A Book of Operas by Henry Edward KrehbielTheir histories, their plots, and their music

The HTML version of this text produced by Bob Frone can be found at Plain text adaption by Andrew Sly. A BOOK OF OPERAS THEIR HISTORIES, THEIR PLOTS, AND THEIR MUSIC BY HENRY EDWARD KREHBIEL TO LUGIEN WULSIN AN OLD FRIEND “Old friends are best.”–SELDEN. “I love everything that’s old,–old friends, old times, old manners,
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  • 1919
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The HTML version of this text produced by Bob Frone can be found at

Plain text adaption by Andrew Sly.







“Old friends are best.”–SELDEN.

“I love everything that’s old,–old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine.”–GOLDSMITH.

“Old wood to burn! Old wine to drink! Old friends to trust! Old authors to read!”–MELCHIOR.


Chapter I “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”

First performance of Italian opera in the United States–Production of Rossini’s opera in Rome, London, Paris, and New York–Thomas Phillipps and his English version–Miss Leesugg and Mrs. Holman–Emanuel Garcia and his troupe–Malibran–Early operas in America–Colman’s “Spanish Barber”–Other Figaro operas–How Rossini came to Write “Il Barbiere” –The story of a fiasco–Garcia and his Spanish song–“Segui, o caro” –Giorgi-Righetti–The plot of the opera–The overture–“Ecco ridente in cielo”–“Una voce poco fà,”–Rossini and Patti–The lesson scene and what singers have done with it–Grisi, Alboni, Catalani, Bosio, Gassier, Patti, Sembrich, Melba, and Viardot–An echo of Haydn.

Chapter II “Le Nozze di Figaro”

Beaumarchais and his Figaro comedies–“Le Nozze” a sequel to “Il Barbiere”–Mozart and Rossini–Their operas compared–Opposition to Beaumarchais’s “Marriage de Figaro”–Moral grossness of Mozart’s opera–A relic of feudalism–Humor of the horns–A merry overture –The story of the opera–Cherubino,–“Non so più cosa son”– Benucci and the air “Non più andrai”–“Voi che sapete”–A marvellous finale–The song to the zephyr–A Spanish fandango–“Deh vieni non tardar.”

Chapter III “Die Zauberflöte”

The oldest German opera current in America–Beethoven’s appreciation of Mozart’s opera–Its Teutonism–Otto Jahn’s estimate–Papageno, the German Punch–Emanuel Schikaneder–Wieland and the original of the story of the opera–How “Die Zanberflöte” came to be written–The story of “Lulu”–Mozart and freemasonry–The overture to the opera– The fugue theme and a theme from a sonata by Clementi–The opera’s play–“O Isis und Osiris”–“Hellish rage” and fiorituri–The song of the Two Men in Armor–Goethe and the libretto of “Die Zauberflöte”– How the opera should be viewed.

Chapter IV “Don Giovanni”

The oldest Italian operas in the American repertory–Mozart as an influence–What great composers have said about “Don Giovanni,”– Beethoven–Rossini–Gounod–Wagner–History of the opera–Da Ponte’s pilferings–Bertati and Gazzaniga’s “Convitato di Pietra”–How the overture to “Don Giovanni” was written–First performances of the opera in Prague, Vienna, London, and New York–Garcia and Da Ponte –Malibran–English versions of the opera–The Spanish tale of Don Juan Tenorio–Dramatic versions–The tragical note in the overture –The plot of the opera–Gounod on the beautiful in Mozart’s music –Leporello’s catalogue–“Batti, batti o bel Masetto”–The three dances in the first finale–The last scene–Mozart quotes from his contemporaries–The original close of the opera.

Chapter V “Fidelio”

An opera based on conjugal love–“Fidelio,” “Orfeo,” and “Alceste”– Beethoven a Sincere moralist–Technical history of “Fidelio,”–The subject treated by Paër and Gaveaux–Beethoven’s commission–The first performance a failure–A revision by the composer’s friends– The second trial–Beethoven withdraws his opera–A second revision –The revival of 1814–Success at last–First performances in London and New York–The opera enriched by a ballet–Plot of “Fidelio”– The first duet–The canon quartet–A dramatic trio–Milder-Hauptmann and the great scena–Florestan’s air–The trumpet call–The opera’s four overtures–Their history.

Chapter VI “Faust”

The love story in Gounod’s opera–Ancient bondsmen of the devil– Zoroaster, Democritus, Empedocles, Apollonius, Virgil, Albertus Magnus, Merlin, Paracelsus, Theophilus of Syracuse,–The myth-making capacity–Bismarck and the needle-gun–Printing, a black art–Johann Fust of Mayence–The veritable Faust–Testimony of Luther and Melanchthon–The literary history of Dr. Faustus–Goethe and his predecessors–Faust’s covenant with Mephistopheles–Dr. Faustus and matrimony–The Polish Faust–The devil refuses to marry Madame Twardowska–History of Gounod’s opera–The first performance– Popularity of the opera–First productions in London and New York– The story–Marguerite and Gretchen–The jewel song–The ballet.

Chapter VII “Mefistofele”

Music in the mediaeval Faust plays–Early operas on the subject– Meyerbeer and Goethe’s poem–Composers of Faust music–Beethoven– Boito’s reverence for Goethe’s poem–His work as a poet–A man of mixed blood–“Mefistofele” a fiasco in Milan–The opera revised– Boito’s early ambitions–Disconnected episodes–Philosophy of the opera–Its scope–Use of a typical phrase–The plot–Humors of the English translation–Music of the prologue–The Book of Job–Boito’s metrical schemes–The poodle and the friar–A Polish dance in the Rhine country–Gluck and Vestris–The scene on the Brocken–The Classical Sabbath–Helen of Troy–A union of classic and romantic art–First performance of Boito’s opera in America, (footnote).

Chapter VIII “La Damnation de Faust”

Berlioz’s dramatic legend–“A thing of shreds and patches”–Turned into an opera by Raoul Gunsbourg–The composer’s “Scenes from Faust” –History of the composition–The Rakoczy March–Concert performances in New York–Scheme of the work–The dance of the sylphs and the aërial ballet–Dance of the will-o’-the-wisps–The ride to hell.

Chapter IX “La Traviata”

Familiarity with music and its effects–An experience of the author’s–Prelude to Verdi’s last act–Expressiveness of some melodies–Verdi, the dramatist–Von Bülow and Mascagni–How “Traviata” came to be written–Piave, the librettist–Composed simultaneously with “Il Trovatore,”–Failure of “La Traviata,” –The causes–The style of the music–Dr. Basevi’s view–Changes in costuming–The opera succeeds–First performance in New York, –A criticism by W. H. Fry–Story of the opera–Dumas’s story and harles Dickens–Controversy as a help to popular success.

Chapter X “Aïda”

Popular misconceptions concerning the origin of Verdi’s opera–The Suez Canal and Cairo Opera-house–A pageant opera–Local color– The entombment scene–The commission for the opera–The plot and its author, Mariette Bey–His archaeological discoveries at Memphis –Camille du Locle and Antonio Ghislanzoni–First performance of the opera–Unpleasant experiences in Paris–The plot–Ancient Memphis–Oriental melodies and local color–An exotic scale–The antique trumpets and their march.

Chapter XI “Der Freischütz”

The overture–The plot–A Leitmotif before Wagner–Berlioz and Agathe’s air–The song of the Bridesmaids–Wagner and his dying stepfather–The Teutonism of the opera–Facts from a court record –Folklore of the subject–Holda, Wotan, and the Wild Hint–How magical bullets may be obtained–Wagner’s description of the Wolf’s Glen–Romanticism and classicism–Weber and Theodor Körner–German opera at Dresden–Composition of “Der Freischütz”–First performances in New York, (footnote).

Chapter XII “Tannhäuser”

Wagner and Greek ideals–Methods of Wagnerian study–The story of the opera–Poetical and musical contents of the overture–The bacchanale–The Tannhäuser legend–The historical Tannhäuser–The contest of minstrels in the Wartburg–Mediaeval ballads–Heroes and their charmers–Classical and other parallels–Caves of Venus– The Hörselberg in Thuringia–Dame Holda–The tale of Sir Adelbert.

Chapter XIII “Tristan und Isolde”

The old legend of Tristram and Iseult–Its literary history–Ancient elements–Wagner’s ethical changes–How the drama came to be written –Frau Wesendonck–Wagner and Dom Pedro of Brazil–First performances in Munich and New York–The prelude–Wagner’s poetical exposition– The song of the Sailor–A symbol of suffering–The Death Phrase–The Shepherd’s mournful melody–His merry tune–Tristan’s death.

Chapter XIV “Parsifal”

The story–The oracle–The musical symbol of Parsifal–Herzeleide– Kundry–Suffering and lamentation–The bells and march–The eucharistic hymn–The love-feast formula–Faith–Unveiling of the Grail–Klingsor’s incantation–The Flower Maidens–The quest of the Holy Grail–Personages and elements of the legend–Ethical idea of Wagner’s drama–Biblical and liturgical elements–Wagner’s aim–The Knights Templars–John the Baptist, Herodias, and the bloody head– Relics of Christ’s sufferings–The Holy Grail at Genoa–The sacred lances at Nuremberg and Rome–Ancient and mediaeval parallels of personages, apparatuses, and scenes–Wagner’s philosophy–Buddhism– First performances of “Parsifal” in Bayreuth and New York, (footnote).

Chapter XV “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”

“Ridendo castigat mores”–Wagner’s adherence to classical ideals of tragedy and comedy–The subject of the satire in “Die Meistersinger” –Wagenseil’s book on Nuremberg–Plot of the comedy–The Church of St. Catherine in Nuremberg–A relic of the mastersingers–Mastersongs in the Municipal Library–Wagner’s chorus of mastersingers, (footnote) –A poem by Sixtus Beckmesser–The German drama in Nuremberg–Hans Sachs’s plays–His Tannhäuser tragedy–“Tristram and Iseult”–“The Wittenberg Nightingale” and “Wach’ auf!”–Wagner’s quotation from an authentic mastersong melody–Romanticism and classicism–The prelude to “Die Meistersinger.”

Chapter XVI “Lohengrin”

Wolfram von Eschenbach’s story of Loherangrin–Other sources of the Lohengrin legend–“Der jüngere Titurel” and “Le Chevalier au Cygne” –The plot of Wagner’s opera–A mixture of myths–Relationship of the Figaro operas–Contradictions between “Lohengrin” and “Parsifal” –The forbidden question–Wagner’s love of theatrical effect–The finale of “Tannhäuser,”–The law of taboo in “Lohengrin”–Jupiter and Semele–Cupid and Psyche–The saga of Skéaf–King Henry, the Fowler.

Chapter XVII “Hänsel und Gretel”

Wagner’s influence and his successors–Engelbert Humperdinck–Myths and fairy tales–Origin of “Hänsel und Gretel”–First performances– An application of Wagnerian principles–The prelude–The Prayer Theme –The Counter-charm–Theme of Fulfilment–Story of the opera–A relic of an old Christmas song–Theme of the Witch–The Theme of Promise– “Ring around a Rosy”–The “Knusperwalzer.”



The history of what is popularly called Italian opera begins in the United States with a performance of Rossini’s lyrical comedy “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”; it may, therefore, fittingly take the first place in these operatic studies. The place was the Park Theatre, then situated in Chambers Street, east of Broadway, and the date November 29, 1825. It was not the first performance of Italian opera music in America, however, nor yet of Rossini’s merry work. In the early years of the nineteenth century New York was almost as fully abreast of the times in the matter of dramatic entertainments as London. New works produced in the English capital were heard in New York as soon as the ships of that day could bring over the books and the actors. Especially was this true of English ballad operas and English transcriptions, or adaptations, of French, German, and Italian operas. New York was five months ahead of Paris in making the acquaintance of the operatic version of Beaumarchais’s “Barbier de Séville.” The first performance of Rossini’s opera took place in Rome on February 5, 1816. London heard it in its original form at the King’s Theatre on March 10, 1818, with Garcia, the first Count Almaviva, in that part. The opera “went off with unbounded applause,” says Parke (an oboe player, who has left us two volumes of entertaining and instructive memoirs), but it did not win the degree of favor enjoyed by the other operas of Rossini then current on the English stage. It dropped out of the repertory of the King’s Theatre and was not revived until 1822–a year in which the popularity of Rossini in the British metropolis may be measured by the fact that all but four of the operas brought forward that year were composed by him. The first Parisian representation of the opera took place on October 26, 1819. Garcia was again in the cast. By that time, in all likelihood, all of musical New York that could muster up a pucker was already whistling “Largo al factotum” and the beginning of “Una voce poco fà,” for, on May 17, 1819, Thomas Phillipps had brought an English “Barber of Seville” forward at a benefit performance for himself at the same Park Theatre at which more than six years later the Garcia company, the first Italian opera troupe to visit the New World, performed it in Italian on the date already mentioned. At Mr. Phillipps’s performance the beneficiary sang the part of Almaviva, and Miss Leesugg, who afterward became the wife of the comedian Hackett, was the Rosina. On November 21, 1821, there was another performance for Mr. Phillipps’s benefit, and this time Mrs. Holman took the part of Rosina. Phillipps and Holman–brave names these in the dramatic annals of New York and London a little less than a century ago! When will European writers on music begin to realize that musical culture in America is not just now in its beginnings?

