Mozart: Sublime Composer of Revolution

By Nancy Spannaus

Jan. 27, 2023—Two hundred and sixty-seven years ago today, one of the greatest musical talents[1] known to history was born. I refer to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), composer of all genres of classical music, both vocal and instrumental. Most particularly, I am pointing to his operas, which qualify him, as my title asserts, as a sublime composer of Revolution, especially the American Revolution.

Mozart: Sublime Composer of Revolution
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

I am not qualified to write about Mozart’s compositional method, or even his full biography. But I consider it important, in this age of “realistic” ugliness, to make my fellow American citizens aware of the composer’s contribution to the rise of the republican spirit during the 1780s and ‘90s through two of his operas.  They are The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787).

These two operas featured humorous, yet incisive attacks on the European nobility of his day. They had librettos written by Lorenzo da Ponte,[2] who shared with Mozart a passion for promoting the values of love, forgiveness, and equality in opposition to brutish oligarchy. This could best be done, they thought, through lifting up the population with great art, which would celebrate those virtues and inspire the audience to go and do likewise.

The Marriage of Figaro

It is The Marriage of Figaro which best exemplifies Mozart’s affinity to the American Revolution. The libretto was based on a play written by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, a French businessman and playwright who was an early supporter of the American Revolution. Through his connections with the French court of Louis XVI, he became an arms supplier to the American revolutionaries long before France officially supported the Revolution.

The Marriage premiered in Paris in 1781, but was quickly banned by Louis XVI because of its mockery of the nobility. The ban was lifted in 1784, in part due to pressure from Queen Marie Antoinette, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the play.

Mozart: Sublime Composer of Revolution
Figaro and Susanna plot to outwit the lecherous Count

To quickly recap: The Marriage of Figaro (a follow-on to The Barber of Seville) tells the story of servants Figaro and his intended bride Susanna in a battle of wits against the Count who employs them. The Count has made clear his intention to have the “right of the first night,” a time-honored privilege which allowed the nobility to deflower the brides of their servants on their wedding night. This “right” had allegedly been banned, but the Count intended to have his way anyway. Ultimately, he does not succeed, but is brought to recognize the error of his ways and sue for forgiveness from his wife – which is given.

Mozart was not in Paris where Beaumarchais’s play was popularly received, but from his position in Vienna, Austria, he decided that it should be the basis for an opera. For the libretto he turned to Lorenzo Da Ponte, who was then functioning as the arts director at the royal theatre in Vienna, and had a close relationship with its patron Emperor Joseph II. Although Joseph had banned Beaumarchais’s play from being shown in Vienna (for the same reasons King Louis did), he let himself be convinced by Da Ponte that the most offensive attacks on the nobility would be softened, if not removed, and therefore it could go ahead.

Mozart’s opera, The Marriage of Figaro, premiered in 1786, and was an instant success. Its mockery of the dissembling, decadent Count (and his accomplices) provided great amusement to the general populace, and reinforced the rising republican spirit (including support for the American Revolution) in Austria. As for Da Ponte’s softening the attack, apparently the most significant change was the replacement of a speech by Figaro against the hereditary nobility by an encomium to wedded love. But the republican revolutionary message was not lost.

Don Giovanni

Mozart followed up this attack on the oligarchy the very next year, with his opera Don Giovanni. Again, he turned to Da Ponte, who took the well-known story of the arrogant aristocratic philanderer, Don Juan, and turned it into a tale of the nobleman getting his just desserts. Although this opera includes much less comic relief than The Marriage of Figaro, Da Ponte made sure to provide some scenes which poked fun at those who went along with the noble depravity. Thus, instead of simply arousing anger at an oppressor, the opera, like all good classical theater, forced people to look at their own roles in the sordid episodes portrayed.

Mozart: Sublime Composer of Revolution
Don Giovanni being carried off to hell

For those who don’t know the plot: Don Giovanni begins with the nobleman killing the father of a young woman he is trying to seduce, after which he continues merrily along with his exploits. He is hounded throughout by a lover he has spurned, who tries to redeem him; the audience also sees the devastating effect that the sexual assault and murder have had on the young woman he had targeted. In the conclusion, Don Giovanni meets his comeuppance from the ghost of the man he killed, whom he arrogantly invites to dinner. He descends into hell, and those whose lives he has so terribly damaged sing about their liberation and hopes for the future.

Heav’n itself then our cause has righted.
Days of peace now dawn before us,
Grant, oh, grant then the vows plighted,
Now at last may be fulfill’d.

Don Giovanni premiered in Prague, and met with general acclaim. The next year it was performed in Vienna with certain revisions, and an equally enthusiastic response.

The Beauty of the Sublime

While in both of these operas Mozart shows the triumph of the good over evil, he never stoops to the level of the maudlin or moralistic. Rather, each opera features both humor and poignant examples of the sublime. It is those elements of sublime beauty which pull the viewer out of him or herself into a vision of better people and a better world.

A performance of Mozart’s Requiem

The idea of the sublime is not a common one in this world today. A dictionary definition says the word means “awe-inspiring,” “exalted,” or “noble.” But those words do not adequately convey the depth of the feeling. A sublime emotion represents the overcoming of a physical crisis or disaster, through a determination to do good. Thus, we rightly see the sublime in Christ’s suffering on the cross, Martin Luther King’s martyrdom, or the devotion of a doctor to saving lives under conditions where he himself is mortally wounded, or threatened with death.

There are characters in both of these operas who express this sublime quality (I leave it to you to find them), although not as intensely as in tragic works. That quality is largely conveyed through Mozart’s music, which grabs you and lifts you out of the contemporary situation, into a realm of pure beauty.

Mozart’s explicitly religious music, especially his Requiem, convey this sublime character even more directly, I believe.

But for today, let’s stick with the operas, which deserve much wider circulation to the public than they have currently. Beauty and laughter are wonderful antidotes to today’s ills, and even potential entry points for tackling them. As such, reviving Mozart’s pro-American operas is an excellent contribution to celebrating the upcoming 250th anniversary of the American Revolution.  Get a video and try it out.

And in the meantime, happy birthday, Wolfgang!  May your contribution to uplifting humanity never be forgotten!

 

Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics, available here.

[1] I put Mozart in the same class as Beethoven, whom I discussed in https://americansystemnow.com/celebrate-beethoven-composer-of-freedom/

[2] An extensive report on Da Poste (1749 – 1838) can be found at http://r.schillerinstitute.org/educ/hist/daponte.html. Note that he spent the last 30 years of his life in America, promoting Italian classical literature as well as opera.

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