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The Intimate Mozart

the award-winning novel by Juliet Waldron

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Historical background

Vienna in the 18th century

Essays by Juliet Waldron

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The Chocolate Service

Voi che sapete che cosa e amor

Lorenzo da Ponte

Non piu andrai

The Chocolate Service

Liotard - The Chocolate Girl

        Chocolate in all it’s delicious forms, which we take for granted, has a long history, but has only been available to Europeans for 500 years or so. It traveled from the Aztecs to their Spanish Conquerors. In Spain it was for the first time mixed with sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, cloves and allspice, which changed it from the bitter tonic beloved by the Indians, to a sweet treat. The royal court kept it to themselves for over a hundred years, but when a daughter of Philip of Spain married Louis XIII in 1615, she brought a chest of chocolate as part of her dowry.   Like all exotic substances, Europeans originally promoted the new drink as an aphrodisiac. 

        It wasn’t until 1657 that London would see its first chocolate house and shortly after 1711 the fad moved in a big way to Austria, following the Habsburg court’s move from Madrid to Vienna. The production method remained laborious, and here I’ll quote the chocolate maker of colonial Williamsburg:

The chocolate production process follows involves “roasting cocoa beans, shelling them, crushing them in a large mixing bowl and transferring them to a heated grinding stone. Using an iron rolling pin, the cocoa beans are ground into a liquid and sugar and spices are added.”  18th-century chocolate “isn’t something you’re used to.” It’s less

sweet than modern chocolate and grittier because it’s impossible to grind the particles finely using hand-made processes. Each month the chocolate has a slightly different texture and flavor; the flavor profiles always change.”

        It’s the social aspect of the new drink that I find most interesting. Chocolate remained a luxury through the 18th Century, one the kitchen staff who prepared it would never taste. In this lovely painting is a maid carrying a chocolate service, for her an every day task. Perhaps it’s a chilly morning, just breaking light, but she has already been up and working for hours. Lorenzo DaPonte, the great collaborator of Mozart, wrote just such a scene for the character of Despina in their last opera together, Cosi Fan Tutte. Despina--the very definition of the word “saucy”--is on her way to her spoiled, silly mistresses’ room carrying a fragrant treat she herself has never tasted.

First taste

“There’s nothing more miserable than being a maid.
From morning till night you’re busy, you’re sweating and slaving
and then when you’re done, there’s nothing left for you.
I’ve been stirring this for half an hour:
The chocolate’s ready and all I can do is stand here with my tongue hanging out!
My dear young ladies, you get the substance
And I get the smell!
By God, I’m going to try it!”

In some performances I’ve seen, Despina drinks straight from the spout before exclaiming:

“Oh, how delicious it is!”

Lorenzo Da Ponte

Letter of Mozart to his father
May 7, 1783

        Well, the Italian opera buffa has started again here and is very popular. The buffo is particularly good-his name is Benucci. I have looked through at least a hundred libretti and more, but I have hardly found a single one with which I am satisfied; that is to say, so many alterations would have to be made here and there, that even if a poet would undertake to make them, it would be easier for him to write a completely new text-which indeed it is always best to do. Our poet here now is a certain Abbate Da Ponte. He has an enormous amount to do in revising pieces for the theater and he has to write per obbligo an entirely new libretto for Salieri, which will take months. He has promised after that to write a libretto for me. But who knows whether he will be able to keep his word-or will want to? For, as you are aware, these Italian gentlemen are very civil to your face. Enough, we know them!

Lorenzo da Ponte

        He was the librettist for Mozart and many others-in-their-day-famous composers of opera, but this was hardly the highlight of his adventurous life. To start, he was born “Emanuele,” and to a Jewish Leather Merchant, Geremia Conegliano. His widowed father remarried, and this time chose a Catholic. This led to Geremia and his three sons accepting conversion.  The local Bishop, one Monsignore Da Ponte, was the sponsor, and Lorenzo, as he was now named, was destined for the priesthood.

        Although ordained in 1773, Lorenzo was temperamentally unsuited to the priesthood. He was, however, an excellent teacher whose classes in Latin Classics and Italian and French literature were popular. As an inquiring intellectual, he read also Rousseau and other Enlightenment works. He liked women, and had several scandalous love affairs. Eventually, a debate he and his students held challenging the claims of both Church and State to promote individual happiness, combined with a very public liaison with a Venetian noblewoman, led to his banishment. Subsequently, he spent years moving through various European courts. Along the way, he learned the trade of writing libretti and at the Habsburg Court in Vienna became “poeta dei teatri imperiali.” He was a brilliant, cultured man who had read widely in all the pertinent texts, but he also had a natural gift for operatic versification.

Canaletto view of Vienna

        He was in his thirties at the Viennese Court, writing libretti for all the big names of the day like Salieri and Martin Y Soler. Mozart’s letters show that he was always hoping to collaborate with a high caliber “poet.” Da ponte certainly filled the bill.  The three operas which they wrote are all time classics of the form: Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte. Mozart’s music was never so apt or so fraught with truth and feeling as in this collaboration. They appear to have stimulated each other, and the depth of characterization and the beauty of their creation remains a touchstone.

        When Leopold II cut musical activity in 1790 as a result of the Turkish War, Da ponte lost his post. He drifted away, ending in Trieste, where he unexpectedly fell in love with a young Englishwoman named Nancy Grahl. After returning to London with Nancy, he wrote libretti for second rate composers, eventually emigrating with his wife to New York City. At first Lorenzo taught languages; for a time he was a professor at Columbia College. He seems to have accepted his decline from the glories of the old world with unusual calm and fortitude. The family moved into backwoods Pennsylvania where some of his wife’s family now resided. He plied various trades: distiller, grocer, dry goods seller, sometimes selling his wares from the back of a wagon.  He was probably one of the earliest Italian immigrants to that area.