It was Manuel Garcia’s troupe that first performed “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” in New York, and four of the parts in the opera were played by members of his family. Manuel, the father, was the Count, as he had been at the premières in Rome, London, and Paris; Manuel, son, was the Figaro (he lived to read about eighty-one years of operatic enterprise in New York, and died at the age of 101 years in London in 1906); Signora Garcia, mère, was the Berta, and Rosina was sung and played by that “cunning pattern of excellent nature,” as a writer of the day called her, Signorina Garcia, afterward the famous Malibran. The other performers at this representation of the Italian “Barber” were Signor Rosich (Dr. Bartolo), Signor Angrisani (Don Basilio), and Signor Crivelli, the younger (Fiorello). The opera was given twenty-three times in a season of seventy-nine nights, and the receipts ranged from $1843 on the opening night and $1834 on the closing, down to $356 on the twenty-ninth night.

But neither Phillipps nor Garcia was the first to present an operatic version of Beaumarchais’s comedy to the American people. French operas by Rousseau, Monsigny, Dalayrac, and Grétry, which may be said to have composed the staple of the opera-houses of Europe in the last decades of the eighteenth century, were known also in the contemporaneous theatres of Charleston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. In 1794 the last three of these cities enjoyed “an opera in 3 acts,” the text by Colman, entitled, “The Spanish Barber; or, The Futile Precaution.” Nothing is said in the announcements of this opera touching the authorship of the music, but it seems to be an inevitable conclusion that it was Paisiello’s, composed for St. Petersburg about 1780. There were German “Barbers” in existence at the time composed by Benda (Friedrich Ludwig), Elsperger, and Schulz, but they did not enjoy large popularity in their own country, and Isouard’s “Barbier” was not yet written. Paisiello’s opera, on the contrary, was extremely popular, throughout Europe. True, he called it “The Barber of Seville,” not “The Spanish Barber,” but Colman’s subtitle, “The Futile Precaution,” came from the original French title. Rossini also adopted it and purposely avoided the chief title set by Beaumarchais and used by Paisiello; but he was not long permitted to have his way. Thereby hangs a tale of the composition and first failure of his opera which I must now relate.

On December 26, 1815, the first day of the carnival season, Rossini produced his opera, “Torvaldo e Dorliska,” at the Teatro Argentina, in Rome, and at the same time signed a contract with Cesarini, the impresario of the theatre, to have the first act of a second opera ready on the twentieth day of the following January. For this opera Rossini was to receive 400 Roman scudi (the equivalent of about $400) after the first three performances, which he was to conduct seated at the pianoforte in the orchestra, as was then the custom. He seems to have agreed to take any libretto submitted by the impresario and approved by the public censor; but there are indications that Sterbini, who was to write the libretto, had already suggested a remodelling of Paisiello’s “Barber.” In order to expedite the work of composition it was provided in the contract that Rossini was to take lodgings with a singer named Zamboni, to whom the honor fell of being the original of the town factotum in Rossini’s opera. Some say that Rossini completed the score in thirteen days; some in fifteen. Castil-Blaze says it was a month, but the truth is that the work consumed less than half that period. Donizetti, asked if he believed that Rossini had really written the score in thirteen days, is reported to have replied, no doubt with a malicious twinkle in his eyes: “It is very possible; he is so lazy.” Paisiello was still alive, and so was at least the memory of his opera, so Rossini, as a precautionary measure, thought it wise to spike, if possible, the guns of an apprehended opposition. So he addressed a letter to the venerable composer, asking leave to make use of the subject. He got permission and then wrote a preface to his libretto (or had Serbini write it for him), in which, while flattering his predecessor, he nevertheless contrived to indicate that he considered the opera of that venerable musician old-fashioned, undramatic, and outdated. “Beaumarchais’s comedy, entitled ‘The Barber of Seville, or the Useless Precaution,'” he wrote, “is presented at Rome in the form of a comic drama under the title of ‘Almaviva, ossia l’inutile Precauzione,’ in order that the public may be fully convinced of the sentiments of respect and veneration by which the author of the music of this drama is animated with regard to the celebrated Paisiello, who has already treated the subject under its primitive title. Himself invited to undertake this difficult task, the maestro Gioachino Rossini, in order to avoid the reproach of entering rashly into rivalry with the immortal author who preceded him, expressly required that ‘The Barber of Seville’ should be entirely versified anew, and also that new situations should be added for the musical pieces which, moreover, are required by the modern theatrical taste, entirely changed since the time when the renowned Paisiello wrote his work.”

I have told the story of the fiasco made by Rossini’s opera on its first production at the Argentine Theatre on February 5, 1816, in an extended preface to the vocal score of “Il Barbiere,” published in 1900 by G. Schirmer, and a quotation from that preface will serve here quite as well as a paraphrase; so I quote (with an avowal of gratitude for the privilege to the publishers):–

Paisiello gave his consent to the use of the subject, believing that the opera of his young rival would assuredly fail. At the same time he wrote to a friend in Rome, asking him to do all in his power to compass a fiasco for the opera. The young composer’s enemies were not sluggish. All the whistlers of Italy, says Castil-Blaze, seemed to have made a rendezvous at the Teatro Argentina on the night set down for the first production. Their malicious intentions were helped along by accidents at the outset of the performance. Details of the story have been preserved for us in an account written by Signora Giorgi-Righetti, who sang the part of Rosina on the memorable occasion. Garcia had persuaded Rossini to permit him to sing a Spanish song to his own accompaniment on a guitar under Rosina’s balcony in the first act. It would provide the needed local color, he urged. When about to start his song, Garcia found that he had forgotten to tune his guitar. He began to set the pegs in the face of the waiting public. A string broke, and a new one was drawn up amid the titters of the spectators. The song did not please the auditors, who mocked at the singer by humming Spanish fiorituri after him. Boisterous laughter broke out when Figaro came on the stage also with a guitar, and “Largo al factotum” was lost in the din. Another howl of delighted derision went up when Rosina’s voice was heard singing within: “Segui o caro, deh segui così” (“Continue, my dear, continue thus”). The audience continued “thus.” The representative of Rosina was popular, but the fact that she was first heard in a trifling phrase instead of an aria caused disappointment. The duet, between Almaviva and Figaro, was sung amid hisses, shrieks, and shouts. The cavatina “Una voce poco fà” got a triple round of applause, however, and Rossini, interpreting the fact as a compliment to the personality of the singer rather than to the music, after bowing to the public, exclaimed: “Oh natura!” “Thank her,” retorted Giorgi-Righetti; “but for her you would not have had occasion to rise from your choir.” The turmoil began again with the next duet, and the finale was mere dumb show. When the curtain fell, Rossini faced the mob, shrugged his shoulders, and clapped his hands to show his contempt. Only the musicians and singers heard the second act, the din being incessant from beginning to end. Rossini remained imperturbable, and when Giorgi-Rhigetti, Garcia, and Zamboni hastened to his lodgings to offer their condolences as soon as they could don street attire, they found him asleep. The next day he wrote the cavatina “Ecco ridente in cielo” to take the place of Garcia’s unlucky Spanish song, borrowing the air from his own “Aureliano,” composed two years before, into which it had been incorporated from “Ciro,” a still earlier work. When night came, he feigned illness so as to escape the task of conducting. By that time his enemies had worn themselves out. The music was heard amid loud plaudits, and in a week the opera had scored a tremendous success.

And now for the dramatic and musical contents of “Il Barbiere.” At the very outset Rossini opens the door for us to take a glimpse at the changes in musical manner which were wrought by time. He had faulted Paisiello’s opera because in parts it had become antiquated, for which reason he had had new situations introduced to meet the “modern theatrical taste”; but he lived fifty years after “Il Barbiere” had conquered the world, and never took the trouble to write an overture for it, the one originally composed for the opera having been lost soon after the first production. The overture which leads us into the opera nowadays is all very well in its way and a striking example of how a piece of music may benefit from fortuitous circumstances. Persons with fantastic imaginations have rhapsodized on its appositeness, and professed to hear in it the whispered plottings of the lovers and the merry raillery of Rosina, contrasted with the futile ragings of her grouty guardian; but when Rossini composed this piece of music, its mission was to introduce an adventure of the Emperor Aurelian in Palmyra in the third century of the Christian era. Having served that purpose, it became the prelude to another opera which dealt with Queen Elizabeth of England, a monarch who reigned some twelve hundred years after Aurelian. Again, before the melody now known as that of Almaviva’s cavatina (which supplanted Garcia’s unlucky Spanish song) had burst into the efflorescence which now distinguishes it, it came as a chorus from the mouths of Cyrus and his Persians in ancient Babylon. Truly, the verities of time and place sat lightly on the Italian opera composers of a hundred years ago. But the serenade which follows the rising of the curtain preserves a custom more general at the time of Beaumarchais than now, though it is not yet obsolete. Dr. Bartolo, who is guardian of the fascinating Rosina, is in love with her, or at least wishes for reasons not entirely dissociated from her money bags to make her his wife, and therefore keeps her most of the time behind bolts and bars. The Count Almaviva, however, has seen her on a visit from his estates to Seville, becomes enamoured of her, and she has felt her heart warmed toward him, though she is ignorant of his rank and knows him only under the name of Lindoro. Hoping that it may bring him an opportunity for a glance, mayhap a word with his inamorata, Amaviva follows the advice given by Sir Proteus to Thurio in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”; he visits his lady’s chamber window, not at night, but at early dawn, with a “sweet concert,” and to the instruments of Fiorello’s musicians tunes “a deploring dump.” It is the cavatina “Ecco ridente in cielo.” The musicians, rewarded by Almaviva beyond expectations, are profuse and long-winded in their expression of gratitude, and are gotten rid of with difficulty. The Count has not yet had a glimpse of Rosina, who is in the habit of breathing the morning air from the balcony of her prison house, and is about to despair when Figaro, barber and Seville’s factotum, appears trolling a song in which he recites his accomplishments, the universality of his employments, and the great demand for his services. (“Largo al factotum dello città.”) The Count recognizes him, tells of his vain vigils in front of Rosina’s balcony, and, so soon as he learns that Figaro is a sort of man of all work to Bartolo, employs him as his go-between. Rosina now appears on the balcony. Almaviva is about to engage her in conversation when Bartolo appears and discovers a billet-doux which Rosina had intended to drop into the hand of her Lindoro. He demands to see it, but she explains that it is but a copy of the words of an aria from an opera entitled “The Futile Precaution,” and drops it from the balcony, as if by accident. She sends Bartolo to recover it, but Almaviva, who had observed the device, secures it, and Bartolo is told by his crafty ward that the wind must have carried it away. Growing suspicious, he commands her into the house and goes away to hasten the preparations for his wedding, after giving orders that no one is to be admitted to the house save Don Basilio, Rosina’s singing-master, and Bartolo’s messenger and general mischief-maker.

