Chapter four mozart and the enlightenment

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Golden age, utopian and dystopian discourses are frequently employed to construct real or imaginary identities. Don Giovanni and Magic Flute use these discourses to interrogate identities. In the process they expose tensions inherent in the Enlightenment project, but also the oppressive inadequacy of the old regime. Mozart and his collaborators are not the first to question the Enlightenment's claims, but their critique is a powerful one, and all the more so because of the way in drama and music act on the intellect and emotions of the audience.

Don Giovanni is a dystopia that exposes the inability of either the old order or an Enlightenment-inspired one to fulfill human needs. The former relies on a class-based hierarchy, superstition and oppression. Commoners have few choices and must suffer the whims of those upon whom they depend for sustenance or support. Aristocrats are not necessarily any freer. To the degree they have internalized the moral codes of their society they must enact their assigned roles and suppress their emotions and defer, or forever postpone, gratification of ordinary human desires. Most lead crabbed, unfulfilled, unenviable lives. This may be one reason why the women are open to seduction by Don Giovanni. Zerlina aside, who is a lusty peasant, they are pathetic figures who generally oscillate between passivity and hysteria.

Don Giovanni is an aristocrat cut loose from these traditional moorings and associated constraints. He is a danger to himself, those around him and the wider social order. He is usefully compared to Count Almaviva in Marriage of Figaro, another Spanish aristocrat intent on imposing his political and sexual will on others. Almaviva nevertheless adheres to most of the norms that sustain his authority; he never uses violence or forces himself on anyone and accepts defeat gracefully. His is an improving landlord, with a serious interest in his estate and career, in contrast to the shiftless and unconstrained Giovanni who has no interest in his property beyond the income and venue it provides to enable him to devote his life to sexual adventure. An aristocrat and landowner in backwards Spain, Don Giovanni is in other ways a modern figure. He has liberated himself from religion, superstition and communal norms and is unconstrained in pursuit of his appetites. He is intelligent, but his reason is purely instrumental and never used to interrogate the ends he seeks.

Part of Mozart and Da Ponte's thought experiment is to remove all organs of coercion; there are no police or other authorities anywhere in sight in Don Giovanni. Freed of internal and external constraints, they suggest that human beings are unlikely to use reason to transform themselves into ethical beings, as so many philosophers and writers from Rousseau on hope, even predict. Reason is more likely to be directed outwards, with the goal of satisfying unconstrained and therefore more urgent appetites. This will not lead to a more harmonious society, but one in which a minority assert their will and exploit everyone else. This seemingly successful minority will not be happy, merely driven. Don Giovanni embodies the fears of the Austrian counter-Enlightenment and represents the precursor of modern buccaneers who pursue à outrance, not only women, but economic wealth and political power. Some of them, like the Don, act in ways that are ultimately self-destructive.

Magic Flute draws on golden age and utopian discourses to imagine a future world that incorporates many golden age features. The latter are drawn from Masonic rituals and Jean Terasson's Egyptian tale, Sethos. They lend color, help conjure up the power of reason and ritual and allow utopia to be set in a far off locale and a distant in time. There is no expectation that such utopias are attainable in practice. In Magic Flute, there is no visible economy beyond exchanging birds for food and wine, and nothing that hints at any institutional structure. Tamino hails from some out-of-sight kingdom and has entered the realm of the Queen of the Night, who appears to rule by fiat, as does her adversary, Sarastro.

Most utopias invoke fantasy to showcase values and practices their authors would like to see emphasized or imported into their world. Magic Flute is no different. It appears to offer Sarastro as the embodiment of an enlightenment ruler, whose directives derive from his mastery of reason and himself. His subjects are compliant because they admire and respect him and expect to improve themselves by following his example. Sarastro consults them on key decisions, as he does when he considers making Tamino a novitiate. Deliberating with reference to the general will, they offer unanimous and wise counsel. Sarastro seemingly offers a stark contrast to the Queen of the Night's. She is ruled by emotion rather than reason, seeks selfish rather than collective ends, is unduly interested in pomp and display -- creating a market for those birds and their feathers -- exploits her underlings and teaches them by punishment rather than by example. Worst of all, she perverts motherly love by pressuring her daughter to commit murder. In an extraordinary act of Realpolitik, she allies with unscrupulous dissidents with whom she shares no interest other than a putsch against Sarastro and take-over of his realm. It is unfair to see the Queen of the Night as Empress Maria Teresa, as some have suggested, but not unreasonable to see her as a personification of the ancien regime. Her gender is a reflection of eighteenth century stereotypes. It is a vehicle for another charge against the ancien régime: effeminate rule by self-interested and emotional male princes and kings who waste public funds on frippery and display.

