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Article
In Need of God: Mozart,
Faith, and Cosı̀ fan tutte
Theology Today
2017, Vol. 74(2) 112–137
! The Author(s) 2017
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DOI: 10.1177/0040573617716616
journals.sagepub.com/home/ttj
Steffen Lösel
Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, United States
Abstract
This article offers readers a theological entrée to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s comic
opera, Cosı̀ fan tutte, written in collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte in 1789. It engages
the opera as a means of social and theological criticism. The opera presents Mozart’s
understanding of love through a critical engagement with the late Enlightenment and
French materialism. While da Ponte’s libretto may well endorse materialism’s attack on
the church and on Christian anthropology, Mozart’s music is more ambiguous: on the
one hand, it demonstrates the weakness of Baroque Catholicism to withstand the
rationalist criticism of the Enlightenment; on the other hand, it exposes the sobering
reality which such rationalist materialism itself produces—a reality marked by strained
and ultimately impoverished human relationships.
Keywords
Mozart, Catholic Enlightenment, Freemasonry, Cosı̀ fan tutte, materialism, religion, de la
Mettrie
Christian theologians have long professed their love for Wolfgang Amadeus
Mozart (1756–1791). Most well known among them surely is Karl Barth, who
once confessed that, ‘‘[I]f I ever get to heaven, I would first of all seek out
Mozart and only then inquire after Augustine, St. Thomas, Luther, Calvin, and
Schleiermacher.’’1 Curiously enough, Barth does not count Mozart among the
theologians because his music strikes him as particularly theological or
1. Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, tr. Clarence K. Pott, with a foreword by John Updike
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 16. For Barth’s interpretation of Mozart, see Bernd Krebs,
‘‘Karl Barths Mozartinterpretation,’’ Das Mozart-Handbuch, ed. Gernot Gruber in conjunction
with Dieter Borchmeyer, vol. 5, Mozarts Welt und Nachwelt, ed. Claudia Maria Knispel and
Gernot Gruber (Laaber: Laaber, 2009), 552–67.
Corresponding author:
Dr. Steffen Lösel, Emory University, 1531 Dickey Drive, Atlanta, GA Georgia 30322, United States.
Email: [email protected]
Lösel
113
confessional. In fact, Barth claims that Mozart ‘‘does not reveal in his music any
doctrine and certainly not himself’’; the composer just ‘‘sings and sounds.’’2
Barth’s judgment may have been a bit precipitous, for two eminently Christian
themes, love and forgiveness, arguably stand at the center of Mozart’s operas, from
Idomeneo in 1781 to La clemenza di Tito in 1791.3 They are perhaps nowhere as
explicitly thematized, however, as in Cosı` fan tutte, Mozart’s last opera buffa written in collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte in 1789.4 As one of Mozart’s most
astute interpreters has observed, ‘‘Cosı` fan tutte is the supreme example of Mozart’s
loving forgiveness because, in this most musically perfect of all his operas, there is
the most to forgive, and consequently the greatest demand on true love.’’5 The
opera presents Mozart’s understanding of love through a critical engagement with
French materialism. It demonstrates the fragility of love and forgiveness in the
merely human world, which the more radical strands of the late Enlightenment
aimed to create. In 1789, Mozart seems to have lost the self-assured optimism in
human society, which had marked his previous Viennese operas.6 Cosı` fan tutte
invites the audience to wrestle with the need for God in a world that is in danger of
losing sight of its transcendent foundation. It is thus an ideal venue for theologians
to dialogue with Mozart on God, the world, and humanity.
Let me add a word of clarification at the outset. I understand my engagement of
Mozart’s work as a twenty-first-century theologian’s attempt to interpret an eighteenth-century opera. It betrays just as much about my own theological views as
about Mozart’s. My analysis of Mozart’s opera does not claim to be historical or
musicological in nature, even though it is informed throughout by historical and
musicological research. Definitive historical judgments are in any case difficult to
make: first, because the composer left only a few written statements about his faith,
and second, because he did not write his libretti himself. In principle, therefore, one
must reckon with the possibility that he did not always endorse their philosophical
outlook.
2. Barth, Mozart, 37. See also ibid., 57.
3. See, for example, Andrew Steptoe, The Mozart–Da Ponte Operas: The Cultural and Musical
Background to Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosı̀ fan tutte (Oxford: Clarendon,
1988), 84.
4. For Lorenzo da Ponte’s life, see his own Memoirs, tr. Elisabeth Abbott, ed., annotated, and with an
Introduction by Arthur Livingston, Preface by Charles Rosen (New York: New York Review of
Books, 2000), and Sheila Hodges, Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart’s Librettist,
Foreword by H. C. Robbins Landon (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 2002).
5. H. C. Robbins Landon, Mozart: The Golden Years 1781–1791 (New York: Schirmer Books,
1989), 176.
6. For Le nozze di Figaro, see my essay, ‘‘Theologia Cantans: Mozart on Love, Forgiveness, and the
Kenosis of Patriarchy,’’ Soundings 89:1–2 (2006): 73–99. For Don Giovanni, see my ‘‘May Such
Great Effort Not Be in Vain’’: Mozart on Divine Love, Judgment, and Retribution,’’ The Journal of
Religion 89 (July 2009): 361–400.
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Theology Today 74(2)
Mozart and Catholicism
Before we delve into a discussion of Cosı` fan tutte, let us look first at what we can
gather about Mozart’s faith. His devout parents had raised the composer in
Salzburg in an enlightened form of Catholicism that owed much to Italian
priest, theologian, reformer, and historian, Ludovico Antonio Muratori
(1672–1750).7 Muratori maintained a critical stance toward the institutional
church, proposed rational devotion as well as a largely ethical understanding of
religion, and sought to limit the role of ritual, liturgy, and non-practical spirituality
in Catholic worship.8 His reform program greatly influenced Salzburg’s archbishop, Mozart’s first employer, Count Hieronymus von Colloredo, although it
did not diminish the latter’s self-understanding as absolute monarch and his selfrepresentation with Baroque pomp.9 As is well known, Colloredo’s steward Count
Karl von Arco dismissed Mozart in 1781 from the archbishop’s service with his
infamous kick in the behind.10 This unceremonial exit from the archbishop’s services only increased Mozart’s lifelong ‘‘hatred’’11 for Colloredo—a hatred, which,
however, was not based in theological disagreements, but rather stemmed from
Mozart’s personal disdain for the archbishop, his frustrated expectation of a salary
commensurate with his talents and fame, and—last but not least—a different
understanding of the role and status of a court musician:12 Colloredo saw
7. Leopold Mozart owned and read many of Muratori’s books. See Volkmar Braunbehrens, Mozart
in Vienna 1781–1791, trans. Timothy Bell (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1989), 26. The influence
of the Italian reformer on Leopold is apparent, for example, in the latter’s letter to his wife from 10
February 1770. Leopold was clearly concerned about his family’s life of faith. See, for example,
Leopold’s letter to his wife and son from 4 December 1777, and Wolfgang’s letter to his father
from 20 December 1777. In the following, I quote all letters from Mozart and his family from The
Letters of Mozart and His Family, chronologically arranged, translated and edited with an
Introduction, Notes and Indices by Emily Anderson, 3rd edition (London: Macmillan, 1985).
8. For Muratori, see Paolo Vismara, ‘‘Lodovico Antonio Muratori (1672–1750): Enlightenment in a
Tridentine Mode,’’ in Enlightenment and Catholicism in Europe: A Transnational History, ed.
Jeffrey D. Burton and Ulrich L. Lehner (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2014),
249–68.
9. For Colloredo and his political reforms, see Braunbehrens, Mozart in Vienna, 22–29. Colloredo’s
pastoral letter, in which he outlines his theological reform agenda, is reprinted in Der aufgeklärte
Reformkatholizismus in Österreich: Hirtenbrief des Erzbischofs von Wien, Johann Joseph Graf
Trautson 1752—Hirtenbrief des Bischofs von Laibach, Johann Karl Graf Herberstein
1782—Hirtenbrief des Erzbischofs von Salzburg, Hieronymus Graf Colloredo 1782, ed. Peter
Hersche (Bern and Frankfurt am Main: Herbert Lang und CIE AG, 1976), 45–101. In his letter
to his father from 25 September 1782, Mozart suggests that the archbishop’s ecclesial reforms only
have the purpose of ingratiating himself with Emperor Joseph II. Mozart doubts that Colloredo
will be successful in this regard. In his letter to his father from 9 May 1781, he had already
reported that the Archbishop ‘‘is detested here and [most of all by the Emperor].’’
