Concerning Opera

By Friedrich Kerst


When he was twenty-two years old Mozart wrote to his father, “I am strongly filled with the desire to write an opera.” Often does he speak of this ambition. It was, in fact, his true and individual field as the symphony was that of Beethoven. He took counsel with his father by letter touching many details in his earlier operas, wherefore we are advised about their origin, and, what is more to the purpose, about Mozart’s fine aesthetic judgment. His four operatic masterpieces are imperishable, and a few words about them are in place, particularly since Mozart has left numerous and interesting comments on “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail.” This first German opera he composed with the confessed purpose of substituting a work designed for the “national lyric stage” for the conventional and customary Italian opera. Despite its Hispano-Turkish color, the work is so ingenuous, so German in feeling, and above all so full of German humor that the success was unexampled, and Mozart could write to his father: “The people are daft over my opera.” Here, at the very outset, Mozart’s humor, the golden one of all the gifts with which Mother Nature had endowed him, was called into play. With this work German comic opera took its beginning. As has been remarked “although it has been imitated, it has never been surpassed in its musically comic effects.” The delightfully Falstaffian figure of Osmin, most ingeniously characterized in the music, will create merriment for all time, and the opera acquires a new, personal and peculiarly amiable charm from the fact that we are privileged to see in the love-joy of “Belmont” and “Constanze” an image of that of the young composer and his “Stanzerl.”

After “Die Entfuhrung” (1782) came “Le Nozze di Figaro” (1786), “Don Giovanni” (1787), and “Die Zauberflote” (1791). It would be a vain task to attempt to establish any internal relationship between these works. Mozart was not like Wagner, a strong personality capable of devoting a full sum of vital force to the carrying out of a chosen and approved principle. As is generally the case with geniuses, he was a child; a child led by momentary conditions; moreover, a child of the rococo period. There is, therefore, no cause of wonderment in the fact that Italian texts are again used in “Le Nozze di Figaro” and “Don Giovanni,” and that another, but this time a complete German opera, does not appear until we reach “Die Zauberflote.”

Nevertheless it is possible to note a development towards a climax in the four operas respecting Mozart’s conception of the world. It has been denied that there is a single red thread in Mozart’s life-work. Nevertheless our method of study will disclose to us an ever-growing view of human lift, and a deeper and deeper glimpse into the emotional and intellectual life of man, his aims and destiny. From the almost commonplace conditions of “Die Entfuhrung,” where a rascal sings in the best of humor of first beheading and then hanging a man, we reach a plane in “The Marriage of Figaro,” in which despite the refinement and mitigation of Beaumarchais’s indictment we feel the revolutionary breeze freshly blowing. In “Don Giovanni” we see the individual set up in opposition to God and the world, in order that he fulfill his destiny, or live out his life, as the popular phrase goes today. Here the tremendous tragedy which lies in the story has received a musical expression quite without parallel, notwithstanding the moderation exercised in the employment of means. In “Die Zauberflote,” finally, we observe the clarification which follows the fermentation. Here we breathe the pure, clear atmosphere of heaven, the atmosphere within which he can live who has freed himself from selfish desire, thus gaining internal peace, and who recognizes his ego only in the happiness and welfare of others.


22. “I have an unspeakable desire to compose another opera....In Italy one can acquire more honor and credit with an opera than with a hundred concerts in Germany, and I am the happier because I can compose, which, after all, is my one joy and passion....I am beside myself as soon as I hear anybody talk about an opera, sit in a theatre or hear singing.”

(Munich, October 11, 1777, to his father, reporting an expectation of making a position for himself in Italy.)

23. “I beg of you do your best that we may go to Italy. You know my greatest longing—to write operas....Do not forget my wish to write operas! I am envious of every man who composes one; I could almost weep from chagrin whenever I hear or see an aria. But Italian, not German; seria not buffa.”

 (Mannheim, February 2, 1778, to his father. Mozart wanted to go with the Weber family (he was in love with Aloysia, his future sister-in-law) to Italy while his father was desirous that he should go to Paris.)

