will see) meant writing a lot of piano concertos. But it was also due to Joseph II’s unexpected disbanding of the national singspiel company and its replacement by an Italian opera buffa troupe at court whose regular composers Giovanni Paisiello, Vincente Martìn y Soler, and Antonio Salieri—Italians all (Martìn being a naturalized Spaniard)—had a proprietary interest in freezing out a German rival, especially one as potentially formidable as Mozart.

The “Da Ponte” Operas

fig. 9-7 Lorenzo da Ponte, engraving by Michele Pekenino after a painting by Nathaniel Rogers (Mozarteum, Salzburg).

Mozart’s letters testify to his difficulty in gaining access to Lorenzo da Ponte (1749–1838, original name Emmanuele Conegliano), the newly appointed poet to the court theater. (There was a certain typically Joseph II symbolism in the fact that a specialist in opera buffa should have been chosen to replace the aged Metastasio, the paragon of the seria, who died in 1782 at the age of 84.) “These Italian gentlemen are very civil to your face,” Mozart complained to his father in 1783. “But enough—we know them! If Da Ponte is in league with Salieri, I shall never get anything out of him.”20 It was these letters, and the intrigues that they exposed, that led to all the gossip about Salieri’s nefarious role in causing Mozart’s early death, and all the dubious literature that gossip later inspired.

Mozart’s wish to compete directly with “these Italians” is revealed in another passage from the same letter to his father, in which he described the kind of two-act realistic comedy (but frankly farcical, not “larmoyante”) at which he now aimed. This was precisely the kind of libretto that Da Ponte, a converted Venetian Jew, had adapted from the traditions he had learned at home and brought to perfection. In this he was continuing the buffa tradition of Carlo Goldoni, which sported lengthy but very speedy “action finales” at the conclusion of each act and a highly differentiated cast of characters. About this latter requirement Mozart is especially firm:

The main thing is that the whole story should be really comic, and if possible should include two equally good female parts, one of them seria, the other mezzo carattere. The third female character, if there is one, can be entirely buffa, and so may all the male ones.21

This mixed genre insured great variety in the musical style: a seria role for a woman implied coloratura and extended forms; buffa implied rapid patter; “medium character” implied lyricism. Da Ponte’s special gift was that of forging this virtual smorgasbord of idioms into a vivid dramatic shape.

Mozart (aided, according to one account, by the Emperor himself) finally managed to secure the poet’s collaboration in the fall of 1785. The project was all but surefire: an adaptation of La folle journé e, ou le mariage de Figaro (“The madcap day; or, Figaro’s wedding”), one of the most popular comedies of the day. It was the second installment of a trilogy by the French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732–99), of which the first installment, Le barbier de Séville (“The barber of Seville”), had already been turned into a hugely successful opera buffa by Paisiello (1782; first staged in St. Petersburg, Russia). These plays by Beaumarchais were the very epitome of that old standby, the servant-outsmarts-master routine, familiar on every operatic stage since the very earliest intermezzi: La serva padrona was of course the first classic of this type. In the spirit of the late eighteenth century, the old joke became much more pointed and audacious than before—“outrageously cheeky,” in Heartz’s words.22 And yet, with both master and servant now portrayed as rounded and ultimately likeable human beings rather than caricatures, the ostensible antagonists are ultimately united in “enlightened” sympathy.

Thus, contrary to an opinion that is still voiced (though more rarely than it used to be), Beaumarchais’s Figaro plays were in no way “revolutionary.” The playwright was himself an intimate of the French royal family. In his plays, the aristocratic social order is upheld in the end—as, indeed, in comedies (which have to achieve good “closure”) it had to be. It could even be argued that the plays strengthened the existing social order by humanizing it. Hence Joseph II’s enthusiasm for them, which went—far beyond tolerance—all the way to active promotion.

In the play Mozart and Da Ponte adapted for music as Le nozze di Figaro, the valet Figaro (formerly a barber), together with his bride Susanna (the mezzo carattere role), acting on behalf of the Countess Almaviva (the seria role), outwits and humiliates the Count, who had wished to deceive his wife with Susanna according to “the old droit du seigneur” (not really a traditional right but Beaumarchais’s own contrivance), which supposedly guaranteed noblemen sexual access to any virgin in their household. All three—Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess—are vindicated at the Count’s expense. But the Count, in his discomfiture and heartfelt apology (a moment made unforgettable by Mozart’s music), is rendered human, and redeemed. On the way to that denouement there is a wealth of hilarious by-play with some memorable minor characters, including an adolescent page boy (played by a soprano en travesti, “in trousers”) who desires the Countess, and an elderly pair of stock buffo types (a ludicrous doctor and his housekeeper) who turn out to be Figaro’s parents.

Mozart and Da Ponte had such a success with this play that their names are now inseparably linked in the history of opera, like Lully-and-Quinault or Gluck-and-Calzabigi, to mention only teams who have figured previously in these chapters. The triumph led to two more collaborations. Don Giovanni followed almost immediately. It was a retelling of an old story, long a staple of popular legend and improvised theatrical farce, about the fabled Spanish seducer Don Juan, his exploits, and his downfall. Its first performance took place on 29 October 1787 in Prague, the capital of the Austrian province of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), where Le nozze di Figaro had been especially well received; it played Vienna the next year. Its success was only gradual, but by the time he came to write his memoirs, Da Ponte (who died an American citizen in New York, where from 1807 he worked as a teacher of Italian literature, eventually at Columbia University) could boast that it was recognized as “the best opera in the world.”23

Their third opera, produced at the Burgtheater on 26 January 1790 (a day before Mozart’s thirty-fourth birthday), was the cynical but fascinating Cosí fan tutte, ossia La scuola degli amanti (“Women all act the same; or, The school for lovers”), which had only five performances before all the theaters in Austria had to close following the death of Joseph II. It would be Mozart’s last opera buffa. The plot concerns a wager between a jaded “old philosopher” and two young officers. The old man bets that, having disguised themselves, each officer could woo and win the other’s betrothed. Their easy success, much to their own and their lovers’ consternation, has made the opera controversial throughout its history.

Many textual substitutions and alternative titles have seen duty in an attempt to soften the brazenly misogynistic message of the original. That message, preaching disillusion and distrust, is perhaps larger (and more dangerous) than its immediate context can contain. Its ostensible misogyny can be seen as part of a broad exposure of the “down side” of Enlightenment—a warning that reason is not a comforter and that perhaps it is best not to challenge every illusion. Some, basing their view on the assumption—the Romantic assumption, as we will learn to identify it—that the music of an opera is “truer” than the words, have professed to read a consoling message in Mozart’s gorgeously lyrical score. Others have claimed that, on the contrary, Mozart and Da Ponte have by that very gorgeousness in effect exposed the falsity of artistic conceits and, it follows, unmasked beauty’s amorality.

The tensions within it—at all levels, whether of plot, dramaturgy, musical content, or implication—between the seductions of beauty and cruel reality are so central and so deeply embedded as to make Cosí fan tutte, in its teasing ambiguity, perhaps the most “philosophical” of operas and in that sense the emblematic art work of the Enlightenment.


(20) Blom, ed., Mozart’s Letters, Ibid., p. 208.

(21) Blom, ed., Mozart’s Letters, Ibid., p. 208.

(22) Heartz, Mozart’s Operas, p. 108.

(23) The Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte, trans. Elisabeth Abbott (New York: Orion Press, 1959), p. 232.

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-div1-09007.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-div1-09007.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-div1-09007.xml