He was born in the archbishopric of Salzburg in 1756, and he died in the imperial capital of Vienna in 1791. He was an urban creature, and had almost nothing to say about the charms of nature. A product of the artisan classes—his ancestors were bookbinders, weavers, and masons—he adopted aristocratic fashions, going around Vienna in a gold-trimmed hat and a red coat with mother-of-pearl buttons. He was physically restless, quick-witted, sociable, flirtatious, and obscene; one of the more provocative items in his catalogue is a canon for six voices entitled “Leck mich im Arsch” (K. 231/382c). He frittered away money, not least on expensive apartments. He achieved considerable success, although not as much as he knew he deserved. If audiences were occasionally perplexed by his creations, listeners in high places recognized his worth. Emperor Joseph II was a fan of Mozart’s work, and, in 1787, to prevent “so rare a genius” from going abroad, he gave the composer a well-paying position that required little more than the writing of dances. In a letter to his father, Leopold, Mozart had warned that “the Viennese gentry, and in particular the Emperor, must not imagine that I am on this earth solely for the sake of Vienna.”
As a child prodigy, Mozart was advertised in London as “the most amazing Genius, that has appeared in any Age.” Leopold dubbed him “the miracle whom God allowed to be born in Salzburg.” Prince Kaunitz, Joseph II’s chief minister, said, “Such people come into the world once in a hundred years.” Praise at this level, however justified, takes its toll on a man’s humility. Mozart, by his own admission, could be “as proud as a peacock,” and the Archbishop of Salzburg, whose service he quit in 1781, was not the only person who considered him “dreadfully conceited.” Conceit edges easily into paranoia, and Mozart was not immune. “I think that something is going on behind the scenes, and that doubtless here too I have enemies,” he wrote from Paris, in 1778. “Where, indeed, have I not had them?” As he traces conspiracies, mocks the French, and extolls the Germans, he sounds remarkably like Richard Wagner. Later, in Vienna, Mozart clung to the idea that Antonio Salieri, the Imperial Kapellmeister, was plotting against him. Whether or not such intrigues existed—John Rice’s biography of the supposedly dastardly Salieri portrays him as a likable character, and an imaginative composer—Mozart himself was not above politicking: when he applied for the job of second Kapellmeister, he pointedly observed that “the very capable Kapellmeister Salieri has never devoted himself to church music.”
Playfulness was Mozart’s saving grace. His counterpart in modern times is perhaps George Gershwin, who was charming and self-infatuated in equal measure. Latter-day attempts to find a dark, brooding layer in Mozart’s psychology have been unconvincing. In his correspondence, he once or twice displays depressive symptoms—alluding to his “black thoughts,” describing sensations of coldness and emptiness—but context is all-important: in the first instance, he is begging for money, and in the second he is telling his wife, the demanding Constanze, how much he misses her. Nor should too much be made of the fact that Mozart wrote to his dying father that death is the “true goal of our existence,” the “best and truest friend of mankind.” These sentiments were commonplace in a world where lives ended early and ithout warning. Of the seven children born to Leopold and Maria Anna Mozart, Wolfgang was one of two who survived infancy; only two of his own six children lived to adulthood. Against this backdrop, Mozart seems, if anything, indefatigably optimistic.
Leopold Mozart once said of his son, “Two opposing elements rule his nature, I mean, there is either too much or too little, never the golden mean.” Often, an artist sets forth in his work what he cannot achieve in life, and Mozart’s music is the empire of the golden mean. Nicholas Kenyon, in his excellent new “Faber Pocket Guide to Mozart,” writes, “Other great composers have expressed the extremes of life: affirmation, despair, sensual pleasure, bleak emptiness, but only in Mozart can all these emotions co-exist in the space of a short phrase.” Mozart inhabits a middle world where beauty surges in and ebbs away, where everything is contingent and nothing pure, where, as Henry James’s Madame Merle says, an envelope of circumstances encloses every human life. It is a place where genres meld; where concertos become operatic and arias symphonic; where comedy and tragedy, and the sensual and the sacred, are one. The golden mean runs through the Andante of the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, from 1779-80. A beguiling four-bar melody appears twice, in E-flat major in the middle and in C minor at the end. The first time, the major mode is briefly shadowed by a turn into the relative minor. The second time, minor is flecked by major, creating the effect of a light in the night. The two passages are more or less the same, but the space between them could contain a novel.