24. “I am strongly possessed by the desire to write an opera—French rather than German, but Italian rather than either German or French. Wendling’s associates are all of the opinion that my compositions would please extraordinarily in Paris. One thing is certain; I would not fear the test. As you know I am able to assimilate and imitate pretty much all styles of composition.”

(Mannheim, February 7, 1778, to his father. Wendling was a flautist in Mannheim.)

25. “I assure you that if I get a commission to compose an opera

I shall not be frightened. True the (French) language is of the devil’s own making, and I fully appreciate all the difficulties that composers have encountered; but I feel myself as capable of overcoming them as any other composer. Au contraire when I convince myself that all is well with my opera, I feel as if my body were afire—my hands and feet tremble with desire to make the Frenchman value and fear the German. Why is no Frenchman ever commissioned to write a grand opera? Why must it always be a foreigner? In my case the most unendurable thing would be the singers. Well, I’m ready. I shall begin no dickerings, but if I am challenged I shall know how to defend myself. But I should prefer to get along without a duel; I do not like to fight with dwarfs.”

(Paris, July 31, 1778, to his father.)

26. “Do you imagine that I would write an opera comique in the same manner as an opera seria? There must be as little learning and seriousness in an opera buffa as there must be much of these elements in an opera seria; but all the more of playfulness and merriment. I am not responsible for the fact that there is a desire also to hear comic music in an opera seria; the difference is sharply drawn here. I find that the buffoon has not been banished from music, and in this respect the French are right.”

 (Vienna, June 16, 1781, to his father. Mozart draws the line of demarcation sharply between tragedy and comedy in opera.  [”Shakespeare has taught us to accept an infusion of the comic element in plays of a serious cast; but Shakespeare was an innovator, a Romanticist, and, measured by old standards, his dramas are irregular. The Italians, who followed classic models, for a reason amply explained by the genesis of the art-form, rigorously excluded comedy from serious operas, except as intermezzi, until they hit upon a third classification, which they called opera semiseria, in which a serious subject was enlivened with comic episodes. Our dramatic tastes being grounded in Shakespeare, we should be inclined to put down ‘Don Giovanni’ as a musical tragedy; or, haunted by the Italian terminology, as opera semiseria; but Mozart calls it opera buffa, more in deference to the librettist’s work, I fancy, than his own.”—“How to Listen to Music,” page 221. H.E.K.])

27. “In opera, willy-nilly, poetry must be the obedient daughter of music. Why do Italian operas please everywhere, even in Paris, as I have been a witness, despite the wretchedness of their librettos? Because in them music rules and compels us to forget everything else. All the more must an opera please in which the plot is well carried out, and the words are written simply for the sake of the music and not here and there to please some miserable rhyme, which, God knows, adds nothing to a theatrical representation but more often harms it. Verses are the most indispensable thing in music, but rhymes, for the sake of rhymes, the most injurious. Those who go to work so pedantically will assuredly come to grief along with the music. It were best if a good composer, who understands the stage, and is himself able to suggest something, and a clever poet could be united in one, like a phoenix. Again, one must not fear the applause of the unknowing.”

 (Vienna, October 13, 1781, to his father. The utterance is notable as showing Mozart’s belief touching the relationship between text and music; he places himself in opposition to Gluck whose ideas were at a later day accepted by Wagner. [”It was my intention to confine music to its true dramatic province, of assisting poetical expression, and of augmenting the interest of the fable, without interrupting the action, or chilling it with useless and superfluous ornaments; for the office of music, when joined to poetry, seemed to me to resemble that of coloring in a correct and well disposed design, where the lights and shades only seem to animate the figures without altering the outline.” Gluck in his dedication of “Alceste” to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. “The error in the genre of opera consists herein, that a means of expression (music) has been made the end, while the end of expression (the drama) has been made a means.” Wagner, “Opera and Drama.” H.E.K.])

28. “Nota bene, what has always seemed unnatural in an aria are the asides. In speech one can easily and quickly throw in a few words in an aside; but in an aria, in which the words must be repeated, the effect is bad.”

