We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 9 Enlightenment and Reform
Richard Taruskin

In the second act the trajectory is reversed, leading to the Don’s inevitable downfall. The first scene finds him farcically brazen as ever, rejecting Leporello’s advice to mend his ways and wooing Elvira’s maidservant with a serenade. In the second scene, both noble ladies are cynically shown wavering in their hatred of the irresistible Don. The third scene is the turning point. Don Giovanni, having escaped another scrape by leaping a wall into a graveyard, and having revealed the true depths to which he can descend (now he’s been dallying with Leporello’s girl!), is brought up short by the voice of the Commander from beyond the grave (accompanied by sepuchrally solemn trombones). He sends Leporello to see where the voice is coming from, and they discover the Commander’s monument. With his usual bravado, Don Giovanni bids Leporello invite the statue to dinner. To Leporello’s great fright and Don Giovanni’s bewilderment, the statue nods assent.

As a foil to the horrific finale, a tender scene for Don Ottavio and Donna Anna now ensues, in which she promises to marry him, but only after she’s settled her score and rid herself of her obsession.

Music And (Or As) Morality

fig. 9-12 Don Giovanni meets his doom. Engraving by P. Bolt after a drawing by Vincenz Georg Kinninger, used as the frontispiece to the first edition of the vocal score (Leipzig: Breit-kopf und Härtel, 1801).

And now the second-act finale. Like the previous finale, it is a party scene: Don Giovanni, with renewed bravado, is getting ready for the repast to which he had mockingly invited the Commander.

And so, again like the previous finale, it features stage music: a wind octet such as actually did furnish dinner music at aristocratic salons (and for which many composers, including Mozart, made arrangements of popular numbers from operas). They play three actual excerpts from the current opera buffa repertory as of 1787 (for all that the ostensible setting of the opera is “the sixteenth century”). First comes an excerpt from Una cosa rara (full title, “A rare thing: beauty and honesty together”), by one of Mozart’s rivals, Martìn y Soler, to a libretto by Da Ponte, premiered in Vienna only the year before (Don Giovanni’s comment: “a tasty dish!”). Next, a tune from Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode (“While two dispute, a third rejoices”) by Giuseppe Sarti (libretto by Carlo Goldoni), just then the most popular of all operas on the Vienna stage (Leporello greets it with delight). Finally, the musicians strike up one of the hit tunes from Mozart and Da Ponte’s own Le nozze di Figaro (Leporello, in mock disgust: “Now that one I know all too well!”).

These gay snatches have not only been entertaining the pair on stage and the audience in the opera house; they have also been establishing the finale’s fluid tonal scheme and staking its limits: the first in D major, the key both of the overture at the front of the opera and of the looming final cadence; the second in F major, the flat mediant, which shares its signature of one flat with the parallel minor key, in which the statue music will be played; and the third in B-flat major, the flat submediant (linked through its relative minor with G major, which will also figure prominently in the design). These keys also—and probably deliberately—recapitulate the opening tonalities of the introduzione (overture, Leporello’s pacing, the Don’s entrance).

The final cadence of the Figaro snatch is bizarrely elided into loud chords signaling the sudden arrival of Donna Elvira, in a state of feverish anxiety. Somehow she has had a premonition of the Don’s impending doom and has come to warn him. In an agitated trio, he meets her concern with derision, finally addressing to her the same insultingly insouciant invitation to sit herself down and dine with him that he had previously addressed to the statue of the Commander. At this even Leporello has to reprove his master’s hard-heartedness.

Elvira rushes off in despair but rushes right back on again in horror, her scream matched in the orchestra by a bellowing diminished-seventh chord, horror-harmony par excellence. She flies out at the opposite end of the stage and Don Giovanni sends Leporello to investigate. Leporello, too, recoils to the same horror-harmony, transposed up a step and sounding even ghastlier because the chord of its implied resolution is now the chord of D minor that will spell death to Don Giovanni. In a breathless duet, the voice parts interrupted by panting rests, Leporello explains that he has seen him, “the man of stone, the white man” and imitates his crushing gait, “ta! ta! ta! ta!”

With undiminished bravado, Don Giovanni flings open the door. His gesture is greeted by what was surely the most awful noise that ever sounded in an opera house: yet another diminished-seventh chord, this one blasted in his face by the full orchestra, augmented by the three trombones from the graveyard scene, to announce the Commander’s arrival. The harmony is the very one that accompanied Don Giovanni’s fatal thrust in the introduzione; its recurrence seems to bracket the whole intervening action and cast the whole opera in terms of a single horrible deed and its expiation.

The stone guest now enters, accompanied by the grim music that had so unexpectedly launched the overture, thus providing a musical recapitulation to correspond with the fulfillment of the subtitle’s prophecy. The Don continues to resist against the evidence of his own eyes. A hideous trio of three basses develops as the statue advances, the Don scoffs, and Leporello trembles. Here Mozart came as close as he would ever come to violating his own conceit—the bedrock precept of all “Enlightened” aesthetics—that music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear, but must please the hearer. Here his music gives intimations not of beauty but of what must at the very least be called sublime: matters vast and grave, awesome to contemplate.

Things get worse. The statue’s command that Don Giovanni repent is sung to another gruesomely portentous recapitulation: the duel music from the introduzione that had accompanied Don Giovanni’s most horrible crime. The Don remains proudly unrepentant: that is his idea of courage. But at the icy touch of the statue’s hand, his demeanor crumbles into one of rack and ruin; the statue is replaced by a unison chorus of hellish spirits; the harmony is riddled with searing dissonance as the orchestra’s noisiest resources are summoned up: trombone sforzandi, timpani rolls, string tremolos. Music like this, to say the least, had never figured before in any opera buffa. As the Don disappears, screaming in agony, the orchestra settles in on a chord of D major. The change of mode offers no consolation, though: it is more like the tierce de picardie, the “Picardy third” (a famous misnomer derived from tierce picarte, “sharp third”), the major chord that was used to end solemn organ preludes and toccatas in the minor in days of old.