The scholar Scott Burnham recently observed that Mozart offers the “sound of the loss of innocence, the ever renewable loss of innocence.” There is no more potent subject for an artist, and it explains why Mozart remains so vivid a presence. As ever, the slow movement of the Piano Concerto No. 23 sends us into a wistful trance; the finale of the “Jupiter” Symphony wakes us up into a uniquely Mozartean kind of intelligent happiness; and the apocalyptic climax of “Don Giovanni” stirs our primal fear of being weighed in the balance and found wanting. The loss of innocence was Mozart’s, too. Like the rest of us, he had to live outside the complex paradise that he created in sound.
There are also piles of new Mozart books. You won’t want to be seen at the beach without “Mozart: The Early Years, 1756-1781,” the satisfying first volume of a never-to-be-finished biography by the late Stanley Sadie (Norton; $35); David Cairns’s enthusiastic and perceptive “Mozart and His Operas” (California; $29.95); Julian Rushton’s crisp, learned “Mozart” (Oxford; $30); Jessica Waldoff’s probing “Recognition in Mozart’s Operas” (Oxford; $45); Cliff Eisen and Simon Keefe’s “Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia” ($175); and Lydia Goehr and Daniel Herwitz’s anthology “The Don Giovanni Moment” (Columbia; $40). Coming from Yale in November is a sixteen-hundred-page translation of Hermann Abert’s 1921 expansion of Otto Jahn’s 1856 four-volume biography, for which adjectives are temporarily unavailable.
The thousands of books that have been written about Mozart present a bewildering variety of images. For a long time, well into the twentieth century, many people pictured Mozart as the “eternal child”—an antic boy-man who happened to write sublime music. This was a theme of Alfred Einstein’s 1945 biography, long considered the standard work. Pushkin, in his play “Mozart and Salieri,” came up with an influential variant: Mozart as “idle hooligan.” This led to the eternal adolescent of the play and movie “Amadeus”—the potty-mouthed punk who happened to write sublime music. Other commentators have made Mozart out to be a Romantic in the making or a modernist before the fact—an aloof, tortured character, an agent of sexual subversion, or a clandestine social revolutionary.
Present-day scholars are picking away at the myths and fantasies that have encrusted the world’s most famous composer. They describe him not as a naïve prodigy or a suffering outcast but as a hardworking, ambitious, successful musician—“Mozart as a Working Stiff,” to borrow the title of a 1994 essay by Neal Zaslaw. One notable upshot has been the rehabilitation of Leopold Mozart, who has long loomed over his son’s biography as an oppressive, even abusive, figure. Damning evidence against Leopold was presented in Maynard Solomon’s powerful 1995 biography; he wrote of the father’s “erotically tinged drive to dominate” his son. Leopold is said to have exploited Wolfgang in his early years, squirrelling away profits from their European tours. When the gifted child became a problematic teen-ager, Leopold exhibited an unhealthy possessiveness, opposing his son’s marriage plans and berating him for what he considered spendthrift behavior. His letters contain passages of world-class manipulation. “Your whole intent is to ruin me so you can build your castles in the air,” Leopold wrote in 1778, not long after his wife died while accompanying her son to Paris. “I hope that, after your mother had to die in Paris, you will not also burden your conscience by expediting the death of your father.”
Leopold was a bit of a monster, but the job of raising the Miracle of Salzburg would have taxed anyone’s patience. Ruth Halliwell made the case for Leopold in her remarkably illuminating 1998 book, “The Mozart Family.” The father didn’t so much exploit the son as make him possible. Those long European tours gave Mozart an incomparable education; he went to London, Paris, Vienna, Milan, and Munich, met the monarchs and princes of the day, and talked to most of the leading composers. Knowing that his son’s musical gifts far exceeded his own, Leopold tutored him in the practical aspects of art and life, in which he was rather better versed. Who can deny the truth of Leopold’s maxim “Where money is plentiful, everything is dear, and where living is cheap, money will be scarce”? Or: “The best way to make people feel ashamed of themselves is to be extremely friendly and polite to those who are your enemies”? Mozart’s path would have been easier if he had absorbed a few of the bland but useful adages that his father mailed to him.