        Returning to New York, Lorenzo became a bookseller, and also continued his teaching career. He was instrumental in bringing opera to America, and assisted with a production of Don Giovanni, which was perhaps the first opera to be performed in the New World. He died in NYC at the age of eighty-nine in 1838, fifty years or so beyond the glory days of Vienna.

Cherubino’s song for the ladies
Voi che sapete che cosa e amor
Blue Boy by Gainsborough

“You ladies who know what love is,
See if it is what I have in my heart.
All that I feel I will explain;
since it is new to me,
I don’t understand it.
I have a feeling full of desire,
Which now is pleasure, now is torment.
I freeze, then I feel my spirit all ablaze,
And the next moment turn again to ice.
I seek for a treasure outside of myself;
I know not who holds it nor what it is.
I sigh and I moan without wishing to,
I flutter and tremble without knowing why.
I find no peace by night or day,
But yet to languish thus is sheer delight.
You ladies who know what love is,
See if it is what I have in my heart.

        Here is the song which Cherubino sings to his two loves, the maid, Susanna and the Countess, older women who must surely be melting at this intimate revelation of a young man’s intense romantic—and sexual—feelings. The part of Cherubino was written to be sung as a “trouser role,” that is, a role for a soprano dressed as a boy or youth. That alone  was a source of titillation in those days, when cross dressing was forbidden by both secular and church law. It’s a common enough device in the theater, at least for another 150 years. It provides a way for the composer to use a woman’s voice and vocal range in a thrilling sextet of principals, musical fireworks so often employed in Grand Opera. 

        We can sense that the boy Cherubino will be a successful lover. It has been suggested by some writers that he is already an embryonic Don Giovanni, although I feel this is harsh judgment. Cherubino, both his poetry (and even more so his joyous music) expresses real feeling. There is a genuine warmth and sensuality which is completely missing from the character of the icy, calculating Don.

Non piu andrai

From Michael Kelly’s Reminiscences, published 1826 in London:

“I remember the first rehearsal of the full band, Mozart was on the stage with his crimson pelisse and gold-laced cocked hat, giving the time of the music to the orchestra. Figaro’s son, “Non piu andrai, farballone amoroso…” Bennuci gave with the greatest animation and power of voice.

detail of opera print

I was standing next to Mozart, who, sotto voce, was repeating, “Bravo! Bravo! Bennuci!” and when Bennuci came to the fine passage, “Cherubino, alla vittoria, alla Gloria militar” which he gave out with Stentorian lungs, the effect was electricity itself, for the whole of the performers on the stage and those in the orchestra, as if actuated by one feeling of delight, vociferated Bravo! Bravo! Maestro! Viva, viva grande Mozart! Those in the orchestra I thought would never have ceased applauding, by beating the bows of their violins against the music desks. The little man acknowledged, by repeated obeisances, his thanks for the distinguished mark of enthusiastic applause bestowed upon him…” 

portrait by Goya

No more, you amorous butterfly.
Will you go fluttering round by night and day,
Disturbing the peace of every maid,
You pocket Narcissus, you Adonis of love,
No more will you have those fine feathers,
That light and dashing cap,
Those curls, those airs and graces,
That roseate womanish color.
You’ll be among warriors, by Bacchus!
Long moustaches, knapsack tightly on,
Musket on your shoulder, saber at your side,
Head erect and bold of visage,
A great helmet, waving plumes,
Lots of honor, little money,
And instead of the fandango,
Marching through the mud.
Over mountains, through valleys,
In snow and days of listless heat,
To the sound of blunderbusses,
Shells and cannons
Whose shots shall make your ears sing
On every note.
Cherubino, onto victory,
Onto Military Glory!

(Cherubino, alla vittoria, alla Gloria militar!)

        One of the most famous arias in all of opera is Non piu andrai. Unfortunately, only in the Italian original will you hear the famous poetry of Lorenzo DaPonte.

        Set to Mozart’s most stirring martial music, it is mockingly sung to Cherubino, the teen would-be lover, by the servant Figaro. The Count who rules them both has just caught the boy hanging around once too often, earlier with his wife, and just now with Susanna, the pretty maid the Count hopes to seduce. As Cherubino is a noble ward, he can’t just murder him, as he’d probably like.

        The army remains the classic solution for what to do with boys who are suffering from a chronic overload of testosterone and who are causing problems around the house—or on the street. Written in the late 18th Century, when war still had a cloud of romance hanging around it—no machine guns, drones or poison gas just yet—it’s straight on the mark. “Glory” here is meant ironically. Figaro is sobering the boy up, saying that soldiering means real danger, exhaustion and suffering. So get ready, kid!

        It’s a nice example of DaPonte’s nuanced writing. Figaro first sings mocking praises—“Pocket Narcissus” has to be one of the best classical put-downs ever. Then he gets tougher. There will be no further perfumed romps in My Lady’s chambers. Your new bosom companions will be hardened soldiers--and your heavy knapsack. No more dances, only marching, almost always in the worst conditions. In the 18th Century, armies were often chronically without pay, not only because of ordinary bad planning, but because wrecking havoc on civilians was (and still is) traditionally part of the game. DaPonte and Mozart, both freelance artists, know only too well that honor without the cash to back it up was a hollow thing indeed.

        For the coup de grace, Figaro describes the pain which bombs and gunshots cause the ears. It’s a misery particularly singled out by DaPonte and Mozart for Cherubino, a musical boy who writes beautiful love songs for all his ladies.

        No more honey-dripping for you, Punk!
        From now on, your ears will “sing” to you of war! 

~ ~ ~