Famous Composers and their Works, Vol. 2 online

. (page 8 of 32)
Online LibraryVariousFamous Composers and their Works, Vol. 2 → online text (page 8 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

works; and one may say with Rubinstein, "I think it an error, however, to
condemn for that reason the 'Stabat Mater' of Rossini or the 'Requiem'
of Verdi in Protestant countries. The Protestant may indeed say: 'I have
a different feeling,' but not, 'That is bad, because it is other than my
feeling of worship.'" Thibaut may attack the church music of Mozart, and
Lorenz may defend it; each expresses thereby his own religious sentiment.
It is true that many of the masses of Mozart, considered as music, are
not to be compared with his works of a higher flight; and the one that is
the most popular, the 12th, so called, was not written by him. But how
about the "Requiem," which he left unfinished, and which has been the
subject of so many legends, so many disputes? Did not the mystery that
for a time surrounded its birth give it a fictitious value? The Requiem
and Kyrie are the work of Mozart as they now exist; the movements from
the Dies Iræ to the first eight bars of the Lacrimosa, also the Domine
Jesu and Hostias, were finished by him in the voice part and bass, and
the principal points of the instrumentation were also indicated by him.
It will be seen, therefore, that the part of Süssmayer, who completed it,
is considerable. Now there has been much discussion concerning the merits
of the double fugue even from the technical standpoint, and it is true
that the most beautiful portions of the work are the least polyphonic,
as the wailing Lacrimosa, which beyond a peradventure belongs to Mozart,
although so little was actually written with his own hand; the Confutatis
with the antiphonal effects of male and female voices, and the marvellous,
unearthly harmonies of the _Oro supplex_; the powerful and concise
_Rex tremendae_. On the other hand the _Tuba mirum_ with the trombone
cantabile is an inadequate setting of the dread scene. By many worshippers
of Mozart, who at the same time believe in the supremacy of religious
music, the Requiem is called the truest and most genuine expression of
Mozart's nature, and his imperishable monument. But the contrary opinion
now prevails among prominent musicians. The Requiem as a whole cannot
be considered as complete a revelation of the genius of the composer as
the G-minor symphony, the quartets dedicated to Haydn, "Figaro" or "Don

Now the supreme genius of Mozart is seen in his dramatic works. It has
been said that he completed the palace of Italian opera and laid the
enduring foundations of the German. This saying has more of epigram than
truth; or it is only partially true. The opera is a thing of fashion,
an amusement of the day. It is finally shaped by the prevailing popular
taste, although the beginnings of a new and varying form may be in
opposition to that taste. The history of opera from the time of its
invention at Florence to the pilgrimages to Bayreuth is a story of fickle
tastes, passionate caprices, violent disputes. First there was the revolt
against the contrapuntists; then came the rule of the singer; then the
conflict between dramatic truth and personal vainglory, a conflict that
was born with the birth of opera. Run over the "History of Operas" by
Clément and Larousse; glance at the roll of singers from the early times
of virtuosoship: names that are utterly forgotten, and yet they once
filled the mouths of men and were the idols of the day. It is a dreary
business, this reading of the exploits of singers and opera makers of
the past, - not unlike the deciphering of moss-covered tombstones in
the hillside graveyard of a well-nigh deserted New England village.
To better appreciate the work of Mozart, let us briefly consider the
condition of opera when he first looked toward the stage. In the middle
of the eighteenth century the singer ruled supreme. They were great days,
those eighteenth-century days, - "When men had longer breaths and voices
that never grew old, when strange and terrible things still happened,
sapphire rings presented them by the demon, processions to welcome them,
and violent deaths by murder or in brawls." The singers had contributed
largely in forming the lyric drama, but their demands became exorbitant
and the composer was their slave. The introduction of castrates on the
stage was of special influence in shaping the operatic conditions. Take
any _opera seria_ of that day: it consists simply of a series of detached
airs strung together by the poet's story. There was no dramatic action;
there was simply an operatic concert. The _prima donna_ was the queen
of the theatre; she claimed the privilege of the escort of a page when
she made her entrance; he held the train of her robe and followed every
movement. The tenor was obliged to be either a noble father, a traitor or
tyrant. The _basso_ was restricted to _opera buffa_, for it was thought
that his voice was naturally too "grotesque" to be heard in _opera seria_.
The castrate was the monarch of the scene. Singularly enough, he was
called the _primo uomo_, and to him was given the lover's part. His very
person was sacred on the stage. Others might slay and be slain; he was
inviolable, and his head was always crowned with laurel. It was the rule
in Italy, never to admit the murder of the chief singer, although the
piece itself might reek with blood. These male sopranos were spoiled
children. One must make his appearance upon a horse; another insisted on
descending from a mountain; another would not sing unless his plume was
five feet in length. The moment they finished their airs, they left the
stage, or remained upon it sucking oranges or drinking wine. They made
their demands on the composer; he was obliged to write a bravura aria,
or an air _di portamento_ with perhaps a trumpet obligato, according to
their caprice. They robbed their associates of their airs if they saw a
possible distribution of glory. The chief singer and the composer between
them made the opera, for there was but little ensemble work. The custom
was to finish the second act with a duet between the castrate and the
first soprano; to end the third by a terzetto in which the first tenor
was admitted. Grétry tells us that during the seven or eight years he
lived in Rome, he never saw a serious opera succeed. "If the theatre was
crowded, it was to hear a certain singer; and when the singer left the
stage, the people in the boxes played cards or ate ices, and the people
in the parterre yawned." And Voltaire summed up the whole matter when he
wrote M. de Cideville (1752) that "the opera is a public rendezvous where
people meet on certain days without knowing why; it is a house which is
frequented by everybody, although the master is freely cursed and the
crowd bored."


