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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 9 Enlightenment and Reform
Richard Taruskin

Since it is attached directly to the introduzione, of which it is actually a part—and since, therefore it ends not with a cadence (except in its specially adapted “concert version”) but with a modulation—the overture (or, as Mozart called it, the sinfonia) to Don Giovanni must also figure in our discussion. Like the drama to which it is appended, the sinfonia by Mozart’s day was no longer a little three-movement suite but more often a single quick (Allegro) movement in binary (there-and-back) form. At the beginning, Mozart appended a startling andante that gives a forecast of the plot’s grisly resolution, also forecast in the opera’s subtitle, Il dissoluto punito (The immoralist punished).

The forecast is one not only of musical theme and mood but also of key. It was a convention of the opera buffa that the second-act finale end in the key in which the sinfonia begins, thus matching musically the resolution of the plot. As Daniel Heartz has pointed out, there were in practice only three tonics that could be used in this way: namely C, D, and E-flat, the keys of the natural trumpets and horns that would normally figure at the opera’s loudest moments, including its launching and its culmination.

The dire prognosis having been given, the key shifts over to the parallel major for a typically effervescent buffo Allegro. Except for the horrific introduzione, in which a murder will take place before the eyes of the audience, and its harsh consequences in the last finale, the opera will adhere to the tradition of the Don Juan plays of the past, which was a tradition of farce. The form of the fast main body of the overture is essentially that of the J. C. Bach sonata allegro studied in the previous chapter (Ex. 8-6), also in D major. This coincidence is no surprise; we have already identified J. C. Bach as an important formative model for Mozart. In both Allegros, a theme in the tonic with fanfare characteristics (note the sudden loud entry of winds, brass and timpani in m. 38, between the phrases of Mozart’s first Allegro theme) is contrasted with a pair of themes in the dominant, in which a decisive form-defining cadence is marked (at the double bar in J. C. Bach, followed by a repeat; in m. 120 of Mozart’s overture, from which a repeat might just as easily have been made were it conventional to do so in an overture).

The cadence on the dominant is then followed in both pieces by a section that moves out to the FOP. In J. C. Bach, this is B minor (vi with respect to the tonic); in Mozart’s case it is B-flat major, which has the same degree function with respect to the original tonic, namely the D minor of the andante—thus, it could be argued, again foreshadowing the drama’s dénouement. As is typical of orchestral pieces (as opposed to keyboard sonatas), the thematic content of the freely modulating section containing the FOP is largely based on motives taken from the opening section of the piece, in new juxtapositions and new tonalities. The return to the tonic is signaled in both JC’s piece and Mozart’s by the all-important “double return,” in which the first theme comes back in its original key, which is then maintained to the end. In Mozart’s case this simply means transposing the big chunk of music first heard between m. 56 and m. 115 down a fifth, so that what had been originally cast in the dominant is now securely in the tonic. But then the coda (mm. 277 to the end) unexpectedly dissolves into a modulation, preparing the key of the first vocal number in the introduzione (F major) by coming to rest on its dominant, just as the awesome andante had come to rest on the dominant of D major, the key of the Allegro. Cadences on the dominant (also known as half-cadences), which need to be resolved, are the most efficient means of maintaining the all-important forward momentum that the large kinetic sections of an opera buffa required.

That first vocal number belongs to the noble title character’s grumpy manservant (here named Leporello), a stock opera buffa type always sung by a bass. Its opening march-like ritornello sketches his impatient pacing and stamping as he awaits the return of his master. Its diminutive “rondo” form (ABCB) with refrain, permits the repetition of Leporello’s envious line, “I’d like to be the master for a change,” with its reminder of all the licenses and privileges that Don Giovanni enjoys—and abuses. Just as in the overture, the last cadence of the vocal melody is trumped by a modulation. That modulation, from F major to B-flat major, casts Leporello’s whole song in retrospect as a sort of upbeat in the dominant to the first bit of kinetic action, corresponding to Don Giovanni’s entrance, pursued by the enraged Donna Anna, the lady with whom he has been keeping company while his servant had been outside, stewing.

The three characters now on stage sing a tense trio in B-flat major, Donna Anna accusing the Don of attempted rape and calling for help, the Don attempting to flee, and Leporello cowering off to one side. This little number, too, fails to make complete closure: tremolando violins intrude upon its final cadence, and a bass figure introduces an incongruous F-sharp to coincide with the entrance of the Commander, Donna Anna’s father, in response to her screams. That F-sharp, a leading tone, wrenches the tonality into an unstable G minor, the relative minor of the previous key, for another trio, much shorter than the one preceding, in which the two noblemen exchange threats and Leporello continues his horrified commentary from his hiding place.

