Not only is love at the heart of Mozart’s work, but he celebrated it in a way that still moves us, more than 200 years after his death. Operas such as The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte and The Magic Flute, to mention only the best known, are still among the most popular, the most played and the most recorded. Let’s see why.
Mozart’s work dates from the second half of the 18th century, which is the Classical period. It has specific characteristics that distinguish it from the preceding period, the Baroque. The Classical period is generally taken to start in 1750, the year that J.S. Bach died, and is deemed to end in the early 1800s, when Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) burst upon the world and set a new trend in music.
Mozart was intensely aware that his era needed a type of music that could speak to a wider audience, was simpler in form than the Baroque, and could be hummed by an uneducated public. The fugue was characteristic of Baroque music and consisted of multiple, complex, interwoven themes, where no one theme dominated. What you hear is the structure, whereas the hallmark of the classical period is the melody and a principal theme with a more emotional pull. Of course, these periods aren`t sealed off from one another; Baroque music has a rich melodic development and lays the groundwork for the next period. It’s perhaps more accurate to speak of trends, of directions in musical style.
Mozart was at the heart of this musical and cultural effervescence, which mirrored society itself. He was one of several trying to connect music with audiences, and the theme of love is central to his work. Tunefulness was more highly prized in the second half of the 18th century. Against the background of the Enlightenment and the ferment of social reform, people wanted music that expressed new aspirations and embodied the impulse towards the great economic, social and political changes that were usurping the old feudal system.
The subject matter of 18th century opera underwent a change as well. The love story came to involve not gods or heroes, but human beings and their joys and sorrows, unencumbered by divine interference. The melody reflected the ordinary human who was now part of the operatic cast. In Mozart, the tune erupts everywhere, expressing the way the characters feel or illustrating a turning point in the story. Mozart’s characters are very varied, and they all inhabit the love that stems from the composer’s sympathy for them.
Così fan tutte, for example, features two pairs of lovers wooing. The Marriage of Figaro concerns the struggle between servants and masters, and real love as opposed to feudal privilege. The Magic Flute is a fairytale that sets a parallel between a royal couple who find love under the auspices of the gods Isis and Osiris, and an ordinary couple seeking profane love and the pleasures of life. Mozart shows he has sympathy with both. In Don Giovanni, passions are unleashed, from Don Juan’s frantic pursuit of seduction to the other characters’ different attitudes to love. People like this had never been seen on stage before, and Mozart’s genius has endowed them with a uniqueness that still intrigues us today.
A Mozartian definition of love is found in the concluding lines of Figaro:
“Ah! Now we’ll all be happy! Only love could turn this day of torments, caprice and folly into joy and happiness. Spouses and sweethearts, let’s dance and make merry. Set off the fireworks! And to the sound of a joyful march, let’s hurry off to celebrate!”
The struggle between servants and masters is reconciled in love. It’s a pre-French Revolution concept of emotion, before romantic music presented love and social and political conflict in a new context.
Readers interested in Mozart and love can find performances of Così, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, on YouTube. These are dynamic interpretations by singers who are also accomplished actors. The focus is on romantic intrigue and drama. You’ll be captivated before you know it!
Translated by Cecilia Grayson