 (Munich, November 8, 1780, to his father. Mozart had been invited to Munich to compose an opera, “Idomeneo, Re di Creta,” for the carnival of 1781. [In contradistinction to the observations touching poetry and music in the preceding paragraph, this remark shows that he nevertheless had a sense of dramatic propriety. He accepted the form as he found it, but protested against the things which stood in the way of its vitalization. H.E.K.])

29. “The second duet will be cut out entirely—more for the good than the harm of the opera. You shall see for yourself, if you read over the scene, that it would be weakened and cooled by an aria or duet, which, moreover, would be extremely annoying to the other actors who would have to stand around with nothing to do; besides the magnanimous contest between ‘Ilia’ and ‘Idamante’ would become too long and therefore lose in value.”

 (Munich, November 13, 1780, to his father. The reference is to the opera “Idomeneo.”)

30. “It will be better to write a recitative under which the instruments can do some good work; for in this scene, which is to be the best in the whole opera, there will be so much noise and confusion on the stage that an aria would cut but a sorry figure.  Moreover there will be a thunder-storm which is not likely to cease out of respect for an aria, and the effect of a recitative between two choruses will be incomparably better.”

 (Munich, November 15, to his father. Mozart was at work on “Idomeneo.”)

31. “Don’t you think that the speech of the subterranean voice is too long? Think it over, carefully. Imagine the scene on the stage. The voice must be terrifying—it must be impressive, one must believe it real. How can this be so if the speech is too long—the length itself convincing the listener of the fictitiousness of the scene? If the speech of the ‘Ghost’ in ‘Hamlet’ were not so long it would be more effective.”

 (Vienna, November 29, 1780, to his father, who had made the following suggestions respecting the opera “Idomeneo.” “Idamante and Ilia have a short quarrel (near the close of the opera) in a few words of recitative which is interrupted by a subterranean noise, whereupon the oracle speaks also from the depths. The voice and the accompaniment must be moving, terrifying and most extraordinary; it ought to make a masterpiece of harmony.”)

32. “In a word: far-fetched or unusual words are always out of place in an agreeable aria; moreover, I should like to have the aria suggest only restfulness and satisfaction; and if it consisted of only one part I should still be satisfied—in fact, I should prefer to have it so.”

 (Munich, December 5, 1780, to his father. “Idomeneo” is still the subject of discussion.)

33. “As to the matter of popularity, be unconcerned; there is music in my opera for all sorts of persons—but none for long ears.”

 (Munich, December 16, 1780, to his father, who had expressed a fear that Mozart would not write down to the level of his public.  [On December 11, his father had written: “I recommend you not to think in your work only of the musical public, but also of the unmusical. You know that there are a hundred ignorant people for every ten true connoisseurs; so do not forget what is called popular and tickle the long ears.” H.E.K.])

34. “I have had a good deal of trouble with him about the quartet. The oftener I fancy it performed on the stage the more effective it seems to me; and it has pleased all who have heard it on the pianoforte. Raaff alone thinks it will make no effect.  He said to me in private: ‘Non c’e da spianar la voce—it is too curt.’ As if we should not speak more than we sing in a quartet!

He has no understanding of such things. I said to him simply:

‘My dear friend, if I knew a single note which might be changed in this quartet I would change it at once; but I have not been so completely satisfied with anything in the opera as I am with this quartet; when you have heard it sung together you will talk differently. I have done my best to fit you with the two arias, will do it again with the third, and hope to succeed; but you must let the composer have his own way in trios and quartets.’ Whereupon he was satisfied. Recently he was vexed because of one of the words in his best aria—‘rinvigorir’ and ‘ringiovenir,’ particularly ‘vienmi a rinvigorir’—five i’s. It is true it is very unpleasant at the conclusion of an aria.”

(Munich, December 27, 1780, to his father. Raaff was the principal singer in the opera “Idomeneo,” which Mozart had been commissioned to write by the Elector for Munich. The observation shows how capable Mozart was of appreciating foreign criticism.)