10. For Mozart’s account of this event, see his letters to his father from 9 June 1781 and 13 June 1781.
11. Letter to his father from 9 May 1781.
12. On Mozart’s dislike of Colloredo’s authoritarian character, see Mozart’s letter to his mother from
14 January 1775. For the Mozarts’ frustration about salaries, see Leopold’s letters to Padre
Lösel
115
his musicians as mere servants at court. Mozart, by contrast, had a bourgeois selfawareness, understood himself as an internationally renowned artist, and expected
to be treated accordingly.13
Mozart’s letters show that his religious upbringing informed his own faith over
the course of his life. In 1770, the 14-year old Mozart shows himself a canny
observer of religious dissembling, as he watches in Bologna the gluttonous appetite
of ‘‘a certain Dominican, who is regarded a holy man.’’14 Eight years later, we read
in a letter of his mother to her husband that Mozart does not want to socialize with
people in Mannheim, because they ‘‘have no religion and are out-and-out freethinkers.’’15 In February 1778, Mozart himself expresses abhorrence at people’s
lack of religion. Regarding the Mannheim court musicians Johann Baptist
Wendling and Friedrich Ramm, Mozart writes:
Wendling is a thoroughly honest, excellent fellow, but unfortunately he has no
religion whatever; and the whole family are the same. It is enough to say that his
daughter has been somebody’s [mistress]. Ramm is a decent fellow, but a libertine.
I know myself, and I am positive that I have enough religion never at any time to
do anything which I could not do openly before the whole world; but the mere idea
of being, even though it is only on a journey, in the society of people whose
way of thinking is so entirely different from my own (and from that of all honourable people), horrifies me . . . Friends who have no religion cannot be our friends
for long.16
We gain rare insights into the nature of Mozart’s religiosity from the letters he
wrote when each of his parents passed away. On 3 July 1778, his mother died on the
extended trip with her son to Paris. Immediately after her death, Mozart wrote two
letters to Salzburg: one to his father and another to his good friend, Abbé
Bullinger. In both letters, Mozart expresses a deep trust in divine providence. To
his father—whom he does not yet tell the full extent of the sad truth, just trying to
prepare him first for the worst—he reports that
I have resigned myself wholly to the will of God . . . How else can we manage to be
calm or, I should say, calmer, for we cannot be perfectly calm! Come what may, I am
resigned—for I know that God, Who orders all things for our good, however strange
they may seem to us, wills it thus. Moreover I believe (and no one will persuade me to
Martini, Bologna, from 22 December 1777, to his son from 29 January 1778 and 23 February
1778, to his wife and son from 6 April 1778, as well as Wolfgang’s letters to his father from 15
October 1778 and 12 November 1778.
13. See, for example, Mozart’s letters to his father from 11 September 1778 and especially from
24 March 1781, in which Mozart complains about having to sit with the valets and cooks at table.
14. Letter to his mother and sister from 21 August 1770.
15. Letter from Maria Anna Mozart to her husband from 22 February 1778.
16. Letter to his father from 4 February 1778.
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Theology Today 74(2)
the contrary) that no doctor, no man living, no misfortune and no chance can give a
man his life or take it away. None can do so but God alone.17
In the letter to Abbé Bullinger Mozart expresses the same resolve into God’s
eternal providence: ‘‘Most beloved Friend! . . . I have to tell you that my mother, my
dear mother, is no more! God has called her to Himself. It was His will to take her,
that I saw clearly—so I resigned myself to His will.’’ 18 And a bit later: ‘‘I am firmly
convinced that she was bound to die and that God had so ordained it.’’19
This letter also gives us insight into Mozart’s familiarity with biblical language,
when he adds: ‘‘He gave her to me, so He was able to take her away from me.’’20
Moreover, we can at least surmise the comfort he draws from his mother’s partaking in the Catholic sacraments when he writes that ‘‘Three days before her death
she made her confession, partook of the Sacrament and received Extreme
Unction.’’21 And we get a glimpse into Mozart’s prayer life when he reports
that, ‘‘[w]hen her illness became dangerous, I prayed to God for two things
only—a happy death for her, and strength and courage for myself; and God and
His goodness heard my prayer and gave me those two blessings in the richest
measure.’’22 Already earlier in the letter, Mozart had insisted that ‘‘Not only am
I now comforted, but I have been comforted for some time. By the mercy of God I
have borne it all with fortitude and composure.’’23
A few days later, Mozart followed up with another letter, in which he finally
conveyed the bad news of his mother’s death to his father. Again, the theme of
divine providence dominates: ‘‘But I hope that you have now summoned up courage to hear the worst, and that . . . you will eventually resign yourself to the will of
God and worship His unsearchable, unfathomable and all-wise providence.’’24
Again, Mozart also speaks of the comfort, which he wishes that his father and
sister will draw from God’s providence: ‘‘Weep, weep your fill, but take comfort at
last. Remember that Almighty God willed it thus—and how can we rebel against
Him?’’25 Strong is once more the theme of prayer: ‘‘Let us rather pray to Him, and
thank Him for His goodness, for she died a very happy death.’’26 Then, Mozart
17. Letter to his father from 3 July 1778. In the same letter, Mozart reports scornfully that Voltaire
had died: ‘‘Now I have a piece of news for you which you may have heard already, namely, that
that godless arch-rascal Voltaire has pegged out like a dog, like a beast! That is his reward!’’
18. Letter to Abbé Bullinger from 3 July 1778.
19. Ibid.
20. Ibid. Compare Job 1:21 NRSV: ‘‘He said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I
return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’’’
21. Letter to Abbé Bullinger from 3 July 1778.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid.
24. Letter to his father from 9 July 1778.
25. Ibid.
26. Ibid.
Lösel
117
reveals the pillars upon which his faith rests: his acceptance of God’s will, his belief
that the dead rest with God, and his hope in the resurrection:
In those distressing moments, there were three things that consoled me—my entire
and steadfast submission to the will of God, and the sight of her very easy and
beautiful death which made me feel that in a moment she had become so happy;
for how much happier is she now than we are! Indeed I wished at that moment to
depart with her. From this wish and longing proceeded finally my third source of
consolation—the thought that she is not lost to us for ever—that we shall see her
again—that we shall live together far more happily and blissfully than ever in this
world. We do not yet know when it will be—but that does not disturb me; when God
wills it, I am ready. Well, his heavenly and most holy will has been fulfilled. Let us
therefore say a Paternoster for her soul and turn our attention to other matters, for all
things have their appropriate time.27
Mozart preliminarily ends his little sermon with yet another expression of confidence in God’s providence: ‘‘in the end, when God wills it, we shall all meet in
Heaven—for which purpose we are destined and created.’’28 But there is one more
section later in the letter, which deserves our attention. Here, he asks his father ‘‘to
have Holy Masses said at Maria-Plain and Loreto,’’ just as ‘‘I have made arrangements here.’’29 This little request reveals how much he was rooted in Catholic
practices. And they clearly mattered to him, for towards the end of the long
letter, after discussing mundane matters, Mozart reports his continued hope for
a good appointment, ‘‘no matter where—provided it be in a Catholic country.’’30
For only in such a country could he practice his Catholic faith and receive the
sacraments.
Catholic practices come up repeatedly in Mozart’s letters. Thus, he reports to
pray the rosary and to attend mass.31 That Mozart made private vows, we know
from the grand, though unfinished Mass in C minor K. 427, which was the result of
one. On 13 June 1781, he reports to his father—who once again was concerned
about ‘‘the welfare of my soul’’—that ‘‘It is not true that I boasted of eating meat
on all fast-days; but I did say that I did not scruple to do so or consider it a sin, for
I take fasting to mean abstaining, that is, eating less than usual. I attend Mass every
Sunday and every Holy day and, if I can manage it, on weekdays also, and that you
know, my father.’’32 The passage shows not just Mozart’s familiarity with
27. Ibid. Note again the biblical language (‘‘for all things have their appropriate time’’). See
Ecclesiastes 3:1.
28. Letter to his father from 9 July 1778.
29. Ibid.
30. Ibid.
31. See, for example, his letters to his father from 3 July 1778 and to his wife in Baden from 25 June
1791.
32. Letter to his father from 13 June 1781.
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Theology Today 74(2)
traditional Catholic piety, but also that he took an enlightened approach to it,
trying to adhere to the spirit rather than the letter of the law.