The letter which Rosina had thus slyly conveyed to her unknown lover begged him to contrive means to let her know his name, condition, and intentions respecting herself. Figaro, taking the case in hand at once, suggests that Almaviva publish his answer in a ballad. This the Count does (“Se il mio nome saper”), protesting the honesty and ardor of his passion, but still concealing his name and station. He is delighted to hear his lady-love’s voice bidding him to continue his song. (It is the phrase, “Segui, o caro, deh segui così,” which sounded so monstrously diverting at the first representation of the opera in Rome.) After the second stanza Rosina essays a longer response, but is interrupted by some of the inmates of the house. Figaro now confides to the Count a scheme by which he is to meet his fair enslaver face to face: he is to assume the rôle of a drunken soldier who has been billeted upon Dr. Bartolo, a plan that is favored by the fact that a company of soldiers has come to Seville that very day which is under the command of the Count’s cousin. The plan is promptly put into execution. Not long after, Rosina enters Dr. Bartolo’s library singing the famous cavatina, “Una voce poco fà,” in which she tells of her love for Lindoro and proclaims her determination to have her own way in the matter of her heart, in spite of all that her tyrannical guardian or anybody else can do. This cavatina has been the show piece of hundreds of singers ever since it was written. Signora Giorgi-Righetti, the first Rosina, was a contralto, and sang the music in the key of E, in which it was written. When it became one of Jenny Lind’s display airs, it was transposed to F and tricked out with a great abundance of fiorituri. Adelina Patti in her youth used so to overburden its already florid measures with ornament that the story goes that once when she sang it for Rossini, the old master dryly remarked: “A very pretty air; who composed it?” Figaro enters at the conclusion of Rosina’s song, and the two are about to exchange confidences when Bartolo enters with Basilio, who confides to the old doctor his suspicion that the unknown lover of Rosina is the Count Almaviva, and suggests that the latter’s presence in Seville be made irksome by a few adroitly spread innuendoes against his character. How a calumny, ingeniously published, may grow from a whispered zephyr to a crashing, detonating tempest, Basilio describes in the buffo air “La calunnia”–a marvellous example of the device of crescendo which in this form is one of Rossini’s inventions. Bartolo prefers his own plan of compelling his ward to marry him at once. He goes with Basilio to draw up a marriage agreement, and Figaro, who has overheard their talk, acquaints Rosina with its purport. He also tells her that she shall soon see her lover face to face if she will but send him a line by his hands. Thus he secures a letter from her, but learns that the artful minx had written it before he entered. Her ink-stained fingers, the disappearance of a sheet of paper from his writing desk, and the condition of his quill pen convince Bartolo on his return that he is being deceived, and he resolves that henceforth his ward shall be more closely confined than ever. And so he informs her, while she mimics his angry gestures behind his back. In another moment there is a boisterous knocking and shouting at the door, and in comes Almaviva, disguised as a cavalry soldier most obviously in his cups. He manages to make himself known to Rosina, and exchanges letters with her under the very nose of her jailer, affects a fury toward Dr. Bartolo when the latter claims exemption from the billet, and escapes arrest only by secretly making himself known to the officer commanding the soldiers who had been drawn into the house by the disturbance. The sudden and inexplicable change of conduct on the part of the soldiers petrifies Bartolo; he is literally “astonied,” and Figaro makes him the victim of several laughable pranks before he recovers his wits.

Dr. Bartolo’s suspicions have been aroused about the soldier, concerning whose identity he makes vain inquiries, but he does not hesitate to admit to his library a seeming music-master who announces himself as Don Alonzo, come to act as substitute for Don Basilio, who, he says, is ill. Of course it is Almaviva. Soon the ill-natured guardian grows impatient of his garrulity, and Almaviva, to allay his suspicions and gain a sight of his inamorata, gives him a letter written by Rosina to Lindoro, which he says he had found in the Count’s lodgings. If he can but see the lady, he hopes by means of the letter to convince her of Lindoro’s faithlessness. This device, though it disturbs its inventor, is successful, and Bartolo brings in his ward to receive her music lesson. Here, according to tradition, there stood in the original score a trio which was lost with the overture. Very welcome has this loss appeared to the Rosinas of a later day, for it has enabled them to introduce into the “lesson scene” music of their own choice, and, of course, such as showed their voices and art to the best advantage. Very amusing have been the anachronisms which have resulted from these illustrations of artistic vanity, and diverting are the glimpses which they give of the tastes and sensibilities of great prime donne. Grisi and Alboni, stimulated by the example of Catalani (though not in this opera), could think of nothing nobler than to display their skill by singing Rode’s Air and Variations, a violin piece. This grew hackneyed, but, nevertheless, survived till a comparatively late day. Bosio, feeling that variations were necessary, threw Rode’s over in favor of those on “Gia della mente involarmi”–a polka tune from Alary’s “A Tre Nozze.” Then Mme. Gassier ushered in the day of the vocal waltz–Venzano’s, of amiable memory. Her followers have not yet died out, though Patti substituted Arditi’s “Il Bacio” for Venzano’s; Mme. Sembrich, Strauss’s “Voce di Primavera,” and Mme. Melba, Arditi’s “Se saran rose.” Mme. Viardot, with a finer sense of the fitness of things, but either forgetful or not apprehensive of the fate which befell her father at the first performance of the opera in Rome, introduced a Spanish song. Mme. Patti always kept a ready repertory for the scene, with a song in the vernacular of the people for whom she was singing to bring the enthusiasm to a climax and a finish: “Home, Sweet Home” in New York and London, “Solovei” in St. Petersburg. Usually she began with the bolero from “Les Vêpres Siciliennes,” or the shadow dance from “Dinorah.” Mme. Seinbrich, living in a period when the style of song of which she and Mme. Melba are still the brightest exemplars, is not as familiar as it used to be when they were children, also found it necessary to have an extended list of pieces ready at hand to satisfy the rapacious public. She was wont at first to sing Proch’s Air and Variations, but that always led to a demand for more, and whether she supplemented it with “Ah! non giunge,” from “La Sonnambula,” the bolero from “The Sicilian Vespers,” “O luce di quest anima,” from “Linda,” or the vocalized waltz by Strauss, the applause always was riotous, and so remained until she sat down to the pianoforte and sang Chopin’s “Maiden’s Wish,” in Polish, to her own accompaniment. As for Mme. Melba, not to be set in the shade simply because Mme. Sembrich is almost as good a pianist as she is a singer, she supplements Arditi’s waltz or Massenet’s “Sevillana” with Tosti’s “Mattinata,” to which she also plays an exquisite accompaniment.

But this is a long digression; I must back to my intriguing lovers, who have made good use of the lesson scene to repeat their protestations of affection and lay plots for attaining their happiness. In this they are helped by Figaro, who comes to shave Dr. Bartolo in spite of his protests, and, contriving to get hold of the latter’s keys, “conveys” the one which opens the balcony lock, and thus makes possible a plan for a midnight elopement. In the midst of the lesson the real Basilio comes to meet his appointment, and there is a moment of confusion for the plotters, out of which Figaro extricates them by persuading Basilio that he is sick of a raging fever, and must go instantly home, Almaviva adding a convincing argument in the shape of a generously lined purse. Nevertheless, Basilio afterwards betrays the Count to Bartolo, who commands him to bring a notary to the house that very night so that he may sign the marriage contract with Rosina. In the midst of a tempest Figaro and the Count let themselves into the house at midnight to carry off Rosina, but find her in a whimsy, her mind having been poisoned against her lover by Bartolo with the aid of the unfortunate letter. Out of this dilemma Almaviva extricates himself by confessing his identity, and the pair are about to steal away when the discovery is made that the ladder to the balcony has been carried away. As they are tiptoeing toward the window, the three sing a trio in which there is such obvious use of a melodic phrase which belongs to Haydn that every writer on “Il Barbiere” seems to have thought it his duty to point out an instance of “plagiarism” on the part of Rossini. It is a trifling matter. The trio begins thus:–

[Musical excerpt–“Ziti, ziti, piano, piano, non facciamo confusionne”]

which is a slightly varied form of four measures from Simon’s song in the first part of “The Seasons”:–

[Musical excerpt–“With eagerness the husbandman his tilling work begins.”]

With these four measures the likeness begins and ends. A venial offence, if it be an offence at all. Composers were not held to so strict and scrupulous an accountability touching melodic meum and tuum a century ago as they are now; yet there was then a thousand-fold more melodic inventiveness. Another case of “conveyance” by Rossini has also been pointed out; the air of the duenna in the third act beginning “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie” is said to be that of a song which Rossini heard a Russian lady sing in Rome. I have searched much in Russian song literature and failed to find the alleged original. To finish the story: the notary summoned by Bartolo arrives on the scene, but is persuaded by Figaro to draw up an attestation of a marriage agreement between Count Almaviva and Rosina, and Bartolo, finding at the last that all his precautions have been in vain, comforted not a little by the gift of his ward’s dower, which the Count relinquishes, gives his blessing to the lovers.

I have told the story of “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” as it appears in the book. It has grown to be the custom to omit in performance several of the incidents which are essential to the development and understanding of the plot. Some day–soon, it is to be hoped–managers, singers, and public will awake to a realization that, even in the old operas in which beautiful singing is supposed to be the be-all and end-all, the action ought to be kept coherent. In that happy day Rossini’s effervescent lyrical arrangement of Beaumarchais’s vivacious comedy will be restored to its rights.



Beaumarchais wrote a trilogy of Figaro comedies, and if the tastes and methods of a century or so ago had been like those of the present, we might have had also a trilogy of Figaro operas–“Le Barbier de Seville,” “Le Mariage de Figaro,” and “La Mère coupable.” As it is, we have operatic versions of the first two of the comedies, Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro” being a sequel to Rossini’s “Il Barbiere,” its action beginning at a period not long after the precautions of Dr. Bartolo had been rendered inutile by Figaro’s cunning schemes and Almaviva had installed Rosina as his countess. “Le Nozze” was composed a whole generation before Rossini’s opera. Mozart and his public could keep the sequence of incidents in view, however, from the fact that Paisiello had acquainted them with the beginning of the story. Paisiello’s opera is dead, but Rossini’s is very much alive, and it might prove interesting, some day, to have the two living operas brought together in performance in order to note the effect produced upon each other by comparison of their scores. One effect, I fancy, would be to make the elder of the operas sound younger than its companion, because of the greater variety and freshness, as well as dramatic vigor, of its music. But though the names of many of the characters would be the same, we should scarcely recognize their musical physiognomies. We should find the sprightly Rosina of “Il Barbiere” changed into a mature lady with a countenance sicklied o’er with the pale cast of a gentle melancholy; the Count’s tenor would, in the short interval, have changed into barytone; Figaro’s barytone into a bass, while the buffo-bass of Don Basilio would have reversed the process with age and gone upward into the tenor region. We should meet with some new characters, of which two at least would supply the element of dramatic freshness and vivacity which we should miss from the company of the first opera–Susanna and Cherubino.

We should also, in all likelihood, be struck by the difference in the moral atmosphere of the two works. It took Beaumarchais three years to secure a public performance of his “Mariage de Figaro” because of the opposition of the French court, with Louis XVI at its head, to its too frank libertinism. This opposition spread also to other royal and imperial personages, who did not relish the manner in which the poet had castigated the nobility, exalted the intellectuality of menials, and satirized the social and political conditions which were generally prevalent a short time before the French Revolution. Neither of the operas, however, met the obstacles which blocked the progress of the comedies on which they are founded, because Da Ponte, who wrote the book for Mozart, and Sterbini, who was Rossini’s librettist, judiciously and deftly elided the objectionable political element. “Le Nozze” is by far the more ingeniously constructed play of the two (though a trifle too involved for popular comprehension in the original language), but “Il Barbiere” has the advantage of freedom from the moral grossness which pollutes its companion. For the unspoiled taste of the better class of opera patrons, there is a livelier as well as a lovelier charm in the story of Almaviva’s adventures while outwitting Dr. Bartolo and carrying off the winsome Rosina to be his countess than in the depiction of his amatory intrigues after marriage. In fact, there is something especially repellent in the Count’s lustful pursuit of the bride of the man to whose intellectual resourcefulness he owed the successful outcome of his own wooing.

