[Marxism] Mozart, Da Ponte, revolution

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 14 07:56:29 MDT 2006

Now that I have had the opportunity over the past five years or so to 
familiarize myself with the entire opera tradition from Monterverdi to 
Philip Glass, I would strongly urge others to give it a chance. The rewards 
are enormous, both musically and as a sourcebook for understanding the 
class struggle. There is no question that a radical thread runs through 
opera over the centuries. This profoundly democratic and anti-authoritarian 
streak is no accident, since opera composers were subject to the whims and 
cruelty of people who ruled society and who paid their wage.

The earliest example are Mozart's Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. 
Mozart was a Freemason, an important semi-clandestine group that promoted 
visions of justice and equality. Freemasonry got the most open endorsement 
in the Magic Flute, but it is Don Giovanni and the Marriage of Figaro which 
are the most consciously anti-aristocratic works. Even though Don 
Giovanni--i.e., Don Juan--is hunted down by other aristocrats for seducing 
and abandoning their women, the point of view is of the outsider in court 
society who would look at all their escapades as having a decadent 
character. The wisest, most down-to-earth and likable character in Don 
Giovanni is his servant Leporello, who I would argue is a stand-in for 
Mozart himself. Mozart allows Leporello to confront the aristocrat in a way 
that most court servants would not be allowed to: "My dear Lord and Master, 
the life you that you lead is that of a scoundrel."

In The Marriage of Figaro, the plot revolves around the efforts of another 
servant to prevent his master from enjoying the feudal right to have sex 
with his wife-to-be, another servant. Declaring his intention to frustrate 
the Count's ambitions, Figaro sings one of the opera's best-known arias, 
"Se vuol ballare" or "If you would dance":

If, my Dear Count,
You feel like Dancing,
It's I Who'd call the tune.
If you'll come to my school,
I'll teach you How to caper.
I'll know how ... but wait, I can uncover
His secret design
More easily by dissembling.
Acting stealthily,
Acting openly,
Here stinging,
There mocking,
All your plots I'll overthrow.

Since the opera was first performed in 1786, 3 years before the French 
Revolution, I'd like to think this aria is better titled as "Rovescierò", 
or "I'll overthrow."

The anti-aristocratic tradition was kept alive in the operas of Giuseppi 
Verdi, whose "Don Carlos" is probably the most perfect expression of his 
love of individual and national liberty and his hatred of aristocratic and 
clerical tyranny. The libretto is based on Schiller's "Don Carlos," who is 
also the author of the "Ode to Joy" that climaxes Beethoven's Ninth 
Symphony. It should be noted, by the way, that Verdi, whose democratic 
credentials are impeccable, openly admitted that Wagner's aesthetics had 
influenced this late opera. He told people that he hoped that his own 
Neopolitan Opera House might become another Bayreuth.

Don Carlos is the Spanish monarch who is set to wed Elisabeth, a French 
member of royalty, in order to help bring about peace between the two 
countries. While he is of the nobility, Don Carlos harbors democratic 
aspirations. The main conflict in the opera is between Don Carlos and the 
more benighted elements of the court and the clergy. One of the 
archvillains of the opera is a Grand Inquisitor who urges the monarch 
Philip, Don Carlos's rival, to bloc with the church against all its enemies:

The ideas of the innovation have tainted your mind!
You wish to break with your feeble hand the sacred yoke extending over the 
Roman Catholic globe!
Return to your duty: the Church can offer to the man who has hope, who 
repents, complete forgiveness...

Since Italy had struggled against reactionary clericalism and the landed 
gentry for most of the 1800s, it is understandable why this would have 
influenced both Verdi and Puccini as well. Puccini is much more of a 
"popular" composer, whose emotional excesses were embraced wholeheartedly 
by Italy's working and peasant masses. The opera which best expresses his 
progressive politics is "Tosca," the story of a woman who would sleep with 
a right-wing torturer named Scarpia in exchange for his release of her 
lover Cavaradossi, a left-wing political prisoner. If you would purchase a 
recording of this opera, I would strongly urge the Callas/Di Stefano 
recording. Callas was identified with this role more than any other in her 

Caravadossi has been arrested after intervening to save a woman from 
Scarpia's clutches. The theme of sexual predatory behavior is a constant 
one in Italian opera. Caravadossi sings:

Scarpia? That licentious bigot who exploits
The uses of religion as refinements
For his libertine lust, and makes
Both the confessor and the hangman
The servant of his wantonness!
I'll save you should it cost my life!

There has been a strong affinity between Marxism and opera over the years. 
The Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw was an opera critic as well as a 
playwright who saw Wagner as a kindred thinker. In more recent years, 
Maynard Solomon has written books on Beethoven and Mozart that emphasize 
the social and political dimensions of their works, including their operas. 
Solomon is also the author of "Marxism and Art" and founder of Vanguard 
Records, a great label that recorded Beethoven piano sonatas and Pete 
Seeger alike. Mozart, Solomon says, was particularly sensitive to issues of 
economic exploitation and cites his comment that "No man ought to be mean, 
but neither ought he to be such a simpleton as to let other people take the 
profits from his work, which has cost him so much study and labor, by 
renouncing all further claims upon it."

full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/opera.htm



More information about the Marxism mailing list