Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On the Overture to Don Giovanni

Overture to Don Giovanni

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (KV.527)

Don Giovanni was commissioned by Pasquale Bondini and Domenico Guardasoni for their opera company and premiered at the Estates Theatre (aka The Count Nostitz National Theater) in Prague on October 29, 1787.

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.

 Incipit. (click to enlarge.)

James Levine conducting.

. . . the work is not about guilt and retribution but simply about being and non-being, and the overwhelming tragedy of the conclusion rests on the grandeur and terror of the action as such, not on the triumph of moral laws over the world of appearances. [Abert, 1050.]

I. A Programmatic Overture?

In the tradition of E. T. A. Hoffman this overture has been considered programmatic in nature, with specific references to the plot and characters, particularly the opposing characters of Don Giovanni and the Commendatore.[1] As suggested by the quote above, Abert did not subscribe to this theory and wisely so. The significance  of this overture does not derive from particular actions but of elemental forces in opposition and conflict. Its essence is the relationship between these forces, a relationship incomparably expressed by some of Mozart's most beautiful and terrifying music.

II. Analysis

     a. Andante m.1-30

We begin in D minor with the opening famous for both its strength and the terror it evokes. The first chord, forte on the tonic, is striking enough, yet its effect is increased by 1) the trill on the timpani, 2) the sustained chords in the upper winds and horns, 3) the syncopated half-note chords in the violins, 4) the half-notes on D in the lower voices, and 5) the concluding rest. The effect is nothing short of astounding: the first chord slices the silence as the upper winds and horns fill out the sonority, and the timpani trill and the syncopated violins trip up the smoothness and jostle us before repeating their notes, and the lower voices fade away. A rest follows but this brief pause serves not as respite but to intensify the preceding terror by letting it momentarily recede from us. The effect is then repeated starting with a chord on the dominant.

Now a new theme of a dotted figure comes in the strings, accented by a whole note descending in the woodwinds on the first beat of each measure. Then we hear another new theme, with the 1st violins wandering amongst F, G#, A, and E as the lower strings alternate between the dominant and 7th and then tonic and dominant, all against a figure in the 2nd violins disorienting, agitating, and frightening despite its simplicity:

m. 11-14

Yet another new theme presents itself to us, a descending figure starting sforzato on a D quarter note (doubled 8ba) and running down to C on 32nd notes, where it ends piano. (below, left)

m.15-16 m.17

This theme transitions into yet another one, (above, right) consisting of a triplet 16th note (in the violins an octave apart) followed by a fragile 8th note in the bass voices. The theme is cut of by a swell forte in the orchestra before it continues, though only to be cut off in like-fashion again at m.20.  The theme, now limping even weaker, transitions into the andante's most recognizable theme, an ascending and descending scale that rises each measure, "rising in crescendo, seeping away again piano." [Abert, 1052]

m. 23

The scales create an unbearable and escalating tension until the fourth iteration of the scalar figure (m.26) erupts into a frenzy of 32nd notes in the 1st violins. The transition here is most abrupt: in m.28 we are all frenzied 32nd notes, timpani trill, and forte horns, and at m.29 we are piano, and the first violins in staccato 8th notes are slowly leading us away from the experience. This sudden transition into the following D major allegro draws the sharpest of comparisons between the two elemental forces of the overture.

     b. Allegro m.31-285(end)


Abert insists, again contra E. T. A. Hoffman, that this "most inspired" of Mozart's ideas must be perceived as a unified whole and not as a "mosaic-like" arrangement of aspects of the titular character. [Abert, 1053]

m.32-39. (Abert's section bracketing.)

Indeed, for as he says this element as a whole consists of a build up and a release of energy, from the motifs on the upbeats to the explosion of the rising anapestic[2] fanfare figure in the woodwinds (m.38-39) This theme (in the violins) runs against a tonic pedal in the violas and cellos which seems as a fiery crackling in the background, strongly contrasting the previous passage and alerting us that something new is afoot. Despite several delays the theme is drawn down from A to the tonic and at last to the outburst and dominant at m.38.

The theme then repeats with intensification from the winds and horns in sections (a) and (b) and a new orchestral passage follows section (c). The staccato quavers, forte unison on D at m.48, the syncopated chords in the winds that give way again to the anapest figure, the figures rising and falling an octave, and the half cadence close give the section tremendous drive and contrast. Scales for the violins follow three times before a brief theme in the winds against another pedal piano, yet again without warning or preparation as the strings reply furiously in A minor before closing on E.


