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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 9 Enlightenment and Reform
Richard Taruskin

In his last pair of operas, both first performed in September 1791 less than three months before his death, Mozart reverted to the two genres in which he had excelled before his legendary collaboration with Da Ponte. Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) is a singspiel to a text by the singing actor and impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, who commissioned it for his own Theater auf der Wieden, a popular playhouse in Vienna. Behind its at times folksy manner and its riotously colorful and mysterious goings-on, it too is a profoundly emblematic work of the Enlightenment, for it is a thinly veiled allegory of Freemasonry.

A secret fraternal organization of which both Mozart and Schikaneder were members (along with Voltaire, Haydn, and the poets Goethe and Schiller), the Order of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons purportedly traced its lineage back to the medieval stonecutters’ guilds (and thence, in legend, to ancient Egypt, the land of the pyramids), but became a widespread international association in the eighteenth century and an important vehicle for the spread of Enlightened doctrines such as political liberalism and religious tolerance. Persecuted by organs of traditional authority, including the Catholic Church and the autocratic monarchies of Europe, the Masons had elaborate rites of initiation and secret signals (the famous handshake, for instance) by which members could recognize one another.

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fig. 9-8 Sarastro arrives on his chariot in act I of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Engraving published in an illustrated monthly to herald the first performance of the opera in Brünn (now Brno, Czech Republic) in 1793.

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fig. 9-9 Emanuel Schikaneder in the role of Papageno in the first production of Die Zauberflöte (Theater auf der Wieden, Vienna, 1791).

The plot of The Magic Flute concerns the efforts of Tamino, a Javanese prince, and Pamina, his beloved, to gain admission to the temple of Isis (the Earth- or Mother-goddess of ancient Egypt), presided over by Sarastro, the Priest of Light. Tamino is accompanied by a sidekick, the birdcatcher Papageno (played by Schikaneder himself in the original production; see Fig. 9-9), who in his cowardice and ignorance cannot gain admittance to the mysteries of the temple but is rewarded for his simple-hearted goodness with an equally appealing wife. The chief opposition comes from Pamina’s mother, the Queen of the Night, and from Monostatos, the blackamoor who guards the temple (a clear throwback to Osmin in Die Entführung). The allegory proclaims Enlightened belief in equality of class (as represented by Tamino and Papageno) and sex (as represented by Tamino and Pamina) within reason’s domain. Even Monostatos’s humanity is recognized, betokening a belief in the equality of races. On seeing him, Papageno (who first sounds the opera’s essential theme when he responds to Prince Tamino’s question as to his identity by saying “A man, like you”) reflects, after an initial fright, that if there can be black birds, why not black men?

The range of styles encompassed by the music in The Magic Flute is enormous—wider than Mozart had ever before attempted. At one extreme is the folk-song idiom of Papageno, “Mr. Natural.” At the other are the musical manifestations of the two opposing supernatural beings—the forces, respectively, of darkness (The Queen of the Night) and light (Sarastro)—both represented by opera seria idioms, altogether outlandish in a singspiel. In act II, the Queen, seeing her efforts to thwart the noble pair coming to nought, gets to sing the rage aria to end all rage arias (Ex. 9-7a). Its repeated ascents to high F in altissimo are a legendary test for coloratura sopranos to this day. (That pitch had actually been exceeded, incidentally, in a coloratura aria—or rather, a spoof of coloratura arias—that Mozart tossed off early in 1786 as the centerpiece of a little farce called Der Schauspieldirektor or “The Impresario,” sung at its first performance by his sister-in-law Aloysia).

Sarastro, in the scene that immediately follows, expresses the opera’s humanistic creed in the purest, most exalted sacerdotal manner (Ex 9-7b). George Bernard Shaw, the famous British playwright, worked in his youth as a professional music critic. Perhaps his most famous observation in that capacity pertained to this very aria of Sarastro’s, which he called the only music ever composed by mortal man that would not sound out of place in the mouth of God.24 That is as good a testimony as any to the hold Mozart has had over posterity, but it is also worth quoting to reemphasize the point that such sublime music was composed for use in a singspiel, then thought (because it was sung in the German vernacular) to be the lowliest of all operatic genres. That was in itself a token of Enlightened attitudes. In such company, the lyrical idiom of the lovers Tamino and Pamina occupies the middle ground, the roles (so to speak) of mezzo carattere.