It is, indeed, a fortunate thing for Mozart’s music that so few opera-goers understand Italian nowadays. The play is a moral blister, and the less intelligible it is made by excisions in its dialogue, the better, in one respect, for the virtuous sensibilities of its auditors. One point which can be sacrificed without detriment to the music and at only a trifling cost to the comedy (even when it is looked upon from the viewpoint which prevailed in Europe at the period of its creation) is that which Beaumarchais relied on chiefly to add piquancy to the conduct of the Count. Almaviva, we are given to understand, on his marriage with Rosina had voluntarily abandoned an ancient seignorial right, described by Susanna as “certe mezz’ ore che il diritto feudale,” but is desirous of reviving the practice in the case of the Countess’s bewitching maid on the eve of her marriage to his valet. It is this discovery which induces Figaro to invent his scheme for expediting the wedding, and lends a touch of humor to the scene in which Figaro asks that he and his bride enjoy the first-fruits of the reform while the villagers lustily hymn the merits of their “virtuous” lord; but the too frank discussion of the subject with which the dialogue teems might easily be avoided. The opera, like all the old works of the lyrical stage, is in sad need of intelligent revision and thorough study, so that its dramatic as well as its musical beauties may be preserved. There is no lovelier merit in Mozart’s music than the depth and tenderness with which the honest love of Susanna for Figaro and the Countess for her lord are published; and it is no demerit that the volatile passion of the adolescent Cherubino and the frolicsome, scintillant, vivacious spirit of the plotters are also given voice. Mozart’s music could not be all that it is if it did not enter fully and unreservedly into the spirit of the comedy; it is what it is because whenever the opportunity presented itself, he raised it into the realm of the ideal. Yet Mozart was no Puritan. He swam along gayly and contentedly on the careless current of life as it was lived in Vienna and elsewhere in the closing decades of the eighteenth century, and was not averse, merely for the fun of the thing, to go even a step beyond his librettist when the chance offered. Here is an instance in point: The plotters have been working a little at cross-purposes, each seeking his own advantages, and their plans are about to be put to the test when Figaro temporarily loses confidence in the honesty of Susanna. With his trust in her falls to the ground his faith in all woman-kind. He rails against the whole sex in the air, beginning: “Aprite un po’ quegl’ occhi?” in the last act. Enumerating the moral blemishes of women, he at length seems to be fairly choked by his own spleen, and bursts out at the end with “Il resto nol dico, gia ognuno lo sa” (“The rest I’ll not tell you–everybody knows it”). The orchestra stops, all but the horns, which with the phrase

[Musical excerpt]

aided by a traditional gesture (the singer’s forefingers pointing upward from his forehead), complete his meaning. It is a pity that the air is often omitted, for it is eloquent in the exposition of the spirit of the comedy.

The merriest of opera overtures introduces “Le Nozze di Figaro,” and puts the listener at once into a frolicsome mood. It seems to be the most careless of little pieces, drawing none of its material from the music of the play, making light of some of the formulas which demanded respect at the time (there is no free fantasia), laughing and singing its innocent life out in less than five minutes as if it were breathing an atmosphere of pure oxygen. It romps; it does not reflect or feel. Motion is its business, not emotion. It has no concern with the deep and gentle feelings of the play, but only with its frolic. The spirit of playful torment, the disposition of a pretty tease, speaks out of its second subject:–

[Musical excerpt]

and one may, if one wishes, hear the voice of only half-serious admonition in the phrase of the basses, which the violins echo as if in mockery:–

[Musical excerpt]

But, on the whole, the overture does not ask for analysis or interpretation; it is satisfied to express untrammelled joy in existence.

The curtain is withdrawn, and we discover the lovers preparing for their wedding. Figaro is taking the dimensions of a room, and the first motive of a duet illustrates his measured paces; Susanna is trimming a hat, and her happiness and her complacent satisfaction with her handiwork are published in the second motive, whose innocent joy explodes in scintillant semi-quavers in the fiddles at the third measure. His labors ended, Figaro joins Susanna in her utterances of joy. But there is a fly in the ointment, Why has Figaro been so busily measuring the room? To test its fitness as their chamber, for the Count has assigned it to them, though it is one of the best rooms in the palace. He points out its convenient location (duet: “Se a caso madama”); so near the room of the Countess that her maid can easily answer the “din din” of her bell, and near enough to the room of the Count that his “don don” would never sound in vain should he wish to send his valet on an errand. Altogether too convenient, explains Susanna; some fine day the Count’s “don don” might mean a three-mile journey for the valet, and then the devil would fetch the dear Count to her side in three paces. Has he not been making love violently to her for a space, sending Don Basilio to give her singing lessons and to urge her to accept his suit? Did Figaro imagine it was because of his own pretty face that the Count had promised her so handsome a dowry? Figaro had pressed such a flattering unction to his soul, but now recalls, with not a little jealous perturbation, that the Count had planned to take him with him to London, where he was to go on a mission of state: “He as ambassador, Figaro as a courier, and Susanna as ambassadress in secret. Is that your game, my lord? Then I’ll set the pace for your dancing with my guitar” (Cavatina: “Se vuol ballare”).

Almaviva’s obedient valet disappears, and presto! in his place we see our old friend, the cunning, resourceful barber and town factotum of the earlier days, who shall hatch out a plot to confound his master and shield his love from persecution. First of all he must hasten the wedding. He sets about this at once, but all unconscious of the fact that Dr. Bartolo has never forgiven nor forgotten the part he played in robbing him of his ward Rosina. He comes now to let us know that he is seeking revenge against Figaro and at the same time, as he hopes, rid himself of his old housekeeper, Marcellina, to whom he is bound by an obligation that is becoming irksome. The old duenna has been casting amatory glances in Figaro’s direction, and has a hold on him in the shape of a written obligation to marry her in default of repayment of a sum of money borrowed in a time of need. She enlists Bartolo as adviser, and he agrees to lay the matter before the Count. Somewhat early, but naturally enough in the case of the conceited dotard, he gloats over his vengeance, which seems as good as accomplished, and celebrates his triumph in an air (“La vendetta!”). As she is about to leave the room, Marcellina meets Susanna, and the two make a forced effort to conceal their mutual hatred and jealousy in an amusing duettino (“Via resti servita, madama brillante!”), full of satirical compliments and curtsies. Marcellina is bowed out of the room with extravagant politeness, and Susanna turns her attention to her mistress’s wardrobe, only to be interrupted by the entrance of Cherubino, the Count’s page. Though a mere stripling, Cherubino is already a budding voluptuary, animated with a wish, something like that of Byron’s hero, that all woman-kind had but a single mouth and he the privilege of kissing it. He adores the Countess; but not her alone. Susanna has a ribbon in her hand with which, she tells him, she binds up her mistress’s tresses at night. Happy Susanna! Happy ribbon! Cherubino seizes it, refuses to give it up, and offers in exchange his latest ballad. “What shall I do with the song?” asks Susanna. “Sing it to the Countess! Sing it yourself! Sing it to Barbarina, to Marcellina, to all the ladies in the palace!” He tells Susanna (Air: “Non so più cosa son”) of the torments which he endures. The lad’s mind is, indeed, in a parlous state; he feels his body alternately burning and freezing; the mere sight of a maiden sends the blood to his cheeks, and he needs must sigh whenever he hears her voice; sleeping and waking, by lakeside, in the shadow of the woods, on the mountain, by stream and fountain, his thoughts are only of love and its sweet pains. It is quite impossible to describe the eloquence with which Mozart’s music expresses the feverish unrest, the turmoil, and the longing which fill the lad’s soul. Otto Jahn has attempted it, and I shall quote his effort:–

The vibration of sentiment, never amounting to actual passion, the mingled anguish and delight of the longing which can never be satisfied, are expressed with a power of beauty raising them out of the domain of mere sensuality. Very remarkable is the simplicity of the means by which this extraordinary effect is attained. A violin accompaniment passage, not unusual in itself, keeps up the restless movement; the harmonies make no striking progressions; strong emphasis and accents are sparingly used, and yet the soft flow of the music is made suggestive of the consuming glow of passion. The instrumentation is here of a very peculiar effect and quite a novel coloring; the stringed instruments are muted, and clarinets occur for the first time, and very prominently, both alone and in combination with the horns and bassoons.

Cherubino’s philandering with Susanna is interrupted by the Count, who comes with protestations of love, which the page hears from a hiding-place behind a large arm-chair, where Susanna, in her embarrassment, had hastily concealed him on the Count’s entrance. The Count’s philandering, in turn, is interrupted by Basilio, whose voice is heard long enough before his entrance to permit the Count also to seek a hiding-place. He, too, gets behind the chair, while Cherubino, screened by Susanna’s skirts, ensconces himself in the seat, and finds cover under one of the Countess’s gowns which Susanna hurriedly throws over him. Don Basilio comes in search of the Count, but promptly begins his pleas in behalf of his master. Receiving nothing but indignant rejoinders, he twits Susanna with loving the lad, and more than intimates that Cherubino is in love with the Countess. Why else does he devour her with his eyes when serving her at table? And had he not composed a canzonetta for her? Far be it from him, however, to add a word to what “everybody says.” “Everybody says what?” demands the Count, discovering himself. A trio follows (“Cosa sento!”) The Count, though in a rage, preserves a dignified behavior and orders the instant dismissal of the page from the palace. Susanna is overwhelmed with confusion, and plainly betrays her agitation. She swoons, and her companions are about to place her in the arm-chair when she realizes a danger and recovers consciousness. Don Basilio cringes before the Count, but is maliciously delighted at the turn which affairs have taken.

The Count is stern. Cherubino had once before incurred his displeasure by poaching in his preserves. He had visited Barbarina, the pretty daughter of his gardener, and found the door bolted. The maid appeared confused, and he, seeking an explanation, drew the cover from the table and found the page hiding under. He illustrates his action by lifting the gown thrown over the chair, and there is the page again! This, then, is the reason of Susanna’s seeming prudery–the page, her lover! He accuses Susanna, who asserts her innocence, and truthfully says that Cherubino had come to ask her to procure the Countess’s intercession in his behalf, when his entrance had thrown them both into such confusion that Cherubino had concealed himself. Where? Behind the arm-chair. But the Count himself had hidden there. True, but a moment before the page had slipped around and into the chair. Then he had heard all that the Count had said to Susanna? Cherubino says he had tried his best not to overhear anything. Figaro is sent for and enters with the villagers, who hymn the virtues of their lord. To the Count’s question as to the meaning of the demonstration, Figaro explains that it is an expression of their gratitude for the Count’s surrender of seignorial rights, and that his subjects wish him to celebrate the occasion by bestowing the hand of Susanna on Figaro at once and himself placing the bridal veil upon her brow. The Count sees through Figaro’s trick, but believing it will be frustrated by Marcellina’s appeal, he promises to honor the bride, as requested, in due season. Cherubino has begged for the Count’s forgiveness, and Susanna has urged his youth in extenuation of his fault. Reminded that the lad knows of his pursuit of Susanna, the Count modifies his sentence of dismissal from his service to banishment to Seville as an officer in his regiment. Figaro playfully inducts him into the new existence.

The air “Non più andrai,” in which this is done, is in vigorous march rhythm. Benucci, the original Figaro in Vienna, had a superbly sonorous voice, and Michael Kelly, the English tenor (who sang the two rôles of Don Basilio and Don Curzio), tells us how thrillingly he sang the song at the first rehearsal with the full band. Mozart was on the stage in a crimson pelisse and cocked hat trimmed with gold lace, giving the time to the orchestra. Figaro gave the song with the greatest animation and power of voice. “I was standing close to Mozart,” says Kelly, “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, maestro! 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.”