If Mozart had a strong trust in divine providence, he was equally firm in his
belief in an immortal soul (a question, which features indirectly in Cosı` fan tutte, as
we will see). On 5 December 1781, he again felt the need to assuage his father who
still seemed to have been worried for Mozart’s salvation: ‘‘You say that I must
remember that I have an immortal soul. Not only do I think it, but I firmly believe
it. If it were not so, wherein would consist the difference between men and
beasts?’’33 The immortality of the soul stands in the background also in a letter
from 4 April 1787, written after he learned of his father’s terminal illness. Here,
Mozart addresses death once more:
As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have
formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of
mankind, that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very
soothing and consoling! And I thank God for graciously granting me the opportunity
(you know what I mean) of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to
our true happiness. I never lie down at night without reflecting that—young as
I am—I may not live to see another day. Yet no one of all my acquaintances
could say that in company I am morose or disgruntled. For this blessing I daily
thank my Creator and wish with all my heart that each one of my fellow-creatures
could enjoy it.34
In contrast to Mozart’s earlier focus on divine providence, he dwells here on the
theme of death as a friend. The passage shows the influence of Moses Mendelsohn’s
Phaedon oder über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele of 1767, a then popular book, which
Mozart owned himself.35
After his father’s death in 1787 we have only a few spurious comments which
give us insights into Mozart’s religiosity.36 Further indications of Mozart’s faith
come, however, from his professional activities and his growing interest to return to
composing church music. In Salzburg, such compositions belonged, of course, to
Mozart’s professional duties. After his permanent move to Vienna, such compositions became far more seldom, but this was mostly due to the Josephinian
33. Letter to his father from 5 December 1781.
34. Letter to his father from 4 April 1787.
35. Originally published as Moses Mendelsohn, Phaedon oder über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Berlin
and Stettin: Friedrich Nicolai, 1767). See Otto Erich Deutsch, Mozart: A Documentary Biography,
tr. Eric Blom, Peter Branscombe, and Jeremy Noble (Stanford, CA: Stanford University,
1965), 589.
36. See, for example, his letters to his wife from 25 June 1791 and from 8–9 October 1791.
Lösel
119
liturgical reforms, which greatly diminished demand for orchestral masses and
other church music.37
It is all the more remarkable that in the last years of his life, Mozart returned
increasingly to composing church music nonetheless. According to his first biographer Franz Xaver Niemetschek, church music was Mozart’s ‘‘favourite form of
composition.’’38 Similar testimonies come from his widow.39 Indeed, although
there was no market for such compositions in the Vienna of the 1780s, Mozart
worked on several pieces of church music in the period after 1787.40 Also, in 1791,
he applied for the honorary position as assistant to the ailing Kapellmeister,
Leopold Hofmann, at Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral—a position, which was
under the authority of the magistrate of the City of Vienna. Mozart fostered the
hope of succeeding Hofmann in case of death.41 The position of Kapellmeister
would have given him the much sought-after financial stability independent from
both the court and the aristocracy.42 At the same time, it would have allowed him
to follow his compositional proclivities. That he saw himself as particularly gifted
in the area of church music is evident from a letter to the Municipal Council of
Vienna from 25 April 1791, in which he remarks on his ‘‘thorough knowledge of
both the secular and ecclesiastical styles of music.’’43
Mozart’s late compositions of church music demonstrate not only his compositional interests but also show a new style in line with the Josephinian liturgical
37. See H. C. Robbins Landon, 1791: Mozart’s Last Year (Thames and Hudson, 1988), 50. For the
Josephinian reforms of Catholic worship in Austria, see Hans Hollerweger, Die Reform des
Gottesdienstes zur Zeit des Josephinismus in Österreich (Regensburg: Verlag Friedrich Pustet,
1976); idem, ‘‘Tendenzen der Liturgischen Reformen unter Maria Theresia und Joseph II,’’ in
Elisabeth Kovács, ed., Katholische Aufklärung und Josephinismus (Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag,
1979), 295–306.
38. Franz Xaver Niemetschek, Leben des K. K. Kapellmeisters Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, nach
Originalquellen beschrieben (Prague, 1798); enlarged second edition, 1808, 77; Life of Mozart, tr.
Helen Mautner (London, 1956), 85–86, quoted in Christoph Wolff, Mozart’s Requiem: Historical
and Analytical Studies, Documents, Score, tr. Mary Whittall with revisions and additions by the
author (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1994), 71, fn. 10.
39. See Robbins Landon, 1791: Mozart’s Last Year, 48: ‘‘As Constanze related many times, [Mozart]
had a particular affinity for and devotion to church music; he had particular ideas not only about
grand masses and requiems but also about smaller, volkstümliche (popular) pieces of church
music.’’
40. See Wolff, Mozart’s Requiem, 36, and here especially fn. 96 with a list of compositions that fall in
this category.
41. Robbins Landon, 1791: Mozart’s Last Year, 48.
42. See Wolff, Mozart’s Requiem, 36, and Robbins Landon, 1791: Mozart’s Last Year, 48. For a
comparison of salaries of musicians in Vienna at the time, see Steptoe, The Mozart–Da Ponte
Operas, 53–76. For Mozart’s efforts to establish himself as an independent bourgeois artist and the
various sources of income, from which he could ideally draw, see ibid., 13–97, and Norbert Elias,
Mozart: Portrait of a Genius, ed. Michael Schröter, tr. Edmund Jephcott (Berkeley and Los
Angeles, CA: University of California, 1993).
43. Letter to the Municipal Council of Vienna from 25 April 1791. Indeed, on 28 April 1791, Mozart
secured the sought-after honorary post. See Robbins Landon, 1791: Mozart’s Last Year, 48.
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reforms. Mozart’s long Kyrie in D minor K. 341, scored for large orchestra, and
the unfinished Requiem, again in D minor, on which Mozart worked up to the end
of his life on an anonymous commission, are two such examples.44 ‘‘Austere, even
awesome’’45 in style, as Robbins Landon suggests, they ‘‘preserve a positively
Josephinian sense of simple directness.’’46
Of an entirely different, more popular mode, yet again very much in line with
Josephinian notions of liturgy is the little motet of 1791, Ave, verum corpus. Mozart
wrote it for his friend, choir master Anton Stoll, for performance in the parish
church in Baden near Vienna on the Feast of Corpus Christi. The piece is marked
by ‘‘its Volkstümlichkeit, its deliberate attempt to be unadorned, devotional and
easily understood,’’ and its ‘‘touching directness and simplicity.’’47 It is yet another
example, as Robbins Landon suggests, that, ‘‘Even in his church music, Mozart
was an inspired product of the Enlightenment: vox populi ¼ vox Dei, that is, a
return to the voice of the people in its simplest and most basic form, implies a kind
of truth which in turn was considered to have a touch of the divine.’’48
In light of this epistolary and musical evidence, it seems safe to conclude that
Mozart not only grew up an enlightened Catholic in Salzburg but also remained
one in Vienna. After all, Vienna was the center of the Catholic Enlightenment in
Austria and Mozart must have personally known a number of its representatives.
Marc Anton Wittola, for example, the doctrinally conservative editor of the
Catholic Wiener Kirchenzeitung and one of the most prominent spokespersons of
the Catholic Enlightenment in Austria, was a member in Mozart’s lodge, Zur
Wohltätigkeit (Beneficence).49 Undoubtedly, Mozart’s worldview continuously
developed over the course of his time in Vienna as he got into contact with
Freemasonry and—through it—with representatives of many different philosophical persuasions, from the atheist Illuminati on one end of the spectrum to the
mystically inclined Rosicrucians on the other.50 Mozart’s deep rootedness in
44. Robbins Landon suggests, ‘‘that Mozart intended to compose a large Missa Solemnis in D minor
to celebrate his new position at St. Stephen’s, and completed the Kyrie before Hofmann recovered’’ (1791: Mozart’s Last Year, 49). He points to Mozart’s letter to choir master Anton Stoll in
Baden from the end of May 1791 as further evidence of Mozart’s preoccupation with church music
at the time.
45. Ibid., 54.
46. Ibid.
47. Ibid. Robbins Landon singles out especially the motet’s ‘‘small orchestra (strings and organ) and
its simple choral writing’’ as ‘‘part of its Josephinian garb’’ (ibid.).
48. Ibid.
49. See Nicholas Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas
(London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1992), 127. For Wittola, see Peter Hersche, Der
Spätjansenismus in Österreich (Vienna: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1977),
251–73.
50. For Mozart’s involvement with the Freemasons, see, for example, Braunbehrens, Mozart in
Vienna, 226–66; Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment, 117–29 and 189–96; H. C. Robbins
Landon, Mozart and the Masons: New Light on the Lodge ‘‘Crowned Hope’’ (London: Thames
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Catholicism, however, does not seem to have changed all that much. In light of our
observations, it seems—if anything—to have become even more prominent in the
last years of his life.
