Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics

Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics

by Stephen Rumph

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In this groundbreaking, historically-informed semiotic study of late eighteenth-century music, Stephen Rumph focuses on Mozart to explore musical meaning within the context of Enlightenment sign and language theory. Illuminating his discussion with French, British, German, and Italian writings on signs and language, Rumph analyzes movements from Mozart’s symphonies, concertos, operas, and church music. He argues that Mozartian semiosis is best understood within the empiricist tradition of Condillac, Vico, Herder, or Adam Smith, which emphasized the constitutive role of signs within human cognition. Recognizing that the rationalist model of neoclassical rhetoric has guided much recent work on Mozart and his contemporaries, Rumph demonstrates how the dialogic tension between opposing paradigms enabled the composer to negotiate contradictions within Enlightenment thought.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520260863
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/18/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 286
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Stephen Rumph is Associate Professor of Music History at the University of Washington and the author of Beethoven after Napoleon: Political Romanticism in the Late Works (UC Press).

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Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics

By Stephen Rumph


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95011-5


From Rhetoric to Semiotics

"I no longer know what I am, or what I do." Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio. Cherubino's first aria in Le nozze di Figaro betrays a surprising uncertainty. Traditionally, operatic characters knew precisely what they were and what they did. Above all, they knew what they felt. Aria texts abound in emotive words, as when the Queen of the Night exclaims, "Hell's vengeance cooks in my heart! Death and despair flame about me!" (Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen, Tod und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!) The Countess Almaviva also spells out her feelings in her opening aria: "Grant, Love, some remedy for my sorrow, for my sighs" (Porgi amor qualche ristoro al mio duolo, a'miei sospir!). These characters know their minds. They enjoy transparent access to their thoughts and emotions.

Yet Cherubino cannot name what he feels. He can only list symptoms—he burns, he freezes, he palpitates, he blushes. He feels a desire, but cannot explain it. The page resembles Tamino gaping at Pamina's portrait in Die Zauberflöte: "I cannot name this something, yet I feel it burning here like fire!" It takes Tamino half of "Dies Bildnis" to discover what he is feeling, and the other half to decide what he should do about it. For Cherubino, too, reflection awaits the end of his aria, when he finally turns inward to consult his heart: "I speak of love with myself." Parlo d'amor con me.

And herein lies the difference with the Queen and Countess. Neither woman is singing for herself. Each seeks to persuade a listener—the Queen incites Pamina to murder; the Countess implores Cupid for mercy. In a word, "Der Hölle Rache" and "Porgi amor" exemplify rhetoric, persuasive speech designed to move an audience. As Julian Rushton put it, "Speech and music are devised to convince the listeners, who are divided into those on stage and those in the auditorium." Cherubino's aria does something entirely different. While Susanna may be listening, he is not trying to persuade her. How can he, since he does not even know what he desires? Like Tamino, he enters his aria in search of self-knowledge, seeking to understand his powerful yet obscure emotions.

Cherubino does not lack skill in rhetoric. After all, he has just handed Susanna an original composition, the canzonetta he will perform in Act 2. "Voi che sapete" also describes the page's Petrarchan turmoil, how he burns, freezes, trembles, and palpitates. But Cherubino here displays his adolescent confusion strategically, in order to win over the Countess. He has not destined the canzonetta for solitary introspection, as he makes clear at the end of the recitative preceding "Non so più":

Leggila alla padrona,
Read it to your mistress,
leggila tu medesma;
Read it yourself;
leggila a Barbarina, a Marcellina; Read it to Barbarina, to Marcellina;
leggila ad ogni donna del palazzo! Read it to every woman in the palace!

These final verses prepare us for an aria about language whose key verb is parlare, to speak. But "Non so più" will reveal a linguistic model diametrically opposed to formal rhetoric.

Operatic rhetoric relied upon a lexicon of conventional signs through which characters could communicate their emotions and desires. Mozart equipped the Queen of the Night with a familiar arsenal—coups d'archet, string tremolos, iconic thunderbolts, fanfare-like melodies. Likewise, he gave the Countess sighing appoggiaturas, chromatic inner voices, and a vocal intonation derived distantly from Gluck's plaintive "Che farò senza Euridice," and immediately from the prayerful Agnus Dei of his own Mass in C, K. 337. The Countess even names her musical figure, singing an accented passing tone on the word sospir. These conventional signs belong to a code shared by the onstage and offstage audience and correlate with an equally conventional set of affects.

Cherubino begins his aria bereft of such conventional figures. This is not to say that his aria fails to signify. The churning accompaniment, subito forte accents, and breathless vocal writing might well represent the page's amorous state, if we interpret these musical features as indices of bodily experience. Yet, unlike rhetorical figures, these indexical signs do not correlate with a specific affect; they can represent any excited or agitated state. We find the same features in the Count's Act 3 vengeance aria (beginning "Ah no, lasciarti in pace"), Don Alfonso's mock lament in Così fan tutte ("Vorrei dir"), and Leporello's terrified description of the stone guest in Don Giovanni ("Ah! Signor! Per carità!"). Cherubino's opening music may represent an inchoate physical excitement, yet, like his poetic text, it fails to articulate a distinct affect.

