Lesson 4

The Developing Genius: The Marriage of Figaro and

Other Works

The lesson examines Mozart’s developing craft as an opera composer, beginning with his earliest works through what is considered his operatic masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro.
Bastien und Bastienne and Beethoven

The theme of Bastien und Bastienne’s short G-major Overture also anticipates the opening theme of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, written 35 years later. Beethoven’s use of the same theme is probably coincidental, for it is unlikely that he heard Mozart’s early opera in the salons of Vienna.

Mozart’s Early Operas

The last lesson analyzed the historical, political, and cultural context in which Mozart lived and worked. Today’s lesson examines Mozart’s trajectory as an opera composer, beginning with his earliest works through his operatic masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro.

Mozart’s Goal

As a youthful prodigy and even during his first three or four years in Vienna, Mozart was famous above all for his virtuoso performances on the harpsichord and the fortepiano. Composing operas, however, was the measure by which he really wanted to be known. In a letter to his family he wrote:

You know my greatest desire is — to write operas . . . Do not forget how much I desire to write operas. I envy anyone who is composing one. I could really weep for vexation when I hear or see an aria (letter of 4 February 1778, quoted in Emily Anderson, The Letters of Mozart and His Family, 3rd edition. London: Macmillan, 1985, p. 462).

Over the course of his abbreviated life, Mozart composed 22 operas, including 18 complete works. His first opera, Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots, was premiered in 1767, when he was just eleven, and his last opera, Die Zauberflöte, was composed in 1791, premiering on September 30, about two months before he died.

Mozart’s Early Work

Typical of Mozart’s early operatic works is a charming Singspiel (a German-language opera with sung and spoken lines, and often with a rural, fantastic or exotic setting) entitled Bastien und Bastienne. The libretto (script of the opera) was adapted from Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Devin du Village (1752). It was probably first performed at the Viennese home of Dr. Anton Mesmer in October of 1768.

In this little one-act opera, which is set in a rural village, Bastienne laments that Bastien no longer loves her. To the accompaniment of bagpipe-like drones in the small orchestra, the village soothsayer, Colas, enters the scene. Bastienne asks him for help, and Colas assures her that Bastien is not untrue to her. After reassuring the young shepherd and shepherdess, he reads a spell from his magic book and, shortly thereafter, the two lovers declare their love for each other. The opera concludes with the happy couple thanking Colas.

When compared to his mature operas, written at the height of his powers, Bastien and Bastienne’s youthfulness is apparent. Its short songs are hardly long enough to be called “arias,” and its orchestration is very limited and not especially imaginative. Although it was probably intended as an amateur performance, it already shows a faint glimmer of the sense of drama at which Mozart excelled in works like The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. For example, the short G-major Overture has a theme, which may foreshadow Colas’ bagpipes:


Notation of the Theme of Short G-major Overture from Bastien and Bastienne

Bastien and Bastienne’s Short G-major Overture’s Theme. Audio files are MP3’s. If you do not have an Mp3 player, http://www.winamp.com and http://www.musicmatch.com have free players.

Let’s now take a look at some more of Mozart’s early operatic works.

Mozart’s Early Vienna Work

In 1782, one year after leaving the service of the Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg and settling in Vienna, Mozart premiered The Abduction from the Seraglio on 16 July.

The correspondence between Mozart and his father in the months leading up to this premiere is very interesting, both because of Mozart’s intentions for the dramatic impact of his music and his descriptions of the singers and rehearsals prior to the performance. In fact, the letters between August 1 and 13 October 1781 speak of almost nothing else, and they are thus the best testimony to how completely absorbed Mozart was in this masterful composition.

If you are interested, you can read these letters in either the standard translation by Emily Anderson, or in Robert Spaethling’s more recent translation, Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000).

When he was in Vienna, Mozart also composed several operas for courts in Italy, where he had traveled extensively and hopes of gaining a permanent appointment. These were The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Cosi fan tutte (1790). Now let’s examine Mozart’s operatic masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro, in detail.

The Original Cast and First Performance

In addition to Kelly, the original cast also included Francesco Benucci as Figaro, a gifted baritone, and Anna (Nancy) Storace, an English soprano who played Susanna. Like Kelly, her name was also pronounced in the Italian fashion: Sto-RAH-che. Mozart conducted from the keyboard for the first three performances; there was a cabal, or plot, against Mozart, and so the opera closed after a run of nine performances — not bad, but not outstanding.