The letters between father and son take on a much more vibrant tone when music is the subject. On musical matters, the Mozarts are essentially of one mind; Leopold never seems to be reining in his son’s imagination. In late 1780 and early 1781, Mozart was in Munich, preparing his first operatic masterpiece, “Idomeneo,” while Leopold was in Salzburg, supervising the opera’s librettist. The young composer was unleashing every expressive device available to him: as Cairns observes in “Mozart and His Operas,” “Idomeneo” touches on “love, joy, physical and spiritual contentment, stoicism, heroic resolution; the ecstasy of self-sacrifice, the horrors of dementia, the agonizing dilemma of a ruler trapped in the consequences of his actions; mass hysteria, panic in the face of an unknown scourge, turning to awe before the yet more terrible fact; the strange peace that can follow intense grief; the infinite tenderness of a father’s last farewell to his son.” Leopold was mostly a bystander to Mozart’s astonishing feat, but he did make one crucial contribution: for a pivotal scene in Act III, when the voice of Neptune’s oracle rises from the depths, he requested “moving, terrifying, and altogether unusual” music, and went on to suggest a series of sudden crescendos and decrescendos in the brass and winds, bracketing the vocal phrases. Exactly this effect appears in the finished score.
Perhaps Leopold’s greatest gift to his son was the instruction to write for both musical insiders and the general public. In a letter from 1782, Mozart takes that favorite phrase of his father’s—“the golden mean”—and weaves around it a pragmatic philosophy that is even more relevant now than it was in the eighteenth century:
One wonders what Mozart would have made of today’s musical scene, when “American Idol” contestants cover Elvis hits and university composers write super-complex, mathematically recondite works, and the happy medium seems, on most days, deserted.
Scholars have also demolished the old idea that Mozart was an idiot savant, transcribing the music that played in his brain. Instead, he seems to have refined his ideas to an almost manic degree. Examination of Mozart’s surviving sketches and drafts—Constanze threw many sketches away—reveals that the composer sometimes began a piece, set it aside, and resumed it months or years later; rewrote troubling sections several times in a row; started movements from scratch when a first attempt failed to satisfy; and waited to finish an aria until a singer had tried out the opening. Ulrich Konrad calls these stockpiles of material “departure points”—“a delineation of intellectual places to which Mozart could return as necessary.” In other words, the music in Mozart’s mind may have been like a huge map of half-explored territories; in a way, he was writing all his works all the time. The new image of him as a kind of improvising perfectionist is even more formidable than the previous one of God’s stenographer. Ambitious parents who are currently playing the “Baby Mozart” video for their toddlers may be disappointed to learn that Mozart became Mozart by working furiously hard, and, if Constanze was right, by working himself to death.
On a computer, you can use search functions to create cross-sections of Mozart—a dreamworld of Adagios; a neo-Baroque swirl of fantasias and fugues; a nonet of Quintets (all major works). To listen to his twenty-seven settings of the “Kyrie” is to appreciate his inexhaustible invention: they range from the entrancingly sweet to the forbiddingly severe, each a convincing simulacrum of the power of the Lord. But the obvious challenge was to go through the whole megillah—to begin with the Andante in C Major (K. 1a), which Mozart wrote when he was five, and proceed to the bitter end, the Requiem (K. 626), which he left unfinished at his death, at thirty-five. It took me three months. I can’t claim to have given every bar close attention; a patch of recitative in the early opera “La Finta Semplice,” for example, was disrupted by a protracted public-address announcement at Detroit Metro Airport, and most of the Contredanse No. 4 in F (K. 101) was drowned out by the crack drum corps Drumedies performing in the Times Square subway station. All recordings are fake events, and MP3 files heard on headphones are faker than most. But I got a rough aerial view of Mozart’s achievement, and was more in awe than ever.
From the start, the music is astonishingly well made. (A caveat from the scholarly demythologizers: most of the earliest works were “corrected” by Leopold.) Young Mozart shows an uncanny ability to mimic the styles and forms of the day: Baroque sacred music, opera buffa and opera seria, Gluckian reform opera, Haydn’s classicism, the Mannheim symphonic school, Sturm und Drang agitation, and so on. Quite a bit of the music is reassuringly routine; Hermann Abert writes, in his massive biography, that Mozart “evolved along sound lines, without any supernatural leaps and bounds.” But very early there are flashes of individuality. Some of the first come in the London Sketchbook, which dates from Mozart’s London sojourn of 1764 and 1765 (and which Leopold did not touch). A piece in G minor (K. 15p) features stormy chromatic harmony of a kind that will appear to momentous effect in Mozart’s minor-key symphonies and concertos. A piece in E-flat major (K. 15kk) has hypnotically murmuring chords and mournful slips into the minor, forecasting time-suspending Andantes and Adagios to come.