Cosı̀ fan tutte
Let me turn to Cosı` fan tutte, now, so we can see how questions of faith and
religion play out on the operatic stage. I suggest that we interpret this work as a
theological statement of sorts. There is no question that Mozart had sympathies for
the Enlightenment or, more precisely, as I want to suggest, for the Enlightenment
in its Catholic, Josephinian form.51 His Viennese operas advocate for religious
tolerance, albeit within the limits of European Orientalism (Die Entführung aus
dem Serail), question the authority of the nobility (Le nozze di Figaro, Don
Giovanni), criticize Baroque religiosity (Die Zauberflöte), offer an enlightened
understanding of absolutism (La clemenza di Tito), and show proclivities for
Freemasonry (Cosı` fan tutte, Die Zauberflöte)—mostly along the lines of the
Josephinian reforms in Austria and, during Joseph’s lifetime, also with likely support by the emperor himself.52 Mozart’s operas also demonstrate an enlightened
interest in empirical knowledge (Cosı` fan tutte),53 make much use of enlightened
and Hudson, 1982); and Hans-Josef Irmen, Mozart—Mitglied geheimer Gesellschaften (Zülpich:
Prisca, 1991).
51. The term ‘‘Catholic Enlightenment’’ has become increasingly used in recent literature. I follow
Bernhard Schneider’s influential definition of this intellectual and social movement in his
‘‘‘Katholische Aufklärung’: Zum Werden und Wert eines Forschungsbegriffs,’’ Revue d’Histoire
Eccle´siastique 93:3–4 (1998): 354–97. Schneider describes the Catholic Enlightenment as ‘‘the
reality of a heterogeneous, open movement, which undertook a project of the ‘aggiornamento
of faith’’’ (ibid., 384). Thinkers who subscribed to this project, Schneider argues, ‘‘attempted to
perceive reality in light of a (reasonable) faith and shape faith concretely in light of a changed
relationship to reality’’ (ibid.). Sociologically, such thinkers were united by their common social
basis in the bourgeoisie. They also shared a common method and language, that is, they critiqued
formerly unquestioned authorities, were interested in scientific knowledge, embraced the
Enlightenment project of education, wrote in the vernacular, and resorted to enlightened imagery
and symbolism. Finally, they employed structures of communication which partially transcended
borders and social strata. See ibid., 386–87. Mozart shared many of the sociological characteristics
with the representatives of the Catholic Enlightenment: Already early on in his life, he developed a
keen self-awareness as a bourgeois artist who believed that personal ability and achievement rather
than noble heritage account for a person’s worth. See, for example, his letter to his father from 20
June 1781. During the last period of his life, Mozart also visibly developed a self-representation
commensurate with his bourgeois self-understanding. Paintings, such as the unfinished portrait of
his brother-in-law, Joseph Lange, and reports of Mozart’s public appearances confirm Mozart’s
increasingly bourgeois self-understanding. We see him no longer in aristocratic garb, but dressed
in a bourgeois style and without a wig.
52. On the instrumental function, which Le nozze di Figaro served for Joseph II’s political reform
program, see Hans-Joachim Fritz, Mozarts La Clemenza di Tito: Die Geschichte einer Oper
(Cologne, Weimar, Vienna: Böhlau, 2013), 29, and Braunbehrens, Mozart in Vienna, 277–83.
53. See Constanze Natošević, ‘‘Cosı` fan tutte’’: Mozart, die Liebe und die Revolution von 1789 (Kassel,
Basel, London, New York, Prag: Bärenreiter, 2003), 74–78 and 146–48.
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and Masonic symbolism (Die Zauberflöte), and—at least partially—transcend
social boundaries (Le nozze di Figaro).54 Finally, all of Mozart’s operas contain
a moral or social message, which gives them a pedagogical bent and elevates them
from musical entertainment for its own sake.55
Of course, in interpreting this work, we must distinguish, as with all of Mozart’s
operas, between the libretto and the music—even though Mozart collaborated
closely with his librettists.56 This issue is especially virulent in the case of Cosı`
fan tutte. While Mozart generally imposed his dramaturgical and philosophical
vision on the libretti for his operas, in this case, as Robbins Landon noted,
‘‘there seems for once to be a slight but nonetheless definite division of intent
between Da Ponte’s text and Mozart’s music.’’57 But I am getting ahead of
myself. Let us look at the libretto first.
As the opera’s title—This is how all women do it—suggests, this last Mozart–Da
Ponte opera prima facie thematizes the question of female faithfulness. The question emerges in a dispute between what the libretto describes as an ‘‘old philosopher,’’ Don Alfonso, and two young officers, Guglielmo and Ferrando, on the
question of female fidelity. The dispute quickly turns into a wager on the ability
of the two officers’ fiancées, the sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, to be faithful for
even one single day.58 Don Alfonso proposes to resolve the wager by means of
empirical proof.59 Through an experiment, Don Alfonso seeks to demonstrate his
basic gynecological thesis that, ‘‘Fidelity in women is like the Arabian phoenix,
Everyone says it exists but no one knows where it is.’’60
54. For the challenging and even transcending of social boundaries in Le nozze di Figaro, see
Braunbehrens, Mozart in Vienna, 277–83, esp. 280.
55. See ibid., 278. For the genre of Cosı` fan tutte, see Gerhard Splitt, ‘‘Gespielte Aufklärung: Cosı̀ fan
tutte oder die Umkehrung der Moral,’’ Freiburger Universitätsblätter 27 (1988): 47–71, here:
51–53.
56. Mozart expressed his dramaturgical ideas often in his letters to his father, which offer us a clear
picture of the composer’s ideas of how a good libretto should look and of the expectations he had
of his librettists. See, in particular, his letters to his father from 26 September 1781, 7 May 1783,
21 May 1783, and 21 June 1783. For Mozart’s collaboration with his librettists, see also Steptoe,
The Mozart–Da Ponte Operas, 140–42.
57. Robbins Landon, Mozart: The Golden Years, 179 (my emphasis).
58. The fact that the entire action is compressed into one single day stems from the Aristotelian notion
that there should be unity of time (24 hours), place, and theme in drama. See Steptoe, The Mozart–
Da Ponte Operas, 105–06.
59. See Lothar Kreimendahl, ‘‘Philosophie auf der Opernbühne: Aufklärung, Materialismus und
Atheismus in Mozarts Cosı` fan tutte,’’ Acta Mozartiana 57 (2010): 16–42, here: 30 and 35–37,
and Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte, 74–78 and 146–148. Natošević demonstrates how Don Alfonso
treats the question of human behavior as a ‘‘strictly rational’’ problem (ibid., 75), which can be
investigated according to scientific criteria. Already Braunbehrens, Mozart in Vienna, 338 speaks
of an ‘‘almost mathematical experiment,’’ although he does not identify the philosophical background of Don Alfonso’s approach. See also Kunze, Mozarts Opern, 443–45.
60. ‘‘È la fede delle femmine come l’araba fenice, che vi sia ciascun lo dice, dove sia . . . nessun lo sa’’ (Act
I, Scene 1, No. 2 Trio). All quotations and translations from Cosı` fan tutte are taken from Nico
Castel, The Libretti of Mozart’s Completed Operas, In Two Volumes, With International Phonetic
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Much more is at stake, though, than simply the question of female faithfulness.
For behind the notion of fidelity looms the larger issue of the nature of human
emotions per se. Don Alfonso’s thesis is that women’s unfaithfulness is a
necessità del core (necessity of the heart), or as his eventual ally, the two sisters’
love-experienced chambermaid, Despina, has it, a legge di natura (law of nature).61
Behind his thesis, Don Alfonso is quick to point out, lays no interest in maligning
women. Rather, the philosopher wants to defend women against the unwarranted
(theological) charge of sinfulness. As he puts it, ‘‘Everyone accuses the women, and
I excuse them.’’62
A Philosophical Dispute
All this seems trivial at best, and scandalous or immoral at worst. Indeed, many
generations of later bourgeois audiences have dismissed the plot of Cosı` fan tutte as
frivolous.63 Already Mozart’s wife Constanze disliked the plot, while his rival
Salieri rejected the libretto as unworthy.64 Mozart’s first biographer, Franz
Xaver Niemetschek, commented, ‘‘Everyone was astonished that this man could
have demeaned himself to waste his heavenly melodies on such a worthless
libretto.’’65 Still, this opera is much more than a superficial comedy about two
unfaithful sisters and the supposed unfaithfulness of women in general.66 In the
Alphabet Transcriptions, Word for Word Translations, Including a Guide to the I.P.A. and Notes
on the Italian and German Transcriptions, Foreword by Julius Rudel, Illustrations by Eugene
Green, vol. 1 (Mt. Morris, NY: Leyerle, 1997).
61. Act II, Scene 13, No. 30 Andante, and Act I, Scene 13, Recitative.
62. ‘‘Tutti accusan le donne, ed io le scuso’’ (Act II, Scene 13, No. 30 Andante).
63. In fact, the opera’s reception history—it was liked among aristocratic circles, but rejected among
the bourgeoisie—testifies to an overall misunderstanding. For the reasons, see Splitt, ‘‘Gespielte
Aufklärung.’’