This main theme of the 2nd subject falls into two sections, the first five descending notes (a) and then the consequent (b), the effect of which is a challenge and a response. (The consequent bears close relation to part of our opening theme.) The theme then repeats before part (a) of our second subject takes center stage. Its first two notes now forte and piano respectively, it is taken up first by the strings and woodwinds, then exclusively by the latter group that trades it back and forth between the flute and oboe (m. 85) and at last the bassoon takes it over. Now the second subject theme is unleashed in A major in all of its glory, its rhythms soaring unbound until at m.116 a series of quaver quadruplets centered around A and E barely manage to put the brakes on.

     m.121 - Development

This section begins with the return of the second subject theme. There follows what Abert understandably called the allegro's "most inspired moment" in which the first half of the theme is repeated stretta[3] in the woodwinds as the second half alternates between the violins. It is a brief yet revealing moment as these contesting ideas are "revealed to be different expression of one and the selfsame force." [Abert, 1056]

At m.141 the main theme returns with a shift to G major but it has not its former luster and vigor  and rather quickly fades away. The second subject theme now enters in what will be a series of six iterations, each harmonically varying. Abert outlines the harmonic progression of the section as follows:

B-flat - g(V) - g(1) ( = d (IV)) - d(V) - d(I) ( = a(IV)) - a(V) - A(I)

After the sixth variation the theme somewhat struggles with little ascending and descending figures and attempts to begin again  four times, fortepiano as if trying to get properly underway. The effort concludes with descending scales from E and G in the violins (m.192.)

After the rollicking return of material in the recapitulation we slowly descend to the drama, having modulated to C major (for transition into Leporello's Introduzione aria in F.) By means of drawing out the familiar first half of the second subject theme the momentum dies and the fading image of the elemental struggle gives way to the opera proper.

     c. Concert Ending (m.286-298)

While the overture dissipates into the Introduction and Leporello's aria "Notte e giorno faticar" Mozart also composed an alternative 13-bar ending intended for concert hall performances. The ending has been variously received, Abert calling it "hasty, too short or unworthy of a classic overture" [Biancolli. 460] and "evidently dashed off at great speed" [Abert, 1057: Footnote 87] and in contrast Einstein considering it "a truly inspired piece of work." [Biancolli, 460] It also presents various difficulties for analysis.

On this "concert ending," Mr. Hideo Noguchi has published on his personal Mozart Studies website a thorough and thoughtful analysis. Included are discussions of manuscripts, harmonics, instrumentation, dynamics, et cetera. As it is readily available I simply and gladly refer you to the author's fine work. The link is in the Recommended section below.

IV. Conclusion

As we see from the handling of the musical elements the relationship between our two main musical ideas is the heart of the piece. Compare the chilling opening of the andante and the potent, first theme of the allegro with its exuberant life force. Consider the array of terrible themes of the andante contrasting the variations of the second subject. Perhaps most significantly we saw the sharp contrast between the andante and the allegro in the sudden transition from the former to the latter and, perhaps most uncomfortably, that no matter how glorious the allegro grew, the great and ominous andante ever hovered over.

[1] Abert's W. A. Mozart contains a footnote with several works of such "poeticizing" interpretations from the 19th century, including accounts from Hoffman, Gounod, Jahn, and Wagner.
[2] i.e., a meter comprised of two short beats followed by a longer one, as opposed to the dactylic meter.
[3] Italian for narrow or close, stretto refers to the answer replying to the subject before the subject has yet completed. (It can also refer to a section of increased speed. [Apel, 711.]


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

Apel, Willi. Harvard Dictionary of Music. Entry: Stretto. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1966.

Biancolli, Louis. (ed.) The Mozart Handbook: A Guide to the Man and His Music. Essay on the "Overture to Don Giovanni" by Herbert F. Peyser. The World Publishing Company. Cleveland and New York. 1954.


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

Kierkegaard, Søren. Either/Or. Trans. Hong, Howard V. and Hong, Edna H. Essay, "The Immediate Stages of the Erotic, or Musical Erotic." Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ. 1987.

Noguchi, Hideo. An appraisal reconsideration of Don Giovanni Overture K.527 with Mozart's alternative conclusion. 2007.

On the History of the Estates Theatre.

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