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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Don Giovanni

During his life, Mozart's opera development was influenced by the current political agenda. Mozart yearned to compose full scale operas and this direction would have provided him more support in Vienna. Although Mozart was highly regarded for his musical gifts, he was often viewed by the Viennese as an outsider. Simply put, the Viennese audiences believed that Mozart's operas had not obtained equal status to Italian opera.

How did current political power have an effect on the development of Mozart's operas? During Mozart's life, censorship was enforced by the ruling class and this genius found himself caught in the inevitable web. In 650 ruling years of the Hapsburg dynasty, the only female ruler was the Archduchess of Austria, Maria Theresa, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia (1717-1780). She busied herself with censorship issues that negatively impacted the arts. She exhibited a prudish attitude toward the theater and for the subject matter found in plays, operas, books, and magazines. The arts were monitored by the appointed censorship ministry headed by von Swieten. The Archduchess's restricted viewpoint caused Haydn's opera Der Krumme Teufel to be bananed because of its political satire and its sexually compromising sections. A Bavarian magazine illustrating a good sense of humor poked fun at the dialect and characteristics of its own people, and as a result, Maria Theresa forbade the import of the magazine to her kingdom. She added: "I for one have no love whatever smacks of irony.... It is inconsistent with the love of one's neighbor. Why should people waste their time writing such stuff or reading it?" It is doubtful if the libretti for Mozart's operas The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutti, or Don Giovanni would have passed the censorship bureaus's inspection.

In 1765, Austria was introduced into a world of Enlightenment when Maria Theresa decided that her son Joseph II should act as her coregent. Her son was much more liberal than the Archduchess, and as soon as Joseph II was able, he himself began to place restrictions on the censorship bureau. In the 1780s, following his mother's death, censorship was being curtailed. Many political pamphlets, satires, articles, and books appeared. Torture was abolished, executions were few, and the Church and the nobility lost its political and economic power. The peasantry and the literary people viewed Joseph II as their personal liberator from a feudalist kingdom.

Mozart and his opera were in the middle of the political upheaval. Because of Joseph II's urge for social change, music was deeply affected in a positive way. Mozart joined his friend and opera librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte in a new world of artistic acceptance. It may be Joseph II who enabled the existence of the operas Don Giovanni, Figaro, and Cosi.

The emotional content portrayed in the opera Don Giovanni is something new. Abject terror was the emotion intended. The Overture to Don Giovanni gives us a brief opportunity of what it will be like to experience the opera. The piece opens in D minor, which later in the opera represents the "punishment key for murder." After the dramatic opening chords is the quiet dotted rhythm in the strings, which quickly becomes the first violin chromatic and syncopated melody, played simultaneously with the undercurrent of sixteenth notes in the second violins, which signals something foreboding. Then a passage of sixteenth notes played by first violin and flute add to the tension and suspense with the sequence of crescendos and then suddenly a soft dynamic. The Allegro section surprisingly is in the key of D major, which is maintained through the conclusion of this lively overture.

The Viennese felt that Mozart's operas may have lacked the grandness of Italian opera and he may have been viewed as an outsider, but Mozart also gained something politically positive. In Act I Don Giovanni shouts "viva la liberta" (long live liberty). In the opera, the enthusiastic outburst is puzzling. While everyone on stage siezes the moment and shouts "viva la liberta" a triumphal march is played. Many scholars have debated the logical purpose of the outcry. For Mozart, many believe, it was a tribute to society's liberation and this was meant as a personal thank you to Joseph II. Curiously, Mozart was appointed as the Imperial Royal Chamber Musician soon after the first performance of Don Giovanni

-- program notes by Laurien Jones

November, 2004