Mozart, Da Ponte, and The Marriage of Figaro

Three of Mozart’s great operas grew out of a collaboration with court poet Lorenzo Da Ponte. Mozart’s letter to his father of 7 May 1783 mentions Da Ponte for the first time:

We have a certain Abate da Ponte here as a text poet; — he has an incredible number of revisions to do at the theater. . . .He has promised to write me something New after that; — but who knows whether he will keep his word — or even wants to! — You know, these Italian gentlemen, they are very nice to your face! — enough, we know all about them! — and if he is in league with Salieri, I’ll never get a text from him — and I would love to show here what I can really do with an Italian opera (Spaethling, p. 350).

Doubts aside, the two did end up working together successfully three years later, which led to Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, arguably the finest operas by any composer-librettist team.

Mozart suggested the controversial but successful play by Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro, to the court poet as the subject of their first collaborative effort. Da Ponte described this exchange in his Memoirs, which was published many years later:

In conversation with me one day in this connection, he asked me whether I could easily make an opera from a comedy by Beaumarchais, Le Mariage de Figaro. I liked the suggestion very much, and promised to write him one. A few days previous, the Emperor had forbidden the company at the German theatre to perform that same comedy, which was too licentiously written, he thought, for a self-respecting audience: how then propose it to him for an opera?

The Development of Figaro

Although Beaumarchais’ play, produced in Paris in 1784, was banned almost immediately because it was deemed too politically dangerous, public demand forced Louis XVI to grant permission for performances. The play ran for 68 consecutive nights and was the greatest financial success of the century. While its notoriety in Paris was attractive to Mozart, Emperor Joseph II (as evidenced by his forbidding the comedic play to be performed) needed to be convinced. Da Ponte’s account on this matter is as follows:

Mozart’s lucky star ordained that the Opera should fail of scores at just that moment. Seizing that opportunity, I went without saying a word to a living person, to offer Figaro to the Emperor.

“What?” he said. “Don’t you know that Mozart, though a wonder at instrumental music, has written only one opera [Joseph only knew of The Abduction, which he had commissioned in 1782], and nothing remarkable at that?”

“Yes, Sire,” I replied quietly, “but without Your Majesty’s clemency I would have written but one drama in Vienna!”

“That may be true,” he answered, “but this Mariage de Figaro — I have just forbidden the German troupe to use it!”

“Yes, Sire,” I rejoined, “but I was writing an opera, not a comedy. I had to omit many scenes and cut others quite considerably. I have omitted or cut anything that might offend good taste or public decency at a performance over which the Sovereign Majesty might preside. The music, I may add, as far as I may judge of it, seems to me marvelously beautiful.”

“Good! If that be the case, I will rely on your good taste as to the music and on your wisdom as to the morality. Send the score to the copyist” (Quoted in H. C. Robbins Landon, Mozart: The Golden Years 1781-1791. New York: Schirmer Books, 1989, pp. 155-6).

Casting the Play

After Emperor Joseph II relented, The Marriage of Figaro entered into the production process. The young Irish tenor, Michael Kelly (who spelled his name Ochelli to cater to the preference given to Italian singers) was cast for the two minor roles of Don Basilio and Don Curzio. In his Memoirs he recalls Mozart’s role at the rehearsals:

All the original performers had the advantage of the instruction of the composer, who transfused into their minds his inspired meaning. I shall never forget his little animated countenance when lighted up with the glowing rays of genius: it is as impossible to describe it as it would be to paint sunbeams . . .

I remember at the first rehearsal of the full band, Mozart was on the stage with his crimson pelisse and gold-laced cocked-hat, giving the time of the music to the orchestra. Figaro’s song, ‘Non piu andrai, farfallone amoroso,’ Benucci [the first Figaro] gave with the greatest animation and power of voice. I was standing close to Mozart, who, sotto voce, was repeating, ‘Bravo! Bravo! Benucci’; and when Benucci came to the fine passage, ‘Cherubino alla vittoria, alla Gloria militar,’ which he gave out with stentorian lungs, the effect was electricity itself, for the whole of the performers on the stage, and those in the orchestra, as if actuated by one feeling of delight, vociferated ‘Bravo! Bravo! Viva, viva, grande Mozart.’ Those in the orchestra I thought would never have ceased applauding, by beating the bows of their violins against the music desks. The little man acknowledged, by repeated obeisances, his thanks for the distinguished mark of enthusiastic applause bestowed upon him (Quoted in Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Mozart: A Critical Guide. New York: Da Capo, 1978).


