Young Mozart performing for Louis François de Bourbon in Paris in 1766. Gustave Boulanger, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Opening nights of new operas may be the most fraught of all. So many things have to go right. The paint must have dried on the backdrops, the soprano’s throat must be clear of infections and the tenor of overly distracting fits of pique. The orchestral players must be confident that their strings or reeds will behave themselves. Enough copies of the score must have gone out, and everyone needs to know which big aria has been cut at the last minute. Large amounts of money hinge on the airy stuff that musical performance comprises. An eerie tension awaits anyone without enough to do—but everyone generally has far too much to do. No one can control how the audience will react, though sometimes in the eighteenth-century sections would be paid to get their reactions right. Mozart’s era often left it unclear who was meant to be in charge of this broadly purposeful chaos; the role of the conductor had, for one thing, not yet attained its later clarity. As the first notes got closer, an entire social world was readying itself to be funneled into drama and music.
In the autumn of 1787 an impresario called Pasquale Bondini may or may not have felt in control of such a night. He ran the resident opera company at the recently built Nostitz theater in Prague whose success earlier in the year with a staging of Le nozze di Figaro quickly led him and his codirector to commission a new Mozart opera. It seems to have been Mozart who gravitated toward the figure of Don Juan and the old Spanish folk tales about his lascivious career that had already inspired literary and operatic versions across the century. Prague had adored Mozart’s rampantly expansive, vertiginously original opera about the rebellious valet Figaro, so it must have struck him as a good place to hit with an even more drastic reinterpretation of his world’s cultural possibilities. The composer was a local hero in Prague at a point when he and Vienna were unsure how enthusiastic they remained about each other. Writing the opera for a place other than the imperial capital might have seemed a retreat had he not used it to leap into yet more artistic freedom, and his popularity in Bohemia must have charged the mood and raised the stakes for this first night. In Don Giovanni, his fusions of elegance with fieriness speak with almost painful directness of an artistic desire both to summarize his culture and to move it onward.
Mozart would have been vibrantly hard to pin down on this first night, a small and indistinct man caught up in a blur of needs and actions, hardly visible once he had taken charge of the music and his dark creation was beginning to unfurl. The opera wheels through eighteenth-century conventions and reference points, but the score could not be more distinctly his, treating them with a copious freedom that renders them luminous. His daily levels of nervous energy must have helped keep him free of any great anxiety on even the biggest musical nights. But lashing excitement among the audience and the orchestra does seem to have marked the launch of Don Giovanni, after hitches and delays that cannot have lessened the feeling that something major was coming. The fierce blazonry with which the overture opens declares the opera’s high stakes. Nervous tension is on the agenda for anyone listening. Something new was in motion within the opera, but its innovations are cloaked and refracted by atavism and a sumptuous feel for conventions. Its early audiences were exhilarated and bewildered.
Mozart’s new opera finally premiered very late in October; the richly dressed listeners would have met with murky, bumpy streets around the opera house as seven o’clock approached. The imperial governor’s own money had built the theater a handful of years earlier, a space ready for novelty in a city chafing against decades of indifference or even neglect from its Habsburg rulers in Vienna. A restless underlying resentment and a skittering cultural inventiveness pervaded the Bohemian capital, making it the perfect landing place for such an exuberantly complex opera. Erratic, smoky light would have drifted around an auditorium only barely separated from backstage chaos as the opera’s action opened. In Mozart’s century an audience did not stop being noisy and sociable just because the performance was under way; it may often have given them something else to talk about. Maybe Mozart felt some burst of control once the thing had started, as he willed the music onward and coaxed his performers on. But the opera was also now ceasing to be his. At the heights of art, power and its loss can join hands.
The opera’s shadowy overture throws it into events in which sex, violence, comedy, and loss briskly overlap. Giovanni’s flight from one of his exploits brings him face to face with Donna Elvira, an abandoned lover who has been on his trail. He abandons her again now and leaves his manservant and sidekick, Leporello, to deal with her. We may feel momentarily disappointed that Giovanni has left the stage; the opera depends on his charisma and our appalled fascination with him. But the aria that Leporello comes up with is the point at which the opera becomes as fully itself as Giovanni is irreparably himself—it fuses charm with power and drastic moral truthfulness. It is known as the catalogue aria because it inflicts on Elvira an expansive, brutally playful enumeration of the lovers or victims that Giovanni has left behind. An ambiguous courtly swagger fizzes through Mozart’s music as it streams through arch and aching shifts of pace and texture; its artfulness is both dizzying and dizzy as mischief and cruelty embroil it. Comedy and bleakness mix in Leporello’s voice, and the nearly sobbing tenderness that seems close whenever he mentions Spain is punctured by the aria’s punchline, as he gives the appallingly precise number of 1,003 for his boss’s successes in that famously devout country. Elvira needs to hear who this man is, and even those in the audience familiar with the story need to hear his rapacity rampantly set out. But the awful truth is delivered here in a vein of brisk, outrageous comedy by a waggishly officious manservant. Whose side are these frisky violins on?
