For everybody who is interested in the culture of Europe but doesn’t read Dutch, Stacey Knecht has translated a chapter from Made in Europe – The Cultural Icons That Unite Us. Chapter 23 traces the European influences in the opera Don Giovanni and the music of Mozart, ‘a tried and true ‘Europolitan’.
Don Giovanni — The Music of Mozart
European co-productions in the arts have a bad reputation nowadays; the interference of various nationalities in the making of a film or a play results all too often in an indeterminate hodgepodge, referred to scornfully as Europudding. How very different that was a few centuries ago – in Habsburg Prague, for instance, where, on October 29, 1787, Don Giovanni had its premiere. The music for the ‘dramma giocoso in due atti’ was written by the German-speaking Austrian Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the libretto by the Italian Lorenzo da Ponte, while the story of an arch seducer’s descent into Hell had been developed by the Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina and made famous by the Frenchman Molière. And just as it will come as no surprise to aficionados of 18th-century opera that the most important singers were Italian, it also won’t surprise those familiar with Mozart’s life and work that his masterful opera buffa had numerous European influences.
For Mozart (1756-1791) was a tried and true ‘Europolitan’. The child prodigy from Salzburg, who played the piano by the age of three and wrote his first composition two years later, was trotted around by his father to princely courts across the continent, including Paris, London, and The Hague. From the age of seventeen to twenty he worked in Salzburg, Paris, Mannheim, and Munich, after which he moved his base of operations to Vienna, which wasn’t too far from Paris and the major German cities. Even more interesting were the teachers and revered colleagues whom Mozart encountered in every corner of Europe, either in person, like Johann Christian Bach in London and Joseph Haydn in Vienna, or in writing, like the German Baroque composers and the great stars of Neapolitan opera and the French opéra comique.
Mozart could take any genre and turn it into something new. In a number of his works – such as the opera The Magic Flute (1791) – he anticipated Romanticism, and in his string quartets he developed the equality of voices first introduced by Haydn, so that his piano concertos were more like duels between soloist and orchestra. He rediscovered the counterpoint of the Late Baroque, and his exploration of chromatic harmony was more than a century ahead of its time. As if that weren’t enough, he produced the most memorable melodies in the history of classical music, like the allegro from Eine kleine Nachtmusik, the overture to The Marriage of Figaro, the duet ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Don Giovanni, the adagio from the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, numerous arias from The Magic Flute, and – on a different note – almost everything from the Requiem he worked on until his death from a mysterious illness. He was the Paul McCartney of his time, although the myth has made him into more of a John Lennon: rebellious, radical chic, and dead too soon.
It’s no wonder Mozart was worshipped by the composers who came after him. His pupil Johann Nepomuk Hummel broadened the bridge between the Classical Era and Romanticism. Beethoven went to Vienna hoping to study with him, but when his plans fell through, he sublimated his frustration by writing four sets of variations on well-known Mozart themes. Tchaikovsky wrote his orchestral suite Mozartiana as a tribute to the composer on the hundredth anniversary of Don Giovanni, and Chopin, Liszt, and Glinka simply couldn’t keep their hands off the famous arias. It is, after all, the opera to end all operas, filled with dramatic scenes and evergreen melodies that can win over even the most virulent opera-hater; this musical thriller (which ends with a living statue that drags our unfortunate hero to Hell) was given a place of honor, and rightly so, in Czech director Miloš Forman’s 1984 movie, adapted from Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, which was based on Pushkin’s play Mozart and Salieri.
The movie, starring Tom Hulce as Mozart and F. Murray Abraham as his adversary Salieri, defined the image of Mozart for an entire generation as a foul-mouthed and giggling genius from the ‘era of wigs.’ Not only that: it also fed the romantic myths surrounding Mozart’s life (which, a year after the movie’s premiere, were revived worldwide by the Austrian pop artist Falco and his smash hit ‘Rock Me Amadeus’). His non-conformity and shameless self-assurance (Emperor: ‘Too many notes. Cut a few and it will be perfect’; Composer: ‘And which few did you have in mind, Majesty?’). His passion for outrageous attire, which would influence such dissimilar figures as Elton John and Geert Wilders. His lust for life and predilection for ‘popular amusement’ (poop and fart jokes). And of course, his tragic death, slaving away at his unparalleled Requiem.
In the end, Mozart himself became an opera hero, a Faustian figure who paid for his talent with his soul. In the 35 years that were granted to him he composed six hundred works, and, with the exception of a few, they have achieved immortality (Composer: ‘And which few does the critic have in mind?’). Six hundred works, including the Piano concerto nr. 21 in C Major, the Violin Concerto nr. 5, the Jupiter Symphony, the Clarinet Concerto, Così fan tutte, the ‘Sonata facile’, the ‘Gran Partita.’ All that for just one soul. Sounds like a bargain to me.
This is a translation (by Stacey Knecht) of chapter 23 from Made in Europe – The Cultural Icons That Unite Us, the Dutch bestselling non-fiction book (50.000 copies) that was published in March 2014.