Schickaneder and Mozart have transformed Liebeskind’s innocent entertainment, Lulu, oder Die Zauberflöte, into a powerful political allegory. One that does not so much point the way to a new order as show what is wrong with the present one. What really makes the opera interesting is its subtle but compelling critique of its own utopia. As we have seen, all is not sunshine in Sarastro's realm. It has many dark corners and when we illuminate them we discover troubling parallels between Sarastro's state and twentieth century totalitarian regimes. Political orders that claim to base themselves on reason and the common good can end up more frightening than the self-serving and haphazard governance of traditional eighteenth century would-be absolutist monarchies. Don Giovanni and Magic Flute interrogate two key aspirations of the Enlightenment: liberation and reason. They reveal how each in different ways lead us down the road to disorder or tyranny.

Mozart's operas tell us important things about identity. They reveal how unstable identities are and how they depend on pomp, props and peer group pressure. Clothes, gestures and behaviors encode specific identities. Aristocrats in eighteenth century operas, as in real life, were expected to dress and behave in specific ways. They were wary of members of the lower orders who sought to pass themselves off as nobility by mimicking its clothes and behavior. They relied on face and name recognition and letters of introduction, but also laws to prevent breaches of class barriers. In Europe, China and Japan, clothes were an important marker of status. Numerous sumptuary laws offer testimony that people everywhere wanted to improve their status and many sought to do so by adopting the dress and manners of those higher up the social ladder.124 Sumptuary laws proved difficult to enforce, as Louis XIV discovered, but stayed on the books in some Western Europe countries into the nineteenth century.125

Very few lower class characters in Mozart operas attempt to cross class lines. In Figaro and Don Giovanni, where this does occur, it at the insistence of an aristocrat with a nefarious goal. Aristocrats routinely employ disguises. Don Giovanni wraps himself in a cloak when he attempts to seduce or rape Donna Anna, and later exchanges clothes with Leporello for purposes of seduction and escape. Guglielmo and Ferrando adopt different national costumes and Cherubino engages in cross-gender dressing, all with seduction in mind. Following the tradition of aristocrats and majas in Spain, Mozart's aristocrats don masks, capes and other disguises to step "out of character." For critics of the Enlightenment, and for Mozart and Da Ponte, this kind of license almost invariably threatens the social order, as it does most dramatically in Don Giovanni. It can also promote greater sophistication that reaffirms, or at least enables, the social order, as it appears to do for Guglielmo, Ferrando and their mistresses in Così fan tutte.

By assuming disguises and practicing deception at least some people come to recognize that identities are malleable and not innate features of their being. If restraint can be shed by changing one’s outward appearance, why not go a step further and jettison associated manners, practices, affiliations and beliefs? By this means people can remake themselves and their identities. Play, initially motivated by sexual desire, can prove the catalyst for reflection and personal transformation. Liberated, or partly liberated, people can choose to return to their original costumes, manners, affiliations beliefs in circumstances where they consider it useful, but now do so in the form of a disguise. Da Ponte was a master of reverse masking. Born Emmanuel Conegliano in the Veneto, the son of a Jewish tanner and shoemaker, he was a converted Jew who became a priest but was expelled from Venice for his sexual hijinx. He settled in Gorizia and then in Vienna, used the title “Abbate” [abbé] and wore the clerical collar to maintain status and an aura of respectability. He continued to pursue women and was privately a free-thinker. Mozart did something similar, if less dramatic. He weaned himself, not from his religious beliefs, but from his assigned role in class structure. He was fiercely committed to his autonomy and beside himself with rage when he had to assume a subordinate, let alone a subservient role. Da Ponte, unlike Mozart, appeared to lead his double life without observable tension, anxiety or noticeable feelings of constraint.

