Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On the Overture to Così fan tutte

Overture to Così fan tutte

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (KV.588)

Così was commissioned by Joseph II, Emperor of Austria, and premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna on January 26, 1790.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 clarin trumpets, timpani, and strings (2 violins, viola, cello, bass.)

The score is available via the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe.

John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists
The Overture is one of the funniest things Mozart ever wrote. Its themes, alternating their whisperings and chatterings with a hilarious kid of Hallelujah Chorus, tell us in Mozart's language that the persons of this dream are, humanly speaking, rubbish, but far too harmless for any limbo less charitable than the eternal laughter of Mozart. [Tovey, 30]

I. Introduction

Tovey credits Mr. John Christie, (1882-1962, founder of the Glyndebourne Opera House and the Glyndebourne Festival Opera) with characterizing Così fan tutte as a dream. Such is true of Così both for its self-contained world with its many improbabilities and for the variety of interpretations the story invites. The setting is Arcadia, yet the characters are flawed. The title is Così fan tutte but just what has Alfonso's experiment revealed? Sometimes the characters speak in cliche, sometimes in poetry, here the music mocks the characters, there supports. What of these contradictions? We saw in Don Giovanni the forces of being and non-being in opposition, and in Così, as David Cairns brilliantly states, we explore "the difference between appearance and reality." [Cairns, 188] Continuing, he writes, "And it is not just the characters on stage whom the answered questions are addressed to but the audience watching them. Così fan tutte has implications far beyond the 'School for Lovers' and the 'All Women do it' of its titles. It speaks, existentially, of the randomness of life, the fickleness of affection, the brevity of happiness. Continually stimulating though it is, it is not a work that sends you out of the theater in a glow of contentment with the world."

Of contradictions we can already see two, between Tovey and Cairns, so let us analyze this overture and then revisit the question of its character.

II. Analysis

   Andante: m.1-14

This andante begins in C major, where an opening forte chord clears the air and prepares the way for a beautiful and delicate phrase for the oboe that begins piano on the dominant, gently supported and kept aloft by the bassoon.


Chords intervene forte here, as if to warn us not to get too comfortable with such unperturbed beauty. The oboe phrase repeats again, this time supported by the bassoon and clarinet, before what becomes the opera's titular theme begins (m. 8, lower strings):
m.7-14 (Click to enlarge.)

This theme is reprised in Act II by Don Alfonso in his aria on the nature of women. [1] Here, though, it has purely musical form and functions strictly as the heavyhearted counterpart to the first theme. In its first appearance in the strings and bassoon it is introduced staccato as though being gradually brought into view. In repetition it is repeated forte by the whole orchestra as if being begrudgingly acknowledged.

  Presto: m.15-end

Yet m.15 begins a presto section, picking up the final dominant of the andante and beginning in the tonic again, as if saying, "yes, such a sad fact is so, but nonetheless look how wondrous this is. . ." We are now introduced to the first of four themes whose interplay forms the basis of this large section. This first is a figure of chattering quavers. (Below, left)

I. m.16-17 II. m.25-28

The next theme, (above, right) follows immediately, before the woodwinds begin trading a third theme back and forth above a three-crotchet figure in the strings:

III. m.30-32

After a repeat of the second theme we hear the last one, which has a lower line not unlike the opening to Le Nozze di Figaro. [2]

IV.  m.59-61

The rest of the movement proceeds in like fashion, each theme remaining in the orchestral group in which it originated. Here theme III is interrupted by theme II which is interrupted by I. Shortly after they proceed in another order. Yet as if heedless of where they started the themes run again into the titular one at m.228. We left the Così fan tutte theme behind to look at love's playful variations in the hustle and bustle of the presto, but here we have inevitably come back. Yet we do not remain despairing as the Theme I of the presto returns and we skate right up into a Mannheim crescendo and a close on a fortissimo of the jocular presto Theme II.

III. Conclusion

What of our original question then? The overture has three aspects, the purely beautiful aspect love (Theme I. of the Andante), its sorrowful aspect (Theme II. of the Andante), and the trivial or exuberant (Themes I.-IV. of the Presto.) The first two aspects should not be glossed over as Mozart "putting on his mask" [Abert, 1176] and the third should not simply suggest the characters are "rubbish." The surface trivialities should not discourage us. Charles Rosen puts his finger on the proper approach to this piece:
There is no way of knowing in what proportions mockery and sympathy are blended in Mozart's music and how seriously he took his puppets. . . Even to ask is to miss the point: the art in these matters is to tell one's story without being foolishly taken in by it and yet without a trace of disdain for its apparent simplicity. It is an art which can become profound only when the attitude of superiority never implies withdrawal, when objectivity and acceptance are indistinguishable. [Rosen, 317]
Sometimes the ridiculous and improbable do spring forth from love and such things can be beautiful and worth exploring too. As the overture leaves us off at the drama, it is as if Mozart says, "and here's an example."

Act II, Scene III: Andante: Tutti accusan le donne m.21-24


Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007.

Cairns, David. Mozart and His Operas. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 2006.

Rosen, Charles. The Classical Style. W. W. Norton and Company. NY, NY. 1997.

Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis. (Six Volumes.) Volume VI: Supplementary Essays, Glossary, and Index: Overture to Così fan tutte, KV.588. 1935.

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