Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni

Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni

by Wye Jamison Allanbrook

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Wye Jamison Allanbrook’s widely influential Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart challenges the view that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s music was a “pure play” of key and theme, more abstract than that of his predecessors. Allanbrook’s innovative work shows that Mozart used a vocabulary of symbolic gestures and musical rhythms to reveal the nature of his characters and their interrelations. The dance rhythms and meters that pervade his operas conveyed very specific meanings to the audiences of the day.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226437712
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/06/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 408
File size: 30 MB
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About the Author

Wye Jamison Allanbrook (1943–2010) was professor of music at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of The Secular Commedia: Comic Mimesis in Late Eighteenth-Century Music.

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Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart

Le Nozze Di Figaro & Don Giovanni

By Wye Jamison Allanbrook

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1983 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-01404-3


The Shapes of Rhythms

Meter, Dance, and Expression

It should not come as a surprise, in light of what has been said, that meters can in themselves possess affects. Although meter is an element of music which in general we consider as merely a handy temporal measure (beneath the threshold of expressive values), a meter is usually the first choice a composer makes, and all signs indicate that in the late eighteenth century that choice amounted to the demarcation of an expressive limit. One finds in glancing through the writings of late eighteenth-century theorists that a description of the expressive qualities of meters is regularly included in discussions of how to "paint the passions":

Tempo in music is either fast or slow, and the division of the measure is either duple or triple. Both kinds are distinguished from each other by their nature and by their effect, and their use is anything but indifferent as far as the various passions are concerned....

Composers rarely offend in this matter [the affects of various tempos], but more often against the special nature and quality of various meters; since they often set in 4/4 what by its nature is an alla breve or 2/4 meter. With 6/8 meter the same confusions occur often enough, even with well-known composers, and in cases where they cannot use as an excuse the constraint occasionally placed upon them by the poet. Generally many composers appear to have studied the tenets of meter even less than those of period structure, since the former is cloaked in far less darkness than the latter.

Music is based on the possibility of making a row of notes which are indifferent in themselves, of which not one expresses anything autonomously, into a speech of the passions....

[Meter's role in the "speech of the passions":] The advantages of subdividing triple and duple meter into various meters with longer or shorter notes for the main beats are understandable; for from this each meter obtains its own special tempo, its own special weight in performance, and consequently its own special character also.

But it is clear from the little I have said here about the different characters of meters that this variety of meters is very suitable for the expression of the shadings of the passions.

That is, each passion has its degrees of strength and, if I may thus express it, its deeper or shallower impression. ... The composer must before all things make clear to himself the particular impression of the passion he is to portray, and then choose a heavier or lighter meter according to the affect in its particular shading, which requires one or the other.

It makes sense that meter — the classification of the number, order, and weight of accents — should take on an important role in an aesthetic which connects emotion with motion. Since meter is the prime orderer of the Bewegung or movement, its numbers are by no means neutral and lifeless markers of time, but a set of signs designating a corresponding order of passions, and meant in execution to stir their hearers directly by their palpable emanations in sound. The composer can study the shapes of meters to learn their potential for expression, he can manipulate them, but he did not invent them.

Yet it is frequently assumed that this notion, although a signal principle of the Affektenlehre theories of the early part of the century, had dropped out of fashion by the late 1700s, at the same time as the number of time signatures in use had declined and qualifying adjectives were being more frequently employed at the head of a movement to indicate the proper tempo — and character — of the work. In the face of this opinion it is striking that late eighteenth- century theorists' discussions of rhythm and meter remained as detailed as those of their counterparts earlier in the century; accounts of the subject in lexicons, manuals, and treatises spelled out carefully the individual configurations of each time signature in current use and of many which had fallen into disuse. J. P. Kirnberger's classification ran to twenty-eight meters, and Carlo Gervasoni, writing around the turn of the century, still treated under separate headings as many as sixteen.

Kirnberger sketches out the form he considers the discussion of any given meter should take, listing three main heads, the first two of which are especially relevant here (the third concerns the special case of the setting of texts):

1) That all kinds of meters discovered and in use up to now be described to [the composer], each according to its true quality and exact execution.

2) That the spirit or character of each meter be specified as precisely as possible.