Reproduced from a photograph.]

It was different in _opera buffa_. In this species of opera the virtuosos
were not so powerful as the poet and the composer. The castrate could
not afford to waste his time in consorting with the "_bouffons_," and so
his place was taken by the tenor, who became the passionate lover. In
like manner the _prima donna_, was paid such a small sum that the manager
was obliged to look for women of ambition and dramatic talent instead of
acknowledged vocal skill. The _basso_ was admitted to the company, and
here was the foundation of an ensemble impossible in grand opera. The
_opera seria_ remained in its conventional or ideal world; the _opera
buffa_ was concerned with subjects of everyday life. The former clung to
history or legend; the latter delighted in appealing to the life of the
people. The composer was allowed more liberty. He was not confined to the
_da capo_ air, composed of two parts with the invariable repetition of
the first; he could use the rondo, where the chief melody appears after
each secondary theme; or the cavatina, with one movement; or the chanson
with its simple couplet; in other words, he could better suit the dramatic
action. He wrote duets, trios, quartets of importance, and gradually the
finale was developed. So too the orchestra, which had been subordinated to
the imperious singer in _opera seria_, found its voice, and even sang in
passages where the text demanded of the singer a rapid delivery that was
almost dramatic speech. The _opera buffa_ rapidly grew in public favor,
and Arteaga in his famous book on the "Revolution of Italian Dramatic
Music" frankly confessed that the _opera buffa_ was in better condition
and gave greater promise than its more pretentious rival.

The first attempts of Mozart in dramatic composition do not call for
special attention. They were in the conventional style of the day, and
the librettos were wretched. Two of them "Bastien et Bastienne" and "La
finta Giardiniera" were revived in Germany in 1892 and with considerable
success. In the latter the characters are well defined; the melody is
spontaneous; there is color; and the finales are well developed. But in
"Idomeneo" (1781) we first see the peculiar dramatic genius of Mozart.
There is still the formalism of the _opera seria_, but there are traces
of the influence of French dramatic sincerity, and of his own artistic
individuality. Jahn has described the opera as "the genuine Italian _opera
seria_ brought to its utmost perfection by Mozart's highly cultivated
individuality." The chorus is brought into prominence; the instrumentation
is richer than in contemporaneous works, and there are evidences of the
study of Gluck, as in the accompaniment of three trombones and two horns
in the proclaiming of the oracle of Neptune. That he was convinced at the
time of the superiority of French taste in dramatic music, as in truth of
diction and sincerity, is shown by the fact that he wished to bring it
out in Vienna rearranged after the French model. And it may here be said
that if Mozart in the formation of his song was strongly influenced by
Italian spirit, he was also deeply impressed by the sense of proportion,
that was characteristic of French opera of his day. Grétry had shown great
art in the connecting of the operatic scenes, translating faithfully the
spoken word into musical speech, and individualizing by musical means the
creatures of the play. It was reserved for Mozart, the greater genius,
to carry Grétry's theories farther and at the same time never lose sight
of the musical expression. Méhul once said that Grétry made wit and not
music; this reproach could not justly be made against Mozart, although
he walked in the same path with the author of "Le Tableau parlant" and
"Richard." In spite of both the French and Italian influences, there
was much that was novel in the expression of the phrase, the variety of
thematic development, and the modulation, harmony, and instrumentation.
Its first performance was an epoch in the history of opera.

