Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On Mozart's Overtures: Final Thoughts

Mozart Overtures

Final Thoughts

As I reflect on the preceding series on Mozart's overtures inevitably the deficiencies present themselves first. Foremost perhaps is that we have not looked at all of the overtures. Of the composer's twenty-two or so operas we have excluded the first twelve (including Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots, a sacred drama), composed from 1767 through 1780. Likewise we have excluded the overtures to the unfinished Lo sposo deluso (1784) and the short singspiel-farce Der Schauspieldirektor (1786.) Thus we can more properly be said to have looked at the overtures to the last seven, complete, full-scale Mozart operas.

My overall approach was to avoid both the abstruse and the banal and as clearly as possible explain how the music achieved its effect.  Sometimes I may have curtailed detail for clarity or stated details without explication. In the latter case my hope is that the listener, with the feature pointed out, can discover the effect.

Regarding scholarship I am indebted to the scholars of the past 200 years that have produced the wealth of insight available today. Invariably all Mozart scholarship looks like "footnotes to Abert." Invariable also is the struggle to restate a basic observation in a non-identical way: how many ways can one describe a particular chord, scale, or figure? I hope I have not stepped on the toes of any scholars. All mistakes and defects are my own.

In addition to the great quantity of scholarship I had to draw on I also had the tremendous reference that is the Neue Mozart Ausgabe, the complete scores of Mozart's music available for free online. While I have quoted portions of the scores liberally it was with critical intent. No infringement was intended.

Perhaps we may take up one more issue, though, one that required looking at all of the overtures. What precisely is the relationship of the overture to the subsequent drama? We know the overtures except for Die Entführung) were all the last music of the operas completed. This was at least partly for the practical reason that it could be left for last since it only required, if it receive this much at all, a run-through with the orchestra, and not weeks of choreography and accommodation to the singers. Yet while it was the last music practiced and written down, we cannot know when it was finished in terms of conception (either in terms of specifics or its general plan.)

The notion Mozart wrote down perfect scores with no revisions is indeed an exaggeration. From letters it seems likely he did compose at the keyboard, which was standard practice. Likewise some sketches are preserved, though not on the scale of the sketches in Beethoven's books. In fact, Mozart even struck out short portions of the overtures to Figaro and Die Zauberflöte. While we have a general knowledge of his habits of writing down his music we cannot speak with certainty of what Arthur Hutchings aptly called the "procedures of the mind." We cannot say Mozart wrote the opera and then chose parts or aspects of it to assemble into, or from which to create, the overture. Nor can we say they were conceived of more or less at the same time.

Unable to discern their function from Mozart's compositional practices let us look at how the overtures work in relation to the operas. There is clearly a strong connection between each overture and its corresponding opera. No one could possibly suggest swapping the overtures for Don Giovanni and Figaro, or even the more-similar operas like Die Entführung and Die Zauberflöte.

Yet the overture does not in every skip and jump mirror a particular aspect of the opera proper. Generally we may say if composer uses a particular theme or progression in more than one place such  invites inquiry, by virtue of either the similarity or difference of their functions. Thus in Mozart's overtures, where the overture bears thematic and harmonic relationship to the subsequent music of the opera, we assume significance. What is the significance though? Are these similarities the heart of the overture's fulfillment of the need to be a "dramatic argument" for the opera? Do they have a subsidiary function to the same end?

What might we make, say, of Daniel Heartz's observation that the overture "emerge[s] from the material of the opera" [Heartz, 319] Likewise what do we make of his findings of many harmonic connections between the overture and the following music [in the case of the overture to Titus?] (Regrettably I am unable to familiarize myself with Constantin Floros' studies[1] on the connections between the overtures and operas.) Let us look at a few quotations and see the state of the question:

[The overtures] presented at once, and with the greatest concentration of emotional and intellectual content, the crux of the drama. [Heartz, 319.]
Like its predecessors, it was the last number to be written and in consequence is a kind of general lyrical admission of Mozart's feelings about the works as a whole. Once more he relives the artistic experience that produced the opera, but instead of the work in its concrete form, it is the mood that inspired Die Zauberflöte that he now intends to instil in the listener before the following drama can make its impression – but it is, of course, the mood of the work as he, its creator, felt it. [Abert, 1258]
Thomas Bauman quoting Walter Wiora:
Walter Wiora, in his classic essay "Between Absolute and Program Music," has observed that "an opera overture partakes of the basic mood, the atmosphere, the overall qualities. . . of the opera, and possesses corresponding functional and characteristic traits." [2]
All three scholars make the sensible case that the overtures are neither purely programmatic nor purely abstract. Of course if divorced from the opera and played as a concert piece, the overture is purely abstract. Attached to the opera, once you have heard both you cannot avoid drawing connections.
Yet these similar moments do not point to analogous parts of the opera. Their significance lies in that they are assembled in such a way in the overture to state the opera's case as purely as possible.  This follows for the mature operas with the exception to the overture to Figaro which is frankly a sinfonia. The overture to Idomeneo is the distillation of the tragic ethos. The overture to Die Entführung is of exotic adventure and a lost lover, to Don Giovanni of being and non-being, to Così the endless chatters that make us all wonder, "Do they all?" and to Titus exalting a noble and besieged character. Die Zauberflöte contains multiple dimensions.

The overtures contain both specific and general relationships to their respective operas. The generalities are what make the overtures "dramatic arguments." It is important not to get too sidetracked by the similarities of parts of the overture to parts of the opera. These are the results of a compositional process we do not fully know. They are not why the overtures are dramatic arguments since the overture could have have been a potpourri of themes in the manner of the later Romantic-French style. They are instead part of the how the overtures are dramatic arguments. They exist because the overture and opera speak the same language to express the same ideas. The Mozartian overture qua dramatic argument is demonstrated not in the similarities to Vitellia's aria, the threefold chord, or the "Don Giovanni/Commendatore" chord but rather in the statements of the overtures in toto. Though the overtures were composed last the effect is reversed: coming to the opera-goer first, the overture sets up the dramatic argument and the opera proper is "merely" the playing out.

[1] Constantin Floros, "Das 'Programm' in Mozarts Meisterouvertüren," Studien zur Musikwissenschaft 26 (1964): 140-86.

[2] Walter Wiora, "Zwischen absoluter und Programmusik," in Fetschrift Friedrich Blume zum 70 Geburtstag, ed. Anna Amalie Abert and Wilhelm Pfannkuch (Kassel, 1963), p.383.


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

Heartz, Daniel. Mozart's Operas. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1990.

Hutchings, Arthur. Mozart: The Man, The Musician. Thames and Hudson. London. 1976.

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