The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- Mozart will be 250 years old tomorrow

We may return to Mozart.

He was young, and we, are old.

' Wallace Stevens, 'Mozart, 1935'

It is a summer's night. In the glimmering darkness of a rococo garden, a girl is desperately looking for something on the ground. As she searches for this lost object, she sings a ravishingly beautiful cavatina, for what she has lost appears to be priceless. The beauty of her lament, its intensity of anguish, keeps her poised, for a while, between exquisite absent-mindedness and sublime tragedy. This is how the fourth, and final, act of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro begins ' premiered in Vienna on a May evening in 1786, the composer's 30th year. The girl is Barbarina, daughter of a gardener who works on the estate of the Count and Countess Almaviva. (Napoleon had seen the French Revolution already in action in the original play by Beaumarchais.) As Barbarina's aria burgeons into a quartet with the entry of three more people, we learn, through a series of deft unfoldings, what this tragically lost object is. It is a pin fallen out of a letter. And it has fallen into 'the depths of a garden' in which Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, sets the final act of the opera.

It has been said that Mozart's body of work, like Shakespeare's, is self-similar: every part heralds and mirrors the whole, as if this whole had been conceived instantaneously, to be realized and given out gradually in time. And this scene of a girl looking for a lost pin in the depths of a moonlit garden does seem to epitomize the peculiar genius ' the divine comedy ' of Mozart's music. The shimmering profundity of this garden ennobles the triviality of the pin, so that losing it takes on the dimensions of a human tragedy. Yet the essential frivolity of a pin, in spite of its capacity to inflict a little prick of pain, is what lies, among other things, at the heart of these depths, threatening their dissolution, any moment, into lightness and delight, or even absurdity. This creates a musical chiaroscuro that effortlessly ironizes itself even when it is most certain of its own sublimity and truth of feeling. There is a dramatic and often poignant conflict in Mozart's music, and in his life, between fending off the shadow of an oppressive austerity or sternness on the one hand, and resisting belittlement on the other.

Goethe, who had immediately recognized the 'productive power' of Mozart's 'unreachable' genius, remembered him as the 'little man in his coiffure and sword'. It was as if the defining presences in Mozart's life ' his exacting, insatiable father, his feudal patrons, his hungrily delighted public ' never quite let go of the Child Prodigy, the darling of the richest and the most powerful in Europe, and let him become a mature and self-determining artist. Hence the Mozartian garden is haunted by two tyrannical presences. First, there is the page Cherubino in Figaro, an adolescent boy but always played by a soprano, and like Eros himself, eternally defined by the diminutive and the decorative ('Narcisetto, Adoncino d'amor' ' the little Narcissus, the little Adonis of love), bullied and toyed with, yet never taken seriously, by the various clever or magnificent women he is forever in love with. And then, there is the terrifying Commendatore who brings Don Giovanni to perdition. The Commendatore is both a dead man and a living statue, overpoweringly huge and hewn out of stone and the tragic-vengeful key of D Minor. In his presence, the garden turns into a cemetery, the libertine's death-defyingly opulent banquet-hall into Hell itself. Caught, as it were, between the Beautiful and the Sublime, Mozart's best music celebrates the subversiveness of pleasure, even as it dramatizes the subversion ' the darkening and deepening ' of this pleasure into something richer and more strange. Defiance and delight, terror and grace mingle their energies in the music to create the distant, menacingly beautiful 'summer lightning' that George Bernard Shaw had heard (or seen') in the overture to Don Giovanni.

These twinned anxieties compel and inspire, in Mozart, a plenitude of human and musical resolutions. There is Papageno ' the lusty bird-catcher with his pan-pipe and magic bells ' created in the last year of the composer's life. He is unabashedly tied to the needs and appetites of his rustic body and to the pagan cycles of the green world, at once natural and enchanted, of birds and beasts. He embodies the homespun buffoonery of the German Singspiel that remains comically at odds with the high solemnity of the fairy-tale Freemasonry of The Magic Flute, the musical idiom of which invokes the austerely pious hymns and fugues of Bach and Palestrina. But the exhilarating music that Mozart writes for the aftermath of Papageno's botched suicide is both a transfiguration of the buffa and its assumption into a musical order whose capaciousness is that of Life itself, most magically true and of the last simplicity.

At the other end of this spectrum is the Countess Almaviva, musically embodying a culmination in Mozart's mastery of the Italian operatic aria and its origins in a certain conception of tragic or stoic nobility, of rank as well as soul. The forgiveness that her helplessly lecherous husband asks of her at the end of Figaro, and her granting of it, in the face of intrigue and indignity, unite every fallible mortal in the opera in an ensemble that becomes the musical equivalent of the Statue Scene at the end of Shakespeare's great play of quasi-mystical forgiveness, The Winter's Tale. As Shakespeare enacts the power of theatrical illusion without disavowing the inevitability of disenchantment, showing the reparations of Art without wishing away 'what's gone and what's past help', Mozart's music affirms the power of music, and of the marriage of words and music in opera, to create an inclusive order whose perfection lies in its generous accommodation of every human imperfection within the Classical rules of Art. It is surely with Mozart's music in mind that Auden had written in 'The Composer', 'You alone, alone, imaginary song,/ Are unable to say an existence is wrong,/ And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.'

To try to map Mozart's musical and imaginative universe in terms of his operatic characters and the structures of music, feeling and situation associated with them, is not to ignore the achievements of his chamber and symphonic music. On the contrary, it is to see these apparently disparate musical worlds as inextricably intertwined in a single process of creative evolution. It is also to see the human voice, and its entire range of articulation in song, as the sacred fount from which Mozart's music derived its inherently dramatic quality. The Countess's world of the operatic aria and that of the slow movements in Mozart's instrumental music ' the adagios and andante cantabiles of the piano and violin sonatas, string quartets, quintets and concerti ' are fundamental to what we savour and understand as the quintessentially Mozartian. In them, as historians of music like Maynard Solomon and Charles Rosen have shown, the 'Classical Style' has forged new relationships with the structures of human time and with cognitive, affective and narrative patterns that seem to render traditional distinctions among 'Classical', 'Romantic' and 'Modern', among obeying, making and breaking rules, deeply and richly problematic.

It is, again, a 'Modern' film-maker ' Ingmar Bergman ' for whom The Magic Flute 'became my companion through life'. Mozart's opera becomes for Bergman what the magic flute becomes for Tamino within the work. Bergman's 1974 filming of the opera remains one of its most beautifully astute interpretations. In the 'Intermission' sequence between the first two acts, one of the three miracle-working boys reads a comic-book while Sarastro studies the score of Wagner's Parsifal, locating Mozart's opera, in a single brilliant cinematic moment, between these two forms of fantasy.

But Bergman's most Mozartian film ' in content, structure, atmosphere and tone ' is Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), a 'lightly serious' capriccio about the pleasures and humiliations of sexual love. It ends with Frid, the groom, recounting to Petra, the maid, how the summer night smiles three times 'between midnight and dawn'. First, for young lovers when they 'open their hearts and loins' to each other; the second time, for 'the jesters, the fools and the incorrigible'; and finally, for 'the sad and the dejected, for the sleepless and lost souls, for the frightened and lonely'. Frid and Petra could well have helped Barbarina find her lost pin and lent their voices to that great finale to forgiveness.

Email This Page