A review of Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanniby Wye Jamison Allanbrook

Have Mozart's comic operas a serious philosophic teaching? Does Mozart the composer somehow join the exclusive company of Shakespeare, as "the dramatists who are the most profound of human observers" (p. 328)? So suggests Wye Jamison Allanbrook in her penetrating and insightful analysis of two of Mozart's best-loved works, The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787).

Operatic plots, she implies, are far more than pleasant excuses to hear classical music. Nor is Mozart's music only incidental to the dramatic poetry of his librettist, in this case Lorenzo da Ponte. Properly speaking, the one conforms to the other. "In an opera," Mozart once stipulated, "the poetry must be altogether the attentive daughter of the music." Mrs. Allanbrook shares a secret of their intimate cooperation, insufficiently noted in others' accounts.

It is dance. Mozart as musician was heir to the courtly tradition of formal dance rhythms and gestures. Within the hierarchy of the ancien regime, the rhythmic gestures of social dancing were intended to express passions befitting the class and character of the dancers. Simpler, more strident rhythms (e.g., march, minuet, sarabande), which tend to regiment gestures, expressed more noble or exalted passions, while subtler, more elaborate rhythms (e.g., passepied, gigue, pastorale, siciliano), which promote freer gestures, expressed more common or earthy passions; other rhythms (e.g., bourrée, gavotte, musette) fell in between. Such rhythms, with their affective connotations, permeate Mozart's music. They are, in Mrs. Allanbrook's Aristotelian description, topoi (or "commonplaces") of Mozart's musical vocabulary.

Nor is this all, for with the democratizing of social life in Mozart's time, aristocrats mixed with bourgeois in the dance halls of Europe, blurring class distinctions. New dances held sway. Most popular were the contredanse (a distant cousin to American reels and square dances) and the waltz, both of which Mrs. Allanbrook calls "danceless" dances (pp. 55, 60 ff., 220 ff.), for they abandoned the meticulously learned gestures of the old aristo­cratic order in favor of looser, infinitely expandable floor patterns, appropriate to the more democratic setting. Devoid of intrinsic expressive content, the new dances became simply occasions for individual self-expression. Mozart himself viewed the revolu­tion in dance "dispassionately"-not as a dancing master, whose ancient business was to shape the behavior and sentiments of the young, nor as a simple innovator intent on rearranging the passing order, but as "a maker of imitations" (pp. 66, 70). Able to separate the obsolescent rhythmic gestures from the classes to which they once pertained, Mozart inserted them carefully into his operatic score alongside the fetching newer rhythms, "to reveal to the audience the virtues and vices of the characters he has set in motion on the stage" (p. 70).

Mozart and da Ponte adapted their Marriage of Figaro to this end from the original French play by Beaumarchais. Beaumarchais' comedy concerns a Count who, disaffected with his young Countess, wishes to revive his dormant right of the first night, to have his way with the bride of his servant Figaro on the couple's wedding night. Happily, Figaro's ingenuity wins the day, with the help of his bride (who is also the Countess' servant) and the Countess herself. Beaumarchais the playwright fulminates against the social inequities which would legitimate the Count's domestic tyranny. Yet Mozart and da Ponte are not political revolutionaries. Unlike Beaumarchais, they eschew the class struggle, but prefer the personal struggles of the several charac­ters whose lives and loves are circumscribed by class, yet for whom virtue and friendship remain both possible and real. As political issues recede, erotic ones mount. Correspondingly, the women assume dominant roles, and the opera emphasizes above all the friendship between the Countess and her servant Susanna, together with their feminine ways of acting and of looking at things. "By turning away from the social to the personal, and changing a political broadside into an analysis of sexual warfare, da Ponte and Mozart explode the particular issue of injustice to women into a more profound question, ethical in its deepest sense, and beyond the topical limits of the original play-how one should live one's life" (p. 170).