Cherubino's galloping anapests, which might seem a clear expression of adolescent ardor, prove equally polysemous. The identical rhythmic pattern will return at the beginning of the following Terzetto, where it underlines the Count's spluttering fury, and again in Antonio's vinous diatribe during the Act 2 finale. Descending anapestic sequences like Cherubino's opening phrase regularly occur at the end of coloratura passages, as in Belmonte's "Ich baue ganz" (Die Entführung aus dem Serail) or the Queen of the Night's first aria (see example 1). These cadential flourishes, however, suggest bravura, triumph, heroic resolve—qualities that hardly fit "Non so più." While the opening music vividly represents a labile excitement, yet it denies Cherubino the conventional figures through which he might articulate a precise emotion.

Yet Cherubino's melody does harbor one conventional figure, embedded within the prosody. Each of his first three phrases ends with an accented passing or neighbor tone on the penultimate syllable, what Will Crutchfield collectively dubbed the "prosodic appoggiatura." The harmonic accents match the strong-weak ending of the standard Italian poetic line (verso piano) and might thus represent nothing more than scrupulous text-setting; according to Crutchfield, Mozart may have intended every verso piano to be sung this way. But the appoggiaturas also suggest the most clichéd of galant figures, the so-called Mannheim sigh. The musical sigh was a thoroughly conventional sign by Mozart's time. As Raymond Monelle has shown, the iconic sign originally represented a sob (pianto), and only later became arbitrarily associated with sighing. This interpretation sits uneasily, however, with the opening mood of the aria. Sighs typically evoke lassitude, despondency, or amorous surrender, as in "Porgi amor," while the rhythm, accompaniment, and tempo of "Non so più" suggest vigor and forward drive. It remains unclear whether we should hear the appoggiaturas as part of Mozart's expressive design or simply as a prosodic convention.

Clarity emerges in the second strophe, as Cherubino's music undergoes two notable changes (see example 2). First, his melody broadens and begins to separate out from the underlying eighth-note pulse, suggesting a new sense of composure. Despite the anapestic meter, each verse now begins on the downbeat, the first two with a dotted half note; the phrases stretch to three then four measures, and a contrapuntal bass line under-girds the vocal melody. Second, the appoggiaturas grow more frequent and intense. Chromatically inflected in mm. 18 and 21, they pervade 22–25 in both melody and bass line. The word desio (desire) inspires a particularly lush accented neighbor tone (mm. 26–27, 31–32). Delivered at a languorous alla breve pace, this exquisite dissonance sounds unmistakably like a conventional sigh. Moreover, it falls within the line, rather than at the end: text expression, rather than prosody, dictates this figure.

Significantly, this second strophe concerns language. Cherubino refers to names and speaking, nomi and parlare:

Solo ai nomi d'amor, di diletto, Simply at the name of love,
of delight,
mi si turba, mi s'altera il petto I become upset, my heart races,
e a parlare mi sforza d'amore
And I am compelled to speak
of love
un desio ch'io non posso spiegar. By a desire I cannot explain.

The most important name is desio, which inspires the first unambiguous rhetorical figure. Cherubino still cannot explain his affect; yet, in enunciating it, he takes command of a conventional sign. After repeating the opening strophe (mm. 37–51),Cherubino returns to the topic of language: "I speak of lovewhile awake, I speak of lovewhile dreaming" (Parlo d'amor vegliando, parlo d'amor sognando). The poetic meter now switches from decasillabi to settenari, erasing the anapests altogether. A deeper sense of calm emanates from this music, with its orchestral interludes, static harmony, pastoral pedal points, and subdominant inflections. As he speaks of his desire, Cherubino progressively liberates himself from the torrent of immediate experience.

Yet language still disperses him. He scatters his words throughout nature, until the winds "carry away the vain accents," with jagged bounding lines that recall his opening melody. Only in the final measures does Cherubino turn inward to the true subject of his speech: "And if there is nobody to hear me, I speak of love with myself" (E se non ho chi m'oda, parlo d'amor con me). Delivered in a hushed adagio, free from the coercive rhythm of the orchestra, these words complete the reflective arc (see example 3). As the page pronounces the word me, he sings the most poignant and audible sighs in the aria. These figures also sever the last ties with the prosody, falling on a verso tronco that lacks an unaccented final syllable. At last, Cherubino transcends blind passion and begins to reflect.

What is the instrument of his mastery? A mere sigh, half buried in the prosody. When plucked free, it becomes a powerful tool, a lever that raises him above the torrent of passions and physical desires. Cherubino ends where the Queen of the Night and Countess began, with a transparent understanding of his own mind. He has discovered ... a sign.

