by Daniel Brown
It’s obvious that music can do a lot for words. Just last week I was struck, while watching a televised performance of La Bohème, by the way some of Rodolfo’s mundane, getting-to-know-you words to Mimi surge, swell, and soar beyond themselves with music-infused emotion. What words can do for music may not be quite as obvious, but it’s no less transformative. Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein made the point with exemplary concreteness when she heard Mrs. Jerome Kern say that Kern had written “Ol’ Man River.” “No,” Mrs. Hammerstein put in, “my husband wrote ‘Ol’ Man River.’ Your husband wrote ‘Dum Dum DumDum’.”
Mrs. H’s point applies not just to individual pieces of music but to music as a whole. Consider a paradigm case. In the late 1500s, a group of Florentine intellectuals who called themselves the Camerata found themselves intrigued by ancient Greek accounts of “monody”: a musical setting of a text for a solo singer. These accounts made great claims for monody’s expressive power. The Camerata weren’t hearing such power in contemporary vocal music—mainly, they theorized, because its going mode was polyphonic. The meaning of the words was being swaddled— and often muffled—in overlapping and echoing vocal lines.
Maybe it was time for a revival of monody. There was a problem, though: No one knew how monody sounded, since not a single notated example had survived. In proleptic emulation of Miniver Cheevy, the brains in the room (one of whom, by the way, was Vincenzo Galilei, Galileo’s father) “thought, and thought, and thought, / And thought about it,” and came up with a conception of monody for their own time: a single voice accompanied, per the rules of harmony then current, by a simple line for a bass instrument, with the text set in rhythms conforming to those of actual (in this case Italian) speech. The idea was that no musical complexities or fripperies should impede the power of the words. If this sounds like a description of secco (dry) operatic recitative, with its spare accompaniment and parlando (speech-like) text-setting, it’s because that’s essentially what this neo-monody was. And its trial run was in fact the first opera: Dafne (1598), by Jacopo Peri. Unlike most new musical animals, this one hadn’t evolved into being. Rather, it had sprung fully formed from the brows of some thinkers: an invention that’s surely one of history’s most consequential pieces of “experimental” art.
You’d think so word-driven a development in music would be a unique occurrence, but an episode with some points of resemblance took place a century later. Throughout the 1600s, operas had been set to texts either tragic or ceremonial but always serious. Then, in the early 1700s, Alessandro Scarlatti (Domenico’s father), Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, and other composers began to set comic texts, and the result was a new kind of opera. Asked to deal for the first time with the broad characters, screwball predicaments, and rapid-fire reversals of comedy, composers responded with a light-footed style whose simple, vivid textures were susceptible of quicksilver shifts. (This new, lambent style was an important source of the one we call Classical.)
So: two cases where words did a great deal for music. In both, however, music quickly returned the favor. Early in the development of opera, the pure monodic style was already admitting the salutary “impurities” of tuneful melody (in ariettas) and dance music (in interpolated ballets). Comic opera soon came to be enriched by the full range of resources proper to absolute (i.e., non-vocal) music: counterpoint, modulation, variety and fluidity of orchestration and texture, and tonal architecture over extended time spans (exemplified by sonata form). This enrichment is most pronounced in the comic opera “finale,” the large set piece that usually ends the last act of a comic opera, and sometimes earlier acts as well. The conditions for a finale are provided by the librettist, who contrives by means of plot machinations to populate the stage with most of the cast in connection with some farcical pickle. The setting to music of these volatile and complex scenes is a challenge for any composer, one that drove the best of them deep into not just their talent but all the potentialities of their art.
By common consent, the great master of the comic opera finale is Mozart, and Mozart’s greatest finale is the one that ends the second act of The Marriage of Figaro. I’ll spare you an account of its many twists and just say that as one consequence of the reigning craziness, Figaro, a manservant, has to explain to his employer, Count Almaviva, the presence of some paperwork—a military commission for the page Cherubino—that should already have been dispatched. The Countess Almaviva, who is secretly on Figaro’s side, whispers an explanation to her chambermaid (and Figaro’s beloved), Susanna: The commission still lacks the required official seal. Susanna whispers it in turn to Figaro, who triumphantly springs it on the count, thereby wriggling free of blame. Here’s the Houdini-esque episode as Mozart first encountered it, in Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto (translated here by Hannah Kilpatrick):
COUNT [glances over the papers again; to Figaro]: Well, then . . . COUNTESS [softly to Susanna]: Oh heavens! The page’s commission! SUSANNA [softly to Figaro]: Good Gods, the commission! COUNT[to Figaro]: Come on! FIGARO: Oh, of course! This is the commission that the boy gave to me a little while ago. COUNT: Why did he do that? FIGARO: It wanted . . . COUNT: It wanted? COUNTESS [softly to Susanna]: Sealing. SUSANNA [softly to Figaro]: Sealing. COUNT: Answer me! FIGARO: It’s usual . . . COUNT: Don’t you give up? FIGARO: It’s usual to seal a commission. COUNT [looks and sees that it lacks a seal; tears the paper and throws it angrily to the ground]: (This rascal’s too much, everything’s a mystery to me.) SUSANNA and COUNTESS: (If I weather this tempest we needn’t fear a shipwreck.) FIGARO: (He pants and paws at the earth in vain; the poor fellow knows less than I do.)