Most theorists' discussions tend to follow this sketch, with the result that the meters examined settle into a sort of affective spectrum, or gamut. Consider first the lower number of the time signature — the designator of the beat. From the beginnings of Western polyphony a particular note value has usually been tacitly considered to embody what I shall call the tempo giusto, the normal moderate pace against which are measured "faster" and "slower." By the eighteenth century the valore giusto had become the quarter note and, insofar as there is a modern notion of tempo giusto, it remains so today. In eighteenth-century French music, for example, 3/4 was often expressed by the single symbol 3, presumably in recognition of its status as the normal or tempo giusto among triple meters. A spectrum of meters is readily organized around the lower number of the time signature, radiating in each direction from the central number 4; both tempo and degree of accentuation are established by the relative duration of the note receiving the beat:

As far as meter is concerned, those of longer note values, such as alla breve, 3/2, and 6/4, have a heavier and slower movement than those of shorter note values, such as 2/4, 3/4, and 6/8, and these are less lively than 3/8 and 6/16. Thus for example a Loure in 3/2 is slower than a Minuet in 3/4, and this dance is again slower than a Passepied in 3/8.

The meters written on the staff all indicate a particular performance. In meters, for example, with notes of long duration, execution must always be slow and sedate, in conformance with the large note values; but in meters with notes of only short duration a lighter execution is required, since these notes by their nature must be passed over quickly. Thus, independently of the degree of tempo, meters are regulated also by the various values of the notes.

The quarter note, measuring the motion of a normal human stride, occupies the center of the spectrum. Meters in half notes (2) or whole notes (1, although rare, is mentioned in some treatises) fall to the left of center, requiring a slower tempo and a more solemn style of execution. To the right fall 8 and 16 (and, at the beginning of the century, 32) in ascending degrees of rapidity, lightness, and gaiety. Thus a geometric series of numbers from one to thirty-two corresponds to an ordered range of human strides from the slowest (and gravest) to the fastest (and gayest):


The affect projected by the meter is a direct consequence of the union of tempo and degree of accentuation:

Sorrow, humility, and reverence, require a slow movement, with gentle, easy inflections of the voice; but joy, thanksgiving, and triumph, ought to be distinguished by a quicker movement, with bolder inflexions, and more distant leaps, from one sound to another.

And so the number exemplified by meter is viewed as a "passionate" number, capable of embodying the emotions and feelings of human beings in all their range and variety.

This ordering of affects by musical numbers was by no means an arbitrary or mystical numerology, for it corresponded to a like ordering of human motions or gestures. Music had turned away from its Renaissance preoccupation with the cosmic harmony of the sonorous numbers toward a new desire to move an audience through representations of its own humanity. Priority in music was claimed for the imaging of human affairs as over against the serene encompassment of a divinely numbered cosmos. Because of this change in music's role in the world from a theological to a sensory reflector, the metrical hierarchy was now based on physical movement, the province of the dance. Dance unites bearing and character in a measured and artful expression:

Clearly almost everything in the moral character of men can be expressed intelligibly and in a lively manner by the position and movement of the body. Dance in its way is as capable as music and speech of being modelled on the language of the soul and of the passions.

In the dancer movement and affect become one. The repertory of conventional music for social dance — sarabandes, gavottes, and minuets, for example — naturally became one of the most important sources of topoi in the affective language of both Baroque and Classic music.

In fact it is the characteristic metrical usages of the social dance repertory that finally organize the upper number of the time signature into the metrical spectrum. The function of the upper number is of course to specify a triple or duple ordering of the beat which is represented by the lower number. Although, in the late Renaissance, dances were cast as much in duple as in triple meter, by the seventeenth century triple had become the meter most identified with dancing. At first tempi associated with triple meter were generally faster than those in duple. By the high Baroque, however, the noble and considered gestures of the folia and sarabande, although triple in structure, were set over the number 2 (the meter 3/2) at the slower end of the spectrum. Thus in the early eighteenth century, although the numerical series 2 4 8 16 32 had significance for tempi and execution, the duple and triple indications constituting the upper number of each time signature had no particular attachment to either end of the spectrum: music was written in 3/2 as well as 3/8, or 2/8 and 4/16 as well as 6/8 and 9/16.

By the latter half of the century, however, Classic composers had made a final clarification of the attachments born by the numbers on the top — the triple and duple beat groupings. Writers of the period frequently returned to the early Baroque distinction between a slower duple and a quicker, more lively triple meter:

The different sorts of time have, in some degree, each their peculiar character. Common time is naturally more grave and solemn; triple time, more chearful [sic] and airy. And for this reason, it is generally agreed, that every mood of triple time ought to be performed something quicker, than the correspondent mood of common time; for instance, the measure in the slow triple of minims [3/2], ought to be made shorter than the measure in the slow common time [4/4], marked with a plain C; and the measure, in the triple of crotchets [3/4], should be shorter than the measure in the mood of the barred C [alla breve]; and so on.

