CHAPTER 48 WOLGANG AMADEUS MOZART: VOCAL MUSIC
Mozart was fascinated by the magic of the theater. In all, he composed twenty operas. Eight are of the type called Italian opera seria, seven opera buffa, and five are of a type called Singspiel—a German light comic opera with spoken dialogue.
During his mature period in Vienna, Mozart composed three masterpieces: Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Così fan tutte (1790). Each is an opera buffa but each has newly serious tone. The librettist for all three was Lorenzo da Ponte.
Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838) was born of an Italian Jewish family but became a Catholic priest. As part of his training in a Catholic seminary, da Ponte became an expert in classical languages and Italian poetry. In the 1780s he served as the official librettist for Emperor Joseph II in Vienna. After Mozart’s death, da Ponte’s fortunes declined, and he made his way to London and then the United States, where he became the first professor of Italian at Columbia University.
Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) is based on a play by French playwright Beaumarchais. In it an honest manservant (Figaro) outwits a philandering, mostly dishonest nobleman (Count Almaviva). Because it depicted the nobility as ignoble, Beaumarchais’s play was at first banned in France and soon in the Holy Roman Empire as well. Mozart and da Ponte toned down the anti-artistocracy element of the play, and Emperor Joseph II allowed them to present the subject as an opera.
The title character in Le nozze di Figaro is Figaro, manservant to Count Almaviva. The stalwart but sometimes conniving Figaro spends most of the opera trying to outwit the count. In his aria “Se vuol ballare” (“If you want to dance”) Figaro declares that if the count chooses to fool around, he (Figaro) will call the tune.
The victim in Le nozze di Figaro is the count’s wife (Countess Rosina) who is wounded by her husband’s womanizing. Mozart shows her constancy and noble stature in the aria “Porgi, amor” (“Bring, love”) as he assigns the countess long, graceful vocal lines. In general, there are few da capo arias and little in the way of showy, coloratura singing in Le nozze di Figaro.
The American soprano Renée Fleming of Rochester, New York, singing the role of Countess Almaviva
The adolescent figure Cherubino is a source of complication for everyone in Le nozze di Figaro. His youthful heart is constantly in flux, and he is uncertain about the true nature of love. In his deceptively simple aria “Voi, che sapete” (“You ladies who know”) he asks the ladies of the court to tell him about love. The part of adolescent Cherubino was intended by Mozart to be sung by a woman dressed as a young man. It is thus called a trouser role.
Mozart begins his aria “Voi, che sapete” with an instrumental introduction fashioned as antecedent (A) and consequent (B) phrases. When the voice of Cherubino enters he/she inserts a new four-bar phrase between the first two. This aria is a fine example of Mozart’s capacity to write music that is sublimely beautiful, yet sublimely simple.
The glories of Mozart’s opere buffe are found in this ensemble finales. In these Mozart pushes the drama along at breakneck speed by having two, three, four, or more soloists sing separate contrapuntal lines to separate texts, each expressing a particular point of view. When placed at the end of an act, the ensemble finale provides a rousing way to bring down the curtain.
During the final year of his life (1791), Mozart composed a conventional opera seria (La clemenza di Tito) for the crowning of Emperor Leopold II in Prague as king of Bohemia, as well as a very unconventional Singspeil (Die Zauberflöte) for a suburban theater in Vienna.
MOZART’S REQUIEM MASS • The Requiem Mass is the funeral music for the Roman Catholic church. Mozart was commissioned to write one by a mysterious Count von Walsegg in the summer of 1791. • Because Mozart was ill at this time, he came to see the Requiem as his own Requiem Mass.
THE DIES IRAE At the core of almost every Requiem Mass is the Dies irae (Day of Wrath), a lengthy, phantasmagorical text originating in the thirteenth century within a Gregorian chant. The Dies irae speaks of the pain and torment of hell and the Day of Judgment.
BEGINNING OF THE DIES IRAE Dies irae, dies illa, Day of wrath, that day, Solvet saeclum in favilla, When the ages shall be reduced to ash Teste David cum Sibylla. As foretold by David and the Sibyl Prophet. Quantus tremor est futurus, What terror will occur Quando judex est venturus, When the eternal judge arrives, Cuncta stricte discussurus. To loosen the chains of those in hell.
THE “TUBA MIRUM” A subsequent verse of the Dies irae, the “Tuba mirum” (“Wonderous trumpet”), recalls how the trumpet shall sound on the Day of Judgment. Here Mozart creates perhaps the most famous trombone solo in the entire literature. In the history of orchestral writing in opera, the sound of the trombone had frequently been associated with those of Hell.
The beginning of the “Tuba mirum” of the Dies irae of Mozart’s Requiem Mass
THE “CONFUTATIS” Perhaps the most graphic moment in Mozart’s Requiem is found in the “Confutatis” of the Dies irae. Here Mozart creates music that reflects the contrast between the hellish cries of the damned (“Confutatis”=those confounded) against the heavenly sounds of the elect (“Benedictus”=those blessed).
THE “LACRIMOSA DIES ILLA” The Dies irae concludes with the text “Lacrimosa dies illa” (“Ah, that day of tears and mourning”). For this Mozart creates a musical funeral procession in the midst of which he makes a remarkable musical gesture. The soprano line ascends in a mostly chromatic scale for more than an octave, like the just man or woman rising from the ashes of Hell.
The portion of the “Lacrimosa dies illa” in which the just soul arises to be judged
Death prevented Mozart from completing his Requiem. It was left to his students, most notably Franz Xavier Süssmayr (1766-1803), to compose a few unfinished portions and flesh out the orchestration. This figure shows some of the opening of the “Lacrimosa”; these notes are last notes written by Mozart.