Hearing so many premonitions of future masterpieces, I got the feeling that Mozart’s brain contained an array of musical archetypes that were connected to particular dramatic situations or emotional states—figures connoting vengeance, reconciliation, longing, and so on. One example appears in “La Finta Semplice,” the merry little opera buffa that Mozart wrote when he was twelve. In the finale, when all misunderstandings are resolved, there is a passage marked “un poco Adagio,” in which Giacinta and her maid Ninetta ask forgiveness for an elaborate ruse that they have pulled on Giacinta’s brothers. “Perdono,” they sing—“Forgive.” Not just the words but the music prefigures the tremendous final scene of “The Marriage of Figaro,” in which the wayward Count asks the Countess’s forgiveness—“Contessa, perdono!”—and she grants it, in a half-hopeful, half-heartbroken phrase. I looked at the New Mozart Edition scores side by side, and noticed that the two passages not only waver between the same happy-sad chords (G major and E minor) but pivot on the same rising bass line (B-C-D-E). It is unlikely that Mozart thought back to “La Finta Semplice” when he composed “Figaro,” but the idea of forgiveness apparently triggered certain sounds in his mind.
As Mozart grows toward adulthood, there is a palpable thrill of emergence. The routine becomes rare, the extraordinary ordinary. Having proved himself as an able technician of theatrical and sacred music (“Lucio Silla,” of 1772, and the Sacramental Litany, of 1776, are high-water marks of his youth), Mozart now imports exterior drama and interior reflection to instrumental genres: the fiercely concentrated Symphony No. 25 in G Minor, the swashbuckling violin concertos of 1775, the spacious String Quintet No. 1 in B-Flat, and, most strikingly, the Piano Concerto No. 9, which is a three-act instrumental opera of energetic play, melancholy withdrawal, and happy return. Whether any of these forward leaps can be connected with events in Mozart’s life remains a matter of debate. Did the traumas of 1778—the failure of his venture to Paris, the death of his mother, Leopold’s scathing criticism—create in Mozart a new musical maturity? During that Paris summer, Mozart wrote his darkly eloquent Piano Sonata in A Minor, another landmark in his development. The trouble is that we don’t know whether it was written before or after Maria Anna’s death, and, in the absence of other information, we have to assume that one day Mozart banged an A-minor triad like a wedge into the middle range of the piano and liked the way it sounded. Stanley Sadie concludes unsentimentally, “There is no real reason to imagine that [Mozart] used his music as a vehicle for the expression of his own personal feelings.”
Then again, it’s hard not to see some connection between the life and the art in the period from 1781 to 1786, when a series of independent acts—Mozart’s escape from Salzburg to Vienna, his marriage to Constanze, his defiant response to Leopold’s objections to the above—coincides with a staggering outpouring of inspiration: the six string quartets dedicated to Haydn, fifteen concertos for piano and orchestra, the “Haffner” and “Linz” and “Prague” Symphonies, the Mass in C Minor, the operas “The Abduction from the Seraglio” and “The Marriage of Figaro,” and a dozen other pieces without which classical programming would grind to a halt. The instrumental works, with their architecturally imposing first movements and their slow movements that open up multiple inner worlds, are the most expansive of their time, looking forward to Beethoven only insofar as Beethoven looked back at them. Yet the futuristic broadening of scope is made possible by a study of the past; Mozart immerses himself in the art of Bach, prompted by a fad for old music in aristocratic circles. (The Emperor liked fugues.) Counterpoint is used to elaborate and intensify the thematic argument of sonata form. Also, in the slow movements spasms of dissonance are used to offset the surplus of beauty; Scott Burnham notes that the famous Andante of the Concerto No. 21 contains a quietly shuddering five-note collection that is not so much a chord as a cluster. Counterpoint and dissonance are the cables on which Mozart’s bridges to paradise hang.
Mozart’s operas, meanwhile, abandon artifice in favor of moment-to-moment psychological realism. In “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” Belmonte ventures into the Ottoman Empire in search of his kidnapped love, Constanze. Having learned that she is nearby, he sings of the anxious beating of his heart (“O wie ängstlich, o wie feurig”). The heartbeat is indicated in a soft but insistent pattern of falling thirds, in which, Mozart wrote proudly to his father, “you see the trembling, the faltering.” A fluttering, innocent-sounding kind of worry is suggested by rapid runs of flute and muted violins. Toward the end of the aria, the “throbbing” figure comes back in the minor mode, and it is reinforced by winds in unison. It ends up sounding obsessive and fearful—a lover’s paranoia creeping in. This insistent deepening of an ostensibly comic situation would become Mozart’s signature in the next several years; “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” and “Così Fan Tutte,” the three operas that he created in tandem with his ideal librettist, the Italian Jewish polymath Lorenzo Da Ponte, sprawl across the boundary between the comic and the tragic, defining life as what happens in between.
