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The Don Giovanni Moment

The Don Giovanni Moment: Essays on the Legacy of an Opera

Lydia Goehr
Daniel Herwitz
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  • Book Info
    The Don Giovanni Moment
    Book Description:

    Mozart's Don Giovanni is an operatic masterpiece full of iconic and mythical tensions that still resonate today. The work redefines the terms of power, seduction, and morality, and the resulting conflict between the aesthetic and the ethical is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment and romanticism.

    The Don Giovanni Moment is the first book to examine the aesthetic and moral legacy of Mozart's opera in the literature, philosophy, and culture of the nineteenth century. The prominent scholars in this collection address the opera's impact on the philosophical visions of Kierkegaard, Goethe, and Williams and its influence on the literary and dramatic works of Pushkin, Hoffmann, Mörike, Byron, Wagner, Strauss, and Shaw. Through a close and careful analysis of Don Giovanni's literary and philosophical reception and its many appropriations, rewritings, and retellings, these contributors treat the opera as a vantage point from which theory and philosophy can reconsider romanticism's central themes.

    As lively and passionate as the opera itself, these essays continue the spirited debate over the meaning and character of Don Giovanni and its powerful legacy. Together they prove that Mozart's brilliant artistic achievement is as potent and relevant today as when it was first performed two centuries ago.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51064-6
    Subjects: Philosophy, Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Contributors
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xxiv)

    In the history of opera there is perhaps no moment of greater consequence than that of the opening of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Though written almost entirely in the buoyant joviality of the major mode, the opera’s first D-minor chord strikes terror as it moves hauntingly toward an irrevocable cadence. Almost immediately revoked by the major mode, the minor opening is destined to return, and so it does. Having watched the Don’s erotic romping and destructive rampage, the Commendatore finally appears to deliver his judgment. Entering as a statue of the eternally dead, he heralds the death of the Don. But...

  5. One Don Giovanni: “And what communion hath light with darkness?”
    (pp. 1-18)

    It is generally acknowledged that the character we know as Don Juan first emerged about 1630 in Counter-Reformation Spain, the protagonist of a play, El burlador de Sevilla o el convidado de piedra (The Trickster of Seville; or, the Stone Guest), written by a Spanish friar, Gabriel de Tellez, who took the pseudonym Tirso de Molina.¹ The Burlador, named Don Juan Tenorio, has three good qualities in the eyes of his peers: noble birth, great courage, and adamant fidelity to his word. Otherwise, he is evidently good for nothing: a shameless bully, a seducer, a grandee too quick with his...

  6. Two Don Juan and Faust: On the Interaction Between Two Literary Myths
    (pp. 19-32)

    On December 29, 1797, Friedrich Schiller wrote to Goethe from Jena, “I always had a certain confidence in the opera, that from it the tragic drama would unfold in a nobler form, as from the choruses of the old Bacchanalia.” Schiller hoped that the opera would stimulate a new conception of tragic drama. At the time he was working on his great drama Wallenstein after a long hiatus in his poetic production. Schiller’s new conception of tragic drama was intended to satisfy the requirements of an aesthetics of autonomy, because, so he wrote, opera’s artificiality frees the poet from all...

  7. Three “Hidden Secrets of the Self”: E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Reading of Don Giovanni
    (pp. 33-46)

    It is not easy to summarize the plot of Don Giovanni. The libretto, as Julian Rushton has noted, has a distinctly “episodic nature.”¹ One can, of course, just say which events succeed one another. But any such account soon verges on a chronicle or disconnected list of events rather than standing as a summary of a coherent action with a beginning, middle, and end. Robert Pack, in his synopsis, offers merely a succession of declarative sentences of the form “Character X does Y” (escapes, interrupts, flirts, etc.) stitched together with empty connectives such as “next” and “meanwhile.”¹ Certainly, it is...

  8. Four Don Juan in Nicholas’s Russia (Pushkin’s The Stone Guest)
    (pp. 47-60)

    On February 2, 1830, Alexander Pushkin wrote to Countess Karolina Sobanska:

    C’est aujourd’hui le 9 anniversaire du jour où je vous ai vu pour la première fois. Ce jour a décidé de ma vie. Plus j’y pense, plus je vois que mon existence est inséparable de la vôtre; je suis né pour vous aimer et vous suivre—tout autre soin de ma part est erreur ou folie; loin de vous je n’ai que les remords d’un bonheur dont je n’ai pas su m’assouvir. Tôt ou tard il faut bien que j’abandonne tout, et que je vienne tomber à vos pieds.¹...

  9. Five Mörike’s Mozart and the Scent of a Woman
    (pp. 61-74)

    According to Edward Dent, the “perfect” twentieth-century English Mozartian and author of a classic study of Mozart’s Operas, Don Giovanni was “completely misunderstood” throughout the nineteenth century. Dent was by no means alone in dismissing the interpretive efforts of a Hoffmann or a Kierkegaard—to mention only two of the most famous—as hopelessly subjective, arbitrary, and Romantic. Alfred Einstein, that other “perfect” Mozartian, was hardly less censorious about those two seminal readings of Mozart’s puzzling dramma giocoso. In his masterly Mozart: His Character, His Work, Einstein considered the Danish philosopher’s passionate engagement with Don Giovanni politely but almost dismissively...