The opening of a new opera brought the disparate, spinning social and cultural forces of late eighteenth-century Europe together like no other occasion, and in this aria Mozart satisfies, while turning them inside out, all the motives of pleasure and excitement that took people to the opera. Europe was wavering on the brink of modernity, and Mozart became the key artist of the modern world because his music was richly fired by so many of the factors and energies at work in this process. Sometimes this Europe was as elegant as its nicest fictions claimed and sometimes it was as violent as its turbulent dreams suggested; the revolution in France whetted the culture’s vastest hopes, but using the guillotine became official policy there just a few months after the composer’s death. Mozart was the sharpest analyst of this era, and his music lets us listen in on the heartbeat and the brainwaves of modern experience in the throes of its emergence. He guides us through his restless historical time, and thinking more deeply about the world in which he worked should also change how we hear his music; our ears should open to more of what those beautiful sounds chase after.
The impact of Leporello’s aria comes partly from the acute, rueful parallels hidden within it—between the seducer’s voracity and the hunger for experiences, styles, and vistas that powers Mozart’s music. Giovanni’s manservant runs through a list of countries that have hosted his employer’s conquests, and gives us a prancing tour of the social classes and physical types indiscriminately pulled in. Mozart’s music is likewise expansively cosmopolitan and dashingly inclusive of influences and registers and possible listeners; sometimes it is all but desperately eager to please. Eighteenth-century music had readied itself for him by making itself the place where the culture could advance its possibilities with the utmost sophistication and ambition, at the same time as wildly enjoying itself. Music moved across boundaries and carried vistas of freedom more profusely even than the ideas of the French philosophes or the English novel’s cult of passionate sentiment. Mozart drew deeply on the craze for Italian styles of vocal music that had poured across Europe as the era’s most ardent cultural movement. Rapturous fandom and often rancorous controversy greeted such music across the culture, as it was carried far beyond Italy, and taken on or revised by musicians and singers from any number of centers. It enchanted popular audiences and the most backward courts and the most ambitious intellectual circles; the prominence of women singers and of castratos made it a sphere in which singular versions of individuality could make their dazzling voices heard. The liquid hedonism of this music, its technical bravura and its sophistication of outlook, had taken it to the heart of cultural life in staunchly monarchical Lisbon and heatedly bourgeois Amsterdam, and up into the unlikely cultural revolution imposed by Catherine the Great in Russia.
The most ambitious surges of musical form were electrically joined to the biggest social and political questions. At the same time, Mozart’s need to sell himself, the headiness with which he worked and his position as both a composer and a performer, make his music sharply porous to how he lived or what he thought or suffered. Mozart’s music swivels between any number of needs and reference points and agendas, keeping new compositional ideas or influences spinning alongside professional exigencies, ethical or personal dilemmas or interests, and larger historical forces and trends. His endless capacity for polish and finesse allowed him an endless imaginative multifariousness, and the result is that his music comes to us bearing dazzling questions. How does one thrive in a world full of change? How can people pursue new flavors of liberty while remaining generous and faithful? Can we combine high aristocratic tastes with commitments to democratic openness? We can find in an aria an account of how to move from a lament to possibilities of personal change; in a chamber work, ways of reconciling intellectual density with pleasure and panache; and in an orchestral piece, recognition of our need for both pluralism and coherence. At the core of Mozart’s work is the attempt to reckon with the coming of the modern, and the point of modernity is that it will be full of questions, about itself and everything that it contains or touches. A modern world breaks from its past and wants to know where that will leave it, or take it. New visions of culture based on innovation and change were taking shape all around him. In fact, Mozart was shaping them more deeply and playfully than anyone, because music was both the highest promise of happiness that his world gave to itself and the finest disguise that its more radical inclinations ever found.
