Thursday, May 26, 2011

Reading List: Mozart the Dramatist

“Opera of all arts offers the opportunity of the most direct expression of emotions by the least naturalistic method.”

“Mozart is charming—indeed, ravishing—up to the very limit of our tolerance of pleasure…. Appreciation of Mozart is a matter of being moved.”

Brigid Brophy’s Mozart the Dramatist is, from a literary standpoint, a treat. Her fluent, sparklingly inventive prose is compulsively readable, and her frequently wicked wit is a delight. The book, thematically arranged, is not a comprehensive survey of Mozart’s “development” as dramatist. Rather, it is an impassioned and fascinating Plädoyer for his cultural significance, and an analysis of his five most famous dramas (Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and Die Zauberflöte) in light of their eighteenth-century context and in relation to Mozart’s own life. First published in 1964, I read the 1988 revision which includes a preface on Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito. Mozart the Dramatist boasts such tantalizing chapter titles as “Women and Opera,” “Opera, Cities, and Enlightenment,” and “Singing and Theology.” Who could resist?

The scintillating confidence of Brophy’s prose does come with far fewer footnotes than I would like. Her analysis of Mozart contains a great deal of eighteenth-century cultural history, argued with great persuasiveness. The comparisons she draws are always intriguing, not least in the chapter on “The Rococo Seducer” which treats Clarissa, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Don Giovanni. Brophy draws on painting and philosophy to discuss the enlightenment period towards nature, science, and fantasy. She has a two-chapter consideration of Die Zauberflöte in the context of eighteenth-century interest in mystery cults, not neglecting the opera’s internal contradictions about women. (She sees Mozart as a feminist, and Pamina as an emotionally complex figure with agency. I’m less convinced than I’d like to be, but I’ll be going back to the libretto with Brophy next to me.) She also argues in some detail the why and how of Mozart’s and Jane Austen’s psychological realism.

All of this I found ultimately more fascinating than compelling. It is not only her view of Don Giovanni as an “unconsciously autobiographical” work, “an eternal enigma, an unstaunchable wound in the cultural consciousness of civilization,” which is heavily reliant on Freud. There is little contextualizing or criticism of Freud himself; his categories of analysis are taken as axiomatic. Furthermore—what I found just as problematic, and more irksome—the Enlightenment is continually and insistently placed in stark, monolithic contrast to the Middle Ages. I very nearly wailed aloud at points. Because apparently the eighteenth century invented the concept of the individual, and free thought. And no one questioned the medieval belief system (singular!) which was imposed from above. Really? Just ask Thomas Aquinas about that one! Or Bede, or Boniface, or the peasant who told Jacques Fournier that the devil appeared to him in the form of a tree. This oversimplification does, I think, mar Brophy’s analysis. But it’s still thought-provoking… and it’s still a fun read.


  1. That's what I vaguely remember about MtD -- I think I scanned it once eons ago, and put it back on the shelf but wanted to look at it again recently -- I remember the unreformed, really basic idea of Freudism pervading every argument. But it's good to know that large sweeps relying on a passé (or let's say, too much marked by her own time) understanding of Freud and modernity get counterbalanced by many original and eccentric insights and her erudition.

  2. @DTO Indeed! Her knack for the felicitous turn of phrase is simply wonderful, and her erudition delightful (and delightfully eccentric.) She even has an explanation of "why much eighteenth-century painting is dull"!

  3. But I'm intrigued by this literary kinship in psychological realism that she establishes between Mozart and Austen.

  4. Mozart and Austin? How does that work?

    Have you read "Mozart's Women" by Jane Glover? It's a really well-written examination of the women in his life and how they influenced his music: family, friends, operas. Very recent, too: I think it came out in 2005. It's been a while since I read it, but I remember it being fabulous.

  5. @DTO @Christie Well! In Brophy's assessment, Mozart and Austen perform similar feats in their respective media of opera and the romantic novel, working with (not fully within) artificial conventions and enlarging, even transfiguring them in the process. She also argues that it is in the works of WAM and JA that the heroine really comes into her own as a protagonist with an independent voice.

    Christie, as yet I've only read excerpts of Mozart's Women, but I'm glad to have the recommendation!


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