In the "Escape from the Seraglio" (1782) there was a still greater
advance, and here is seen the beginning of what is now known as German
opera. Mozart, while composing it, wrote his father at various times
concerning his operatic creed. Quotations from these letters will perhaps
best explain his theories: "A man who abandons himself to his anger,
becomes extravagant and is no longer master of himself. If music paints
anger, it must imitate its model; and however violent the passions may be
they should never provoke disgust. Music ought never to wound the ear.
Even in the most horrible situations it ought to satisfy the ear. Music
should always remain music." Here it will be seen that he is with La Harpe
and against Gluck. "Poetry in opera should be the obedient daughter of
music. Why do the Italian operas, in spite of miserable texts, please
everywhere, even in Paris? Because the music dominates as sovereign and
everything else is accepted." Here again Mozart is directly opposed to
Gluck; the former is the disciple of the Italian school; the latter
faithful to the French theory. Perhaps, as Victor Wilder suggests, the
truth is between the two extreme points; poetry and music in opera are
necessarily in reciprocal independence, and each ought in turn to dominate
the other, as the action hastens or is at a standstill. Gluck himself
admitted that "the union between words and music should be so close that
the poem seems as much made for the music as the music for the poem." Now
Italian dramatic music was chiefly concerned with the whole effect of
the poetical thought; the French was more concerned with the detail; the
German was more allied to the symphony, and there was a more even balance
between the vocal melody and the instrumental phrase. (It will be borne
in mind that I speak of German opera as it existed before the theories
and work of Richard Wagner.) As "Idomeneo" is distinguished by choral
dignity and French frankness of dramatic expression, the "Escape from the
Seraglio" is characterized by exquisite melody, by delightful ensemble,
and by ingenious instrumentation. There is an exuberance, a freshness in
this opera, that led von Weber to affirm that here Mozart had reached "the
full maturity of his powers as an artist, and that his further progress
after that was only in knowledge of the world." It would be an interesting
task to show the growth of Mozart's dramatic genius as seen in this
glorification of the old German Singspiel; the characterization of the
different parts by musical means. His letters to his father show the pains
he took in the instrumentation, now seeking with triangle, big drum and
cymbals Turkish effects, now emphasizing the sighs of Belmont with muted
strings and the flute.