64. See Robbins Landon, Mozart: The Golden Years, 174.
65. F. X. Niemetschek, The Life of Mozart, tr. H. Mautner, 38, quoted in Steptoe, The Mozart–Da
Ponte Operas, 121. Niemetschek suggests that ‘‘It did not, however, lie in his power to refuse the
commission, and the libretto was specially provided’’ (ibid.), but there is no evidence for these
suggestions.
66. For the libretto, da Ponte drew on a rich and long literary tradition. See especially Kurt Kramer,
‘‘Da Ponte’s ‘Cosı̀ fan tutte,’’’ Nachrichten der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen aus dem
Jahr 1973, Philologisch-Historische Klasse (Göttingen 1973): 1–27, who has identified influences
from Ovid, Cervantes, Ariosto, and Metastasio. See also Steptoe, The Mozart–Da Ponte Operas,
123–34, and Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte, 115–24 and 213–14. According to Steptoe, the opening
theme of the wager goes back all the way to Boccaccio’s Decameron (1348–53) and reappears in
Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (1609–10). There is a second theme present, however, namely, that of the
jealous husband who disguises himself to test his wife’s faithfulness. This theme goes back to
Ovid’s Roman myth of Cephalus and Procris. Da Ponte, who was widely read in Roman literature, may have drawn the theme directly from Ovid, or from the Renaissance version in Ludovico
Ariosto’s Orlando furioso. Another important parallel is Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782). Lastly, the eighteenth century saw a number of theater pieces on the theme of ‘‘the
school of,’’ such as Salieri’s La Scola de’ gelosi, Sheridan’s School for Scandal, Hugh Kelly’s School
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wager between Don Alfonso and the two young officers more is at stake: the conditions of human community considering human fallibility and the nature of
human love in the dispute between atheist materialism and religion.
The two couples of lovers represent the at once aristocratic and religious side in
this philosophical dispute. Through their wealth, their status symbols, their economic independence, their military rank, and their religiously flavored language
they show themselves to be members of the aristocracy of the ancien re´gime.67 By
contrast, Don Alfonso, the philosopher, and Despina, the two aristocratic ladies’
conniving chambermaid, function respectively as representatives of the third and
fourth estates in society, the bourgeoisie and the working class.68 Philosophically,
both impersonate the Epicurean outlook of rationalist materialism in the vein of
French philosopher, Julien Offray de la Mettrie (1709–51), whose ideas in his
book, L’homme machine of 1748, they largely reflect.69 As a contemporary
German observer in eighteenth-century Paris, the journalist, art critic, and diplomat, Baron Melchior Grimm, observed, this philosophy had already become
for Wives, and Whitehead’s School for Lovers. See Steptoe, The Mozart–Da Ponte Operas, 134–35,
and Gregory Salomon, ‘‘Tutti accusan le donne: Schools of Reason and Folly in Cosı` fan tutte,’’
repercussions 1 (Spring 1992): 81–102.
67. Here, I follow Constanze Natošević. For a detailed analysis of the attributes, which mark the two
couples as members of the aristocracy, see Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte, 85–92 and 159–74. For
example, the young men challenge Don Alfonso to a duel and carry epees, both privileges of
the aristocracy. The women are described as well educated (‘‘nobil education’’) and as having a
subtle taste (‘‘pensar sublime’’; Act I, Scene 1, Recitative). Like ladies of the leisure class in the
eighteenth century, they wake up to a day of inactivity. Most importantly, their breakfast betrays
them. Despina prepares a cup of chocolate for them. Since the seventeenth century, chocolate was
a status symbol and the beverage of choice of the European aristocracy (in contrast to the bourgeois cup of coffee). The women’s names may also be indications of their aristocratic status (unless
they are simply derived from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, as Steptoe suggests; see his The Mozart–
Da Ponte Operas, 126–27). Fiordiligi, for example, is reminiscent of Fleur-de-Lis, since 1147 the
symbol of the French monarchy. Finally, the two couples’ text passages are replete with allusions
to the heavenly realm, such as ‘‘stelle’’ (stars), ‘‘per carità’’ (for pity’s sake), ‘‘Oh Dei’’ (oh gods), ‘‘o
Dio’’ (oh God), ‘‘giusti numi’’ (just gods), ‘‘oh ciel’’ (oh heaven), ‘‘numi’’ (gods). Such religiously
colored references mark them as idealists and as representatives of the ancien re´gime, which is
associated in turn with Baroque Catholicism.
68. It is indicative that the wager takes place in a coffee house—in the eighteenth century the classic
meeting place for enlightened philosophers.
69. See Julien Offray de la Mettrie, Machine Man and Other Writings, trans. and ed. by Ann Thomson
(Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University, 1996). For a critical assessment
of common, rather unspecific attempts to describe Don Alfonso as a cynic, stoic, or skeptic, see
Lothar Kreimendahl, ‘‘Die Figur des fflalten Philosophen’ in Cosı` fan tutte. Präliminarien zu einem
philosophischen Zugang zu Mozarts Oper,’’ Mozart und die europäische Spätaufklärung, ed.
Lothar Kreimendahl (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-Holzboog, 2011), 178–90. See also
Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte, 139–48. For parallels between the libretto and la Mettrie’s writings,
see Splitt, ‘‘Gespielte Aufklärung,’’ 67 with reference to Dorabella’s aria, È amore un ladroncello
(Act II, Scene 10, No. 28, ‘‘Love is a little thief’’).
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‘‘old’’ by 1789.70 That the libretto introduces Don Alfonso as an ‘‘old philosopher’’
therefore may suggest more about his philosophy than about his own age.71
Old as this philosophy was in 1789, however, it surely was not passé. On the
contrary, by that fateful year the perils of this ‘‘old’’ mode of thinking were apparent for all to see and a matter of significant interest in Vienna. This interest
stemmed partly from the great prominence of the Illuminati in Vienna, a secret
society in the larger orbit of Freemasonry, founded by the former Jesuit law professor at the Bavarian University of Ingolstadt, Adam Weishaupt. The Illuminati
propagated the rational, scientific, and materialist utilitarianism of the French late
Enlightenment and were staunchly anti-Catholic.72 They were outlawed repeatedly
in Bavaria by Prince-Elector Karl Theodor since 1784, but were tolerated in Joseph
II’s Austria. Equally contributing to widespread public interest in this French
philosophy, however, were also the daily news of revolutionary events in Paris,
which many associated directly with both the Enlightenment and Freemasonry.
The arrest of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette of France—sister of
Emperor Joseph II—on 5 October 1789 at Versailles and their humiliating transfer
to the Tuileries Palace in Paris shocked the Viennese public. Mozart wrote Cosı` fan
tutte under this specter of revolutionary upheaval, and so it is not surprising that
the French Enlightenment figures prominently in the opera.73
Behind Don Alfonso’s anthropology, then, stands a comprehensive materialist
worldview.74 As a good late Enlightenment philosopher, Don Alfonso detests pure
speculation and advances only practical theses, which can be empirically verified.
He implicitly denies the spiritual dimension of human life and has no use for the
transcendent realm. Of programmatic significance in this regard is an exchange
right at the outset of the opera. When Ferrando announces that ‘‘I swear to
heaven,’’ Don Alfonso responds that he, for his part, ‘‘swear[s] to earth.’’75
Implied here is a rejection of the transcendent claims of religion: the existence
and immortality of the soul, the expectation of an afterlife, and the existence of
God. Of course, an overt denial of these realities on the opera stage would hardly
have been possible in Joseph’s Vienna. And yet, the implication is clear when for
70. See Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte, 203.
71. See ibid., 80.
72. On reflections of Freemasonry and especially the philosophy of the Illuminati in the libretto, see
ibid., 219–88.
73. Natošević has offered a detailed analysis of the centrality of France as a topic in the libretto. See
ibid., 125–217.
74. For the connection between the opera and French materialism, see ibid., 76–77 and 139–46;
Kreimendahl, ‘‘Philosophie auf der Opernbühne’’ and Splitt, ‘‘Gespielte Aufklärung.’’ An indirect
pointer to Don Alfonso’s materialism is the repeated theme of his laughter, which points to the
‘‘laughing’’ philosopher Democritus, who for his part, stands in as a symbol for the Epicurean
tradition of materialism. Laughter may even function as a form of God-denial, if one considers the
medieval and Pietist interdict of laughter (based on Luke 6:25), which was still present in the
eighteenth century. See Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte, 89.