This ends the first act. At the opening of the second the Countess asks our sympathy because of the unhappiness caused by her errant husband. (Cavatina: “Porgi amor.”) She prays the god of love to restore her to his affections. Susanna entering, the Countess asks her to continue her tale of the Count’s pursuit of her. There is nothing to add, says the maid; the Count wooed as noblemen woo women of her class–with money. Figaro appears to tell that the Count is aiding Marcellina in her scheme and of the trick which he has devised to circumvent him. He had sent Basilio to his lordship with a letter warning him that the Countess had made an appointment to meet a lover at the ball to be given in the evening. This would fan the fires of his jealousy and so enrage him that he would forget his designs against Susanna until she was safely married, when he would discover that he had been outwitted. In the meantime, while he is reflecting on the fact that two could play at the game, Susanna is to apprise the Count that she will meet him in the garden in the evening. Cherubino, whose departure to Seville had been delayed for the purpose, is to meet the Count disguised as Susanna, and the Countess, appearing on the scene, is to unmask him. The Count is supposed to have gone a-hunting, and the plotters have two hours for preparation. Figaro leaves them to find Cherubino, that he may be put into petticoats. When the page comes, the Countess first insists on hearing the song which he had given to Susanna, and Cherubino, stammering and blushing at first, sings it to Susanna’s guitar. (Canzone: “Voi che sapete.”) Again I call upon Otto Jahn for a description of the music. “Cherubino is not here directly expressing his feelings; he is depicting them in a romance, and he is in the presence of the Countess, toward whom he glances with all the bashfulness of boyish passion. The song is in ballad form, to suit the situation, the voice executing the clear, lovely melody, while the stringed instruments carry on a simple accompaniment pizzicato, to imitate the guitar: this delicate outline is, however, shaded and animated in a wonderful degree by solo wind instruments. Without being absolutely necessary for the progress of the melodies and the completeness of the harmonies, they supply the delicate touches of detail, reading between the lines of the romance, as it were, what is passing in the heart of the singer. We know not whether to admire most the gracefulness of the melodies, the delicacy of the disposition of the parts, the charm of the tone coloring, or the tenderness of the expression–the whole is of entrancing beauty.”

Susanna finds that she and Cherubino are of the same height, and begins to array him in garments belonging to her, first locking the door against possible intruders. The Countess views the adventure with some misgivings at first, but, after all, Cherubino is a mere boy, and she rejoices him with approval of his songs, and smiles upon him till he is deliriously happy. Basilio has given him his commission in the Count’s regiment, and the Countess discovers that it lacks a seal to secure which would cause a longer and desired delay. While Susanna is playing the rôle of dressing-maid to Cherubino, and instructing him in a ladylike bearing, the Count raps for admission to the room. Figaro’s decoy letter caused him uneasiness, and he had abandoned the hunt. Cherubino hurries into the chamber, and the Countess turns the key upon him before admitting his lordship, who enters in an ill-humor which is soon turned into jealous rage. Cherubino has awkwardly overturned a chair in the chamber, and though the Countess explains that Susanna is within, she refuses to open the door, on the plea that her maid is making her toilet. The Count goes for tools to break open the door, taking the Countess with him. Susanna, who has heard all from an alcove, hastens to Cherubino’s rescue, who escapes by leaping from the window of the Countess’s apartment into the garden below. Susanna takes his place in the chamber. Then begins the most marvellously ingenious and beautiful finale in the whole literature of opera. Fast upon each other follow no fewer than eight independent pieces of music, each a perfect delineation of the quickly changing moods and situations of the comedy, yet each built up on the lines of musical symmetry, and developing a musical theme which, though it passes from mouth to mouth, appears each time to belong peculiarly to the person uttering it. The Countess throws herself upon the mercy of the Count, confesses that Cherubino, suspiciously garbed, is in the chamber, but pleads for his life and protests her innocence of wrong. She gives the key to her enraged husband, who draws his sword, unlocks the door, and commands the page to stand forth. Susanna confronts the pair with grave unconsciousness upon her features. The Countess is no less amazed than her lord.

The Count goes into the chamber to search for the page, giving Susanna a chance to explain, and the nimble-witted women are ready for him when he comes back confused, confounded, and ready to ask forgiveness of his wife, who becomes tearful and accusing, telling him at length that the story of the page’s presence was all an invention to test him. But the letter giving word of the assignation? Written by Figaro. He then shall be punished. Forgiveness is deserved only by those willing to forgive. All is well, and the Countess gives her hand to be kissed by her lord. Enters Figaro with joyous music to announce that all’s ready for the wedding; trumpets sounding, pipes tootling, peasants singing and dancing. The Count throws a damper upon his exuberant spirits. How about that letter? In spite of the efforts of the Countess and Susanna to make him confess its authorship, Figaro stoutly insists that he knows nothing of it. The Count summons Marcellina, but before she arrives, the drunken gardener Antonio appears to tell the Count that some one had leaped out of the salon window and damaged his plants and pots. Confusion overwhelms the women. But Figaro’s wits are at work. He laughs loudly and accuses Antonio of being too tipsy to know what had happened. The gardener sticks to his story and is about to describe the man who came like a bolt from the window, when Figaro says it was he made the leap. He was waiting in the salon to see Susanna, he explains, when he heard the Count’s footsteps, and, fearing to meet him because of the decoy letter, he had jumped from the window and got a sprained ankle, which he offers in evidence. The orchestra changes key and tempo, and begins a new inquisition with pitiless reiteration:–

[Musical excerpt]

Antonio produces Cherubino’s commission, “These, then, are your papers?” The Count takes the commission, opens it, and the Countess recognizes it. With whispers and signs the women let Figaro know what it is, and he is ready with the explanation that the page had left the paper with him. Why? It lacked–the women come again to his rescue–it lacked the seal. The Count tears up the paper in his rage at being foiled again. But his allies are at hand, in the persons of Marcellina, Bartolo, and Basilio, who appear with the accusing contract, signed by Figaro. The Count takes the case under advisement, and the act ends with Figaro’s enemies sure of triumph and his friends dismayed.

The third act plays in a large hall of the palace decorated for the wedding. In a duet (“Crudel! perche finora”) the Count renews his addresses to Susanna. She, to help along the plot to unmask him, consents to meet him in the garden. A wonderful grace rests upon the music of the duet, which Mozart’s genius makes more illuminative than the words. Is it Susanna’s native candor, or goodness, or mischievousness, or her embarrassment which prompts her to answer “yes” when “no” was expected and “no” when the Count had already received an affirmative? We can think as we please; the musical effect is delicious. Figaro’s coming interrupts further conversation, and as Susanna leaves the room with her, she drops a remark to Figaro, which the Count overhears: “Hush! We have won our case without a lawyer.” What does it mean? Treachery, of course. Possibly Marcellina’s silence has been purchased. But whence the money? The Count’s amour propre is deeply wounded at the thought that his menials should outwit him and he fail of his conquest. He swears that he will be avenged upon both. Apparently he has not long to wait, for Marcellina, Don Curzio, and Bartolo enter, followed by Figaro. Don Curzio announces the decision of the court in the duenna’s suit against Figaro. He must pay or marry, according to the bond. But Figaro refuses to abide by the decision. He is a gentleman by birth, as proved by the jewels and costly clothing found upon him when he was recovered from some robbers who stole him when a babe, and he must have the consent of his parents. He has diligently sought them and will prove his identity by a mark upon his arm. “A spatula on the right elbow?” anxiously inquires Marcellina. “Yes.” And now Bartolo and the duenna, who a moment ago would fain have made him an OEdipus, recognize in Figaro their own son, born out of wedlock. He rushes to their arms and is found embracing his mother most tenderly by Susanna, who comes with a purse to repay the loan. She flies into a passion and boxes Figaro’s ears before the situation is explained, and she is made as happy by the unexpected dénouement as the Count and Don Curzio are miserable. Bartolo resolves that there shall be a double wedding; he will do tardy justice to Marcellina. Now we see the Countess again in her lamentable mood, mourning the loss of her husband’s love. (Aria: “Dove sono.”) Susanna comes to tell of her appointment with the Count. The place, “in the garden,” seems to be lacking in clearness, and the Countess proposes that it be made more definite and certain (as the lawyers say), by means of a letter which shall take the form of a “Song to the Zephyr.” This is the occasion of the exquisite duet which was surely in the mind of the composer’s father when, writing to his daughter from Vienna after the third performance of the opera, he said: “One little duet had to be sung three times.” Was there ever such exquisite dictation and transcription? Can any one say, after hearing this “Canzonetta sull’ aria,” that it is unnatural to melodize conversation? With what gracious tact the orchestra gives time to Susanna to set down the words of her mistress! How perfect is the musical reproduction of inquiry and repetition when a phrase escapes the memory of the writer!

[Musical excerpt–Susanna: “sotto i pini?” Conte: “Sotto i pini del boschetto.”]

The letter is written, read over phrase by phrase, and sealed with a pin which the Count is to return as proof that he has received the note.

The wedding festivities begin with a presentation of flowers to the Countess by the village maidens, among whom in disguise is the rogue Cherubino–so fair in hat and gown that the Countess singles him out of the throng to present his nosegay in person. Antonio, who had suspected that he was still about the palace, exposes him to the Count, who threatens the most rigorous punishment, but is obliged to grant Barberina’s petition that he give his consent to her marriage to the page. Had he not often told her to ask him what she pleased, when kissing her in secret? Under the circumstances he can only grant the little maid’s wish. During the dance which follows (it is a Spanish fandango which seems to have been popular in Vienna at the time, for Gluck had already made use of the same melody in his ballet “Don Juan”), Susanna kneels before the Count to have him place the wreath (or veil) upon her head, and slyly slips the “Canzonetta sull’ aria” into his hands. He pricks his finger with the pin, drops it, but, on reading the postscript, picks it up, so that he may return it to the writer as a sign of understanding. In the evening Barberina, who has been commissioned to carry the pin to her cousin Susanna, loses it again, and her lamentation “L’ho perdita,” with its childish sobs while hunting it, is one of the little gems of the opera. From her Figaro learns that the letter which he had seen the Count read during the dance was from Susanna, and becomes furiously jealous. In an air (which has already been described), he rails against man’s credulity and woman’s faithlessness. The time is come to unmask the Count. The Countess and Susanna have exchanged dresses, and now come into the garden. Left alone, Susanna gives voice to her longing and love (for Figaro, though the situation makes it seem to be for the Count) in the air which has won great favor in the concert-room: “Deh vieni non tardar.” Here some of Otto Jahn’s words are again appropriate:–

Mozart was right to let the feelings of the loving maiden shine forth in all their depth and purity, for Susanna has none but her Figaro in her mind, and the sentiments she expresses are her true ones. Figaro, in his hiding-place, listening and suspecting her of awaiting the Count’s arrival, throws a cross-light on the situation, which, however, only receives its full dramatic signification by reason of the truth of Susanna’s expression of feeling. Susanna, without her sensual charm, is inconceivable, and a tinge of sensuality is an essential element of her nature; but Mozart has transfigured it into a noble purity which may fitly be compared with the grandest achievements of Greek sculpture.

Cherubino, watched from different places of concealment by the Count, Figaro, and Susanna, appears, and, seeing the Countess, whom he takes for Susanna, confounds not her alone, but also the Count and Figaro, by his ardent addresses to her. He attempts to kiss her, but the Count steps forward and interposes his cheek. The Count attempts to box Cherubino’s ears, but Figaro, slipping forward at the moment, receives the blow instead. Confusion is at its height. The Count makes love to his wife, thinking she is Susanna, promises her a dowry, and places a ring on her finger. Seeing torches approaching, they withdraw into deeper darkness. Susanna shows herself, and Figaro, who takes her for the Countess, acquaints her of the Count’s doings which he has just witnessed. Susanna betrays herself, and Figaro resolves to punish her for her masquerading. He makes love to her with extravagant pathos until interrupted by a slap in the face. Susanna’s patience had become exhausted, and her temper got the better of her judgment. Figaro laughs at her ill-humor and confesses his trick, but renews his sham love-making when he sees the Count returning. The latter calls for lights, and seizes Figaro and his retainers. In the presence of all he is put to shame by the disclosures of the personality of the Countess and Susanna. He falls on his knees, asks forgiveness, receives it, and all ends happily.



