Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mozartian Counterpoint Part II

Mozartian Counterpoint
Part I | II | III | IV | V| VI | VII

We have, as we noted at the outset, not been comprehensive. We overlooked examples in Mozart's string quartets from 1773, KV.158, 168, 171, and 173, in which the teenage Mozart continues to react to the great advances thrown down in Haydn's series op. 20. Mozart would not return to the genre until 1782 with the great G major quartet, KV.387. We also overlooked one piece we certainly should not have, Mozart's variations on the French tune 'Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman' KV.265. Aside from being a charming and clever work the variations employ a variety of contrapuntal practices. As such and because many already know the tune it makes a great piece to start looking at different techniques like countering 4:1 and which dissonances are permitted under which circumstances. (Does Mozart follow Fux's rules?)

Neither have we looked at every canon, fugato and instance of imitation, for example in openings to movements like those of the Presto to Symphony No. 27 in G major, KV.199/161b and the Allegro finale to the "Paris" Symphony in D, KV.297. Fine and effective as they are we have confined our look somewhat. Alec Hyatt King's essay, "Mozart's Counterpoint: Its Growth and Significance" [4] includes an apt survey of this period of Mozart's work and development as well as some other pieces we will not look at in great detail.

This time we will not look at all of the pieces in chronological order but rather look at the Da Ponte collaborations of Figaro and Don Giovanni. In turn we will then look at the final four symphonies, then the remaining chamber works and sonatas, and finally the late works Die Zauberflöte and the Requiem.

11. Le nozze di Figaro, KV.492- Act II, Finale

No one wrote a finale like Mozart, which was fortunate for him because theater-goers expected a big finale. The poet of Mozart's Figaro, Lorenzo da Ponte, was sensitive to this theater convention in which one simply had to produce the whole cast in a big and exciting finale with which to end the act,
The finale must, through a dogma of the theater, produce on the stage every singer of the cast, be there three hundred of them. . .and if the plot does not permit, the poet must find a way to make it permit. . . and if then the finale happens to go badly, so much the worse for him!"[5]

At over 900 bars this finale is astoundingly large. One by one another character joins the ensemble as the plot untangles onstage until at last Marcellina and her party (the remainder of the cast) burst onto the stage. The whole group erupts into a big argument with their individual lines contrapunting [6] off one another yet it feels so natural one simply gets caught up in the drama. Indeed the drama and music complement so that the scene feels a perfect whole; one is in fact quite disinclined to take it apart. How can all of this bickering and this great squabble be so beautiful and appealing? Milos Forman's 1984 film Amadeus put it like this:
Sire, only opera can do this. In a play, if more than one person speaks at the same time, it's just noise. No one can understand a word. But with music, with music you can have twenty individuals all talking at once, and it's not noise - it's a perfect harmony. Isn't that marvelous?
Indeed. Here the music, both the force of the development leading up to the finale and all of the voices bouncing around at the end, breathe life, beauty, poignancy, and of course excitement into what is otherwise a domestic squabble. We often get sidetracked looking for complexity and hidden profundity that we forget that making something beautiful is an end in itself.

12. Don Giovanni, KV.527
N. B. We cut right to the Act I Finale as we have already discussed the Overture here in reasonable detail a few months ago.

Act I: Finale: Venite, pur avanti. . .

In the Figaro finale we saw the counterpoint was more or less invisible; it did not really call attention to itself. Perhaps we might say it was hiding in plain sight given its form and function in the piece. Here we see a similar use: in Don Giovanni's great ball at his villa he has several bands playing different dances. Yet all of the bands play these dances at the same time! Mozart has written a scene for us in which all of these dances with their different rhythms play on together but with each one naturally coming to the forefront every so often.

Mozart's delicate act of balancing the rhythms of a minuet, a contredance, and an allemande goes practically unnoticed as the ball unfolds: the peasants dance, Don Giovnanni corners Zerlina into a contredance, and Leporello busies Masetto with an allemande. Indeed the scene unfolds so smoothly and we fall so readily into the dances that when they break away all of a sudden we are all the more startled.

This is a busy scene and it may help to follow the score here where the three bands are separately notated. See the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe Act II, Finale. starting with m. 360.

Act II, Sextet "Sola, Sola in buio loco. . ." and Quintet, "Mille torbidi pensieri"

This scene requires a bit of summary. Leporello, in his master's clothes, has lured Donna Elvira from her house so Giovnanni could woo Elvira's maid. Leporello and Elvira wander into the garden where they are soon joined by Donna Anna, Ottavia, Masetto, and Zerlina. The quartet corners Leporello, disguised as Giovanni and in a shocking admission Elvira defends him and confesses her love for "her husband" as the angry quartet demands he die. Fearing for his life, Leporello takes off his disguise to the astonishment of all and everyone launches into a great bother.

While Leporello clings desperately to small phrases and rapidly stutters his fears, the Quintet rages in anger about Giovanni and in desperation at their fate that they should not only be tormented by this man but impotent before him. Leporello gradually recedes from the scene and the remaining lines diverge into polyphony as each character is carried away with his and her personal despair. The sudden breaking off and change of texture is extraordinarily arresting and the quick change back only serves to intensify the effect.

Leporello Quintet
Mille torbidi pensieri
Mi s'aggiran per la testa;
Se mi salvo in tal tempesta,
È un prodigio in verità
Mille torbidi pensieri
Mi s'aggiran per la testa:
Che giornata, o stelle, è questa!
Che impensata novità!
Fear and doubting quite distract me,
All my head is in confusion,
Would indeed 'twere a delusion,
And I safely from this spot.
Fear and doubting quite distract me,
All my head is in confusion,
'Tis a vision, a vile delusion!
Be this masking, be this masking ne'er forgot!

In discussing Piano Concerto No. 14 we quoted Arthur Hutchings referring to a particular aspect of Mozart's contrapuntal style and we would be wise to note it here also:

So sure is Mozart's sense of contrapuntal style that in all kinds of unexpected places–the finale presto of Don Giovanni, for instance– he makes a fugato gesture which makes us we are going to have something on the scale of the 'Jupiter' finale; yet when the parts disappear in smoke, or find themselves on firm homophonic ground, we are aware of no incongruity." [Hutchings, 87]
Once again calling for Giovanni's head the parties enter and harangue a terrified Leporello. Are they going to fly off in different directions as in the Act II sextet? No, larghetto they fall into separate asides about how they will continue their lives now that Don Giovanni is no longer. Then we launch into the D major Presto finale: are we building to some polyphonic extravaganza now? With rushing scales rising through two octaves starting on the tonic and alternating dynamics we are surely building to something. Yet we still find ourselves on homophonic ground. The sextet sings the moral and we go home. Fine dell' Opera. Having grown used to his style throughout the opera, here the absence of the expected is a great effect in itself.

[4] Music & Letters, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan., 1945), pp. 12-20
[5] Quoted from p. 107 of Levarie, Siegmund. Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro: A Critical Analysis. University of Chicago Press. Chicago. 1952. Quote translation by Elisabeth Abbott, from the edition by Arthur Livingston (Philadelphia and London, 1929), p.133
[6] Credit to Dr. Levarie for this clever use of the word.

Hutchings, Arthur. A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos. Oxford University Press. New York. 1948.

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