35. “My head and hands are so full of the third act that it would not be strange if I were myself transformed into a third act. It has cost me more care than an entire opera, for there is scarcely a scene in it which is not interesting. The accompaniment for the subterranean voice consists of five voices only—three trombones and two French-horns, which are placed at the point from which the voice proceeds. At this moment the whole orchestra is silent.”

 (Munich, January 3, 1781, to his father, whom in the same letter he invites to Munich to hear the opera.)

36. “After the chorus of mourning the King, the populace, everybody, leave the stage, and the next scene begins with the directions: ‘Idomeneo in ginochione nel tempio (Idomeneus, kneeling in the temple).’ That will never do; he must come with all his following. That necessitates a march, and I have composed a very simple one for two violins, viola, bass and two oboes, which is to be played a mezza voce, during which the King enters and the priests make the preparations for the sacrifice. Then the King sinks on his knees and begins his prayer. In Electra’s recitative, after the subterranean voice, the word ‘Partono (they go)’ should be written in; I forgot to look at the copy made for the printer and do not know whether or how the direction has been written in. It seems silly to me that everybody should hurry away only in order to leave Mademoiselle Electra alone.”

 (Munich, January 3, 1781, to his father.)

37. “I am glad to compose the book. The time is short, it is true, for it must be performed about the middle of September; but the circumstances connected with the performances, and a number of other purposes, are of such a character that they enliven my spirits in such a degree that I hurry to my writing desk and remain seated there with great joy.”

 (Vienna, August 1, 1781, to his father. The opera referred to is “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail.” The “circumstances” were the court festivals which were to celebrate the coming of the Russian Grand Duke, from which Mozart, as was his wont, expected all manner of future benefits.)

38. “As regards the work of Stephanie you are right, of course, but nevertheless the poetry is well fitted to the character of the stupid, coarse and malicious Osmin. I know full well that the style of the verse is none of the best, but it has so adjusted itself to the musical thoughts (which were promenading in my brain in advance) that the lines had to please me, and I will wager there will be no disappointment at the performance. So far as the songs are concerned they are not to be despised. Belmont’s aria ‘O, wie angstlich’ could scarcely have been written better for music.”

 (Vienna, October 13, 1781, to his father. Stephanie was the author of the libretto of “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail.”)

39. “An aria has been written for Osmin in the first act....You have seen only the beginning and end of it, which must be effective; the rage of Osmin is made ridiculous by the use of Turkish music. In developing the aria I have given him (Fischer, a bass) a chance to show his beautiful low tones. The ‘By the beard of the Prophet’ remains in the same tempo but has quicker notes, and as his anger grows continually, when one thinks that the aria is come to an end, the Allegro assai must make the best kind of an effect when it enters in a different measure and key.  Here is the reason: a man who is in such a violent rage oversteps all order, all moderation; he forgets himself, and the music must do the same.

 “Inasmuch as the passions, whether violent or not, must never be carried in their expression to the verge of disgust, and music, even in the most awful situations must not offend the ear but always please, consequently always remain music, I have not chosen a key foreign to F (i.e. the key of the aria), but a related one,--not the nearest, D minor, but the more distant, A minor. You know how I have given expression to Belmont’s aria, ‘O, wie angstlich, O wie feurig,’—there is a suggestion of the beating heart,--the violins in octaves. This is the favorite aria of all who have heard it,--of myself, as well,--and is written right into the voice of Adamberger. One can see the reeling and trembling, one can see the heaving breast which is illustrated by a crescendo; one hears the lispings and sighs expressed by the muted violins with flute in unison. The Janizary chorus is, as such, all that could be asked, short and jolly, written to suit the Viennese.”

(Vienna, September 26, 1781, to his father. Concerning the composition of “Die Entfuhrung,” Mozart delivered himself at greater length and more explicitly than about any other opera.  From the above excerpt one can learn his notions touching musical characterization and delineation. [”Turkish” music, or “Janizary” music, is that in which the percussion effects of Oriental music are imitated—music utilizing the large drum, cymbals, etc. H.E.K.])

