Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)(To hear a preview of the music or review the program, click here)
The origins of the Don Juan myth are buried deep in the tombs of historical allegory, dating back at least to the Middle Ages. Later, in 17th-century Spain, an appetite for its dramatization seems to have arisen as multiple plays appeared in various locales over a period of decades. Within a century composers such as Antonio Caldara and Christoph Willibald Gluck tried their hand in fashioning musical settings.
Flushed with the success of their collaboration in The Marriage of Figaro, it took little for librettist Lorenzo da Ponte to convince Mozart they should accept an invitation to create a new opera to be premiered in Prague in 1787. That city’s more open spirit seemed preferable for introducing this type of plot than in up tight Vienna. Typically, Mozart’s economic fortunes at the time were precarious as he was a profligate spender, living mainly on loans from wealthy patrons. His letters to benefactors reflect continual pleading for extensions on debt repayment while simultaneously requesting even more support.
He undertook the task and worked rapidly, but was repeatedly distracted by requests from various individuals for small occasional pieces. His father’s sudden demise in May of that year threatened to collapse the entire project. With the loss of his most important teacher and mentor, Mozart was suddenly cast adrift. Though the two had been recently estranged, the shock threw the bereaved Mozart into despair that, on top of his own precarious health and continuing financial difficulties, only intensified his feeling of loss.
Most of Don Giovanni was composed in the summer of 1787 in Vienna.
Mozart traveled to Prague in October to complete it as the premier was scheduled there for the 14th in an entertainment to honor visiting royalty. Further difficulties arose when cast members badgered him to provide more and lengthier arias, so the opening was rescheduled for the 29th of the month.
Last minute changes and additions were typical of his work routine. The overture was written the day of the final dress rehearsal, though it was customary for him to formulate its themes and structure mentally in advance. There were no manuscript sketches as it was merely a matter of his applying it to paper, most of which was completed the day before the premiere. Copyists finished orchestra parts the day of the first performance, thus the players were literally sight-reading from parts on which the ink was still fresh.
Multiple dualities mark the entire work, perhaps best exemplified by the overture itself. Mozart labeled his opera a “dramma giocoso” – implying a format both tragic and comic. This is first revealed in the overture’s D-minor/D-major contrasts. The thundering opening chords in an andante D-minor (which, comically, in our time have been appropriated in pseudo-dramatic film scores and television commercials) conflict dynamically with a hushed, intrepid rhythmic idea in the strings that seems to be softly stalking something.
The violins’ opening eight bars (forte then piano)
Impetuous outbursts in unsettling harmonies follow, pursued in turn by combined flute and violins in an arcane series of scales, minor and major, rising and falling, and raising further harmonic questions.
Flute and first violin voice rising and falling scales
Soon “tragic” D-minor gives way to a sunny moderato “giocoso” D-major section that carries to the overture’s end, very much resembling the first movement in a joyous Mozart symphony.
“giocoso” D-major theme
The human personalities we encounter offer the duality of class distinction – aristocrat-peasant. The title character, indeed, any person whose name is prefaced by either “Don” or “Donna,” is an aristocrat to whom Mozart assigned music of a rather stiff, formal, virtuosic style of wide vocal range and static emotion. The rustics, on the other hand, feature music of moderate range with shorter phrases, more linear melodies, – simpler music in effect, by contrast with that of the aristocrats.
There is consensus among respected writers on opera that no composer exceeded Mozart in the ability to clothe individual characters in his operas with music that defines them as fully as does the libretto. The first figure we come upon is Don Giovanni’s bumbling servant Leporello. His furtive acts are implied by tiptoeing eighth notes separated by rests, and forte-piano contrasts of the introduction to his first moment on stage.
Leporello’s comic personality is implied in his introduction
The stiff orchestral introduction to the aristocratic Donna Elvira captures her anger and agitation in spacious melodic leaps.
Stiffly formal intro for the jilted Donna Elvira
It is in the collective ensembles that conclude many scenes and each act where this composer’s gifts are most evident, as the musical identity each individual maintains is directly attributable to the Mozart genius.
The opera’s final line:
De’ perfidi la morte alla vita è sempre ugual.
“The death of wicked men is always just like their life.”