The Common Good
May 1994

The Composition of Faith

by Liane Ellison Norman | May 1994

Mozart's music in God's service.

Nicholas Till’s book, Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas, is intellectually thrilling and emotionally engaging. Accepting social inequalities we would now find unpalatable, Mozart would hardly be mistaken for a man of our time. And yet his operas, Till suggests, provide a model for rigorous examination to advocates of social change in later 20th-century America.

Till is a British theater producer who "constantly comes across interpretive puzzles" in plays or operas. What should he do, he asks as an example, about staging the chorus of peasants in The Marriage of Figaro or the "tremendous damnation" scene in Don Giovanni?

Making dramatic sense of a troupe of peasants who appear in a nobleman’s household or the descent to hell of a libertine requires knowing what these things meant to Mozart. Such questions lead Till to a lively examination of Mozart’s operas in the context of biography, history, philosophy, and musical dramaturgy. He concludes that Mozart was "one of the most penetrating intellects of his age, and...undoubtedly one of the great religious artists of Western culture."

Peter Shaffer wrote a play and Milos Foreman turned it into a movie about a mythical figure they called Amadeus. These delightful fictions represent Mozart as an impoverished, misunderstood, slightly batty genius, whose last opera, The Magic Flute—loved by the masses—and its contemporary Requiem were written when he was drugged with alcohol and terminal illness. Shaffer and Foreman made Mozart into a sort of giggling rock star whose glorious music was both peerless and timeless.

Till describes an altogether different figure. His Mozart is rooted in time and place. He has parents and colleagues. Events and ideas affect and change him. His great musical gift, which is undeniable, informed and was informed by the intellectual ferment of the 18th century, particularly in Austria.

While I have always been moved by Mozart’s music, Till’s account of his engagement with problems that continue to trouble us two centuries later suggests why Mozart speaks so directly, so urgently, and with such emotional force. It is his connectedness to the particulars of his life, not his embodiment of some universal transcendence, that brings his work into relationship with me, connected as I am with the here and now.

MOZART GREW UP within the progressive Catholicism of Salzburg, an arch-episcopal state surrounded by the Hapsburg Empire. He traveled as a child prodigy all over Europe and as far as England, the hotbed of revolutionary thought at the time (no matter what American colonists thought).

In Austria, the program of reform initiated by benevolent despot Emperor Joseph II excited the young Mozart. Joseph abolished censorship and capital punishment. He taxed the nobility and decreed that the same judicial punishments should apply to them as to "lesser folk."

Till’s persuasive case is that Mozart was, like all of us, caught up in the events and ideas of his time, but that he was also a discerning critical thinker, developing through his operas a rigorous examination of some tenets of Enlightenment belief. Reared to be a bourgeois individualist, touchy about his honor, hot to revive a genuinely German culture, determined to make his way as one of the first free-lance musicians, Mozart’s operas explore, articulate, and react to Enlightenment thought.

La Finta Giard-iniera (The Make-Believe Gardener), written when Mozart was 19, was his ninth dramatic composition. In it, says Till, "Mozart speaks not only as a miraculously precocious musician, but as an individual giving voice to his own experience, and engaging with the concerns of his generation and class in a language that was unequivocally his own." This opera represents an exploration of the "ethics of feeling," the elevation of experience and sensibilities, which was coming to replace reliance on abstract systems of thought, received wisdom, and the old order. Morality, according to this scheme, arose of its own accord, out of the natural inclinations Rousseau celebrated.

It was a time of frustration in Mozart’s life. He had to hustle work and endure humiliations meted out by the nobility on whom his ability to earn by composing and performing depended. The problem set forth in the opera was "how the individual could maintain his personal integrity in a society that exerted all its powers to dispossess him of it."

La Finta was followed within five years by two more operas, Zaide and Idomeneo. These first three operas all had to do with themes that would engage a young person trying his wings. When Mozart left his stifling hometown, his employer, and his father, it was to live in Vienna at a heady time. Joseph’s reforms were intended to destroy the grasp of nobility and church, the old centers of power, so that the Hapsburg Empire could advance economically.

So long as the nobility and church retained their power, feudal social structures and religious intolerance kept capital, technology, and advanced ideas out of Austria. The nobles were naturally furious, particularly at being subjected to taxation and having to endure penalties for their criminal misdeeds. Neither were churchmen happy when the monasteries were dissolved. A backlash was in preparation, but for a time the public loved their prince, who liked to walk among them incognito.