75. Act I, Scene 1, Recitative: ‘‘giuro al cielo . . . Ed io, giuro alla terra.’’
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Don Alfonso only the material reality of this world counts. Human emotions, la
Mettrie had theorized, are not produced by the soul, a spiritual reality that in his
view did not exist, but rather by matter, namely, the body. ‘‘I’d like to know,’’ Don
Alfonso asks the two men in the first scene accordingly, ‘‘what sort of animals your
beauties might be, if they have like all (of) us flesh, bones, and skin, if they eat like
us, if they wear skirts, and finally, whether they are goddesses or women.’’76 The
question is far more than a gratuitous joke. It denies the spiritual dimension, which
distinguishes humankind from the animal world, and contrasts an invisible ideal
reality (goddesses) with visible material reality.
If the human body is responsible for human emotions, eighteenth-century science theorized, such emotions can be influenced through various material substances. La Mettrie contended, for example, that opium, wine, and coffee could
stimulate the body. Chocolate was considered widely to be another such stimulant.
It is again an allusion to materialism, then, that wine, coffee, chocolate, and poison
feature prominently in the opera: the ladies are no longer interested in having their
chocolate—considered an aphrodisiac—after their lovers have left, the Albanians
take poison when their remonstrations of love are rejected, and when the women
finally have given in to their new suitors in a celebration of forgetfulness, it is with a
toast of wine (with Guglielmo wishing they would drink poison). Despina’s disguised arrival as a mesmeric doctor is another, similar allusion to materialism.
Anton Mesmer was a notorious physician who practiced medicine first in Vienna
and later in Paris. Eventually, a royal commission, including Benjamin Franklin,
investigated and dismissed his theories, which presupposed a materialist view of the
world.77
That Don Alfonso reflects la Mettrie’s materialism becomes apparent also in his
thesis that fickleness is not a moral failure, but rather a natural product of our
embodied existence, and here, in particular—as la Mettrie suggested—of women’s
bodies.78 La Mettrie assumed that the human soul, will, and feelings are completely
dependent on the body and its functions, which force us to act in certain ways.79 He
therefore rejected notions of guilt and shame as unnatural, which prompted even
other philosophers of the French Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, Diderot, and
76. Act I, Scene 1, Recitative: ‘‘solo saper vorrei, che razza d’animali son queste vostre belle, se han come
tutti noi carne, ossa, e pelle, se mangian come noi, se veston gonne, alfin, se Dee, se donne son . . .’’
77. Mozart and his father personally knew Anton Mesmer from visits in Vienna when they stayed at
Mesmer’s house. Note that Despina’s appearance as doctor lampoons Mesmer. It is not quite
clear, though, if this lampooning extends only to his theories, which by 1789 had already been
widely dismissed, or also to the underlying materialist view of reality as such. For the two sides of
this debate, see Kreimendahl, ‘‘Philosophie auf der Opernbühne,’’ 38, on the one hand, and
Edmund J. Goehring, Three Modes of Perception in Mozart: The Philosophical, Pastoral, and
Comic in Cosı̀ fan tutte, Cambridge Studies in Opera, No. 26 (Cambridge and New York:
Cambridge University, 2004), 88–94, on the other. See also Lothar Kreimendahl, ‘‘Mozart und
der ‘Streit der Fakultäten.’ Zu einem unbeachteten Aspekt von ‘Cosı̀ fan tutte’,’’ Acta Mozartiana
56 (2009): 12–28.
78. See Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte, 140–41.
79. See ibid., 139.
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d’Holbach, to distance themselves from what they perceived as his advocacy of
immorality.80
But Don Alfonso is not only a materialist. His theories also have an anti-clerical
bent.81 Several of his comments to the officers contain anti-religious allusions.82 His
thesis, for example, that women’s fidelity resembles an Arabian phoenix arguably
involves a reference to the mythical bird’s function as a symbol for the resurrection
in early Christianity.83 In advancing his thesis about women’s faithfulness, then,
Don Alfonso implicitly denies two interrelated Christian doctrines, namely, that
there is a general resurrection of the dead at the end of time and that Jesus has been
raised from the dead as ‘‘the first fruits of those who have died’’ (1 Cor 15:20
NRSV). It also amounts to a denial of the immortality of the soul—a Greek
philosophical notion, which entered Christian anthropology through the writings
of the church fathers.
Again, we find an anti-religious allusion when Don Alfonso describes the trust
of the two young officers in their fiancées as, ‘‘cara semplicità’’ (dear naiveté), and
later refers to the men as ‘‘poveri innocentini’’ (poor innocent little boys) whom he
offers a finger to suck on.84 These comments pick up on the early reformer Jan
Hus’s purported comment, ‘‘O sancta simplicitas!’’ when he saw a farmer’s wife
adding faggots to his stake.85 With his comment, Alfonso likens Guglielmo and
Ferrando to believers who parrot religious superstition without critical questioning. Don Alfonso’s wager with the two officers on the question of female fidelity
only offers a convenient comical occasion, then, to present his materialist philosophy. In comparing and contrasting earth to heaven, women to goddesses, and
female fidelity to the Arabian phoenix, Don Alfonso ultimately questions church
and religion.
It falls to the less theoretically inclined chambermaid, Despina, to draw out the
ethical conclusions of this philosophical position. That Despina is no less of a
materialist than Don Alfonso becomes clear when Fiordiligi and Dorabella call
heaven to their aid and she remarks wryly, ‘‘we are on earth and not in heaven!’’86
Her comment mirrors Don Alfonso’s earlier one to Ferrando and Guglielmo. In
her first aria, In uomini, in soldati, Despina turns Don Alfonso’s thesis about
women against men and suggests that it is men who are in principle fickle and
that women, in their own self-interest, cannot but reciprocate such behavior.87 In
her second aria, Una donna a quindici anni, Despina lays out in a disarming
80. See ibid., 142.
81. See Splitt, ‘‘Gespielte Aufklärung,’’ 66.
82. See Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte, 141–43.
83. For the symbol of the phoenix, see Roelof van den Brock, The Myth of the Phoenix according to
Classical and Early Christian Traditions (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972).
84. Act I, Scene 12, Recitative.
85. See Kreimendahl, ‘‘Philosophie auf der Opernbühne,’’ 23.
86. Act II, Scene 1, Recitative: ‘‘noi siamo in terra e non in cielo!’’
87. Act I, Scene 9, Aria No. 12 (‘‘In men, in soldiers’’).
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directness that one’s pleasure should dictate one’s actions in all matters of love:
‘‘A woman at the age of fifteen should know everything that goes on, where the
devil hides its tail.’’88 Christian sexual morality gives way here to an Epicurean
philosophy of infinite pleasure for its own sake, which is familiar to Mozart’s
audiences already from his previous operatic (anti-)hero, Don Giovanni.89 The
rake in Mozart’s earlier opera had to pay for his libertine philosophy with a
one-way ticket to hell. In Cosı` fan tutte, by contrast, Despina and Don
Alfonso—whose name resembles perhaps not by accident that of the most illustrious self-declared ‘‘moralist of immorality,’’90 Donatien Alphonse François
Marquis de Sade (1740–1814)—successfully hold up human unfaithfulness as an
unchangeable fact of nature.91 And with the different diagnosis of the problem
comes a different cure: What Don Alfonso calls for is not confession and forgiveness of the sinner, as the community of victims does in Le nozze di Figaro and Don
Giovanni, but rather an Epicurean bella calma of all involved—that is, a restful
tranquility, which simply accepts things as they are. As all sing together at the end:
‘‘Happy is the man who always looks on the bright side of things.’’92
Mozart’s Distance from Don Alfonso’s Materialism
On first sight, it may seem as if Mozart endorses Don Alfonso’s Epicurean rationalist materialism. After all, it carries the day. Don Alfonso eventually wins his
wager, the officers let go of their sentimental enthusiasm, and all join in extolling
the Epicurean restful tranquility. It is quite possible, in fact, that da Ponte—at least
for parts of his life a libertine himself—intended this ending as a welcomed triumph
of Don Alfonso’s philosophy.93 Yet, Don Alfonso’s won wager far from proves
that Mozart for his part also shared the old philosopher’s materialism. Such an
endorsement would be strangely at odds with the sentimentalism and the strong
sense of morality Mozart advocates both in previous and in his two later operas.94
More importantly, though, it is the dramaturgical development of the opera itself,
and particularly the emotional development of the main characters, which
88. Act II, Scene 1, Aria No. 19 (‘‘A woman at the age of fifteen’’): ‘‘Una donna a quindici anni dee
saper ogni gran moda, dove il diavolo ha la coda . . .’’
89. A theological allusion to the biblical doctrine of sin (see Gen 3) may be Despina’s suggestion to
Fiordiligi and Dorabella that they should ‘‘Mangiar il fico e non gittar il pomo’’ (Act II, Scene 1,
Recitative: ‘‘Eat the fig and don’t throw away the apple’’), that is, enjoy one man and keep the
other for later.
90. Hans Mayer, Versuche über die Oper (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1981), Chapter 1, ‘‘‘Cosı̀
fan tutte’ und die Endzeit des Ancien Régime,’’ 9–52, here: 44.