The modern world and urbanization, one of its distinguishing features, would soon provide almost everyone with previously unimaginable anonymity. People could shed and assume figurative masks at will, raising all kind of possibilities for transformation and multiple identities. Once taken for granted, identity, like clothing and related practices, became a subject much discussed and conceptualized in the late eighteenth century. Such discourses in turn facilitated further experimentation and change.

None of the characters in Mozart operas who adopt disguises appear fully capable of returning to who they were when they once again don their accustomed garb. In Così, the two officers cannot regain their distinctive musical voices, and although they restore their original relationships they have lost their innocence, and with it, some of their potential for romance. They have unwittingly turned themselves into somewhat different people. Emile Durkheim was among the first to emphasize that we are products of our practices. Following in his footsteps, Erving Goffman documented the extent to which everyday life is structured by an astonishing variety of rituals that construct and reinforce identities and render the very notion of an autonomous inner self highly problematic.126 These rituals and practices they allow help determine who we are and our conceptions of ourselves change when these rituals and associated practices change. Daryl Bem maintains that we revise our understandings of ourselves to bring them in line with our behavior.127 Even people who have no intention of constructing new identities may nevertheless do so in the course of role playing.

In the ancient world a person was considered the sum of the roles that he or she performed in society. Person derives from "persona" the Latin word for mask, so there is nothing new or unsettling in the idea of role playing. Shakespeare's memorable line that "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players" reflected a common understanding of this social reality in Elizabethan England and early modern Europe.128 Modernity, and Romanticism gave this metaphor a new twist. By positing something inherently unique about individuals, it followed that everyone had a responsibility to discover, develop and express his or her inner self. Donning a mask and playing a role was no longer a means of entering society and making meaningful associations but rather an impediment to internal discovery and self-expression. Everyday dress and roles were reconceived as masks that society foisted upon people. This compulsion was now a source of conflict between the individual and society and set the stage for multiple projects intended to overcome this tension or exploit it for positive ends. The next chapter, about the German turn to the Greeks, explores one perceived solution to this problem and its tragic consequences.


 Plato, Republic, 424c.

2 Da Ponte, Memoirs, p. 27.

3 Mozart to his father, 24 March, 4, 8, 11, 18, 28 April and 9, 12, 16, 19 May 1781, Anderson, Letters of Mozart, pp. 716-35,

4 Ibid, p. 37.

5 Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1370b11-12, 1379b17-19.

6 Cairns, Mozart and his Operas, p. 120, for the kick metaphor.

7 Anderson, Letters of Mozart, Wolfgang Mozart to Leopold Mozart, 29 November 1777, pp. 395-96.

8 Beales, Joseph II, II, pp. 555-87.

9 Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment, p. 184.

10 Kant, Critique of Judgment, §28-29.

11 Schlegel, Philosopische Lehrjahre and Philosophy of Art (1801-02).

12 Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man; Blume, Classic and Romantic Music.

13 Kierkegaard, Either/Or.

14 Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy.

15 Bonds, Music as Thought, pp. xiii-x1v.

16 Ibid, pp. xiv-xv.

17 Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment, p. 28.

18 Don Giovanni, Act I, scene 2

19 Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment, pp. 56-58.

20 Gutman, Mozart, pp. 26-27.

21 Ibid., p. 54.

22 Ibid., p. 174.

23 Strohm, Essays on Handel and Italian Opera, pp. 93-95; Cotticelli and Maione, “Metastasio,” on the evolution and conventions of opera seria.

24 Charlton, “Genre and Form in French Opera.”

25 Ibid., p. 177; Clark, “Ensembles and Finales.”

26 Wolfgang Mozart to Leopold Mozart, 26 September 1781, Anderson, Letters of Mozart, pp. 768-70.

27 Wolfgang Mozart to Leopold Mozart, 17 March 1781, Ibid., p. 714; Making matters worse in Salzburg, Michael Haydn, the Kapellmeister, was allowed to eat at the officers’ table.

28 Wolfgang Mozart to Leopold Mozart, 19 May, between 26 May and 2 June, 2, 13, 16, 20 June 1781, Ibid. pp. 733-50.

29 Smith, Tenth Muse, pp. 74-100; Cotticelli and Maione, “Metastasio.”

30 Christoph Gluck’s letter of dedication to Grand Duke Leopold I of Tuscany, quoted in Weisstein, Essence of Opera, p. 106.