Mozart's music conveys the characters' ethical perplexities by means of a deliberate juxtaposition of rhythmic motifs. A few examples must suffice. Made aware by Susanna of his master's cuckolding intention, Figaro in a soliloquy (Se vuol ballare) offers to provide musical accompaniment for the Count's planned steps, so to speak, and to teach him a new step in turn, namely the capriola (or "goat-leap"), a sudden theatrical jump; Figaro's sarcastic invitation begins properly in a controlled minuet tempo, mimicking the Count's noble station, yet ends in a raucous contredanse where Figaro "stuns his hapless victim with a relentless litany of his own malignant tricks" (p. 81). Subsequently, the Count reacts to Susanna's verbal capitulation by slipping from the "uneasy rhythms" of his proposition into "his first mezzo carattere gesture of the opera-a charming A-major bourrée with a real tune [Crudel! Perchè finora]" (p. 139); but soon discovering that her acquiescence was feigned, he furiously plots venge­ance against Figaro in a soliloquy (Vedrò, mentr' io sospiro) whose otherwise dignified movements "have the effect of cartoon," for here the Count "displays a capacity for excessive and erratic behavior which is not contained within the confines of the noble code of conduct" (p. 145). However, Figaro's crown­ing motif is seen to be pastoral. Pastoral rhythms underscore the gentle duet where the two heroines plot to entrap the Count by exchanging roles during the twilight wedding celebration in the garden; their duet (Che soave zeffiretto) "is the eye of the opera's storm, showing Susanna and the Countess calm and secure in their friendship" (p. 147). The women eventually succeed in the midsummer night's dream­like finale, whose pastoral setting is a refuge from the world's masculine imbroglios, a setting accessible to those unencumbered by men's competitive schemes and narrower visions. Ultimately, Mozart's garden "is merely a state of mind, called into being by a tacit" understanding and defined by a nostalgic and otherworldly musical gesture. But its shelter is still substantial, precisely because it can coexist with the harsher realities of the daylight world" (p. 173).

In contrast, Don Giovanni, Mozart's comic treat­ment of the Don Juan legend, ends less happily, for the damage wrought by its protagonist is more far-reaching. Within the first act, Giovanni seduces an unmarried lady in her chambers, kills her father in a duel, humiliates a former seducee turned from her religious pursuits, and makes two separate passes at a peasant girl on her wedding day-all this following 1,003 previous conquests in Spain alone, according to the so-called catalog aria of Giovanni's personal valet-cum-statistician! The opera ends only with the statue of the late Commendatore of Seville, the lady's father, arriving at Giovanni's home as an invited guest and dragging the libertine down to hell. The supernatural enters in Don Giovanni to solve the transcendent ethical problem, "the confrontation of the established community of men with a man who cannot acknowl­edge its limits" (p. 277). In this confrontation, society in all its orders is "stretched to the breaking point" (p. 320), and the other characters are never fully requited but are left rather the worse for wear. "Just as the contredanse cuts across the established orders of dance gestures, so does the Don cut across the world of . . . the other characters," threatening to subvert it" (pp. 221-23). Giovanni is eros run wild.

The contredanse-infinitely pliable, amorphous, chameleon-like-is Giovanni's characteristic rhythm. Lacking a true identity of his own, he imitates the musical mannerisms of any character to whom he is drawn, mocking, manipulating, and finally debas­ing each one. Still, the opera is not social criticism-for example, of a moribund aristocracy succumbing to a rising bourgeoisie. As Mrs. Allanbrook argues, Giovanni's contredanse gestures label him essentially unaristocratic despite his title, and yet Mozart'svaudeville epilogue means to assure us of the survival, however diminished, of the old. Rather, Mozart "invites the listener to view the familiar buffa world at a new remove" (p. 198). "To absorb the paradox of Giovanni we must ascend to a point of view where explanation of it is not necessary, where it can simply be taken for granted that such men exist-for we know that they do-and try to understand what their existence means for other men" (p. 322).

Mrs. Allanbrook writes for performers and critics as well as scholars. In the end, she speaks of Mozart as Keats spoke of Shakespeare, apprecia­tive of a certain "negative capability," an utter avoidance of frozen stance, polemic, or ax to grind (p. 328). The attentive listener-reader cannot but be grateful for the Mozartian insights found in her book.