91. See Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte, 158.
92. Act II, Final Scene: ‘‘Fortunato l’uom che prende ogni cosa pel buon verso.’’
93. Robbins Landon, Mozart: The Golden Years, 175, suggests as much.
94. On Mozart’s sentimentalism, see Dieter Borchmeyer, Mozart oder Die Entdeckung der Liebe
(Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig: Insel, 2005), and here, especially, Ch. 4, ‘‘Ein erotisches
Experiment zwischen Materialismus und Empfindsamkeit,’’ 195–218.
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undermines the viability of the lieto fine’s advocacy of a restful tranquility born out
of the simple acceptance of an inevitable law of nature (notwithstanding the genrespecific necessity of opera buffa to sport a happy ending).
Let us look a bit closer at Mozart’s musical portrayal of his characters, and here
especially at Don Alfonso, on the one hand, and at the prima donna (first woman),
Fiordiligi, on the other. The philosopher is musically by far the least interesting
character in the opera. As Braunbehrens observes, ‘‘To an extent Mozart debases
the character of Don Alfonso by underlining his acerbic and skeptical rationality
with dry string accompaniments and denying him the support from wind instruments.’’95 Kreimendahl notes that for Don Alfonso ‘‘there is only one epistemological mode, namely, that of knowledge.’’96 Accordingly, his role is not a singing
role, but rather a speaking, declamatory role.97 He only has one single short aria to
sing (Vorrei dir, e cor non ho), in which he merely fakes feelings of sadness.98 For
the rest of the opera, Don Alfonso shows no emotions. As Natošević puts it, his
pronouncements take place in always the same pattern of ‘‘formulaic set phrases of
cadences, tonal repetitions and the repeated characteristic silencing of the wind
instruments.’’99 Mozart seems to have little sympathy for him.
In contrast to Don Alfonso, Fiordiligi shows the deepest emotional depth
among all characters of the opera. As the serious heroine, she stands at the
polar opposite end of the emotional spectrum. If the ‘‘old philosopher’’ shows
no emotions or only fakes them, Fiordiligi is beset by them. When Mozart
denies Don Alfonso a truly musical language, a whole section of the orchestra,
and ultimately his musical sympathy, he treats Fiordiligi by contrast with the
greatest compassion.100 Throughout the course of that momentous day of erotic
onslaughts, Fiordiligi struggles to maintain her fidelity and stems herself desperately against falling in love with a supposed Albanian nobleman, whom the audience knows to be her sister Dorabella’s fiancé, Ferrando, in disguise. It is
Fiordiligi’s tragedy that at the end of the day, she wishes for much more than a
simple affair with an Albanian knight. That is what her emotionally more superficial sister hopes for (Dorabella’s is a buffa role). Fiordiligi also never gives into the
temptation to relax her moral standards, as Dorabella does. Her predicament is
much worse. She truly falls in love, even while she continues to love her fiancé,
Guglielmo.101
What is remarkable here is that the libretto offers ample opportunity for portraying Fiordiligi with musical parody or irony. Mozart, however, makes little use
95. Braunbehrens, Mozart in Vienna, 340.
96. Kreimendahl, ‘‘Philosophie auf der Opernbühne,’’ 36.
97. For the following, see Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte, 67–69 and 78–80.
98. Act I, Scene 3, Aria No. 5. (‘‘I would speak, but my courage fails’’).
99. Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte, 69.
100. As Robbins Landon observes, ‘‘[Mozart] involves himself far more than the text warrants in the
fates of the ladies when the roles are reversed’’ (Mozart: The Golden Years, 179).
101. See Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte, 97.
130
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of it. As Kunze puts it, ‘‘Much of what Da Ponte undoubtedly considered ironic,
even as parody . . . Mozart considered in a similarly obvious fashion as serious—contemporaries would have said: sublime.’’102 Fiordiligi’s music simply
bespeaks the utter emotional veracity of her experience.103 It neither assumes an
‘‘ironic distance’’ nor does it ‘‘reveal the absurdity of [her] actions’’; rather, it
‘‘supplies them with the signum of truth.’’104 Despite her eventual downfall, neither
the sincerity of her emotional commitments nor her final contrition is ever in doubt.
Mozart portrays Fiordiligi throughout with sympathy rather than derision, with
compassion rather than as a foil for comedy.105 Had Mozart wanted to support a
materialist view of love, he would have had an easy time of turning Fiordiligi’s
pains of conscience into a parody. But he has none of it. Instead, he opens the
depths of Fiordiligi’s soul in such a way that Don Alfonso’s materialist explanations of human emotions cannot appear but shallow.
Take Fiordiligi’s rondo, Per pietà, for example.106 It shares the common characteristics of the eighteenth-century genre of the heroic rondo: a slow opening part
is followed by a fast second part; the participation of solo instruments affords the
rondo a concertante character; finally, the rondo’s isolation from the dramatic
action takes the character out of the plot, for the purpose of introspection.107
This rondo offered Mozart a perfect opportunity to insert a parody of opera
seria—the original home of great introspective arias of despair. Textually, in
fact, the rondo may well be ‘‘another parody of opera seria, both in its metre
and in the metaphor with gloomy forest shadows.’’108 Mozart’s music, however,
demonstrates a ‘‘lack of parodic intent’’ and an ‘‘authentic note of fragile honesty.’’109 Or, to quote Stefan Kunze, ‘‘This aria is as far removed as possible from a
parody of the seria.’’110 Mozart is not interested in gratuitous laughs. On the contrary, through Fiordiligi’s rondo the composer affords the audience a close-up and
personal view of the heroine’s painful struggles to overcome her temptation by
102. Kunze, Mozarts Opern, 445.
103. This is true even when Mozart employs some irony as in Fiordiligi’s first aria, Come scoglio (Act
I, Scene 11, No. 14), when the orchestral accompaniment makes clear that the rock eventually
falters. Mozart never turns her into a buffa role. The contrast between her earnestness and the
musical commentary, which reveals her impending failure, just marks the depth of her tragedy.
See Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte, 70, 94, and 149.
104. Kunze, Mozarts Opern, 445.
105. See Borchmeyer, Mozart oder Die Entdeckung der Liebe, 217.
106. Act II, Scene 7, No. 25 Rondo (‘‘For pity’s sake’’).
107. See Kunze, Mozarts Opern, 515.
108. Steptoe, The Mozart–Da Ponte Operas, 231. Kunze, Mozarts Opern, 512, is more skeptical in this
regard.
109. Steptoe, The Mozart–Da Ponte Operas, 235 and 232.
110. Kunze, Mozarts Opern, 512. A few years later, Ludwig van Beethoven modeled Leonore’s great
aria in his opera, Fidelio (Act I, Scene 6), after Per pietà, something hardly possible, had
Fiordiligi’s aria been a mere parody.
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131
what she calls ‘‘this evil desire.’’111 Per pietà is not comical, then, but rather—as all
of Mozart’s rondos—marked by what Kunze calls an ‘‘ecstatic quality, the invocation of something otherworldly, which offers stability vis-à-vis the changing phenomena of this world and which is therefore capable of offering support and
comfort.’’112 In fact, as Kunze suggests, ‘‘Fiordiligi’s Rondo belongs to the
pieces of the opera, which allows the conciliatory ending . . . to appear credible.’’113
The truthfulness in the music extends far beyond Fiordiligi’s own emotional
struggles and needs to prompt us to consider the music’s relationship to the text
more fundamentally. Natošević notes that the music serves a double function
throughout the opera: on the one hand, it reflects the action on stage, offers a
subtext to what happens there, and thus has a ‘‘characterizing, descriptive function’’; on the other hand, the music assumes a ‘‘dialogical function, a third role
besides the characters on stage and the audience,’’ namely, the role ‘‘of a—mostly
derisive—commentator.’’114 In so doing, the music offers a musical counterpoint to
the text. Similarly, Stefan Kunze distinguishes between what he calls three ‘‘levels
of consciousness in the opera,’’ that of the two couples, that of Don Alfonso and
Despina, and finally that of the music. Kunze argues that its message is not identical with that of philosopher and maid. It does not even favor their side. If anything, the music steps on the side of the two couples. ‘‘In Cosı` fan tutte,’’ Kunze
contends, ‘‘there remains without doubt an inscrutable, mysterious difference
between the reality of the action and the truth of the music.’’115
Mozart expresses this difference at times through irony and even sarcasm.116
Altogether, however, Mozart uses irony and parody rather sparingly. He comments
on the libretto mostly through their absence when the libretto calls for it.117 For
example, while the farewell scene in Act I offers itself for a parody of similar
farewell scenes in opera seria, Mozart does not compose it parodistically.118
111. ‘‘quest’empia voglia’’ (Act II, Scene 7, No. 25 Rondo).