Indeed, the idea of a public sphere where people could mix and discuss ideas encouraged uncensored publishing and reading rooms; public coffee houses became "a virtual substitute for parliament." Joseph saw public opinion as an alternative to the control of church and nobility and therefore viewed the theater and opera as a way of expanding and shaping opinion to support reform from the top.

So at first Vienna provided all the opportunities Mozart could have dreamed of. He was attracted to Josephine ideals and programs, caught up in "the new whirlwind of social and intellectual activity whipped up by Joseph’s reforms," meeting and engaging "with the most prominent members of the Viennese Enlightenment, men who often combined their activities as writers and intellectuals with careers as statesmen."

BECAUSE THE German Enlighten-ment largely repudiated religious music in its attempt to rid society of superstition and the power of the church, Mozart had relatively few opportunities to express his faith in religious music. Mozart thought of his talent as a gift from God and his work as a duty to God. His operas, Till thinks, work out his understanding of a Christian God in the context of real life.

Beginning with The Marriage of Figaro, Till suggests, Mozart worked on operas in pairs, trying to resolve problems posed by the Enlightenment in terms of his own sense of the continuity and values of his religious faith. Figaro, a play by the French dramatist Beaumarchais, was considered offensive by the emperor: In it a pair of servants are both morally superior to and smarter than their aristocratic employers. Joseph gave Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte (himself a fascinating figure), permission to write an Italian opera that would only be understood by and seen as a warning to aristocrats.

The conflicts that arise in Le Nozze di Figaro demand no radical alteration of society for their resolution; simply the renegotiation of relationships according to the new rules of contract between the legally free and equal individuals brought into being by modern society. The opera celebrates the ideal of marriage in bourgeois society as the central, non-political, contractual institution of the new order.

Till points out that neither Beaumarchais nor Mozart espoused a society of social equals, but that Mozart explored what the legal equality necessary for making contracts like marriage entailed. While affirming marriage, Mozart drew on his understanding of the Catholic doctrine of forgiveness. His "Christian Enlightenment recognizes that society can only operate effectively if human beings are also able both to apologize and to forgive....that only those who are willing to pardon others can hope for ultimate pardon for themselves." Forgiveness implies a different kind of contract, fidelity and sympathy of a more spiritual kind, than that any legal system recognizes.

All of Mozart’s operas, according to Till, "deal with the theme of ultimate forgiveness...charting a passage from transgression of some sort to forgiveness....In [Figaro] theological grace becomes truly immanent." The plot moves on the popular theme of a woman’s constancy, which "has the power to redeem the unsettled, improvident male worlds of business and politics with its promise of transcendent certainty and ultimate forgiveness."

THE PERIOD OF THE public’s pure excitement about Enlightenment reform didn’t last long. Fears arose about excesses that might be justified by premises of the Enlightenment. In Don Giovanni, literal damnation is a sign that Mozart was not prepared to abandon the ultimate sanction of Christian belief for the secularist’s confidence that nature can be regulated by gardens or contracts.

Don Giovanni is an unreflective sensualist, whose freedom is used to satisfy his appetites. He rapes, murders, violates the bonds of marriage, seducing women casually and indiscriminately and boasting of their numbers. Contracts have no meaning for the Don, because he breaks his promises just as casually. He ignores class distinction, regarding all women as the same, and thus destroys the distinctions among individuals.

In Le Nozze di Figaro marriage that has been undermined must be restored to health for the good of society. But in Don Giovanni, once the promises of contractual society have been dissolved, faith in the possibility of reconstructing society upon such promise is apparently de-stroyed forever. As a result, we are left at the end of the opera with a perilously unstable world drained of human fidelity.

The question for Mozart, says Till, was "how can Don Giovanni be stopped?" It is a question for us still. One answer was—and is—the reinstitution of political tyranny. (Every crime bill passed by Congress, every book parents want banned from schools, suggests a longing for this solution, best exemplified by the Nazis and by dozens of contemporary regimes that "disappear" human obstacles.) Mozart looked for an answer within his world of religious values. Since Giovanni will not "recognize his guilt and repent," Mozart called on a punishing God, willing, but not required, to forgive.

This brief outline of questions raised by Mozart’s operas pays scant regard to the music, which Till discusses for its dramatic character. This music, of course, however grounded in the idiom of later Baroque and early classical styles, has the power to move us still. True, Mozart accepted social inequalities I would hope most of our thoughtful contemporaries would find unpalatable. Still, I am drawn to the man and his music.

Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart's Operas. By Nicholas Till. W.W. Norton & Company, 1992.

LIANE ELLISON NORMAN is a free-lance writer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is working on a novel about Mozart’s mother.

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