After 1786, the storm of style abates slightly. In this period, Mozart was no longer attracting sufficient numbers of subscribers to his public concerts, in part because of an expensive war with Turkey. So the production of piano concertos tapers off, and there are no more symphonies after the colossal “Jupiter,” of 1788. Instead, there are frequent groups of minuets, contredanses, and other popular dances, the result of Mozart’s new, revenue-enhancing job as Emperor Joseph II’s Kammermusicus. They are exasperating to listen to in large quantity, but they are full of lively, even zany details, and serve as a reminder that eighteenth-century composers were expected to be adept at producing both “popular” and “serious” music, and that there was no categorical difference between the two. Popular dance styles are deployed to dramatic effect in the ballroom scene in “Don Giovanni,” in which an aristocratic minuet, a popular contredanse, and a working-class Deutscher are played simultaneously, in three different meters. The episode demonstrates Mozart’s ability to move as a free agent through the social and cultural hierarchies of his time.
The works of Mozart’s last three years have long caused puzzlement. Less prolific than before, he seems to be groping his way toward a new style, more concise in form and more melodically compressed. Schubert knew that there was something potent in the String Quintet in D, from 1790: he copied it almost note for note in passages of his “Trout” Quintet and his String Quintet. Charles Rosen, in “The Classical Style,” isolates a riveting passage in the Quintet’s Adagio, in which “four completely different kinds of rhythm [are] superimposed in a contrapuntal texture at once complex and deeply touching”: one violin moving up by steps, another stepping haltingly down, the violas sighing on repeated seconds and thirds, and the cello undermining the harmony with a jazzy pizzicato figure that plunges down an octave and a half. Right afterward comes a radiant little theme of rising-and-falling phrases, which brings back one of the oldest recurring motifs in Mozart’s language—an archetype of love or longing. There is something elegiac in this gesture toward the past; Mozart, near the end, goes back to his beginnings. Yet it is hazardous to connect the elusive emotions of the late works with the fact of the composer’s approaching death. Julian Rushton wryly notes that critics used to detect “feelings of impending doom” in the Clarinet Concerto and the Piano Concerto No. 27, which appeared in Mozart’s final year; it turns out that the first movement of each was sketched several years earlier.
What Mozart might have done next is no one’s guess. The pieces that emerged from the suddenly productive year 1791—“The Magic Flute,” the ultimate Leopoldian synthesis of high and low; “La Clemenza di Tito,” a robust revival of the aging art of opera seria; the silken lyricism of the Clarinet Concerto; the Requiem, at once cerebral and raw—form a garden of forking paths. Mozart was still a young man, discovering what he could do. In the unimaginable alternate universe in which he lived to the age of seventy, an anniversary-year essay might have contained a sentence such as this: “Opera houses focus on the great works of Mozart’s maturity—‘The Tempest,’ ‘Hamlet,’ the two-part ‘Faust’—but it would be a good thing if we occasionally heard that flawed yet lively work of his youth, ‘Don Giovanni.’ ”
The new anthology “The Don Giovanni Moment” is the book for readers who have had enough of the discussion of who Mozart really was, and who want to understand the music’s impact on the intellect and, more widely, its influence on Western culture. That influence is huge; if you wanted to locate the moment at which the Enlightenment gave way to the Romantic age, you might well settle on “Don Giovanni.” As the essayists in “The Don Giovanni Moment” recount, Goethe set to work in earnest on his “Faust” after seeing a performance of “Don Giovanni,” in 1797; Kierkegaard was excited by the “sensuous genius” of Mozart’s music, and by the Don’s chase after erotic pleasure; the ambivalent liberal Pushkin was torn between the Don’s swagger and the Commendatore’s rectitude; George Bernard Shaw riffed on the opera in “Man and Superman,” letting the Don end up in Heaven. Wagner was deeply under the opera’s spell; when the tragic god Wotan sings the words “Das Ende!” in the “Ring,” he traverses the same intervals with which the Commendatore intones Don Giovanni’s name.