The final cadence of the male trio is on D minor, a significant key that had already served for the menacing slow introduction to the overture. The men draw swords and fight to the strains of an orchestral passage making frantic modulations around the circle of fifths, but ending on a diminished-seventh chord that coincides with Don Giovanni’s fatal thrust. The tempo now changes radically as the Commander, mortally wounded, falters and dies, while Don Giovanni gloats and Leporello panics, all in the remote key of F minor—remote, that is, in terms of the immediately preceding music, but coming full circle with respect to the opening of the introduzione, which had begun with Leporello’s pouting song in F major.

Not even this ending section of the introduzione, though, makes a full cadence. The last dominant chord peters out into its dominant, the harpsichord takes over, and only now do we hear the first recitatives, inaugurating the “normal” succession of recitative and fully elaborated aria. In the space of less than two hundred measures, lasting only a few minutes, we have met four characters, witnessed an attempted arrest and a murder, and been through a veritable tonal whirlwind. This kind of uninterrupted action music seemed to eighteenth-century listeners to reproduce the rhythms and the passions of life itself. Its sustained dramatic pressure was unprecedented.

But now things settle down into a more orderly (that is, a more obviously contrived) rhythm, as the traditional farcical plot takes over. A series of closed numbers, linked by recitatives, ensues. Don Giovanni and Leporello scurry off and Donna Anna returns, accompanied by her fiancé, Don Ottavio. They vow revenge in passionate duet. Don Giovanni and Leporello regroup in another part of town, where they come upon and observe Donna Elvira, an old flame of the Don’s traveling incognito. She is the opera’s mezzo carattere role. Her raillery at her betrayer is cast in a coloratura aria reminiscent of the opera seria, while their mock-sympathetic asides are of the purest buffo manner. When Don Giovanni approaches her with an eye toward conquest, she hurls abuse at him. He withdraws, leaving her alone with Leporello, who “consoles” her with a leering “catalogue aria” listing all the Don’s conquests (640 in Italy, 230 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, but in Spain 1003).

The scene changes to a peasant wedding. Don Giovanni is attracted to the bride, Zerlina, and invites everyone to his house, thinking thereby to seduce her. The groom, Masetto, flies into an aria of impotent rage; he is dragged off while the Don, preposterously proposing marriage in a duet with Zerlina, manages to gain her assent to a tryst. Donna Elvira arrives in pursuit. She warns Zerlina off in a brief coloratura explosion. Donna Anna and Don Ottavio appear. With Donna Elvira and Don Giovanni, whom at first they do not recognize in the daylight, they sing a brief quartet. With the help of Donna Elvira’s insinuations, Donna Anna understands that Don Giovanni is none other than her villain seducer from the night before. Anna, Elvira, and Ottavio join forces to bring him to justice. Donna Anna sings another noble aria of vengeance. Don Ottavio, left briefly alone, sings of his devotion to her.

The remaining arias before the first finale are two: Don Giovanni’s madcap “Champagne aria,” in which he lustily looks forward to the orgy where he thinks a combination of wine and increasingly vigorous dancing (minuet, then “follia,” then “allemande”) will result in the addition of a dozen or so new names, including Zerlina’s, to his catalogue; and a dulcet aria in which Zerlina manages to appease Masetto with the help of an unctuous obbligato cello.

This brings us to the act I finale, the first “little comedy in itself” as Da Ponte described it. Its self-contained quality is emphasized by its own tonal closure. It begins and ends in C major—another good trumpet key, and one that stands in relation to the original (and ultimate) tonic like a “far out point,” reflecting its dramatic function as the peak of imbroglio, a “dissonance” in the plot that stands in urgent need of resolution.

It begins with a little “quarrel duet” between Masetto and Zerlina, he expressing suspicion, she exasperation; he hides as Don Giovanni appears, shouting instructions to his servants. The wedding party is invited inside, but Don Giovanni spies Zerlina and detains her outside the house as the music modulates to F major. He woos; she resists. All at once he spies Masetto, as the music makes a feint toward the relative minor. Thinking quickly, the Don reassures Masetto that Zerlina has been looking for him, invites them both in, and the music returns to the security of the major key.