  10. Six The Gothic Libertine: The Shadow of Don Giovanni in Romantic Music and Culture
    (pp. 75-106)

    At the conclusion of Mozart and Da Ponte’s 1787 opera, Don Giovanni disappears amidst the red flame of the D-minor allegro, with its unseen chorus of infernal spirits and the brief flicker of a descending chromatic tetrachord before the jaws of hell finally close around him. A befitting end, as the rest of the cast moralizes upon hearing Leporello’s stuttered account of it: “E de’ perfidi la morte alla vita è sempre ugual” (“The sinner’s end is always in keeping with his life”). More fitting, perhaps, than his antagonists quite realize. While for them it merely licenses the lieto fine...

  11. Seven Don Juan as an Idea
    (pp. 107-118)

    Giovanni is Don Juan, but he does not have to bear the weight of all the significance which that mythical figure has come to express. Still less does Giovanni have to be pursued, as though by another Elvira, with every interpretation that has been given of Don Juanism as a psychological category: that it expresses latent homosexuality, for instance, or hatred of women, or a need for reassurance. Any of these may be true of the local womanizer, but he is not Giovanni, and these states of mind are not what Don Giovanni expresses.

    Some later Don Juans, elaborated as...

  12. Eight Kierkegaard Writes His Opera
    (pp. 119-136)

    There are two operas. One is Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the other is Kierkegaard’s life. Each is about genius, each is filled with melodrama. The two are connected because, for Kierkegaard, Don Giovanni is the opera to end all operas, the one that sends him reeling into philosophy, the other with the power to reveal to him what opera is. Made delirious by this opera, Kierkegaard claims that it turned him into a young girl, infatuated, bowled over, in love both with the object of her love and with love itself. His response was not unrepresentative of the nineteenth century’s reception...

  13. Nine The Curse and Promise of the Absolutely Musical: Tristan und Isolde and Don Giovanni
    (pp. 137-160)

    In this essay I argue that Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde draws upon an idea of the absolutely musical that is strikingly similar to that found in Kierkegaard’s interpretation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. To acknowledge this similarity is not to deny in Tristan the indubitable presence also of Schopenhauer’s ideas on music and the world Will. I just want to give credibility to the new and rather different thought that Tristan belies Kierkegaard’s own claim that Don Giovanni is the only classic example of the absolutely musical. Tristan was coincidentally composed shortly after Kierkegaard’s death in 1855. One wonders what Kierkegaard...

  14. Ten Authority and Judgment in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Wagner’s Ring
    (pp. 161-180)

    Lear: Dost thou know me fellow?

    Kent: No sir; but you have that in your countenance which I would fain call master.

    Lear: What’s that?

    Kent: Authority.

    From the moment the curtain goes up after the overture to Don Giovanni, Leporello seems to be trying to leave his master. His opening ruminations express a wish to at least change places (eventually granted in act 2, but with unfortunate consequences). Later, after coping with the arrival of Zerlina and Donna Elvira, he announces his resolve to go his own way. Nevertheless, even after serving as scapegoat in the assault on Zerlina...

  15. Eleven Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Shaw’s Comedy
    (pp. 181-192)

    Before Mozart composed his opera Don Giovanni (first performed in Prague in 1787), the character Don Juan always had a touch of the comic about him. In Tirso de Molina’s El burlador de Sevilla (1630), and even more in Molière’s Don Juan ou le festin de pierre (1665), Don Juan is depicted in situations where he appears in a comic light. Many of those situations are repeated in Mozart, but Don Giovanni himself is never presented as comic. Mozart’s music endows him with a kind of grandeur, which, as Aristotle knew, is incompatible with a comic element. George Bernard Shaw...

  16. Twelve Giovanni auf Naxos
    (pp. 193-210)

    It did not take long, not even two months after the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier, for Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal to begin planning its successor. They said their next opera would be “related to Zauberflöte as Rosenkavalier was to Figaro.” The relationship to Mozart’s work was not to be one of mere imitation, but rather, as Hofmannsthal wrote to Strauss in March 1911, that of “a certain analogy” (eine gewisse Analogie).¹

    The resulting opera was Die Frau ohne Schatten, and its commentators, critics, and program annotators still speculate on just what “certain analogy” Hofmannsthal might have intended. What...

  17. Thirteen Homage to Adorno’s “Homage to Zerlina”
    (pp. 211-224)

    Amid the high-stilted gentlemen and tragic ladies she succeeds only in being an episodic figure. Indeed, an irresistible glance has been cast toward her—over the abyss of the classes the dissolute grandee offers his hand to her, and she is perhaps too shy not to come with him at once to his castle. It is not far from here. But because the opera buffa does not allow the seduction of the innocent, whom Masetto surely could not revenge as elegantly as the correct Ottavio his Donna Anna, Da Ponte thwarts the planned promiscuity where there is no exchange of...

  18. Fourteen Adorno and the Don
    (pp. 225-240)

    If one were to count and name all versions of the Don Juan legend since its emergence in late-medieval Spain, one could easily catalog well over 1,003 items. Even without the articles in the present volume, there might be just as many interpretations of the legend’s most influential version, Mozart and Da Ponte’s Il Dissoluto Punito o sia Il Don Giovanni. My aim in adding yet another interpretation to the extant mille e tre is to analyze the dialectics of pleasure and freedom that Adorno constructed in his continual engagement with Don Giovanni and especially with its main protagonist, here...