Mozart’s “Zauberflöte”–“The Magic Flute”–is the oldest German opera holding a place on the American stage, though not quite 118 years old; but so far as my memory and records go, it has had but four performances in the original tongue in New York in a whole generation. There have been a few representations in English within this time and a considerable number in Italian, our operatic institutions being quick, as a rule, to put it upon the stage whenever they have at command a soprano leggiero with a voice of sufficient range and flexibility to meet the demands of the extraordinary music which Mozart wrote for the Queen of Night to oblige his voluble-throated sister-in-law, Mme. Hofer, who was the original representative of that character. The same operatic conditions having prevailed in New York and London for many years, it is not strange that English-speaking people have come to associate “The Magic Flute” with the Italian rather than the German repertory. Yet we have the dictum of Beethoven that it is Mozart’s greatest opera, because in it his genius showed itself in so large a variety of musical forms, ranging from ditties in the folk-song style to figurated chorale and fugue, and more particularly because in it Mozart first disclosed himself as a German composer. By this Beethoven did not mean that Mozart had not written music before for a German libretto, but that he had never written German music before in an opera. The distinction is one more easily observed by Germans and critical historians than by the ordinary frequenters of our opera-houses. “Die Zauberflöte” has a special charm for people of German blood, which is both admirable and amiable. Its magnificent choruses are sung by men, and Germany is the home of the Männergesang; among the opera’s songs are echoes of the Volkslied–ditties which seem to have been caught up in the German nurseries or plucked off the lips of the itinerant German balladist; its emotional music is heartfelt, warm, ingenuous, and in form and spirit free from the artificiality of Italian opera as it was in Mozart’s day and as it continued to be for a long time thereafter. It was this last virtue which gave the opera its largest importance in the eyes of Otto Jahn, Mozart’s biographer. In it, he said, for the first time all the resources of cultivated art were brought to bear with the freedom of genius upon a genuine German opera. In his Italian operas, Mozart had adopted the traditions of a long period of development, and by virtue of his original genius had brought them to a climax and a conclusion; but in “Die Zauberflöte” he “stepped across the threshold of the future and unlocked the sanctuary of national art for his countrymen.”

In this view every critical historian can concur, no matter what his tastes or where his home. But it is less easy for an English, French, or Italian critic than a German to pardon the incongruities, incoherences, and silly buffooneries which mar the opera. Some of the disturbing elements are dear to the Teutonic heart. Papageno, for instance, is but a slightly metamorphosed Kasperl, a Jack Pudding (Hanswurst) twice removed; and Kasperl is as intimately bound up in the German nature as his cousin Punch in the English. Kasperl is, indeed, directly responsible for “Die Zauberflöte.” At the end of the eighteenth century there was in Vienna a singular individual named Emmanuel Schikaneder, a Jack-of-all-trades so far as public amusements were concerned–musician, singer, actor, playwright, and manager. There can be no doubt but that he was a sad scalawag and ribald rogue, with as few moral scruples as ever burdened a purveyor of popular amusements. But he had some personal traits which endeared him to Mozart, and a degree of intellectuality which won him a fairly respectable place among the writers for the stage at the turn of the century. Moreover, when he had become prosperous enough to build a new theatre with the proceeds of “Die Zauberflöte,” he was wise enough to give a generous commission, unhampered by his customary meddlesome restrictions, to Beethoven; and discreet enough to approve of the highly virtuous book of “Fidelio.” At the beginning of the last decade of the eighteenth century, however, his theatre had fallen on evil days, and in dire straits he went to Mozart, whose friendship he had enjoyed from the latter’s Salzburg days, and begged him to undertake the composition of an opera for which he had written the book, in conjunction with one of his actors and choristers, named Gieseke (though this fact never received public acknowledgment at his hands). Wieland’s “Oberon” had filled the popular mind with a great fondness for fantastic and Oriental subjects, and a rival manager had been successful with musical pieces in which the principal character was the popular Kasperl. Casting about for an operatic subject which should appeal to the general liking for romanticism and buffoonery at once, Schikaneder hit upon a tale called “Lulu; oder, Die Zauberflöte,” written by Liebeskind, but published by Wieland in a volume of Orientalia entitled “Dschinnistan.” He had got pretty deep in his work when a rival manager brought out an adaptation of the same story, with music by Wenzel Müller. The farcical character of the piece is indicated by its title, which was “Kasper, der Fagottist; oder, Die Zauberzither”; but it made so striking a success that Schikaneder feared to enter the lists against it with an opera drawn from the same source. He was either too lazy, too much in a hurry, or too indifferent to the principles of art to remodel the completed portion, but finished his book on lines far different from those originally contemplated. The transformation thus accomplished brought about all the blemishes of “Die Zauberflöte,” but also gave occasion for the sublime music with which Mozart transfigured some of the scenes. This will be understood better if an outline of Liebeskind’s tale is made to precede the story of the opera as it came from Mozart’s hand.

A wicked magician, Dilsenghuin, has robbed the “radiant fairy” Perifirime of her daughter, Sidi, and carried off a magic talisman. The magician keeps the damsel in confinement and persecutes her with amatory advances which she is able to resist through a power which is to support her so long as her heart is untouched by love. Perifirime promises the hand of her daughter, whose father is the King of Cashmere, to Prince Lulu, son of the King of Chorassan, if he regain the stolen talisman for her. To do this, however, is given only to one who has never felt the divine passion. Lulu undertakes the adventure, and as aids the fairy gives him a magic flute and a ring. The tone of the flute will win the hearts of all who hear it; by turning the ring, the wearer is enabled to assume any form desired at will; by throwing it away he may summon the fairy herself to his aid. The Prince assumes the form of an old man, and, like Orpheus, softens the nature of the wild beasts that he meets in the forest. He even melts the heart of the magician himself, who admits him to his castle. Once he is within its walls, the inmates all yield to the charm of his magical music, not excepting the lovely prisoner. At a banquet he throws the magician and his companions into a deep sleep, and possesses himself of the talisman. It is a gold fire-steel, every spark struck from which becomes a powerful spirit whose service is at the command of the possessor. With the help of genii, struck from the magical implement, and the fairy whom he summons at the last, Prince Lulu overcomes all the obstacles placed in his way. Discomfited, the magician flies away as an owl. Perifirime destroys the castle and carries the lovers in a cloud chariot to her own palace. Their royal fathers give their blessings, and Prince Lulu and Princess Sidi are joined in wedlock.

Following in a general way the lines of this story, but supplying the comic element by the creation of Papageno (who is Kasperl in a habiliment of feathers), Schikaneder had already got his hero into the castle of the wicked magician in quest of the daughter of the Queen of Night (in whose character there was not yet a trace of maleficence), when the success of his rival’s earlier presentation of the story gave him pause. Now there came to him (or to his literary colleague) a conceit which fired the imagination of Mozart and added an element to the play which was bound at once to dignify it and create a popular stir that might lead to a triumph. Whence the suggestion came is not known, but its execution, so far as the libretto was concerned, was left to Gieseke. Under the Emperor Leopold II the Austrian government had adopted a reactionary policy toward the order of Freemasons, which was suspected of making propaganda for liberal ideas in politics and religion. Both Schikaneder and Mozart belonged to the order, Mozart, indeed, being so enthusiastic a devotee that he once confessed to his father his gratitude to God that through Freemasonry he had learned to look upon death as the gateway to true happiness. In continuing the book of the opera, Schikaneder (or Gieseke for him) abruptly transformed the wicked magician into a virtuous sage who had carried off the daughter of a wicked sorceress, the Queen of Night, to save the maiden from the baleful influence of her mother. Instead of seeking to frustrate the efforts of the prince who comes to rescue her, the sage initiates him into the mysteries of Isis, leads him into the paths of virtue and wisdom, tests him by trials, and rewards him at the last by blessing his union with the maiden. The trials of silence, secrecy, and hardihood in passing through the dread elements of fire and water were ancient literary materials; they may be found in the account of the initiation of a neophyte into the mysteries of Isis in Apuleius’s “Metamorphoses; or, The Golden Ass,” a romance written in the second century. By placing the scene of the opera in Egypt, the belief of Freemasons that their order originated in that unspeakably ancient land was humored, while the use of some of its symbolism (such as the conflict between light and darkness) and the proclamation of what were believed to be some of its ethical principles could safely be relied upon to delight the knowing and irritate the curiosity of the uninitiated. The change also led to the shabby treatment which woman receives in the opera, while Schikaneder’s failure to rewrite the first part accounts for such inconsistencies as the genii who are sent to guide the prince appearing first in the service of the evil principle and afterward as agents of the good.

The overture to “Die Zauberflöte,” because of its firm establishment in our concert-rooms, is more widely known than the opera. Two of its salient features have also made it the subject of large discussion among musical analysts; namely, the reiterated chords, three times three, which introduce the second part of the overture. {1}

[Musical excerpt]

and the fugued allegro, constructed with a skill that will never cease to be a wonder to the knowing, built up on the following subject:–

[Musical excerpt]

In the chords (which are heard again in the temple scene, at which the hero is admitted as a novice and permitted to begin his probation), the analysts who seek to find as much symbolism as possible in the opera, see an allusion to the signals given by knocking at the door of the lodge-room. Some such purpose may been have in the mind of Mozart when he chose the device, but it was not unique when he applied it. I have found it used in an almost identical manner in the overture to “Günther von Schwarzburg,” by Ignaz Holzbauer, a German opera produced in Mannheim fifteen years before “Die Zauberflöte” saw the light of the stage lamps. Mozart knew Holzbauer, who was a really great musician, and admired his music. Connected with the fugue theme there is a more familiar story. In 1781 Clementi, the great pianist and composer, visited Vienna. He made the acquaintance of Haydn, was introduced at court, and Emperor Joseph II brought him and Mozart together in a trial of skill at playing and improvising. Among other things Clementi played his own sonata in B-flat, the first movement of which begins thus:–

[Musical excerpt]

The resemblance between this theme and Mozart’s fugal subject is too plain to need pointing out. Such likenesses were more common in Mozart’s day than they were a century ago; they were more common in Handel’s day than in Mozart’s; they are almost as common in our day as they were in Handel’s, but now we explain them as being the products of “unconscious cerebration,” whereas in the eighteenth century they were frank borrowings in which there was no moral obliquity; for originality then lay as much in treatment as in thematic invention, if not more.

Come we now to a description of the action of the opera. Tamino,– strange to say, a “Japanese” prince,–hunting far, very far, from home, is pursued, after his last arrow has been sped, by a great serpent. He flees, cries for help, and seeing himself already in the clutch of death, falls in a swoon. At the moment of his greatest danger three veiled ladies appear on the scene and melodiously and harmoniously unite in slaying the monster. They are smitten, in unison, with the beauty of the unconscious youth whom they have saved, and quarrel prettily among themselves for the privilege of remaining beside him while information of the incident is bearing to the Queen of Night, who lives hard by in a castle. No two being willing that the third shall stay, all three go to the Queen, who is their mistress. Tamino’s consciousness returning, he discovers that the serpent has been slain, and hails Papageno, who comes upon the scene, as his deliverer. Papageno is a bird-catcher by trade and in the service of the Queen of Night–a happy-go-lucky, talkative fellow, whose thoughts do not go beyond creature comforts. He publishes his nature (and incidentally illustrates what has been said above about the naïve character of some of the music of the opera) by trolling a ditty with an opening strain as follows:–

[Musical excerpt]

Papageno has no scruples about accepting credit and gratitude for the deed performed by the ladies, and, though he is the veriest poltroon, he boasts inordinately about the gigantic strength which had enabled him to strangle the serpent. He is punished for his mendacity when the ladies return and place a padlock upon his mouth, closing his lips to the things of which he is most fond–speech and food. To Tamino they give a miniature portrait, which excites him to rapturous song (“Dies Bildniss ist bezaubernd schön,” or “Oh! cara immagine,” as the case may be). Then he learns that the original of the portrait is Pamina, daughter of the Queen of Night, stolen from her mother by a “wicked demon,” Sarastro. In the true spirit of knight-errantry he vows that he will restore the maid to her mother’s arms. There is a burst of thunder, and the Queen appears in such apparel and manner as the exchequer at the theatre and the ingenuity of the stage mechanic are able to provide. (When last I saw her her robe was black, bespangled with stars and glittering gems, and she rode upon the crescent moon.) She knows the merits and virtues of the youth, and promises that he shall have Pamina to wife if he succeeds in his adventure. Papageno is commanded to accompany him, and as aids the ladies give to Tamino a magic flute, whose tones shall protect him from every danger, and to Papageno a bell-chime of equal potency. (These talismans have hundreds of prototypes in the folk-lore of all peoples.) Papageno is loath to accompany the prince, because the magician had once threatened to spit and roast him like the bird he resembled if ever he was caught in his domain, but the magical bells give him comfort and assurance. Meanwhile the padlock has been removed from his lips, with admonitions not to lie more. In the quintet which accompanies these sayings and doings, there is exquisite music, which, it is said, Mozart conceived while playing at billiards. Finally the ladies announce that three boys, “young, beautiful, pure, and wise,” shall guide the pair to the castle of Sarastro.