Le Nozze di Figaro was premiered at Vienna’s Burgtheater on 1 May 1786 with Mozart conducting the first two performances from the harpsichord. The opera was so successful that many pieces were encored. Mozart took Figaro to Prague in early 1787, where it was received even more favorably than in Vienna. Mozart wrote to a friend in Vienna the following on January 15 of that year:

I drove with Count Canal to the so-called Breitfeld Ball, where the crème de la crème of Prague’s beauties gathers . . . Well, I didn’t dance and didn’t flirt. — The former because I was too tired, the latter because I am naturally bashful; –however, I watched with greatest pleasure how everyone was hopping about with sheer delight to the music of my “Figaro,” which had been transformed into Contredanses and German dances; for here they talk about nothing but — “Figaro”; nothing is played, blown, sung, and whistled but — “Figaro”; no opera is seen as much as “Figaro”; again and again it is — “Figaro”; it’s all a great honor for me (Spaethling, p. 384-5).

Why was The Marriage of Figaro received so overwhelmingly by the public? Why is it considered to be one of, if not the, greatest operas ever written? We’ll be answering these questions as well as many more next, when we take a closer look at the music Mozart composed.

Additional Reading

An outstanding book about the Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations you might want to read is H. C. Robbins Landon’s Mozart: The Golden Years 1781-1791 (New York: Schirmer, 1989). Another is Andrew Steptoe’s The Mozart-Da Ponte Operas: The Cultural and Musical Background to Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).

The Music: Taking A Closer Look

In order to grab his audience’s attention from the outset, Mozart begins The Marriage of Figaro’s Overture unexpectedly –with a mere whisper of sound from the orchestra, suggesting that the entire opera will be about whispers and secrets. In addition, he starts with an unbalanced, seven-measure beginning (1+2+4) instead of the traditionally expected eight-measure phrase (2+2+4):


Beginning of the overture to The Marriage of Figaro

The Overture’s unbalanced seven-measure beginning

Mozart uses the startling effect produced by the combination of whispering sounds and unbalanced phrasing to tell his audience that the opera will be about things that aren’t what they seem, that turn the expected world upside down. The plot revolves around Figaro, a servant to the Count, and his plans to marry Susannah, maid to the Countess. But the Count has designs on Susannah, and wants to revive the medieval tradition that gives him the right to spend her “first night” with her. (Remember, the focus on the lives of servants reflects Enlightenment ideals of equality among individuals and classes.)

Enlightenment Ideals Played Out in Song

Early on Figaro sings this (Se vuol ballare):

If you want to dance,
My dear little Count,
I’ll play the tune
On my guitar.

Here the musicians of stringed instruments pluck the strings rather than play them with bows, imitating the sound of Figaro’s guitar. Something even more important to note, however, is that Figaro sings to the rhythm of a minuet, which is a dance of the nobility. With this, Mozart is making a social statement, for it indicates that Figaro, a servant, has learned the Count’s dance and is intending to take charge of the unfolding events.

Figaro’s aria “Non piu andrai,” which Benucci sang so successfully in the original performance, closes Act I. Mozart adds trumpets and drums to the orchestration as Figaro sends Cherubino, the page, off to war. In the beginning of the aria, the addition of trumpets and drums to the orchestration creates a marshal air appropriate to the war theme that ends Act I. This technique is just one example of how Mozart’s music engages the listener dramatically. Act II begins with an aria sung by the Countess, wherein she laments the loss of her husband’s love.

Continuing the theme of “war,” the Countess then joins forces with Susannah and Figaro to outwit the Count. Along the way Mozart adds plenty of humorous moments, including characters that exchange costumes and identities to trap the Count, a page who dresses as a woman, and Figaro’s discovery that a blustery doctor and his housekeeper are his parents. Mozart’s masterpiece concludes with the Count finally seeking his wife’s forgiveness and, appropriately enough, the marriage of Figaro.

Assignment : Understanding Mozart’s Operas

Solomon’s biography is organized around topics that he wants to address, and so doesn’t follow Mozart’s life in a strict chronological fashion. Thus you’ll have to jump around a bit. To go more deeply into the background of Mozart’s operas, and especially The Marriage of Figaro, you might read Chapter 20 as well as the first part of Chapter 27, which recount its reception in Prague.

As you read, notice the working relationship that existed between Mozart and Da Ponte. Do you think it was one of two equals collaborating, or do you think that one or the other dominated? Do you find any evidence in the opera itself that supports your opinion? And perhaps the most important question of all is a value judgment for you to make: In Solomon’s text we read about the opera’s success in Vienna as well as the even greater success it enjoyed in Prague. Do you think that Mozart’s opera is, in fact, that good? Share your thoughts with your fellow students.


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