31 Wolfgang Mozart to Leopold Mozart, 13 October 1871, Anderson, Letters of Mozart, pp. 772-73

32 Ibid., Wolfgang Mozart to Leopold Mozart, 13 October 1781, pp. 772-73; Da Ponte, Memoirs, p. 136.

33 Branscombe, Die Zauberflöte, p. 89.

34 Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment, pp. ix-x, for a somewhat different view that asserts that parallel narratives emerge in music and text indicating that the "'plot' is not the real 'story.'”

35 Russell, Don Juan Legend Before Mozart, p. 78.

36 Da Ponte, Memoirs, 149-51, 159-61; Beales, Mozart and the Habsburgs, p. 11; Heartz, Mozart’s Operas, pp. 133-38; Joubert, “Genre and form in German Opera.”

37 Heartz, Mozart's Operas, pp. 158-61, 164-68.

38 Webster, Aria as Drama,” on aria types.

39 Don Giovanni, Act I, scene 2

40 Ibid.

41 Kierkegaard, Either/Or, p. 62.

42 Nagel, Autonomy and Mercy, p. 52.

43 Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment, pp. 16-17, 201.

44 Hoffman, "Don Juan," is the classic analysis of the blending of and confrontation between the worlds of comic and seria opera.

45 Clark, “Ensembles and Finales.”

46 What Leporello sings is not technically an aria, and the whole scene is an introduzione made up of four different sections that run together like a finale.

47 Ibid., pp. 186-87, 302.

48 Kivy, Osmin's Rage, p. 203.

49 Singer, Mozart & Beethoven, p. 18, on the merging of voices.

50 Cited in Gutman, Mozart, p. 685; Campana, “To Look Again (at Don Giovanni).”

51 Kierkegaard, Either/Or, p. 91; Russell, Don Juan Legend Before Mozart, pp. 407-43; Eldridge, “’Hidden Secrets of the Self.’”

52 Brophy, Mozart the Dramatist, pp. 242-65.

53 Russell, Don Juan Legend Before Mozart, pp. 407-43.

54 Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment, pp. 198-199, 201.

55 Hunter, Mozart's Operas, p. 151-57.

56 Kierkegaard, Either/Or.

57 Don Giovanni, Act Two, Scene 1; Molière, Don Juan.

58 Ibid., Act I, scene 2; Nagel, Autonomy and Mercy, p. 36. On this Enlightenment fascination with numbers, see Scott, Seeing Like a State, pp. 76-83.

59 Don Giovanni, Act 1, scene 2.

60 Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, and Division of Labor in Society; Berman, Politics of Individualism; Norton, Beautiful Soul; Carrithers, Collins and Lukes, Category of the Person, pp. 46-82.

61 Lebow, Tragic Vision of Politics, ch. 8.

62 Scott, Seeing Like a State.

63 Noyes, "La Maja Vestida.”

64 Ortega y Gassett, Goya; Cruz, Sainetes, pp. 77, 132; Boucher, Histoire du costume, p. 319; Noyes, "La Maja Vestida.”

65 Jovellanos, Obras escogidas; Casanova, Memoirs, VI, p. 73; Herr, Eighteenth Century Revolution in Spain, pp. 184-85; Noyes, "La Maja Vestida.”

66 Garcia Mercadal, Viajes de extranjeros por España, III, p. 653; Kany, Life and Manners in Madrid, pp. 229, 279; Noyes, "La Maja Vestida.”

67 Leopold Mozart to his wife, 30 December 1774, Anderson, Letters of Mozart, pp. 255-56.

68 Gutman, Mozart, p. 45.

69 Beaumarchais, "Preface to Tarare," in Weisstein, Essence of Opera, p. 146.

70 Lukács Historical Novel, pp. 19-20.

71 Most contemporary audiences would have recognized this as a fiction popularized by Voltaire’s play (1762) of the same name.

72 Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment, pp. 212-14, for a similar argument.

73 Don Giovanni, Act II, scene 3.

74 Ibid., p. 35.

75 Allanbrook, “Mozart’s Happy Endings” on lieto fine.

76 Kerman, Opera as Drama, p. 46.

77 Act I, scene 1.

78 Campana, “To Look Again (at Don Giovanni),” on the Introduzione.

79 Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment, pp. 207-15, on broken promises.