The leading Romantic rhapsodist of “Don Giovanni” was the novelist, storyteller, critic, and composer E. T. A. Hoffmann, whose mesmerizing 1813 story-essay “Don Juan” is analyzed by Richard Eldridge in the anthology. For Hoffmann, the character of the Don is uninteresting on paper—“a bon vivant who loves wine and girls immoderately, who arrogantly invites the stone man, who portrays the old father whom he cut down in self-defense, to join him at his festive table.” Mozart’s music transforms him into a radical sensualist, a seeker of extremes. But he is a Romantic gone to seed: restless longing devolves into sexual compulsion, a contempt for the ordinary curdles into cynicism. On the other side stand the Commendatore and his daughter Donna Anna, who, Hoffmann’s narrator speculates, actually succumbed to the Don’s advances, and swears vengeance to cover up her shame. Hoffmann is right in hearing something weirdly violent in Donna Anna’s utterances, especially the aria “Or sai chi l’onore” and the wild recitative that introduces it. There is a blackness at the heart of her righteousness, just as there is a life force in the Don’s malice. Mozart’s quest for middle ground takes him into the risky space between good and evil. Both the terms and the outcome of this “conflict between godly and demonic powers,” as Hoffmann called it, are murky.
When the Don finally goes down to Hell, you are not sure whether you are hearing infernal legions celebrating his arrival or the armies of Heaven rather too enthusiastically enjoying their capacity for destruction—or, perhaps, some unholy concert of the two. The scene is structured around a staggered sequence of upward-creeping lines, sometimes in the bass and sometimes in the treble. Twice, the strings embroider that pattern with furious up-and-down scales, and the fact that each scale is a half-step higher than the previous one gives the impression that the music is obliterating everything in its path, like a death machine in a medieval etching. Toward the end, a thumping four-note figure comes to the fore; it recalls the Commendatore knocking at the door but ends up sounding like the stomping of feet. (Tellingly, that four-note stomp reappears in the finale of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, where it connotes a young artist asserting his power.) At the same time, as Michel Noiray observes in the “Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia,” the scene has an archaic, religious aspect, echoing Renaissance and Baroque sacred music. The unsettling device of an upward chromatic bass line—the downward, “lamenting” bass is more common—is used several times in Mozart’s early settings of the Mass to underpin the word “Crucifixus.”
The Don’s almost existential fate, his crucifixion without resurrection, is a singular event in Mozart’s world. Most of his operas end in a great scene of reconciliation, in keeping with the ideals of the Enlightenment. In “Figaro,” the Countess pardons the Count; in “Idomeneo,” Neptune’s oracle, in whose music Leopold Mozart took such an interest, proclaims the power of love; in “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” Pasha Selim forgives his enemy’s son; and in “The Magic Flute” and “La Clemenza di Tito,” both Sarastro and the Emperor rise above vengeance. (“Così Fan Tutte” is the other problem case; its reuniting of lovers is troubled by the fact that Fiordiligi has expressed high passion for the wrong man.) Jessica Waldoff’s book “Recognition in Mozart’s Operas” connects these scenes to Aristotle’s concept of anagnorisis, or recognition, the “change from ignorance to knowledge.” In “Don Giovanni,” Waldoff points out, the moment of recognition is withheld: the Don remains “unflinching, unreflecting.” That is why the Romantics revered him: he does not stray from the extreme path that he has chosen. In a way, he is more Faustian than Goethe’s Faust—who does, in the end, repent.
A final twist awaits. In a cosmically laughing epilogue, the remaining principals gather to proclaim, in bouncy, up-tempo music, that evildoers always meet the same bad end. The Romantics had such difficulty accepting this seeming anticlimax that they routinely cut it from the opera. Richard Strauss was one of the first to recognize its ironic intelligence, and to restore it in performance. In “The Don Giovanni Moment,” Philip Kitcher and Richard Schacht write that the ending imagines “life without awe,” a truly human existence beginning on the other side of tragedy. The world may be a duller place without the Don and his occult nemesis, but it is still suffused with Mozartean pleasure. We can live without extremists, however much they may stimulate our faculties of lust and rage.
“Don Giovanni,” which is many people’s choice for the greatest opera ever written, ends with something like a humble gesture: it dissolves its own aura of greatness. Having marched us to the brink of Heaven and Hell, Mozart abruptly pulls us back, implying that, in the manner of Shakespeare’s epilogues, all is show, a pageant melting into air. “I’m just the composer, I don’t have any answers,” he seems to say. “Life goes on!” And he walks away at a rapid pace, his red coat flapping behind him.