18. The Marriage of Figaro


“Madly scurrying strings and a fruity bassoon, the twang of a fortepiano cutting through the orchestra at the end of the first phrase of the overture, and a crisp, explosive burst of energy and adrenaline with the first loud chord: right from the top this Figaro feels as though it’s going to be fun.”1
Andrew McGregor

So, in the last post we saw that Gadamer wanted us to realise that works of art can have a personal communication because they can be regarded as possessing contemporaneity – a timeless presence:

“The reality of the work of art and its expressive power cannot be restricted to its original historical horizon, in which the beholder was actually the contemporary of the creator. It seems instead to belong to the experience of art that the work of art always has its own present.”2

Hopefully, this can be easily understood, but just in case, I want to convey what Gadamer means through the medium of art. So, we could examine Van Gogh’s The Starry Night or The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. We could even read W. H. Auden’s Stop All The Clocks or Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.

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Paintings and poems seeping with death, possibly saying more about me than Gadamer, and works of art that seem to flood our minds with their image or words. They capture us completely within what Gadamer described as “a mysterious intimacy that grips our entire being.”3 Even though I’m sure that each could make a perfect example, instead, I want to listen to some music. Ludwig Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or Ode to Joy could be explored or even Sergei Rachmaninoff’s notorious Piano Concerto No. 3. However, the piece I want to focus on is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, because it has recently caught me within its grasp.

Premiering in Vienna in 1786, ‘Figaro,’ as an opera, was commissioned by the Austrian Emperor, Joseph II and the Imperial Italian Opera Company. Its libretto (words/lyrics) was written by Lorenzo da Ponte whilst Mozart handled the musical score. The resulting opera blended the two individuals talents to give the world an unforgettable milestone in culture. My interest, however, is in the four-minute overture or, sometimes denoted, ‘sinfonia’, that precedes the actual opera. Those four minutes are purely Mozart and should be listened to before reading further. In some ways I could just stop here and let Mozart take over in order to drive home the point of contemporaneity. However, that would be rather lazy and not the done thing. Although, it must be declared, I will lean a little on others who have managed to put into words, far better than I ever could, the magic and impact that Mozart provided eternity within this fantastical tour de force of composition.

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In 1921, the deeply respected author of the definitive biography on Mozart, Hermann Abert, had this to say about the overture:

“The piece – which is all about movement raised to its highest potential–steals in as though from a distance in its famous seven-bar opening phrase, needing two attempts to get under way. But now it stirs in every quarter, laughing, chuckling and triumphing, with new watercourses opening up as the floodtide rushes past, before the piece as a whole races toward its jubilant end in a bacchantic torrent entirely in keeping with Mozart’s basic conception of his subject, an apotheosis of an untrammelled life force that could hardly be more infectious.”4

Now, not having read the rest of Abert’s biography and close scrutiny of Mozart’s music, I perhaps shouldn’t venture the following point, however, it is hard for me to conceive that Abert would be able to be as exuberant and applauding of Mozart all the way through his three volume magnum opus without self-relegating his work to the dusty shelves of hagiographies. So my, albeit semi-ignorant, sense tells me that the overture to The Marriage of Figaro is a significant work in the canon of a significant artist. Hopefully, then, I have selected a worthy choice of subject from which to illustrate Gadamer’s thoughts on contemporaneity.

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Respecting that different orchestras have diverse set-ups regarding their components, the instrumentation could be seen as rather a challenge in terms of its constituent parts. Mozart, though, as one might expect, was a diligent composer and clearly labelled and drew up respective elements in his score. So, we know that he required the following instruments to perform the overture: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, timpani, and strings, violin (first and second), viola, cello and bass. The most modest rendition of the work has two of each instrument, saving the timpani, giving around twenty-four musicians in a truncated orchestra, if one includes the fortepiano, Mozart’s known driving position for the opera. Indeed, ‘Mozart Orchestras’ are known for being smaller than the full-blown symphony ones with seventy members, plus. An apparently smaller size, though, doesn’t reduce the impression one gets from immersing oneself for four minutes in the company of the overture, something that Andrew McGregor bears out in his BBC review:

“Madly scurrying strings and a fruity bassoon, the twang of a fortepiano cutting through the orchestra at the end of the first phrase of the overture, and a crisp, explosive burst of energy and adrenaline with the first loud chord: right from the top this Figaro feels as though it’s going to be fun.”5

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So what is it about the overture to The Marriage of Figaro that strips away nearly two hundred and thirty years to make us hear a personal communication from Mozart via his work performed by a modest orchestra? But maybe I’m jumping the gun here and possibly the overture leaves you cold or doesn’t ring your bell as much as another piece by Mozart or A. N. Other composer. Maybe classical music isn’t your bag? It certainly wasn’t mine until a few months ago. You could so easily have been reading about the Young brother’s guitar work in that delightful Scottish/Australian ensemble called AC/DC. Perhaps art or poetry is more up your street? Or, do you prefer Puff Daddy, Smashing Pumpkins or Bob Marley? The point being that it really doesn’t matter what piece of art has a personal communication for you in your current state of play, but that you have at least one. To all those who don’t, scatter, scram and scuttle and only come back when you have found your joy, your delight, your bliss, your enlightenment because until you do, you are not quite human!

Supposing that I am now conversing solely with humans and not hollow humanoid shells, I shall continue. It should be noted, though, that what follows is the personal communication I receive from the overture and that this is relayed to you through the abomination of my imperfect and laboured prose; language being a very unsatisfactory medium for conveying the experience that one feels when listening to the overture from The Marriage of Figaro. Language, though, is the only medium that we share, so we shall just have to make do and you shall have to realise that what I set down regarding my feelings and experiences are but the wafts and scents left behind from the powerful and fully present saturation of my entire being as it was surrounded by harmony, melody, rhythm, note and thunder from Mozart’s genius. Hopefully, something of what I write will resonate with you.

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Beginning with the telling musical speed setting of ‘presto’ the scores buzzes immediately with strings and bassoon producing fast paced bars of sawing notes punctuated by a series of silent thuds or rests that get increasingly stretched until the soft toned winds lilt a couple of triplet based phrases ahead of fortissimo (very loud) introduction of the full orchestra for a dramatic few bars of rumbling timpani accompaniment. The whole then begins again with a few subtle changes to differentiate, such as the flute and oboe delicately soaring above the buzz of the strings at the start. However, then comes a real hook that captures one utterly if not already caught by the interchange of strings to full orchestra. Mozart shifts gear and sends in a flurry of descending violins that seem to have minor explosions at the end of their eight to ten note phrases before they ascend to a series of accompanied staccato brass patterns on the trumpet, French horn and even bassoon. The pattern gives way to a plateau of triumphant full orchestration for the next few bars before edging into a strings only softening that retains the pace and rhythmic shape that flows into a eight note trill, first from the oboe and then the flute.

I could go on, but as fun as it is to write down a description of what I think is the flow of the overture I’m aware of two problems:

1. The words are so ineffective at conveying the music.
2. The words are equally as ineffective at conveying the grip that the music holds over me.

Assuming that I shall have no disagreement regarding the former, I would like to attend to the latter. It is recorded that Mozart wrote this overture in Vienna just two hours before the first performance of the opera on 1st May 1786, a time and place to which I’m positive that even if I spoke Italian and German would be completely alien to me if I were to be magically transported there by a time machine. And yet, Mozart, a man of his time and place, speaks so powerfully and clearly to me through his medium of music that it is impossible to feel disconnected to him when I listen to the overture to The Marriage of Figaro. There is no historical placement of Mozart within his time and place and me within mine when I listen to the overture. My listening exists in a timeless space in my mind, where place has no meaning, but music can wash over everything, drenching and saturating as it fills every neurone, every synapse and every part of me capable of feeling anything. And once doused in such a way, a residue always remains even when the music is over: the melodies, the rhythms and the momentum of the sounds surging and waning, bubbling into one another flit and burst across my memory. Most of the time these echoes are scattered or mashed together in a thoroughly unsatisfactory manner that jostles and pushes me to listen once again to the real thing.

