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Mozart was fascinated by the magic of the theater. In
all, he composed twenty operas. Eight are of the type
called Italian opera seria, seven opera buffa, and five
are of a type called Singspiel—a German light comic
opera with spoken dialogue.
During his mature period in Vienna, Mozart composed
three masterpieces: Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Don
Giovanni (1787), and Così fan tutte (1790). Each is
an opera buffa but each has newly serious tone. The
librettist for all three was Lorenzo da Ponte.
Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838) was born of an Italian
Jewish family but became a Catholic priest. As part of his
training in a Catholic seminary, da Ponte became an expert
in classical languages and Italian poetry. In the 1780s he
served as the official librettist for Emperor Joseph II in
Vienna. After Mozart’s death, da Ponte’s fortunes declined,
and he made his way to London and then the United States,
where he became the first professor of Italian at Columbia
Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) is based
on a play by French playwright Beaumarchais. In it
an honest manservant (Figaro) outwits a philandering,
mostly dishonest nobleman (Count Almaviva).
Because it depicted the nobility as ignoble,
Beaumarchais’s play was at first banned in France and
soon in the Holy Roman Empire as well. Mozart and
da Ponte toned down the anti-artistocracy element of
the play, and Emperor Joseph II allowed them to
present the subject as an opera.
The title character in Le nozze di Figaro is Figaro,
manservant to Count Almaviva. The stalwart but
sometimes conniving Figaro spends most of the opera
trying to outwit the count. In his aria “Se vuol
ballare” (“If you want to dance”) Figaro declares that
if the count chooses to fool around, he (Figaro) will
call the tune.
The victim in Le nozze di Figaro is the count’s wife
(Countess Rosina) who is wounded by her husband’s
womanizing. Mozart shows her constancy and noble
stature in the aria “Porgi, amor” (“Bring, love”) as he
assigns the countess long, graceful vocal lines. In
general, there are few da capo arias and little in the
way of showy, coloratura singing in Le nozze di
The American soprano Renée Fleming
of Rochester, New York, singing the role of Countess Almaviva
The adolescent figure Cherubino is a source of
complication for everyone in Le nozze di Figaro. His
youthful heart is constantly in flux, and he is uncertain
about the true nature of love. In his deceptively
simple aria “Voi, che sapete” (“You ladies who know”)
he asks the ladies of the court to tell him about love.
The part of adolescent Cherubino was intended by
Mozart to be sung by a woman dressed as a young
man. It is thus called a trouser role.
Mozart begins his aria “Voi, che sapete” with an instrumental introduction
fashioned as antecedent (A) and consequent (B) phrases. When the voice of
Cherubino enters he/she inserts a new four-bar phrase between the first two.
This aria is a fine example of Mozart’s capacity to write music that is sublimely
beautiful, yet sublimely simple.
The glories of Mozart’s opere buffe are found in this
ensemble finales. In these Mozart pushes the
drama along at breakneck speed by having two,
three, four, or more soloists sing separate
contrapuntal lines to separate texts, each expressing
a particular point of view. When placed at the end of
an act, the ensemble finale provides a rousing way to
bring down the curtain.
During the final year of his life (1791), Mozart
composed a conventional opera seria (La clemenza di
Tito) for the crowning of Emperor Leopold II in
Prague as king of Bohemia, as well as a very
unconventional Singspeil (Die Zauberflöte) for a
suburban theater in Vienna.
• The Requiem Mass is the funeral music for the
Roman Catholic church. Mozart was commissioned
to write one by a mysterious Count von Walsegg in
the summer of 1791.
• Because Mozart was ill at this time, he came to see
the Requiem as his own Requiem Mass.
At the core of almost every Requiem Mass is the Dies
irae (Day of Wrath), a lengthy, phantasmagorical text
originating in the thirteenth century within a
Gregorian chant. The Dies irae speaks of the pain
and torment of hell and the Day of Judgment.
Dies irae, dies illa,
Solvet saeclum in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla.
Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando judex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus.
Day of wrath, that day,
When the ages shall be
reduced to ash
As foretold by David and
the Sibyl Prophet.
What terror will occur
When the eternal judge
To loosen the chains of those
in hell.
A subsequent verse of the Dies irae, the “Tuba
mirum” (“Wonderous trumpet”), recalls how the
trumpet shall sound on the Day of Judgment. Here
Mozart creates perhaps the most famous trombone
solo in the entire literature. In the history of
orchestral writing in opera, the sound of the trombone
had frequently been associated with those of Hell.
The beginning of the “Tuba mirum” of the
Dies irae of Mozart’s Requiem Mass
Perhaps the most graphic moment in Mozart’s
Requiem is found in the “Confutatis” of the Dies irae.
Here Mozart creates music that reflects the contrast
between the hellish cries of the damned
(“Confutatis”=those confounded) against the heavenly
sounds of the elect (“Benedictus”=those blessed).
The Dies irae concludes with the text “Lacrimosa dies
illa” (“Ah, that day of tears and mourning”). For this
Mozart creates a musical funeral procession in the
midst of which he makes a remarkable musical
gesture. The soprano line ascends in a mostly
chromatic scale for more than an octave, like the just
man or woman rising from the ashes of Hell.
The portion of the “Lacrimosa dies illa” in
which the just soul arises to be judged
Death prevented Mozart from completing his Requiem. It was left to
his students, most notably Franz Xavier Süssmayr (1766-1803), to
compose a few unfinished portions and flesh out the orchestration.
This figure shows some of the opening of the “Lacrimosa”; these
notes are last notes written by Mozart.