Rossini once said that his "Barbiere" was an _opera buffa_, while Mozart
in "Le Nozze di Figaro" gave the model of the _dramma giocoso_: a fine
distinction, worthy of the shrewdness of the author. This Italian
adaptation of a French comedy set to music by a German differs from
the accepted form of _opera buffa_, in the development of the plot and
the delineation of character. The opera is at once dramatic, comic and
musical, not merely a bundle of comic situations and gross caricature with
incidental music. Rossini's "Barbiere," a masterpiece for all time, is
undoubtedly the truer reflection of the spirit of Beaumarchais; for Mozart
has idealized the intrigues and characters of the play. The libretto of da
Ponte is admirable in spite of the omission of the political satire that
perhaps justifies the immorality of the play. In this opera the musical
character-drawing is most cunning. Susanna and Marcellina are jealous,
but how different is their common jealousy from the noble jealousy of
the Countess. Rossini has drawn the Countess in her youth and made her a
mischievous and rebellious child. Mozart finds her a loving and abused
wife, who does not encourage the page's advances, but, suffering, yet not
without hope, seeks to win back her husband's love. In Susanna's passion
there is a tinge of sensuality, but the music given her by Mozart is nobly
sensuous. And so her merriment, her teasing, her caprices are all fitly
expressed. The Cherubino of Beaumarchais is a wanton youth who looks with
amorous eye upon all women; but his fever is turned into absorbing and
trembling love when he is in the presence of Mozart's Countess. So too
the men are carefully distinguished. The music given to each one of the
characters can not be mistaken; it surrounds each like an atmosphere.
This characterization is clearly seen in the masterly finales. Take the
eight movements, each distinct in design, that form the finale of the
second act. Succeeding complications as the number of persons in the
action increases; different emotions, as jealousy, merriment, anger,
forgiveness; the entrance and denunciation of the drunken gardener; the
arrival of Marcellina and her confederates; all these seemingly opposing
elements are firmly bound together and knit into an harmonious whole
that constantly increases in dramatic and musical strength. The other
great finale, a succession of misunderstandings and surprises is almost
equally remarkable, and the sextet, which according to Kelly was Mozart's
favorite piece in the whole opera, is not far below it. All these ensemble
numbers are at the same time so skilfully constructed that there is an
appearance of utter freedom of dramatic action. No words can give an
idea of the wealth of melody, a wealth that is prodigally squandered,
and yet this melody enhances the dramatic truth and does not stifle
it. The instrumentation is always appropriate to the scenic effect. It
supplements the voice. Whenever the same subject is used in a great
number of recitatives, there is an astonishing variety of instrumental
expression. It is said that Mozart's contemporaries were particularly
struck by his employment of wind instruments, as in the accompaniment to
Cherubino's romanze and air. And yet how simple the means; how meager
the resources would seem to young composers of to-day who even in comic
operas feel obliged to use the trombones and drums for the accompaniment
of the slightest recitative. In this opera the orchestra takes its
rightful place, it does not seek to dominate. It is always conscious of
the action on the stage, but it is not envious; it gladly assists, and
strengthens the impression. Its tone-colors aid in the distinguishing of
the characters. And above all, in the orchestra as well as on the stage,
there is ever present the sense of dramatic truth and unerring instinct in
the expression of it.

The libretto of "Don Giovanni" has been often censured, and without real
justice; for nearly all the feelings of humanity are expressed by the
characters. The supernatural, the vulgar, tragedy and comedy are mixed
together; even in the scene where the rake-helly hero plunges into eternal
flames, the element of farce is present. Beethoven, it is true, thought
the subject a scandalous one, unworthy of musical treatment; but it was
admirably adapted to the dramatic temperament of Mozart. "Don Giovanni
is a temperament of flame and fire that has no time for monologues; he
acts; it is life without shackles, without curb, flowing as the lava of a
volcano, which destroys everything in its path."

The various scenes, the conflicting passions, are marvellously reproduced
in the music of Mozart. From the very opening where Leporello keeps
impatient watch to the unearthly scene between the Statue and the
libertine, there is an unceasing flow of exquisite melody that is not
only appropriate to the characters and the action, but is also the
fullest and most complete expression of the plot and incidents. Berlioz
objected to the florid air sung by Donna Anna, on the ground that it was
not essentially dramatic; but there have been singers who could express
passion in a roulade and sway the hearer by a trill; such is the power of
personal conviction. It is true that the last finale is an anti-climax.
The interest ceases with the punishment of the hero, and although
attempts have been made to give the opera with this finale, they have not
been successful; and the curtain rightly falls with the descent of Don
Giovanni. To speak in detail of the myriad beauties of this masterpiece
would be simply to analyze the score measure by measure. Its immortal
melodies are known throughout the world. Musicians of all schools have
vied with men eminent in the other walks of life in the most extravagant
eulogy. In this opera is seen the universality of Mozart's genius. His
knowledge of humanity, his sympathy with all classes and conditions of
men. It is the most realistic of his works; it is at the same time the
most ideal. Not without reason did Goethe pass over Cherubini and von
Weber, Auber and Rossini, Beethoven and the rest, and say that Mozart was
the one who should have set his Faust to music. Not without reason did he
mention him with Shakespeare.