Mozart was suspended between a deep but skeptical attachment to Europe’s patchwork of courts and hierarchies, and his deep intimations of the versions of freedom and selfhood and power that were on their way. Sometimes these intimations were euphoric and sometimes they were troubled. Mozart was deeply conventional yet driven to extremes of originality. He was highly ambitious but profligate with money and with his creative brilliance; he was a joker who was also capable of deep solemnity and severe moral earnestness. If we want to know how to live amid historical suspense, or how to be simultaneously serious and lighthearted in response to the dilemmas of our lives, Mozart’s music wants to show us. He could seem bewilderingly irresponsible personally, but his music became intricately answerable to opaque historical pressures, and to the pathos of human aspiration and disrepair. Mozart’s world was up for grabs, debating everything from optics to grain trade regulations and the moral status of luxury. Rococo pleasure gardens and masked balls pulled toward one vision of modernity while reformist zeal and the beginnings of modern political science pulled toward another—and revolutionary conspiracies and the massive expansion of state power toward yet others. Unflinching excitement about the new suffuses Mozart’s music, but it also longs for inclusiveness and coherence. Mozart was in on modernity at the point of its emergence, and he tells us not just about the universe that he worked within but about how we have kept wavering since, and how we live now. One question is how much we now really want a world that could again be up for grabs.
The success with which the composer’s music expressed its world has had paradoxical, disabling effects on how we listen to it. Mozart remains so culturally central that it can be hard to hear how volatile, strange, willful, or precarious his work can be. Its sheer number of attitudes toward modernity’s swerving approach is one reason for the inexhaustibility of his music—but the trickier or darker aspects of his vision can end up being elided. His music loves the marketplace, relishing its vibrancy and its willingness to give pleasure. The deep humanitarian pathos with which his work is riven involves not just moral protest against inequality and injustice, however, but surges of rebellious political desire. His music meditates on a world in which diverse visions janglingly coexist, but it also loves clearing the air for serene vistas of its own. It brims with the suggestion that another sort of modernity was once possible, one less vehement and crushing, one more plural and flexible. We often claim to despise the modern world that we have ended up in. Living without our contempt can itself seem hard to imagine.
Listening to music is a strange act, and Mozart’s music is an education fit for a world in motion and the selves in motion within it. The first night of Don Giovanni summarized his talent for swallowing his world whole. In one of many stories about his life as the opera emerged and flourished in Prague, Mozart’s wife keeps him awake through the night before it opens, so that he can finish composing the overture. In another he jumps out and grapples with one of the glamorous singers in the middle of a rehearsal, in order to get her to scream with terror as her character should. In the background wanders Giacomo Casanova himself, toward the end of his career as an important intellectual and an epochal libertine, who at the time frequented similar circles in the city to the composer. He may well have attended this first performance, and he may have discussed with Mozart the dark story that the opera reconstrues, and its resonances for a society unsure of its moorings. Stories like these are clues of how much this opera mattered, and how much it took on. Mozart pours the culture’s energies and wishes into a vision of the modern soul as endlessly on the run, ravaged by his own urges and powers. Giovanni’s manservant tells Giovanni’s abandoned lover truths that she both needs to know and hates, and the music moves through riffs and cascades and bleakly sweet dips of momentum which assert a tough and dazzling argument about how complex pleasure is becoming. The catalogue aria is a painstakingly offhand endgame for eighteenth-century music and all its elaborately charged versions of fun and charm and passion. But this means firing up its own new and acute versions.
We cannot decide whether our own late modern world is too fluid or too stifling, too changeable or too relentless or too inert. Incessant change itself ends up feeling stifling, and it is not clear even whether this is a tragedy or a comedy or a farce. Mozart loved mixing the tragic with the comic, cogency with levity, and despair with grace, and he knew that some of the most powerful responses to a creative work are fueled by how much contradiction or multiplicity it contains. The vim and the comedy of the catalogue aria are as exhilarating as its picture of a continent with its values upended by one man’s extravagant libido. But exhilaration is mixed here with cruelty, as the aria wheels through territories and categories with a spirit of violent flexibility drawn from Giovanni. Its expansiveness starts to feel grotesque, and so do the combinations of coolness and glee with which this odd manservant runs through the shadowy, crushing facts. The suaveness of the music leaves us nowhere to stand. Finally, the flighty, brutal mockery astir in the aria feels close to reaching out of the opera and turning on us. Are we inside or outside the world shown to us? We do not know whether to be fascinated or repulsed. The music is in motion and so is the opera’s moral world; we listen in inexorable motion too.
Patrick Mackie is a poet whose work has appeared in The White Review, New Statesman, and The Paris Review. A former visiting fellow at Harvard, he is the author of Excerpts from the Memoirs of a Fool.
From Mozart in Motion: His Work and his World in Pieces, out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in June.
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