Meter also takes its place in expression. If it is a question of expressing great, solemn, and majestic matters, Common Time is the most suitable; Triple is best for expressing familiar things and ordinary ones. 2/4 has a character which is still lighter, and more humble. 6/8 serves only for expressions of the comic and the humorous, for pastorales, dances, and the like.

In classifying meters writers often identified particular dances as the "natural movement" of a triple meter, and at the same time considered the "natural seat" of duple meters, especially alla breve, to be in the church (or, concomitantly, in fugues and choruses).

This classification of duple as an "ecclesiastical" meter can be explained by certain historical associations. Sacred music was by the late eighteenth century synonymous with certain musical practices which had come to be considered antique. Fuxian species counterpoint, with its long-note cantus firmi, heavily accented and slow of tempo, was by virtue of its venerability judged most appropriate for the expressive requirements of music for worship. It was epitomized by copy-book exercises in duple measures of half and whole notes — "white-note" or alla breve counterpoint. At the same time, in the sphere of dance music, dances with a markedly slow triple movement were less in evidence in both the dance hall and chamber and symphonic music: composers turned away from the courante with its 3/2 or 6/4 meter and complex rhythmic patterning, and began to take the sarabande at a tempo only slightly slower than the minuet, usually adopting a 3/4 meter in place of the 3/2 signature prevalent earlier in the century. These changes pushed triple groupings over toward the quicker beats at the right of the spectrum. The result was a polarization of duple and triple meters — a topical confrontation between the two metrical types which could be characterized as an opposition of divine and mundane subject matters. Not only did meter bear the stamp of human character: the various affects themselves were classified by two special types of human activity — the ecclesiastical and the choreographic.

The Classic style itself gravitated around these two poles, which took on a variety of names in their various manifestations: the learned (from its associations with "school" counterpoint), ecclesiastical, strict, or "bound" (gebundener Stil, stile legato, from its precise rules for dissonance treatment) at one extreme, and on the other, the galant, or free. The strict style had its ancestor in Renaissance and Baroque alla breve counterpoint, while the free style stemmed metrically and rhythmically to a great extent from the dance. The vehicle of Classic music most closely connected with the style galant, the "sonata allegro" or key-area plan, had its origins in the simple symmetrical dance form. That highest of contrapuntal forms, the fugue, was associated principally with sacred music, and had the air of an importation when encountered in a sonata movement. In the classification of affects inhering in meters, the duple rhythms of the learned style were reserved for expressions which were intended to have some connection with the ecclesiastical (an affect which was by no means banned from the "secular" sonata allegro, which reflected every facet of contemporary life in its imitations), while dance rhythms were regarded as the most direct and measurable means of portraying human passions in time. Many other types of gestures came in for their share of imitation in the galant vocabulary: the singing style, for example, horn calls, and the very habits of orchestral music themselves. Still the dance remained a central symbol of the human half of the eighteenth-century cosmos.

In fact, this simplifying and sharpening of contrasts in the metrical spectrum in the late eighteenth century may well have been a correlative of the emerging procedures of key-area or sonata-form composition. Composers of the high Baroque customarily explored one gesture in a movement, favoring a mono- affective style. Classic composers, on the other hand, preferred to bring into the frame of a single movement the bustle and contrast of a world in small, in a harmonic and affective "dialectic" set out in antecedent and consequent symmetries (or in the intentional breach thereof). One requirement for fulfilling this disposition to dialectic would be that the nature of the topical materials in question be clearly defined, and their relations to one another sharply and dramatically demarcated: for the listener to embrace the fact of the contrast, identification of the members involved in it must be swift and near-automatic.

But the subjects of Mozart's operas are not on the whole ecclesiastical; even the spectral Stone Guest, heaven's emissary in Don Giovanni, is vested in human form and arrives on foot. In secular music the left side of the spectrum served to choreograph those human passions which most resemble the divine. Danceable meters, although they are capable of expressing a broad range of passions, must stop short of the most exalted ones. When noble characters voice tragic or moral sentiments in the lofty couplets of opera seria, Mozart has them affect the ecclesiastical style in a gesture which still remains choreographic in an extended sense: let us admit it to the roster of topoi under the designation "exalted march," for it figures importantly in this catalogue of expressive devices.


Excerpted from Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart by Wye Jamison Allanbrook. Copyright © 1983 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures

Expression, Imitation, and the Musical Topos

Mozart's Rhythmic Topoi
1. The Shapes of Rhythms
2. The Gestures of Social Dance

Le nozze di Figaro
3. Act I
4. Act II
5. Act III
6. Act IV

Don Giovanni
7.  Overture and Introduction
8.  The Opening Scene
9.  The Noble Lovers
10. Elvira
11. Zerlina and Masetto
12. The Two Finales


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