"Cosi fan tutte" and "La Clemenza di Tito" were written hurriedly. Neither
is an advance in the career of the composer. The first is a return to
the old-fashioned _opera buffa_; the second looks longingly towards the
ancient _opera seria_. The plot of the former is vulgar, improbable and
stupid; and that of the latter is extremely dull. The music of "Cosi fan
tutte" is often delightful, as in the famous quintet, the second terzet;
but there is not the same degree of psychological characterization found
in his three great operas; and there are many concessions to popular
taste. "La Clemenza di Tito" belongs to that class of compositions
described by the French as _grandes machines officielles_. The finale is
worthy of Mozart; but as a whole the opera is inferior to "Idomeneo" even
in the instrumentation.

When Schikaneder learned that Marinelli, a rival manager, also thought
of putting on the stage a fairy drama made out of Wieland's "Lulu," he
changed the plot of his "Magic flute" and substituted for the evil genius
of the play the high priest Sarastro, who appears to be custodian of the
secrets and the executor of the wishes of the masonic order. The libretto
has been ruthlessly condemned by many for its obscurity, absurdity,
triviality and buffoonery. Certain writers, however, have found a deep
and symbolical meaning in the most frivolous dialogue and even in the
music of the overture. Some have gone so far as to regard the opera as
a symbolical representation of the French Revolution: with the Queen of
Night as the incarnation of royalty; Pamina as Liberty, for whom Tamino,
the People, burns with passionate love; Sarastro as the Wisdom of the
Legislature. Others have claimed that no one who was not a Freemason could
appreciate the merits of the libretto at their true value. Now, Mozart
himself saw nothing in the text but the story of a magic opera. Goethe
and Hegel were equally blind. The former once wrote of the text that "the
author understood perfectly the art of producing great theatrical effects
by contrasts," and Hegel praised the libretto highly for its mixture of
the supernatural and the common, for its episodes of the initiations and
the tests. Rubinstein likes the variety: "pathetic, fantastic, lyric,
comic, naive, romantic, dramatic, tragic, yes, it would be hard to find
an expression that is wanting in it. It is evident the genius of a Mozart
was required to reproduce it all musically, as he has done; but such
texts might incite less genial composers to interesting work." But who
in listening to the music heeds Tamino pursued by the snake, the gloomy
Queen, or the vengeance of the Moor? Who is disquieted by the padlock or
the glockenspiel? He listens to the overture and forgets the "prodigious
complexity" in "its clearness, fascination and irresistible effect," and
he says with Saint Saëns, "it is a _tour de force_ which Mozart only could
have accomplished." He laughs with Papageno; he woos with Tamino; he is
initiated into the solemn mysteries. He does not understand the plot; he
does not desire to understand it; for his mind and his senses are soothed
by the continual and varied melody. As regards the instrumentation Jahn
has condensed all criticism into this one sentence: "It is the point of
departure for all that modern music has achieved in this direction." Nor
can the influence which the opera has exerted in the formation of German
music be overrated. For the first time all the resources of great genius
were brought to bear upon a genuine German opera. No one has summed up so
tersely and so fully the operatic genius of Mozart as Rubinstein: "Gluck
had achieved great things in the opera before him; yes, opened new paths,
but in comparison with Mozart he is, so to say, of stone. Besides, Mozart
has the merit of having removed the opera from the icy pathos of mythology
into real life, into the purely human, and from the Italian to the German
language, and thereby to a national path. The most remarkable feature of
his operas is the musical characteristic he has given to every figure, so
that each acting personage has become an immortal type. That which he has
made, he alone could make: a god-like creation, all flooded with light. In
hearing Mozart I always wish to exclaim: 'Eternal sunshine in music, thy
name is Mozart!'"

Mozart once said in regard to his lesser works, "Woe to the man that
judges me by these trifles." But the skill in instrumentation, the
heaven-born song, the spontaneity of counterpoint, and the exquisite sense
of proportion are often displayed in the serenades and _divertimenti_.
And in these qualities of art he still reigns supreme. It is true that he
founded no school in the narrow sense of the word; but he smoothed the
path for Beethoven; and without him the noble line in direct succession
would have been of later birth. It is idle, and yet it is common in these

Online LibraryVariousFamous Composers and their Works, Vol. 2 → online text (page 8 of 32)