* * *

Like Cherubino, Mozart enjoyed a precocious talent in the rhetorical arts. As Daines Barrington reported to the Royal Society in 1769, the child prodigy could perfectly mimic the conventional rage and love arias of Italian opera. The last music Mozart ever wrote epitomizes the art of musica poetica. The unfinished "Lacrimosa" from the Requiem condenses an awesome battery of rhetorical devices (see example 4). The orchestra evokes the lachrymose mood with its dragging offbeat melody, thin texture, slowly pulsing bass line, and dissonant appoggiaturas. The soprano line begins with two figures associated with pathos, the minor-sixth leap from [??] to [??], and the sighing dissonant suspension on the penultimate note. The vast chromatic resurrection, described by the chorus in awestruck gasps, exemplifies the vivid text-painting, or hypotyposis, prized by theorists of musical rhetoric.

No ambiguity can survive this juggernaut of musical signs. The "Lacrimosa" begins with a precise affect, announced by the opening word and hammered home by every possible means. Mode, tempo, texture, figure, and text-painting combine to express a single unmistakable emotion; this is a massively redundant message that requires no clarification. But Mozart's music rarely works this way. He delighted in the play of contrasting signs, and his scores abound in the most jarring shifts of style and character. Mozart embraced every influence in his musical environment, whether from the ballroom, theater, parlor, countryside, or cathedral. As Wye Allanbrook put it, he commanded "a musical style in which echoes abound, in which listening is to a great extent negotiating with echoes." Or, in Boris Asaf'ev's words, "The creation of Mozart is always an art of experiencing, the experiencing of a limitless world of sensations, and through it, of objective reality." This motley, extroverted style seems antithetical to the older rhetorical model.

To appreciate the difference, let us consider a work that draws upon the same signs as the "Lacrimosa." The famous Symphony in G Minor, K. 550, also begins with exposed strings accompanied by a monotonous pulsation in the bass. Sighing half steps pervade the melody, which also leaps a minor sixth. The key recalls such G-minor laments as Constanze's "Traurigkeit" (Die Entführung) or Pamina's "Ach, ich fühls" (Die Zauberflöte). Unlike the Requiem, however, the symphony includes other features that complicate, or even contradict, these signs of pathos. The brisk tempo, driven by the viola ostinato, scarcely evokes despondency or grief; indeed, the nervous energy reminded Donald Francis Tovey of Rossini's overture to Il barbiere di Siviglia. The anapestic rhythm, which replicates Cherubino's decasyllabic pattern, suggests an excitement and energy absent from the drooping arias of Constanze and Pamina, as do the descending sequences with their bravura overtones. We seek in vain for the distinct, unambiguous affect of the "Lacrimosa," "Der Hölle Rache," or "Porgi amor."

The ambiguity is not confined to semantics. The syntactic articulation of Mozart's melodic figures also muddies the interpretation. The most prominent figure, the repeated half-stepmotive, suggests a conventional sigh. Yet the dissonant eb" falls unconventionally on the upbeat, instead of leaning on the downbeat. (Compare the prototypical operatic sighs in the following Andante, mm. 5–6, whose chromatic appoggiaturas fall squarely on the downbeat.) Mozart has further weakened the opening dissonance by subsuming it within an upbeat phrase, leading to a firm accent on the lower consonant tone. The minor-sixth leap is also skewed from its normal position. This intervallic figure normally forms the apex of a phrase, from which the melody descends to the cadence, as in the "Lacrimosa." (Compare also the opening of the Adagio from the Piano Concerto in A, K. 488; or the second theme, mm. 29–35, of the Allegro from the String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516.) In the Symphony in G Minor, the minor sixth is tossed off at the end the phrase, almost like an afterthought.

The Symphony in G Minor begins, like Cherubino's aria, in a state of confusion foreign to persuasive rhetoric. While we can readily identify conventional signs, they do not combine to express a distinct affect, nor do they conform to their prototypical articulation within the musical syntax. Both the content and expression of the opening theme demand analysis, clarification, and simplification. Of course, these are normal tasks for first-movement sonata forms, which often begin with puzzling features that await digestion. Indeed, semantic and syntactic ambiguities are entirely normal for Mozart and his contemporaries, especially Haydn, and contribute to the high wit of their music. As Michael Spitzer has explained: "Parametric congruence is more typical of Baroque music than of Classical. In a concerto grosso, the parameters tend to march in single file within a unified Affekt. The Classical style, by contrast, is characterized by the play of the eighteenth-century ars combinatoria." Formal rhetoric may account for a Corelli concerto or Bach aria, but it offers a dubious guide to Mozart's symphony—by most accounts, a paragon of Classical style.

Mozart's procedure does match a different paradigm, however, which pervades eighteenth-century writing on signs and language. This alternative linguisticmodel contradicts the underlying premises of persuasive rhetoric—indeed, it challenges the very notion of language as communication. This model makes sense of Mozart's treatment of signs in the Symphony in G Minor and, indeed, suggests a general semiotic framework for late eighteenth-century music. The best introduction leads through the writings of the most influential linguist of the age, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac.


Excerpted from Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics by Stephen Rumph. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Music Examples


1. From Rhetoric to Semiotics
2. The Sense of Touch in Don Giovanni
3. Topics in Context
4. Mozart and Marxism
5. A Dubious Credo
6. Archaic Endings



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