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fig. 9-10 Pamina, Tamino, and Papageno in a scene from act II of Die Zauberföte (Brünn, 1793).

Mozart’s last stage work, an opera seria called La clemenza di Tito (“The clemency of Titus”), was composed to one of Metastasio’s most frequently set librettos, one that had been first set to music almost sixty years before by Antonio Caldara, then Vice-Kapellmeister to the Austrian court. Its revival was commissioned, symbolically as it might seem, to celebrate the accession to the Austrian throne of Joseph II’s younger brother, the Emperor Leopold II, who would rule for only two years—just enough time to undo all of his Enlightened predecessor’s reforms. Just so, it could seem as though Mozart’s reversion to a stiffly conventional aristocratic drama of sacrifice “undid” the modern realistic comedies that had preceded them—though of course no one had any premonition that this was to be his last opera.

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ex. 9-7a W. A. Mozart, Magic Flute, “Der Hölle Rache” (The Queen of the Night), mm. 21–47

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ex. 9-7b W. A. Mozart, Magic Flute, “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” (Sarastro), mm. 16–26

It has been claimed that Mozart accepted the commission with reluctance; but while his letters complain of some fatigue (and although he had to work in haste, farming out the recitatives to a pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr), there is no evidence that he felt the century-old genre of opera seria to be an unwelcome constraint. In any case, his setting of La Clemenza was fated to be the last masterpiece of that venerable genre, which barely survived the eighteenth century.


For a closer look at the team of Mozart and Da Ponte in action, we can focus in on what the librettist proudly called “the best opera in the world.” Many have endorsed Da Ponte’s seemingly bumptious claim on behalf of Don Giovanni. For two centuries this opera has exerted a virtually matchless fascination on generations of listeners and commentators—the latter including distinguished authors, philosophers, and even later musicians, who “commented” in music.

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fig. 9-11 Poster announcing the first performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Prague, 1787).

For E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776–1822), a German writer (and dilettante composer) famous for his romantic tales, it was the “opera of operas,” altogether transcending its paltry ribald plot—about “a debauchee,” as Hoffmann put it, “who likes wine and women to excess and who cheerfully invites to his rowdy table the stone statue representing the old man whom he struck down in self-defense”—and becoming, through its music, the very embodiment of every noble heart’s “insatiable, burning desire” to exceed “the common features of life” and “attain on earth that which dwells in our breast as a heavenly promise only, that very longing for the infinite which links us directly to the world above.”25 There could be no better evidence of the way in which Mozart’s music reflected to a sensitive listener an image of his own idealized humanity, however at variance with the composer’s.

For Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55), the great Danish religious philosopher, Don Giovanni was Mozart’s greatest work (hence the greatest of all art works) because in it the greatest of all composers tackled the subject matter that music was uniquely equipped to represent. “There is only one work,” he wrote (and that work is Don Giovanni), “of which it can be said that its idea is altogether musical in such a way that the music does not merely serve as accompaniment but discloses its own innermost nature as it discloses the idea.”26 Once again, that essence or innermost idea is desire, the sensation that lies at the universal core of consciousness. It is by representing desire that music can represent to us an image of our own subjectivity. That representation undoubtedly became the virtually universal aim of musicians during the age of so-called Romanticism, an age that saw its own beginnings in the music of Mozart’s time, and in Don Giovanni preeminently. The title character’s insatiable erotic appetite, and the voracious amatory quests on which it led him, became a symbol—or more precisely, a metonymy, an attribute standing in for the whole—of human aspiration, and music became the primary vehicle for its artistic modeling.