80 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Letter to M. d'Alembert.”

81 Nagel, Autonomy and Mercy, pp. 51-52, on Don Giovanni in this connection.

82 Lebow, Cultural Theory of International Relations, ch. 2 on this point.

83 Heartz, Mozart's Operas, p. 175.

84 Conrad, " Libertine's Progress"; Kunze, Don Giovanni vor Mozart, pp. 55-58, 120-27.

85 Rosen, Classical Style, p. 302; Clark, “Ensembles and Finales.”

86 Hunter, Mozart's Operas, pp. 14-15; Clark, “Ensembles and Finales.”

87 Allanbrook, Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart, pp. 322-25, and “Mozart’s Happy Endings.”

88 Da Ponte, Memoirs, p. 152.

89 Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, p. 54..

90 Schneewind, Invention of Autonomy, p. 4; Taylor, Sources of the Self, p, 83.

91 Goethe, Werther, p. 85.

92 Lessing, Literaturbrief, cited in Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment, p. 23..

93 Bokina, Opera and Politics, p. 41.

94 Foucault, History of Sexuality, I, p. 116.

95 Hume, Treatise of Human Nature,, and Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Appendix I, p. 163.

96 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1139a29-30, 1139a29-1142a; Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, I.1.5, VI.1.

97 Mozart to his wife, 7-8, 8-9, 14 October 1791, Anderson, Letters of Mozart, pp. 966-971.

98 Cicali, “Roles and Acting”; Joubert, “Genre and form in German Opera.”

99 Hunter, Mozart's Operas, pp. 77-82; Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment, pp. 95-96; Warrack, German Opera, pp. 128-31; Link, National Court Theatre in Mozart’s Vienna.

100 Abert, Mozart, pp. 1248-50

101 Dent, Mozart’s Operas, pp. 337-44

102 Braunbehrens, Mozart in Vienna, pp. 372-78.

103 Bauman, "At the North Gate."

104 Rosen, Classical Style, p. 254.

105 Dent, Mozart's Operas, p. 395.

106 Brophy, Mozart the Dramatist, pp. 132-39, Chailley, Magic Flute; Thomson, Masonic Thread on Masonic interpretations.

107 Chailley, Magic Flute. Brophy, Mozart the Dramatist, pp. 132-39, made an earlier case for the Masonic meaning of Magic Flute. Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment, pp. 117-30, for an intelligent discussion.

108 Godwin, Layers of Meaning in The Magic Flute."

109 Levey, "Aspects of Mozart's Heroines."

110 Koenigsberger, "New Metaphor for Mozart's Magic Flute."

111 Bauman, "At the North Gate."

112 Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment, pp. 294-301.

113 Brophy, Mozart the Dramatist, p. 164.

114 Brown-Montesano, Understanding the Women of Mozart's Operas, pp. 84-98;

115 Subotnick, Deconstructive Variations.

116 Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, ch. 2.

117 Bauman, "At the North Gate."

118 Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, pp. 73-75.

119 Schafer, Analytic Attitude.

120 Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, pp. 32-35; Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, pp. 214-45; Lacan, Ecrits.

121 Habermas, Truth and Method; Appel, "Szientismus oder Transzendentale Hermeneutik?"

122 Magic Flute, Act I, scene 18.

123 An exception is Nagel, Autonomy and Mercy, p. 20, who observes that Sarastro comes across as totalitarian.

124 Hurlock, “Sumptuary Law”; Clunas, Superfluous Things, pp. 8-39, 151; Pomeranz, Great Divergence, p. 131; Yamamura, Study of Samurai Income and Entrepreneurship, pp. 41-47.

125 Voltaire, Age of Louis XIV, p. 93; Ladurie, Saint-Simon and the Court of Louis XIV, pp. 28-32, 54-55; Elias, Court Society, pp. 120-21, 127, 146.

126 Goffman, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Behavior in Public Places and Stigma.

127 Bem, “Self-Perception” and “Self-Perception Theory.”

128 Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2, scene 7; Beck, Actor and Spectator; Onuf, “Self, Other, Agent.”

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