Wednesday, March 3, 2010

On the Sinfonia to Le Nozze di Figaro

Sinfonia to Le Nozze di Figaro
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (KV.492)

Figaro was commissioned by Emperor Joseph II and the Imperial Italian Opera Company and premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna on May 1, 1786.

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

The score is available via the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe.

 Incipit. (click to enlarge)

John Eliot Gardiner conducting The English Baroque Soloists.

The piece–which is all about movement raised to its highest potential–steals in as though from a distance in its famous seven-bar opening phrase, needing two attempts to get under way. But now it stirs in every quarter, laughing, chuckling and triumphing, with new watercourses opening up as the floodtide rushes past, before the piece as a whole races toward its jubilant end in a bacchantic torrent entirely in keeping with Mozart's basic conception of his subject, an apotheosis of an untrammelled life force that could hardly be more infectious. [Abert, 935]
Indeed, what a glorious piece to set Figaro on its way. Where the overture to Die Entfuhrüng paused and took us aside for a look at a more tranquil place, the sinfonia to Figaro sweeps us up and never slows down. Mozart did, in fact, consider for Figaro an overture similar to his for Die Entfuhrüng and the folio shows an andante con moto in 6/8-time with the main melody in the oboe against pizzicato accompaniment in the strings. [1] He struck it out, though, and in its place we have this glorious sinfonia, a designation which, distinct from overture, makes this more of an opening concert piece.

In contrast to Mozart's earlier operas it is not bound to the work as Idomeno's overture is bound to the drama by a tragic pathos, or as Die Entführung's is in depicting an exotic land. It lacks the infamous chord in Don Giovanni and the threefold-chord of Die Zauberflöte that become motives throughout those works. Though it does not contain any explicit musical or dramatic connection to the opera, the mood and energy of the piece nonetheless have a great preparatory effect on the audience, sweeping us into the proper mood or at least sweeping away some of the day's cares with which we entered.

It is perhaps unavoidable to state the piece's form, which is that of a sonata without a development section. We will see in its stead significant contrast between the exposition and recapitulation, which Levarie suggests function as strophe and antistrophe, the latter "fulfilling what the exposition leaves undone." [Levarie, 3]

We open pianissimo in D with the strings offering the main theme along with the bassoon which adds a certain implacable eccentricity to the phrase. The woodwinds respond piano in a four-bar
arpeggio before the whole orchestra bursts forth at m. 12, winds and horns forte and strings fortissimo. Against the basses sputtering out quavers in D the winds, horns, and 2nd violins play crotchets, doubled on the strong beats by the timpani until the horns recede to the strong beats only and the winds subdivide the weak-beat crotchets into quavers, creating a rollicking dactylic motion with which we close the section. We then return (at m.18) to the opening material, now heightened with the oboe and flute and this time piano.

The start of the next section, m.35, beings forte but backs off quickly to piano and a thrice-repeated descending scale followed by forte chord of punctuation. At the fourth repetition, though, the punctuation and scale coincide, only the scale is ascending now and we are launched into a flurry of arpeggios and an "exuberantly powerful" [Abert, 936]  rhythm based on a simple figure of three crotchets before we slide back down again in a descending tonic scale.

Summary of Sections I-III

I. m.1-18
  1. 7m. opening theme
  2. 4m. arpeggio
  3. 7m. descending tonic scale
    II. m.19-34
    1. 6m. opening theme with winds
    2. 4m. arpeggio
    3. 6m. descending tonic scale
      III.  m.35-58
      1. 10m. scalar theme
      2. 4m. arpeggios and crotchet figure
      3. 10m. descending tonic scale
        Subsequent Sections

          IV. m.59-84

          This bridge passage is a particularly clear example of this overture's habit of proceeding in "fits and starts." [Abert, 936]. The 2nd violin and viola introduce a figure of eight 8th notes, the first of which is both fortepiano and staccato. In the next measure the figure is doubled on the strong beat by a whole note from the 1st violin and then two measures later the oboe joins in and the 1st violin introduces a sprightly, incipient version of the overture's main opening theme. The oboe elaborates a little, followed by the flute before the material repeats and the descending figure in the flute slides down into a forte unison. The tone suddenly waxes serious and we have a grave theme in the first violin repeated between more forte unisons and against incessant quavers in D.


          The theme, though, quickly gives way to the old three-crotchet motive, increasing the tension as it ascends each measure, from G# on the last forte unison up through D until the basses come in on the dominant at m.85 and present us with a grand and lofty theme.

          V. m.85-138



          Yet this mood quickly reverses as this bass theme is taken up by the violins where it becomes, as Abert states with particular precision, "timid and even supplicatory." [Abert, 936.] The phrase is followed by a short but firm little phrase, first in the bassoon and oboe and then in the oboe and flute, as if the violin phrase is leaning on it for support, or perhaps leaning into the stronger phrase as a suppliant. In its third repetition it seemingly evaporates as it is taken up by the bassoon which chirps it out less seriously and staccato.


          Here the bassoon and violin glide and soar gloriously, free of the earlier turmoil. Yet after the flute joins them they slide right into a forte unison chord and the tension returns. The chord repeats several times, each time cutting off a theme in the 1st violins trying to get underway. After four thwarted attempts the theme gets cut off midway and a descending scale leads us into a recapitulation of the piece's opening, pianissimo. These structured interruptions, with dynamic markings every other measure, characterize the "fits and starts" progression of the sinfonia.

          VI. m.139-235

          Levarie discusses at length the complexities of the harmonics in the variations of the recapitulation. Rather than repeat his analysis I will note only the most prominent feature, the resolution at m. 203-208 of the a-sharp that derailed and delayed the successful completion of the ascending scale way back in the very 4th measure and set us on our many-coursed adventure.

          VII. m.236-294 (end)

          The recapitulation runs straightaway into the many-measure crescendo (a "Mannheim" crescendo) that begins the coda. The tension rises bar after bar spanning two octaves until it erupts forte into an outburst of the whole orchestra and a release into the three-crotchet motive (now with more force than ever) and then straightaway again into descending scales, first in the violins and then the woodwinds (against a trill on C# in the strings which gets fulfilled by the grace notes B-C# leading into the unison on D in the following measure.) This structurally and harmonically satisfying run is repeated twice. So precise is the structure of the piece, so measured its rhythmic phrasing and balance and so complementary its harmonic progression and structure to that rhythmic framework, that when we gradually come to a close we feel neither defrauded of more adventure nor exhausted from too much, but rather freed and vivified in perfect degree.

          [1] This andante is presented both in Abert's W. A. Mozart (on p. 934) in the chapter on Figaro and in the NMA Critical Report on p. 330 in the section, "Striche und Änderungen von Mozarts Hand."


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

          Levarie, Siegmund. Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro: A Critical Analysis. University of Chicago Press. Chicago. 1952.


          Platoff, John. Essay "Tonal Organization in the Opera Buffa of Mozart's Time" in Mozart Studies 2 ed. Cliff Eisen. Oxford University Press. NY. 1997.

          Swain, Joseph P. Harmonic Rhythm: Analysis and Interpretation. Part II, Section 12, "Mozart: Overture to The Marriage of Figaro." Oxford University Press, NY. 2002.

          Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis. (Six Volumes.) Volume IV: Illustrative Music: Overture to Le Nozze di Figaro, KV.492. Oxford University Press. London. 1935.
          N.B. Though brief at only about one page, Tovey's essay is worth reading for its comparison to Cimarosa's Il Matrimonio Segreto and Tovey's habitual wit and concise insight.

          1 comment:

          1. Timing is funny. Professor Levarie died on the 11th of this month. He was 95 years old.