That is because polyphonic music in common European practice had, in its basic harmonic and formal processes, long provided superlative models of tension and release, of loss and recovery, of transport and return, of complication and consummation. These processes could be represented in dramatic action as well as musical composition, and the task of dramatic musician and musical poet alike became that of fashioning explicit analogies between the two signifying media. The shape of the comic opera libretto, with its two acts, perfectly analogized these patterns of musical modeling. The two acts observed opposite trajectories, the first culminating in the imbroglio or tangle, the second in the crisis and the swift sorting out of threads. The first could be likened to dissonance, to remote tonality, to the “far out point”; the second—to resolution, restoration of the home key, harmonic and formal closure. The comic libretto, in short, was a “binary” form, and could be ideally elaborated by using all of the musical means associated with that most basic of “closed” musical formats.

And just as the musical process works itself out through points of harmonic repose (cadences) and passages of harmonic motion or “modulation,” so the libretto structure made provision for points of stasis and passages of kinetic energy. The former were of course the arias, like the ones we have been sampling from Mozart’s earlier output. In this the buffa did not differ greatly from the seria. The kinetic passages were the novelty, and for the composer the greatest opportunity. These were long passages of continuous music, already sampled in Piccinni’s second-act finale from La buona figliuola, in which swift dramatic action, leading either toward imbroglio or toward closure, was to be embodied in music that was (unlike recitative) fully composed, with full use of the orchestra and sung throughout to lyrically conceived, well-shaped melodies. But at the same time it was (unlike an aria) forwardly progressing rather than rounded or symmetrical in harmony and phraseology.

Usually there were three main kinetic sections in a late eighteenth-century opera buffa: the introduzione to the first act, in which the plot was set in motion and given a maximum “spin”; the first-act finale, in which the imbroglio reached its peak; and the second-act finale, in which the action was driven home to closure. (The second act generally began at a low point of dramatic pressure, so that there could be a new buildup to the culmination; in most comic operas, the second-act curtain rose on simple recitative.) As Da Ponte himself remarked in his memoirs, the finale was the key to the libretto, and mastering its conventions was the test of a true musical dramatist, whether poet or composer. “This finale,” he wrote in mock complaint:

which must remain intimately connected with the opera as a whole, is nevertheless a sort of little comedy or operette all by itself, and requires a new plot and an unusually high pitch of interest. The finale, chiefly, must glow with the genius of the composer, the power of the voices, the grandest dramatic effects. Recitative is banned from the finale: everybody sings; and every form of singing must be available—the adagio, the allegro, the andante, the intimate, the harmonious and then—noise, noise, noise; for the finale [to the first act] almost always closes in an uproar: which, in musical jargon, is called the chiusa, or rather the stretta [literally, “squeeze” or “pinch”], I know not whether because in it, the whole power of the drama is drawn or “pinched” together, or because it gives generally not one pinch but a hundred to the poor brain of the poet who must supply the words. The finale must, through a dogma of the theatre, produce on the stage every singer of the cast, be there three hundred of them, and whether by ones, by twos, by threes or by sixes, tens or sixties; and they must have solos, duets, terzets, tenets, sixtyets; and if the plot of the drama does not permit, the poet must find a way to make it permit, in the face of reason, good sense, Aristotle, and all the powers of heaven or earth; and if then the finale happens to go badly, so much the worse for him!27

We can observe concretely everything that has been described up to now in the abstract, and at the same time justify the eloquent but somewhat mysterious pronouncements of Hoffmann and Kierkegaard, by examining in some detail the introduzione and the two finales from Don Giovanni, noting at all times how the libretto mediates between plot (action) and music, cementing their affinities. The following sections of close descriptive commentary should be read with vocal score in hand.


(24) George Bernard Shaw, quoted in The Encyclopedia Brittanica, s.v. “Opera” (www.britannica.com/eb/print?eu=118789).

(25) E. T. A. Hoffmann, “A Tale of Don Juan” (1813), in Pleasures of Music, trans. Jacques Barzun (New York: Viking, 1960), p. 28.

(26) S. Kierkegaard, Eithor/Or, Part I, trans. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 57.

(27) The Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte, pp. 59–60.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09008.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 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09008.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 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09008.xml