When it comes to Mozart we enter a different world, full of surprises and dominated by the unexpected that seemed to flow so naturally out of his mind. Way ahead of his own time, his operas are a marvel in the subtle depictions of the characters. But most of all, his characters are humans, with all their ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses that we can all recognize ourselves into.
Certainly part of it is due to the libretto. It’s a fact that most successful operas in history came from a fruitful collaboration between the librettist and the composer: Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, or Giacomo Puccini and the duo Luigi Illica-Giovanni Giacosa.
In Mozart’s case, the magic happened with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. Mozart had already worked with him on Le Nozze di Figaro which premiered in Vienna in 1786 but had its greatest success in Prague. And it is from Prague that the commission for his next opera came from.
Posthumous portrait of Mozart by Barbara Krafft (1819)
The opera is labeled as a dramma giocoso, which means a playful drama, a mix of serious and comical. This aspect is reflected entirely in the Ouverture.
While the overture to Le Nozze di Figaro is sparkling in the spirit of the subtitle – La folle journée (“The mad day”), the Ouverture to Don Giovanni depicts the alternating aspects of serious mood and comical relief.
There is one other really important matter: up to this point, the Ouverture was used as an introduction, to tell the audience that the show was about to begin and to set the mood of what was about to come.
Mozart adds an extra element, which will be so successful in the future: the Ouverture opens with a theme from the opera. Or rather, with a motivic element that will return at the very end, with the reappearance of the Commendatore.
This is groundbreaking and anticipates a concept that will be developed over and over again: a motive or a theme tied to a character, a situation, or an emotion. The mind goes immediately to the use of leitmotiv in Wagner.
Should you need a score you can find one here.
We begin with an ominous D minor chord in syncopation, mirrored by a dominant chord
The idea is extended: flutes and clarinets move from D to A while the strings accompany with a dotted rhythm. The harmony however undergoes subtle changes, starting with that bass line moving down chromatically.
Incidentally, we’ve seen the use of chromatism in Mozart in the episode dedicated to another Prague work, the symphony K504 – curiously also in the key of D.
The line keeps moving down, the color darkened by the entrance of the trumpets and timpani on bar 9 and the syncopations return in the first violins on bar 11. The use of syncopation here creates anxiety and anticipation.