And now the resolution: D major resolves to G major as dominant to tonic, the stage brightens, and (according to the old prescription), the librettist assembles all the remaining characters on stage on a flimsy pretext: Donna Anna, Donna Elvira (who has presumably summoned the rest), Don Ottavio, Zerlina, and Masetto (the last pair unseen since the first act) all rush on stage, together with some policemen who never get to sing, to join the dazed Leporello. The five pursuers, singing in a sort of chorus, interrogate Leporello about Don Giovanni’s fate.

When all are satisfied that the Don has truly perished (“Ah, it must have been that ghost I saw!” says Elvira knowingly to the others), they react by turning their attention to the future, symbolizing the end of Don Giovanni’s reign, and (like the harmony) providing the action with its long-awaited closure—a closure that could not take place so long as the Don’s disruptive force was abroad in the opera’s world. In a tender larghetto, Don Ottavio and Donna Anna make their plans to marry (in a year, at her insistence, so that she may fully mourn her father). Elvira announces that she is bound for a convent. Zerlina and Masetto agree to patch things up and resume their domesticity. Leporello vows to find himself a better master.

Meanwhile, the harmony has been quietly veering back to D major through its dominant on which the larghetto makes its (half) cadence. It is time to wrap things up in D major with a moral, launched presto by the women’s voices in what sounds for all the world like the beginning of a fugue, Donna Anna and Elvira with the subject, Zerlina with the answer. (It was for touches like this that Mozart had the reputation of being a “difficult” composer.) But no, all six characters continue in chorus to the final cadence, to the accompaniment of ripping scales and fanfares in the orchestra, in a fully restored buffa style.

Together, Mozart and Da Ponte brought to a new height the faculty of imagining (or, in this case, re-imagining) a dramatic action in terms suitable for musical elaboration. In Mozart’s case, the achievement had mainly to do with the unique skill with which he interwove the voices of his characters in ensembles—a variegated play of vocal color that made his finales flash and glitter, moving with unprecedented speed and flexibility. His finales were a powerful influence on later composers: indeed, the history of opera during the nineteenth century could be described as the genre’s gradual transformation into one great big continuous “finale,” lasting from curtain to curtain.

But it also had to do with fine calibrations of rhythm and harmony to underscore shifting sentiments and passions, finally homing in as if inevitably on the indispensable closure, lending a sense of surefooted progression—that is, of real dynamism—to that newly speedy yet flexible pace. These were the devices by which, more compellingly than ever, Mozart could “move an audience through representations of its own humanity,” lending his music the aspect that the Enlightenment prized above all—the achievement of a “universal portrait” of mankind.

Nowadays, of course, it is easy to see how far such a representation fell short of true universality. In the case of Don Giovanni, as in that of Cosí fan tutte, the viewpoint that claims universality is clearly the viewpoint of a male ego. The “insatiable, burning desire” to exceed “the common features of life” and “attain on earth that which dwells in our breast as a heavenly promise” that so affected Hoffmann is all too clearly the barely sublimated male sexual drive. The “altogether musical idea” that Don Giovanni “disclosed” to Kierkegaard was likewise a reflection of the philosopher’s maleness and its attendant desires.

It follows from this that all the women in the opera, even the noblest, are mocked and negated in varying degrees, regarded finally as catalogue entries—sexual “objects,” rather than what a philosopher like Kierkegaard would have called a true “subject,” which is to say an independent agent. Donna Elvira is willing up to the bitter end to suffer humiliation for the Don’s sake; Donna Anna is more than faintly ridiculous in her constant deferral of her marriage plans, and painful to observe in her progressively deteriorating moral condition over the course of the opera; Zerlina is a virtual mirror reflection of the Don himself—a cruelly manipulative creature ruled by her animal appetites. Don Giovanni’s, in short, is the viewpoint that ultimately prevails in the opera, his bad end and all attendant moralizing notwithstanding. Not for nothing has the critic Joseph Kerman dared suggest that the “closure ensemble” that follow the Don’s demise is a dramatic failure, a “dead spot” that only “goes to show how drab life is without the Don.”28 It would be hard to argue that sneaking admiration for the villain has not been widely shared ever since the opera’s première. Those, after all, were the cynical “gender politics” of Mozart’s time, and it would not be reasonable to expect to find them transcended in a work that aspired to popular success. Much more recently, in the early part of the twentieth century, Feruccio Busoni, a great late-Romantic pianist and composer, professed his admiration for Don Giovanni as “the man who gave every woman the supreme experience of happiness.” One might want to ask Donna Elvira or Donna Anna about that. Or so we are quick nowadays to object. In Mozart’s day, or even in Busoni’s, no one would have posed the question. It would not have been thought reasonable. Now it gives discomfort.

But that is the paradox of all “Enlightened” thinking. Reason’s promise can be kept only provisionally. Its answers are inevitably superseded by others that will be superseded in their turn. To insist on their universal applicability—on a final, single truth—can only end in dogmatism or hypocrisy. And only dogmatism or hypocrisy will condemn the attempt to place the morality of great works of art, even works as great as Don Giovanni, in historical perspective.


(28) Joseph Kerman, Opera as Drama (New York: Knopf, 1956), p. 122.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09010.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 22 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09010.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 22 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09010.xml