We are next in a room of the castle before the would-be rescuers arrive. Pamina has tried to escape, and is put in chains by her keeper, the Moor Monostatos. She weeps because of her misery, and repulses the protestations of love with which her jailer plagues her. Papageno enters the room, and he and the jailer run in opposite directions at sight of each other–Papageno frightened by the complexion of the blackamoor, Monostatos terror-stricken at the sight of a man in feathers. Returning, Papageno convinces himself of the identity of Pamina with the daughter of the Queen of Night, tells her of Tamino, who is coming for her with a heart full of love, and promptly they sing of the divine dignity of the marital state. It is the duet, “Bei Männern weiche Liebe fühlen,” or “Là dove prende, amor ricetto,” familiar to concert-rooms, and the melody to some hymnals. A story goes that Mozart had to write this duet three or five times before it would pass muster in the censorious eyes of Schikaneder. After the opera had made good its success, the duet as we have it to-day alternated at the performance with a more ornate version–in all likelihood one of the earlier forms in which Mozart cast it.

The three boys–genii they are, and if I were stage-manager they should fly like Peter Pan–lead Tamino into a grove wherein stand three temples dedicated respectively to Wisdom, Nature, and Reason. The precinct is sacred; the music tells us that–the halo streaming from sustained notes of flutes and clarinets, the muted trumpets, the solemn trombones in softest monotone, the placid undulations of the song sung by the violins, the muffled, admonitory beats of the kettledrums. The genii leave Tamino after admonishing him to be “steadfast, patient, and silent.” Conscious of a noble purpose, the hero boldly approaches the Temple of Reason, but before he can enter its portals, is stopped by an imperative injunction from within: “Back!” He essays the Temple of Nature, and is turned away again by the ominous word. Out of the Temple of Wisdom steps an aged priest, from whom he learns that Sarastro is master within, and that no one is privileged to enter whose heart, like his, harbors hatred and vengeful thoughts. Tamino thinks Sarastro fully deserving of hatred and revenge, and is informed that he had been deceived by a woman–one of the sex “that does little, chatters much.” Tamino asks if Pamina lives, but the priest is bound by an oath to say nothing on that subject until “the hand of friendship shall lead him to an eternal union within the sanctuary.” When shall night vanish and the light appear? Oracular voices answer, “Soon, youth, or never!” Does Pamina live? The voices: “Pamina still lives!” Thus comforted, he sings his happiness, filling the pauses in his song with interludes on the flute, bringing to his feet the wild beasts and forest creatures of all sorts. He hears Papageno’s syrinx, and at length finds the fowler with Monostatos; but before their joy can have expression Pamina and the slaves appear and capture them. Papageno recollects him of his magic bells; he plays upon them, and the slaves, willy-nilly, dance themselves out of sight. Scarcely are the lovers free when a solemn strain announces the approach of Sarastro. He comes in a chariot drawn by lions and surrounded by a brave retinue. Pamina kneels to him, confesses her attempt to escape, but explains that it was to free herself from the odious attentions of Monostatos. The latter, asking his reward for having thwarted the plan of Papageno, receives it from Sarastro in the shape of a bastinado. Pamina pleads for restoration to her mother, but the sage refuses to free her, saying that her mother is a haughty woman, adding the ungallant reflection that woman’s heart should be directed by man lest she step outside her sphere. He commands that Tamino and Papageno be veiled and led into the Temple of Probation. The first act is ended.

The initiation of Tamino and Papageno into the mysteries, their trials, failures, triumph, and reward, form the contents of the second act. At a conclave of the elect, Sarastro announces that Tamino stands at the door of the Temple of Wisdom, desirous to gaze upon the “great light” of the sanctuary. He prays Isis and Osiris to give strength to the neophytes:–

[Musical excerpt–“O Isis und Osiris schenket Der Weisheit Geist dem neuen Paar.”]

To the impressiveness of this prayer the orchestra contributes as potent a factor as the stately melody or the solemn harmonies. All the bright-voiced instruments are excluded, and the music assigned to three groups of sombre color, composed, respectively, (1) of divided violas and violoncellos; (2) of three trombones, and (3) of two basset horns and two bassoons. The assent of the sacerdotal assembly is indicated by the three trumpet blasts which have been described in connection with the overture, and Tamino and Papageno are admitted to the Temple, instructed, and begin their probationary trials. True to the notion of the order, two priests warn the neophytes against the wiles of woman. Papageno has little inclination to seek wisdom, but enters upon the trials in the hope of winning a wife who shall be like himself in appearance. In the first trial, which is that of silence, the value of the priestly warning just received is at once made apparent. Tamino and Papageno have scarcely been left alone, when the three female attendants of the Queen of Night appear and attempt to terrify them with tales of the false nature of the priests, whose recruits, say they, are carried to hell, body and breeches (literally “mit Haut und Haar,” i.e. “with skin and hair”). Papageno becomes terror-stricken and falls to the floor, when voices within proclaim that the sanctity of the temple has been profaned by woman’s presence. The ladies flee.

The scene changes. Pamina is seen asleep in a bower of roses, silvered over by the light of the moon. Monostatos, deploring the fact that love should be denied him because of his color, though enjoyed by everything else in nature, attempts to steal a kiss. A peal of thunder, and the Queen of Night rises from the ground. She importunes Pamina to free herself and avenge her mother’s wrongs by killing Sarastro. To this end she hands her a dagger and pours out the “hellish rage” which “boils” in her heart in a flood of scintillant staceati in the tonal regions where few soprano voices move:–

[Musical excerpt]

Monostatos has overheard all. He wrenches the dagger from Pamina, urges her again to accept his love, threatens her with death, and is about to put his threat into execution when Sarastro enters, dismisses the slave, and announces that his revenge upon the Queen of Night shall lie in promoting the happiness of the daughter by securing her union with Tamino.

The probationary trials of Tamino and Papageno are continued. The two are led into a hall and admonished to remain silent till they hear a trumpet-call. Papageno falls to chattering with an old woman, is terrified beyond measure by a thunder-clap, and recovers his composure only when the genii bring back the flute and bells and a table of food. Tamino, however, remains steadfast, though Pamina herself comes to him and pleads for a word of love. Papageno boasts of his own hardihood, but stops to eat, though the trumpet has called. A lion appears; Tamino plays his flute, and the beast returns to his cage. The youth is prepared for the final trial; he is to wander for a space through flood and flame, and Pamina is brought to say her tearful farewells. The courage and will of the neophyte remain unshaken, though the maiden gives way to despair and seeks to take her own life. The genii stay her hand, and assure her that Tamino shall be restored to her. Two men in armor guard the gates of a subterranean cavern. They sing of the rewards to be won by him who shall walk the path of danger; water, fire, air, and earth shall purify him; and if he withstand death’s terrors, heaven shall receive him and he be enlightened and fitted to consecrate himself wholly to the mysteries of Isis:–

[Musical excerpt–“Der, welcher wandert diese Strasse voll Beschwerde”]

A marvellous piece of music is consorted with this oracular utterance. The words are set to an old German church melody–“Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein”–around which the orchestral instruments weave a contrapuntal web of wondrous beauty. At the gates Pamina joins her lover and accompanies him on his journey, which is happily achieved with the help of the flute. Meanwhile Papageno is pardoned his loquacity, but told that he shall never feel the joy of the elect. He thinks he can make shift with a pretty wife instead. The old woman of the trial chamber appears and discloses herself as the charming, youthful Papageno, but only for an instant. He calls after her in vain, and is about to hang himself when the genii remind him of his magic bells. He rings and sings; his feathered mate comes to him. Monostatos aids the Queen of Night and her companions in an assault upon the sanctuary; but a storm confounds them, and Sarastro blesses the union of Tamino and Pamina, amidst joyful hymning by the elect.

An extraordinary hodgepodge, truly, yet, taken all in all, an effective stage piece. Goethe was so impressed with the ingenuity shown by Schikaneder in treating the device of contrast that he seriously contemplated writing a second part, the music of which was to be composed by Wranitzky, who set Gieseke’s operatic version of “Oberon.” German critics and managers have deplored its absurdities and contradictions, but have found no way to obviate them which can be said to be generally acceptable. The buffooneries cannot be separated from the sublimities without disrupting the piece, nor can its doggerel be turned into dignified verse. It were best, I fancy, that managers should treat the opera, and audiences receive it, as a sort of Christmas pantomime which Mozart has glorified by his music. The tendency of German critics has been to view it with too much seriousness. It is difficult to avoid this while one is under the magic spell of its music, but the only way to become reconciled to it on reflection is to take it as the story of its creation shows that its creators intended it to be taken; namely, as a piece designed to suit the tastes of the uncultivated and careless masses. This will explain the singular sacrifice of principle which Mozart made in permitting a mountebank like Schikaneder to pass judgment on his music while he was composing it, to exact that one duet should be composed over five times before he would accept it, and even to suggest melodies for some of the numbers. Jahn would have us believe that Mozart was so concerned at the failure of the first act to win applause at the first performance that he came behind the scenes pale as death to receive comfort and encouragement from Schikaneder; I prefer to believe another story, which is to the effect that Mozart almost died with laughing when he found that the public went into ecstasies over his opera. Certain it is that his pleasure in it was divided. Schikaneder had told him that he might occasionally consult the taste of connoisseurs, and he did so, finding profound satisfaction in the music written for Sarastro and the priests, and doubtless also in the fine ensembles; but the enthusiasm inspired by what he knew to be concessions to the vulgar only excited his hilarity. The beautiful in the score is amply explained by Mozart’s genius and his marvellous command of the technique of composition. The dignity of the simple idea of a celebration of the mysteries of Isis would have been enough, without the composer’s reverence for Freemasonry and its principles, to inspire him for a great achievement when it came to providing a setting for the scenes in which the priests figure. The rest of the music he seems to have written with little regard to coherency or unity of character. His sister-in-law had a voice of extraordinary range and elasticity; hence the two display airs; Papageno had to have music in keeping in his character, and Mozart doubtless wrote it with as little serious thought as he did the “Piece for an Organ in a Clock, in F minor, 4-4,” and “Andante to a Waltz for a Little Organ,” which can be found entered in his autograph catalogue for the last year of his life. In the overture, one of the finest of his instrumental compositions, he returned to a form that had not been in use since the time of Hasse and Graum; in the scene with the two men in armor he made use of a German chorale sung in octaves as a canto firmo, with counterpoint in the orchestra–a recondite idea which it is difficult to imagine him inventing for this opera. I fancy (not without evidence) that he made the number out of material found in his sketch-book. These things indicate that the depth which the critics with deep-diving and bottom-scraping proclivities affect to see in the work is rather the product of imagination than real.


{1} These chords, played by all the wind instruments of the band, are the chords of the introduction raised to a higher power.



In the preceding chapter it was remarked that Mozart’s “Zauberflöte” was the oldest German opera in the current American repertory. Accepting the lists of the last two decades as a criterion, “Don Giovanni” is the oldest Italian opera, save one. That one is “Le Nozze di Figaro,” and it may, therefore, be said that Mozart’s operas mark the beginning of the repertory as it exists at the present time in America. Twenty-five years ago it was possible to hear a few performances of Gluck’s “Orfeo” in English and Italian, and its name has continued to figure occasionally ever since in the lists of works put forth by managers when inviting subscriptions for operatic seasons; but that fact can scarcely be said to have kept the opera in the repertory.

Our oldest Italian opera is less than 125 years old, and “Don Giovanni” only 122–an inconsiderable age for a first-class work of art compared with its companion pieces in literature, painting, and sculpture, yet a highly respectable one for an opera. Music has undergone a greater revolution within the last century than any other art in thrice the period, yet “Don Giovanni” is as much admired now as it was in the last decade of the eighteenth century, and, indeed, has less prejudice to contend with in the minds of musicians and critics than it had when it was in its infancy, and I confidently believe that to its score and that of “Le Nozze di Figaro” opera writers will soon be turning to learn the methods of dramatic characterization. Pure beauty lives in angelic wedlock with psychological expression in Mozart’s dramatic music, and these factors will act as powerful loadstones in bringing composers who are now laboriously and vainly seeking devices for characterization in tricks and devices based on arbitrary formulas back to the gospel of truth and beauty. Wagner has had no successful imitator. His scheme of thematic identification and development, in its union of calculation, reflection, and musical inspiration, is beyond the capacities of those who have come after him. The bow of Ulysses is still unbent; but he will be a great musician indeed who shall use the resources of the new art with such large ease, freedom, power, and effectiveness as Mozart used those of the comparatively ingenuous art of his day. And yet the great opera composer who is to come in great likelihood will be a disciple of Gluck, Mozart, and the Wagner who wrote “Tristan und Isolde” and “Die Meistersinger” rather than one of the tribe of Debussy.