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Maybe Mozart heard the music in his head when he focused upon it, or at the point of writing? Maybe conductors and musicians can hear it too when they read the score? Can musicians do that, especially when there is a full orchestration? For me though, it is the ‘hit’ of hearing the work in the flesh that captures me so completely and shows up the poverty of my pitiful attempts to remember the sound and feelings Mozart achieves. Being non-musically trained the ‘hit’ comes to me pure and untarnished because I can barely tell the individual instruments apart, however, I believe that this helps me hearthe music as opposed to listening to the instruments or the performance. And, not for the first time I’m grateful for my ignorance because it enables the raw sound to enter without an academic or trained filter being applied that might interrupt the joy of hearing the overture. There’s a lot to be said for innocence/ignorance, in the right places.

What I must say about the overture, though, is that its use of repetition, which has slight changes in instrumentation with subtle length variations on certain phrases, somehow works on me to produce delight. However, the overarching enchantment that Mozart holds over me in this piece comes with his virtuoso control of structure and how he manages to pace and deliver the crescendos. The flow of the themes in the work as they surge seemingly unstoppably onwards only to ebb away briefly before the next, entices my expectation and then exceeds it. This is Mozart’s timeless magnificence.

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So, yes, Mozart’s work may be deconstructed, annotated or analytically mapped to somehow build an understanding of his work as some of my text has fallen into the trap of attempting. However, what is always missed in any such exercise is the joy, the feelings of euphoria and pleasure that I, and others, get from hearing his overture to The Marriage of Figaro because joy cannot be deconstructed, annotated or analytically mapped. And, this is where I think my abortive efforts at description meet with Gadamer’s sense of contemporaneity, because I now realise that it doesn’t matter what, when, where, how or who created the work of art when it is received with joy, or another emotional response. The person receiving the work, in this case hearing it, is filled with something of which we cannot speak without succumbing to the brutality of the Victorian butterfly collector who killed his specimens in order to try and understand them. There is danger in lurking amongst the tales of musicologists and art historians that can steal away one’s innocence and joy. Instead Gadamer’s thoughts on contemporaneity protect us as we side step such pitfalls, if we can just pause hear to the music.

As Wittgenstein enigmatically said at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”6 Precisely what we cannot speak about is a little unclear, although in one of the preceding paragraphs he does state, “it is clear that ethics cannot be put into words”7 with “ethics and aesthetics are one and the same”8 following immediately. So for Wittgenstein it appears that ethics and aesthetics cannot be spoken of which gives me good cheer that I’m in the right kind of company when I say that art is received emotionally in a manner that cannot be conveyed via language with its components of vocabulary, grammar, verbs, adjectives and nouns. Language brings, along with the butterfly collector and his pins, the wrong tools for the job. Art, when it is ironically termed ‘meaningful’, goes beyond the capabilities of language into a wholly other part of ourselves because it can exist outside of time and be inside the mind of every one of us.

Mozart, our maestro, play on into eternity you shining star of contemporaneity.

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  1. McGregor, A. Mozart The Marriage of Figaro Review, BBC, 2004, [viewed 20 January 2018]. Available from http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/85gb/
  2. Gadamer, H-G. ‘Aesthetics and Hermeneutics’ reproduced in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by David E. Linge, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977, 95.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Abert, H. W. A. Mozart. Translated by Stewart Spencer, Yale University Press, 2007, 935.
  5. McGregor, A. Mozart The Marriage of Figaro Review, BBC, 2004, [viewed 20 January 2018]. Available from http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/85gb/
  6. Wittgenstein, L. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness, Routledge, 1974, 7, 74.
  7. Ibid., 6.421, 71.
  8. Ibid.

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