Put yourself in Mozart’s place as he first read this. The obvious way to set the action would have been in recitative, whose main purpose in eighteenth-century opera was to advance the plot—as opposed to an aria, whose main purpose, like a soliloquy in a play, was to communicate reflection or emotion. Mozart could have dashed off an effective bit of recitative for this spot in less time than it would have taken to perform it. He opted instead for the kind of move that’s only available to genius—maybe only to this genius. (You can hear the result on YouTube beginning at 1:25:53 of the 1973 Glyndebourne performance. If you’re consulting a score, the passage begins at measure 643 of the A ct Two Finale, No. 15.)
What Mozart comes up with here is neither recitative nor aria. There’s a sense in which it’s barely vocal music at all; what we have, rather, is a little tune in the orchestra, over which the scraps of dialogue float like shreds of cloud. So bent on its business is this tune that it seems misleading to say it accompanies the words—the opposite is at least as true. (This description would apply equally well to Wagner’s penchant for putting the real dramatic action in the orchestra, with the singers more or less along for the ride; Mozart’s passage, as non-Wagnerian as it sounds, in fact prefigures Wagner in this respect.) The tune consists of a pair of almost simplistic phrases repeated over and over, with no development, no arc—no nothing: Even a music box would be ashamed to play it. In its mechanical iterations, however, it’s a wonderfully apt representation of the wheels turning in Figaro’s head as he tries to come up with an explanation for the presence of the commission.
This representation has other elements as well. One of them is the sustained note passed among the wind instruments throughout the passage: In the context of what’s happening dramatically, this note is the very sound of suspense. There’s also the passage’s tonal meandering. Each iteration of the tune shifts to a different key, uncannily suggesting Figaro’s serial consideration—and rejection—of a variety of explanatory outs. That some of these keys are minor darkens and deepens his plight beyond the comic; a count’s displeasure could have serious consequences, after all. Here we have another example, like the one from La Bohème mentioned earlier, of how music can give a text an added dimension.
This tonal searching helps set up the moment when Susanna slips Figaro a plausible explanation (1:26:33; measure 667). As she does so, we hear— in the music, not the words!—his realization that he’s out of the woods. Mozart communicates this by lubricating the key change with a chromatic slide in the harmony, one that suggests the oiled sliding of tumblers into place (or—why not?—the sliding-in associated with a different sort of lubrication). The passage’s sustained note has been the sound of suspense; here we have the sound of resolution—and, in an echt –Mozartean touch, of something more. At just this point—which, tellingly, is at the conclusion of a crescendo to forte —the wind instruments blossom from their single, sustained tone into full chordal harmony: an aural nimbus of relief and gratitude whose upper edge is delightfully gilded by a doubling of the tune in the flute. (I’m reminded of the “halo” of chordal sound surrounding Jesus’—and only Jesus’—words in Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion.) The moment is magical even for Mozart.
This portrayal of Figaro’s deliverance seems to me an unusually clear demonstration of what music and words can do for each other. There’s nothing distinguished, or distinctive, about the libretto here: It’s a standard bit of sitcom. The music, on its own, is also no great shakes, and that’s an understatement. Drop this passage, with its insipid tune and tonal drifting, into a Mozart symphony, and it would be of interest mainly for its awfulness: not a representation of mental wheels turning but just a spinning of wheels. (It wouldn’t sound out of place in Mozart’s intentionally awful A Musical Joke.) We’ve seen how this sub-ordinary music transfigures the passage’s ordinary words. But what those words do to, and for, the music is just as important. John Ashbery once said he wanted his poetry to emulate music’s ability to only seem to be saying something. He may have succeeded a little too well, but he has a point about music: Even purely instrumental music can seem to be “about” something. This goes especially for the sonata-form movements of the Classical and Romantic periods, which can seem positively narrative in their tensions, feints, cruxes, climaxes, and resolutions. (Even Ives’s post-Romantic Unanswered Question at least asks a question.) But these musical meanings float free of any real-world ones. And if one insists on hearing real-world meanings in a piece of music, one hears a potential for not just one but many meanings.
I recently realized what this potential reminds me of: quantum potential. Experts in (or at least popularizers of ) quantum mechanics speak of a “cloud” of possible physical states that resolves into a particular state when an observer is present. The analogue of an observer, where a musical “cloud” of meanings is concerned, is words. Words resolve a piece of music’s many potential meanings into a single actual one. Not, of course, that music needs words. And if words needed music, this essay would have staves as well as sentences. You’d get no objection here, in fact, if you said that words and music are their best selves when separate. (They’re surely their most essential selves.) But how much poorer life would be without their capacity for conjunction.