The great opera composers of the nineteenth century were of one mind touching the greatness of “Don Giovanni.” Beethoven was horrified by its licentious libretto, but tradition says that he kept before him on his writing-table a transcript of the music for the trombones in the second finale of the opera. Shortly after Mme. Viardot-Garcia came into possession of the autograph score of the masterpiece, Rossini called upon her and asked for the privilege of looking at it, adding, “I want to bow the knee before this sacred relic.” After poring over a few pages, he placed his hands on the book and said, solemnly: “He is the greatest, the master of them all; the only composer who had as much science as he had genius, and as much genius as he had science.” On another occasion he said to a questioner: “Vous voulez connaître celui de mes ouvrages que j’aime le mieux; eh bien, c’est ‘Don Giovanni.'” Gounod celebrated the centenary of the opera by writing a commentary on it which he dedicated to young composers and artists called upon to take part in performances of the opera. In the preface of his book he characterizes it as “an unequalled and immortal masterpiece,” the “apogee of the lyrical drama,” a “wondrous example of truth, beauty of form, appropriateness of characterization, deep insight into the drama, purity of style, richness and restraint in instrumentation, charm and tenderness in the love passages, and power in pathos”–in one word, a “finished model of dramatic music.” And then he added: “The score of ‘Don Giovanni’ has exercised the influence of a revelation upon the whole of my life; it has been and remains for me a kind of incarnation of dramatic and musical impeccability. I regard it as a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection, and this commentary is but the humble testimony of my Veneration and gratitude for the genius to whom I owe the purest and most permanent joys of my life as a musician.” In his “Autobiographical Sketch” Wagner confesses that as a lad he cared only for “Die Zauberflöte,” and that “Don Giovanni” was distasteful to him on account of the Italian text, which seemed to him rubbish. But in “Oper und Drama” he says: “Is it possible to find anything more perfect than every piece in ‘Don Juan’? . . . Oh, how doubly dear and above all honor is Mozart to me that it was not possible for him to invent music for ‘Tito’ like that of ‘Don Giovanni,’ for ‘Cosi fan tutte’ like that of ‘Figaro’! How shamefully would it have desecrated music!” And again: “Where else has music won so infinitely rich an individuality, been able to characterize so surely, so definitely, and in such exuberant plenitude, as here?” {1}

Mozart composed “Don Giovanni” for the Italian Opera at Prague, which had been saved from ruin in the season 1786-1787 by the phenomenal success of “Le Nozze di Figaro.” He chose the subject and commissioned Lorenzo da Ponte, then official poet to the imperial theatres of Austria, to write the book of words. In doing so, the latter made free use of a version of the same story made by an Italian theatrical poet named Bertati, and Dr. Chrysander (who in 1886 gave me a copy of this libretto, which Mozart’s biographer, Otto Jahn, had not succeeded in finding, despite diligent search) has pointed out that Mozart also took as a model some of the music to which the composer Gazzaniga had set it. The title of the opera by Bertati and Gazzaniga was “Il Convitato di Pietra.” It had been brought forward with great success in Venice and won wide vogue in Italy before Mozart hit upon it. It lived many years after Mozart brought out his opera, and, indeed, was performed in London twenty-three years before Mozart’s opera got a hearing. It is doubtful, however, if the London representation did justice to the work. Da Ponte was poet to the opera there when “Il Convitato” was chosen for performance, and it fell to him to prepare the book to suit the taste of the English people. He tried to persuade the management to give Mozart’s opera instead, and, failing in that, had the malicious satisfaction of helping to turn the work of Bertati and Gazzaniga into a sort of literary and musical pasticcio, inserting portions of his own paraphrase of Bertati’s book in place of the original scenes and preparing occasion for the insertion of musical pieces by Sarti, Frederici, and Guglielmi.

Mozart wrote the music to “Don Giovanni” in the summer of 1787. Judging by the circumstance that there is no entry in his autograph catalogue between June 24 and August 10 in that year, it would seem that he had devoted the intervening seven weeks chiefly, if not wholly, to the work. When he went to Prague in September he carried the unfinished score with him, and worked on it there largely in the summer house of his friends, the Duscheks, who lived in the suburbs of the city. Under date of October 28 he entered the overture in his catalogue. As a matter of fact, it was not finished till the early morn of the next day, which was the day of the first production of the opera. Thereby hangs the familiar tale of how it was composed. On the evening of the day before the performance, pen had not been touched to the overture. Nevertheless, Mozart sat with a group of merry friends until a late hour of the night. Then he went to his hotel and prepared to work. On the table was a glass of punch, and his wife sat beside him–to keep him awake by telling him stories. In spite of all, sleep overcame him, and he was obliged to interrupt his work for several hours; yet at 7 o’clock in the morning the copyist was sent for and the overture was ready for him. The tardy work delayed the representation in the evening, and the orchestra had to play the overture at sight; but it was a capital band, and Mozart, who conducted, complimented it before starting into the introduction to the first air. The performance was completely successful, and floated buoyantly on a tide of enthusiasm which set in when Mozart entered the orchestra, and rose higher and higher as the music went on. On May 7, 1788, the opera was given in Vienna, where at first it made a fiasco, though Mozart had inserted new pieces and made other alterations to humor the singers and add to its attractiveness. London heard it first on April 12, 1817, at the King’s Theatre, whose finances, which were almost in an exhausted state, it restored to a flourishing condition. In the company which Manuel Garcia brought to New York in 1825 were Carlo Angrisani, who was the Masetto of the first London representation, and Domenico Crivelli, son of the tenor Gaetano Crivelli, who had been the Don Ottavio. Garcia was a tenor with a voice sufficiently deep to enable him to sing the barytone part of Don Giovanni in Paris and at subsequent performances in London. It does not appear that he had contemplated a performance of the opera in New York, but here he met Da Ponte, who had been a resident of the city for twenty years and recently been appointed professor of Italian literature at Columbia College. Da Ponte, as may be imagined, lost no time in calling on Garcia and setting on foot a scheme for bringing forward “my ‘Don Giovanni,'” as he always called it. Crivelli was a second-rate tenor, and could not be trusted with the part of Don Ottavio, and a Frenchman named Milon, whom I conclude to have been a violoncello player, afterward identified with the organization of the Philharmonic Society, was engaged for that part. A Mme. Barbieri was cast for the part of Donna Anna, Mme. Garcia for that of Donna Elvira, Manuel Garcia, Jr. (who died in 1906 at the age of 101 years) for that of Leporello, Angrisani for his old rôle of Masetto, and Maria Garcia, afterward the famous Malibran, for that of Zerlina. The first performance took place on May 23, 1826, in the Park Theatre, and the opera was given eleven times in the season. This success, coupled with the speedily acquired popularity of Garcia’s gifted daughter, was probably the reason why an English version of the opera which dominated the New York stage for nearly a quarter of a century soon appeared at the Chatham Theatre. In this version the part of the dissolute Don was played by H. Wallack, uncle of the Lester Wallack so long a theatrical favorite in the American metropolis. As Malibran the Signorina Garcia took part in many of the English performances of the work, which kept the Italian off the local stage till 1850, when it was revived by Max Maretzek at the Astor Place Opera-house.

I have intimated that Bertati’s opera-book was the prototype of Da Ponte’s, but the story is centuries older than either. The Spanish tale of Don Juan Tenorio, who killed an enemy in a duel, insulted his memory by inviting his statue to dinner, and was sent to hell because of his refusal to repent him of his sins, was but a literary form of a legend of considerable antiquity. It seems likely that it was moulded into dramatic shape by monks in the Middle Ages; it certainly occupied industriously the minds of playwrights in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Spain, Italy, Germany, and England. The most eminent men who treated it at various times were the Spaniard known as Tirza di Molina, the Frenchman Molière, the Italian Goldoni, and the Englishman Thomas Shadwell, whose “Libertine Destroyed” was brought forward in 1676. Before Mozart, Le Tellier had used it for a French comic opera, Righini and Gazzaniga for Italian operas, and Gluck for a ballet.

But we are concerned now only with the play as Da Ponte and Mozart gave it to us. In the dramatic terminology of the eighteenth century “Don Giovanni” was a dramma giocoso; in the better sense of the phrase, a playful drama–a lyric comedy. Da Ponte conceived it as such, but Mozart gave it so tragical a turn by the awful solemnity with which he infused the scene of the libertine’s punishment that already in his day it was felt that the last scene as written and composed to suit the conventional type of a comic opera was an intolerable anticlimax. Mozart sounds a deeply tragical note at the outset of his overture. The introduction is an Andante, which he drew from the scene of the opera in which the ghostly statue of the murdered Commandant appears to Don Giovanni while he is enjoying the pleasures of the table. Two groups of solemn chords command attention and “establish at once the majestic and formidable authority of divine justice, the avenger of crime.” {2} They are followed by a series of solemn progressions in stern, sinister, unyielding, merciless, implacable harmonies. They are like the colossal strides of approaching Fate, and this awfulness is twice raised to a higher power, first by a searching, syncopated phrase in the violins which hovers loweringly over them, and next by a succession of afrighted minor scales ascending crescendo and descending piano, the change in dynamics beginning abruptly as the crest of each terrifying wave is reached. These wonderful scales begin thus:–

[Musical excerpt]

in the last scene of the opera. They were an afterthought of the composer’s. They did not appear in the original score of the scene, as the autograph shows, but were written in after the music had once been completed. They are crowded into the staves in tiny notes which sometimes extend from one measure into the next. This circumstance and the other, that they are all fairly written out in the autograph of the overture, indicate that they were conceived either at one of the rehearsals or while Mozart was writing the overture. They could not have been suggested at the first performance, as Jahn seems to imply. {3} The introduction is only thirty measures long, and the Allegro which follows is made up of new material. I quote again from Gounod: “But suddenly, and with feverish audacity, the Allegro breaks out in the major key, an Allegro full of passion and delirium, deaf to the warnings of Heaven, regardless of remorse, enraptured of pleasure, madly inconstant and daring, rapid and impetuous as a torrent, flashing and swift as a sword, overleaping all obstacles, scaling balconies, and bewildering the alguazils.” {4} From the tragic introduction through the impetuous main section we are led to a peaceful night scene in the garden before the house of Donna Anna. There Leporello, the servant of Don Giovanni, is awaiting in discontented mood for the return of his master, who has entered the house in quest of amatory adventure. Leporello is weary of the service in which he is engaged, and contrasts his state with that of the Don. (Air: “Notte e giorno faticar.”) He will throw off the yoke and be a gentleman himself. He has just inflated himself with pride at the thought, when he hears footsteps, and the poltroon in his nature asserts itself. He hides behind the shrubbery. Don Giovanni hurries from the house, concealing his features with his cloak and impeded by Donna Anna, who clings to him, trying to get a look into his face and calling for help. Don Giovanni commands silence and threatens. The Commandant, Donna Anna’s father, appears with drawn sword and challenges the intruder. Don Giovanni hesitates to draw against so old a man, but the Commandant will not parley. They fight. At first the attacks and defences are deliberate (the music depicts it all with wonderful vividness), but at the last it is thrust and parry, thrust and parry, swiftly, mercilessly. The Commandant is no match for his powerful young opponent, and falls, dying. A few broken ejaculations, and all is ended. The orchestra sings a slow descending chromatic phrase “as if exhausted by the blood which oozes from the wound,” says Gounod. How simple the means of expression! But let the modern composer, with all his apparatus of new harmonies and his multitude of instruments, point out a scene to match it in the entire domain of the lyric drama! Don Giovanni and his lumpish servant, who, with all his coward instincts, cannot help trying his wit at the outcome of the adventure, though his master is in little mood for sportiveness, steal away as they see lights and hear a commotion in the palace. Donna Anna comes back to the garden, bringing her affianced lover, Don Ottavio, whom she had called to the help of her father. She finds the Commandant dead,