40. “The close will make a deal of noise; and that is all that is necessary for the end of an act;--the noisier the better, the shorter the better, so that the people shall not get too cool to applaud.”

 (Vienna, September 26, 1781, to his father. The Trio at the end of the first act is the finale referred to.)

41. “My opera is to be performed again next Friday, but I have protested against it as I do not want it to be ridden to death at once. The public, I may say, are daft about this opera. It does a fellow good to receive such applause.”

 (Vienna, July 27, 1782, to his father.)

42. “My opera was performed again yesterday, this time at the request of Gluck. Gluck paid me many compliments on it. I am to dine with him tomorrow.”

 (Vienna, August 7, 1782, to his father. [How Mozart and Gluck differed in principle on the relation between text and music the reader has already had an opportunity to learn. H.E.K.])

43. “The most necessary thing is that the whole be really comical; then, if possible, there should be two equally good female parts, one seria, the other mezzo carattere; but one must be as good as the other. The third woman may be all buffa, also all the men if necessary.”

 (Vienna, May 7, 1783, to his father, in Salzburg, where the Abbe Varesco was to write an opera libretto.)

44. “It would be a pity if I should have composed this music for nothing, that is to say if no regard is to be shown for things that are absolutely essential. Neither you, nor Abbe Varesco, nor I, reflected that it will be a bad thing, that the opera will be a failure, in fact, if neither of the principal women appears on the scene until the last minute, but both are kept promenading on the bastion of the fortress. I credit the audience with patience enough for one act, but it would never endure the second. It must not be.”

 (Vienna, December 6, 1783, to his father. The opera in question, entitled “L’Oca del Cairo,” was never finished.)

45. “Abbe Varesco has written over the cavatina for Lavina: a cui servira la musica della cavatina antecedente,--that is the cavatina of Celidora. But that will never do. In Celidora’s cavatina the words are comfortless and hopeless, while in Lavina’s cavatina they are full of comfort and hope. Moreover it is hackneyed and no longer customary habit to let one singer echo the song of another. At best it might only be done by a soubrette and her sweetheart at ultime parti.”

 (Vienna, December 24, 1783, to his father. The Italian phrase is a direction that the music of a preceding cavatina might be used for a second cavatina.)

46. “It is much more natural, since they have all come to an agreement in the quartetto to carry out their plan of attack that the men leave the stage to gather their helpers together, and the women quietly retire to their retreat. All that can be allowed them is a few lines of recitative.”

 (Vienna, December 24, 1783, to his father. The situation referred to was in Varesco’s opera which never reached completion.)

47. “At six o’clock I drove with Count Canal to the so-called ‘Breitfeldischen Ball’ where the pick of the beauties of Prague are in the habit of congregating. That would have been something for you, my friend! I fancy seeing you,--not walking, but limping,--after all the pretty girls and women! I did not dance, neither did I spoon;--the first because I was too tired, the second because of my congenital bashfulness. But I saw with great pleasure how all these people hopped about delightedly to the music of my ‘Figaro’ turned into contradances and Allemands.  Here nothing is talked about except ‘Figaro,’ nothing played, piped, sung or whistled except ‘Figaro;’ no opera is attended except ‘Figaro,’ always ‘Figaro.’ Certainly a great honor for me.”

(Prague, January 15, 1787, to a friend, whose name is unknown.)

48. “’Don Giovanni’ was not written for the Viennese; rather for the people of Prague, but most of all for me and my friends.”

 (Reported by Nissen, who also relates that Mozart often said “The Bohemians are the ones who understand me.” When “Le Nozze di Figaro” received an enthusiastic reception in Prague, Mozart said: “Because the Bohemians understand me so well I must write an opera for them.” The opera was “Don Giovanni.”)

49. “I am just home from the opera; it was as crowded as ever.

The duet, ‘Mann und Weib,’ and the bells in the first act, were repeated as usual,--also the trio of the boys in the second act.  But what delights me most is the silent applause! It is easy to see how this opera is ever rising.”

(Vienna, October 7, 1791, to his wife. The opera was “Die Zauberflote.”)





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