From within, the sound of the Don Giovanni’s hired (onstage) orchestra is heard, playing a contredanse. The counterpoint of stage music (that is to say, music “heard” by the characters on stage as actual performed music) and the “metaphorical” music of the singers and the pit orchestra (representing the characters’ speech, thoughts, feelings, and actions, “heard” as music only by the audience), will henceforth be virtuosically exploited as a dramaturgical gimmick throughout the finale. It is a distinction all operagoers learn to make “instinctively.” Only rarely is it thematized—made overt and explicit by the composer as a dramatic effect—the way it is here.

The stage music is silenced (for the audience) by the sudden appearance of Don Giovanni’s pursuers—Don Ottavio, Donna Anna, and Donna Elvira, wearing masks—as the music takes a decisive turn to the minor, symbolizing their caustic frame of mind. Leporello throws open a window from within, and once again the Don’s orchestra is heard, this time playing a stately minuet. Leporello, spying the maskers (whom he fails to recognize), tells his master of their presence. They, too, are of course invited to the ball.

Once again the stage music falls silent from the audience’s perspective, as the pit orchestra focuses in like a zoom lens on the maskers. The change of tempo—to adagio—and of key—to B-flat, again casting the preceding music retrospectively as a dominant—announces a moment of solemn “inwardness,” as they utter a prayer for heavenly assistance in revenge (a “silent” prayer, we understand, since they sing not in dialogue but as an ensemble).

The prayer being done, the music again lurches forward along the circle of fifths, to E-flat (another “horn key”), as the stage set opens in on the Don’s glittering ballroom. All but the sulking Masetto enter into the festive spirit, egged on by the orchestra’s jig rhythms. As the maskers enter they are greeted by an abrupt change to C major; trumpets now pompously replace the horns, and the trio of “strangers” exchange formal greetings with their quarry, joining in (but of course ironically) when the Don sings the praises of the “freedom” his generous hospitality betokens.

At Don Giovanni’s signal, the stage orchestra strikes up the minuet again to inaugurate the main dance episode, one of Mozart’s most famous tours de force. Taking his cue, evidently, from the dances named in the “Champagne aria” (minuet, follia, allemande), Mozart superimposes three dances, played by three sub-orchestras in various corners of the room, in a kind of collage. They represent the various social classes who are mixed harum-scarum in this weird ball that Don Giovanni’s irrepressible libido has engineered.

Thus atop the noble minuet, in a stately triple meter, the rustic contredanse (or “country dance”) heard earlier in the scene is superimposed, presumably for the benefit of the peasants from the wedding party. (It is introduced, wittily, by some suitable tuning-up noises from the second orchestra.) Its duple meter contradicts that of the dance already in progress, three measures of contredanse equaling two of minuet. The two dances are cleverly harmonized by the composer, however, so as to create no dissonances with one another.

Everyone but Masetto now dancing to one orchestra or another, Don Giovanni starts to lead Zerlina offstage. He tells Leporello to keep Masetto at bay, and Leporello signals to the third group of musicians, who strike up the “allemande,” or rather the “Teitsch,” as Mozart now designates it. Like allemande, the word Teitsch means “German”; the more usual term for this dance of Mozart’s time was the Deutscher Tanz. A far cry from the dignified allemande of the old French dance suite, the Deutscher was a boisterous, whirling affair, the progenitor of the waltz. One of its fast triple measures equals a single beat of the concurrent minuet and contredanse. As soon as it starts, Leporello seizes Masetto and twirls him around while the Don slips away with Zerlina. Leporello, noticing her resistance and fearful at the possible outcome, abandons the whirling, confused Masetto and follows them.

Once off stage Zerlina lets out a bloodcurdling scream for help. Its outlandish harmonization, a sudden dominant-seventh chord on B-flat, utterly disrupts the complicated proceedings on stage and ushers in the “noise, noise, noise” with which a first-act finale must conclude. The tempo is now marked allegro assai, the fastest designation then in common use—and it will get faster. Everyone begins chasing after Don Giovanni, who comes out dragging Leporello and accusing him of having been Zerlina’s abductor. The maskers are not taken in; they reveal themselves to Don Giovanni, who makes a desperate exit, leaving all the rest in confusion.

With each turn of events, the harmony is wrenched accordingly. There are many feints. E-flat seems to give way to the dominant of D, but instead F arrives with Don Giovanni’s impetuous accusation. The maskers threaten in a C major liberally mixed with jarring notes borrowed from the parallel minor. At the last moment, as the Don makes his frantic escape, the tempo is “pinched” up even beyond allegro assai by means of the marking più stretto, as if quoted from Da Ponte’s description. The imbroglio has indeed reached an unsurpassable peak.

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-div1-09009.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-div1-09009.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-div1-09009.xml