Tuesday, 20 December 2016


Portrait of Mozart (debated) c. 1790
It was on this December day in 1790 at Berlin’s Theater an der Wien that Mozart’s 19th opera, Don Giovanni made its premiere in the German capital (the opera’s world premiere having been held in Prague at the Teatro di Praga in October of 1787) to unanimously tepid reviews.  The Journal of Fashion called it “too artificial…overloaded with instruments” - a sentiment that seemed to make the rounds among the critical press: the Monthly Musical Journal expressed disbelief at the backlash Herr Mozart received for the performance – a very rare occurrence indeed for the composer - yet does nothing to repudiate it, simply claiming  

“until now I have not heard him considered by any thorough musician as a correct, less a perfect artist, and still less with regard to poetry, as a correct and fine composer…”

No review, however, was quite as scathing as the following critique, which not only lambasts Don Giovanni, but predicts a life spent in obscurity and a legacy ultimately left unrealized by its composer (extracted from a local newspaper in 1790 Berlin):

“If ever an opera was anxiously expected, if ever there was a work by Mozart raised to the skies before it’s performance, it was this ‘Don Juan.’ The composer must not speak to us by overloading the instruments, but with heart-feelings and passions; then he writes grandly, then his name will go down to future generations, and a perennial laurel will blossom for him in the Temple of Immortality…”

Strange commentary, indeed: Mozart’s Don Giovanni is today, far from an obscure work, proudly boasting a status as one of the top ten most frequently performed (and beloved) operas in theaters across the globe. It’s composer has long been considered one of - if not the - most influential and leading masters of Western Classical Music – an accolade that sees no hint of contest anytime in the foreseeable future.

From both a contemporary and industry standpoint, several major composers, from Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin to Herrs Beethoven and Offenbach - even Rossini - have borrowed music from the opera and/or made arrangements for it – Gounod called it a opera that "stands highest among all classic works;" Tchaikovsky famously praised both the opera and its composer in a privately written exchange with his confidante and benefactress Nadezhda von Meck in which he states

“I not only like Mozart, I worship him… I am quite incapable of describing to you what I felt on hearing Don Giovanni… nothing in opera has impressed me so deeply... I could cry out and weep from the overpowering strain on the emotions… I love the music of Don Giovanni so much that even as I write you, I could shed tears of agitation and emotion... Mozart is responsible for my having dedicated my life to music... how could I not want my dear, best, incomparable friend to worship the one I worship over all musicians? How could I not try to make you feel moved and carried away by that music which makes me tremble with indescribable bliss?”

Praise for Don Giovanni wasn’t limited only to Herr Mozart’s musical peers – many icons of literary intelligentsia would praise the opera, from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who writes (through a character in his novel Enten-Eller) that Don Giovanni is "a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection;" Gustave Flaubert called Don Giovanni one of the “finest things God has ever made” Whilst E.T.A Hoffman and George Bernard Shaw included scenes from the opera in their published works. Praise for the opera at it’s October 27 premiere in Prague in 1787 was swiftly lauded on the work and it’s composer, with one periodical claiming "Connoisseurs and musicians say that Prague has never heard the like…" - yet Don Giovanni’s disastrous premiere in Berlin and later in Milan (where it was received with a round of audience hissing) present an entirely different critical perspective. So what happened? What lessons, if any, are we to draw from such polar opposite viewpoints?

Contemporary poster for Mozart's Don Giovanni
I would posit that it was the challenging of classical music’s rigid rules in Berlin and in Italy by Herr Mozart that led to such criticism: the presentation of something new - setting sail upon formerly uncharted waters – combined with the composers' perceived placement on opera's royal throne – situated at the top of a finely gilded musical pedestal – that ultimately led to Don Giovanni's demise in the German capital.

A pack mentality – and Mozart’s own crushing celebrity combined with the over-saturation of the composer in local periodicals, I believe, played a large role in the attempt to dethrone the King of Opera. This destructive formula is nothing new. It persists even to this day, living on in full force in all genres of music and even stage. We recognize this trend most noticeably when a modern-day icon of music or screen dies – the previously ignored composer or actor is suddenly exalted to heroic status – his or her works and performances given new life - tagged with the sobriquet of perfectionism. We see it in the start-up soprano or tenor – whose physical appearance is given more importance than ever before required to help “sell” an opera’s romantic or tragic story – almost all of whom are roundly chastised by armchair critics, loathsome of the up-and-comer with the “full package”...beloved only when the popular perception of sex appeal is lost – when the artist ages, or puts on weight. Like Herr Mozart, they too are panned by their musical peers – in lieu of hopes for immortality, given a death sentence instead.

If we are to extract any lessons from the (now comical) crude “predictions” of the late 18th century Berlin press, it is this - draw your own conclusions. Listen to and enjoy thoroughly the music that moves you.

And, most importantly:

pay no attention to the critics. 

Enjoy below one of my favorite arias from Don Giovanni – Zerlina’s “Vedrai Carino” sung here by Slovak soprano Lucia Popp:


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