112. Kunze, Mozarts Opern, 516. Kunze interprets the solo wind instruments, and here especially the
horns, as representing ‘‘stability, that which eludes the change of affections.’’ ‘‘The horns, which
were originally hunting instruments (and connected with them all other wind instruments) represent the idea of nature, but not nature in a Romantic view . . . but rather nature as the objective
world per se, which is contrasted to the subject.’’
113. Ibid., 515.
114. Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte, 69.
115. Kunze, Mozarts Opern, 467.
116. This is the case, for example, when the disguised men try to charm the women. See ibid., 493.
Mozart uses hyperbole to express the untruthfulness of their flirtation, while at the same time
giving them, as Natošević observes, a ‘‘rather unoriginal melodic line’’ (Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte,
95). Again, musical irony appears in the lovers’ impetuous explosion (con fuoco) in the Trio with
Don Alfonso (Act I, Scene 1, No. 2 Trio), and in the maestoso characterization of the march,
Bella vita militar (Act I, Scene 5, No. 8 Chorus), which is, according to Kunze, ‘‘just as little
‘maestoso’ . . . as the life of a soldier is beautiful’’ (Kunze, Mozarts Opern, 467).
117. See Steptoe, The Mozart–Da Ponte Operas, 230.
118. Act I, Scenes 5 and 6.
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Theology Today 74(2)
Of course, the two officers and Don Alfonso merely fake the farewell and thus the
scene has clearly funny elements, as in the Quintet, Di scrivermi ogni giorno.119 Still,
the music is ambiguous and allows for the true nature of the women’s feelings as
well as for its own truth to emerge.
The same takes place in the various love scenes of the newly emerging couples.
Their encounters progressively reveal the truth of their feelings. In Mozart there is
neither lying nor faking in A Major, the tonality of his love duets.120 Although the
supposed Albanian lovers only feign love, their music increasingly bespeaks true
love.121 Mozart leaves less and less room here for comedy. He increasingly ignores
the men’s duplicity and makes clear that they also fall in love anew, even if they do
not realize it. A case in point is the crucial duet, Fra gli amplessi, between Ferrando
and Fiordiligi.122 Immediately preceding this duet is Fiordiligi’s firm determination
to withstand her emerging new love, by following her fiancé to battle. But then the
disguised Ferrando appears. At first, he puts on another histrionic act, which
Mozart’s music, as Kunze notes, probably renders with appropriate irony. But
the mood changes suddenly when Ferrando falls to his knees, the tonality changes
to D minor, and he declares with a musical seriousness, which now is no longer
ironic, that for him it is, ‘‘il tuo cor, o la mia morte.’’123 The following Larghetto and
Andante sections of the duet leave no doubts that the new love between Fiordiligi
and Ferrando is mutual.124
The same tension between poetic irony and musical veracity appears in the
opera’s oddly unsatisfying ending. Commentators have described its music as
‘‘strangely cool’’125 and as having ‘‘a serene quality.’’126 Borchmeyer rightly
observes that the opera’s music up to the ending ‘‘inspired totally different emotional expectations’’ for the sentimental audience of the bourgeois age.127 These
expectations are also fueled by the fact that in terms of genre-identity Fiordiligi and
Ferrando really fit better for each other than Fiordiligi and Guglielmo (Fiordiligi
and Ferrando are both serious roles, while Dorabella and Guglielmo are comic
roles). And surely, the situation, which Don Alfonso’s experiment creates, is disastrous: The community is permanently damaged and the lovers’ initial happiness
119. Act I, Scene 5, No. 9 Quintet (‘‘Swear that you will write to me every day’’). See Steptoe, The
Mozart–Da Ponte Operas, 231, and Kunze, Mozarts Opern, 493.
120. See Kunze, Mozarts Opern, 468, and Steptoe, The Mozart–Da Ponte Operas, 237.
121. See, for example, the duet between Dorabella and Guglielmo, Il core vi dono (Act II, Scene 5, No.
23 Duet, ‘‘This heart I give’’). See Kunze, Mozarts Opern, 475, and Peter Wapnewski, ‘‘Cosı` fan
tutte: Die sehr ernsten Scherze eines Dramma giocoso,’’ in Mozarts Opernfiguren: Große Herren,
rasende Weiber, gefährliche Liebschaften, ed. Dieter Borchmeyer, Schweizer Theater-Jahrbuch,
No. 52 (Bern: Paul Haupt, 1991), 115–34, here: 130.
122. Act II, Scene 12, Duet No. 29 (‘‘In the embraces’’).
123. ‘‘Your heart or my death.’’
124. See Kunze, Mozarts Opern, 474, and Steptoe, The Mozart–Da Ponte Operas, 236 and 242.
125. Borchmeyer, Mozart oder Die Entdeckung der Liebe, 218.
126. Kunze, Mozarts Opern, 446.
127. Borchmeyer, Mozart oder Die Entdeckung der Liebe, 218.
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133
is gone forever. The women remain unreformed in their sentimental view of love
and thus cannot possibly mean what they sing, while the men have become Don
Alfonso’s obedient pawns who are far from presenting the self-determined, autonomous individuals that the Enlightenment aimed to produce. Most importantly, in
terms of the music, there is no satisfactory reconciliation, as there was in Le nozze
di Figaro. Cosı` fan tutte ends with the musically rather lukewarm glorification of
restful tranquility that resembles a shrug of the shoulder.
All this hints at Mozart’s dissatisfaction with Don Alfonso’s philosophy. As
Borchmeyer puts it, ‘‘a different drama takes place in Mozart’s music . . . than in
Da Ponte’s libretto. The latter is set to music in a sentimental fashion across its
courtly-rationalist grain and against the spirit of its mechanistic manipulator.’’128
What the opera’s outcome proves—if anything—is that materialism cannot provide a sufficient explanation for human love, for feelings, trust, faith, faithfulness,
virtue, the pursuit of the good, morality, the conscience, or, finally, human happiness. These realities—the composer seems to suggest—cannot be explained satisfactorily by the cold rationality of the radical Enlightenment. Such rationality
undermines not only the possibility of human fidelity, but also the viability of
any moral norms and the existence of transcendent truth altogether. That seems
to be the real irony in the opera, and it leaves the audience at least with two open
questions: What does provide the foundation for human community if rationalist
materialism does not? And what is the role of religion here—if there is any? We
need to turn to these questions now, for these have received little attention in the
literature on this opera.
Religion in Cosı̀ fan tutte
Remarkably, biblical terminology and imagery appear at crucial moments in the
opera. To start out, the wager motif is a classic biblical one. The Book of Job
begins with a calamitous wager between God and the Accuser (Satan).129 God
praises the blamelessness and uprightness of his servant Job, but Satan objects
that Job’s piety is based solely in the fact that Job is richly blessed with children
and possessions. In response to this objection, God grants Satan power over Job,
though with the explicit limitation that he cannot touch his life.130 The crucial
question is: Does Job stay steadfast in his piety in other, less favorable
circumstances?
There are a number of parallels between the wager in Cosı` fan tutte and that in
the Book of Job. First, in both cases, the existence of a particular virtue is at stake:
Don Alfonso doubts the steadfastness of women’s faithfulness; Satan doubts the
128. Ibid., 217.
129. Kreimendahl, ‘‘Philosophie auf der Opernbühne,’’ 28, rightly draws attention to this parallel
although he does not spell out that the parallel is much deeper than simply the wager motif as
such.
130. See Job 1:1–12.
134
Theology Today 74(2)
steadfastness of believers’ fear of God. Second, in both cases the concrete targets
under investigation stand pars pro toto: By questioning Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s
ability to be faithful, Don Alfonso doubts the faithfulness of women as such.
Similarly, in questioning Job’s faith, Satan doubts the sincerity of human piety
altogether. Job simply represents the epitome of human righteousness, just as
Fiordiligi and Dorabella, in their lovers’ eyes, represent the epitome of female
perfection.131
There is yet another parallel between the opera and the Book of Job. The virtue
under discussion in both is terminologically the same: fede. Don Alfonso refers to
‘‘la fede delle femmine,’’ which one can translate either as ‘‘women’s faithfulness’’
or, alternatively, as ‘‘women’s faith.’’ It is not inconceivable that the former priest,
Lorenzo da Ponte, here plays with a double entendre of the word. Because fede can
refer both to faith and to faithfulness, the wager in the opera and the wager in the
Bible are at least terminologically the same. In either case both faith and faithfulness are at stake. And in either case, it is the purpose of the wager to prove it
wrong. In light of this parallel, Don Alfonso appears in the opera in the satanic role
of the biblical accuser.
It is not just the wager motif, however, which offers the audience a biblical
allusion. There are others. Let us return once more to Fiordiligi. For the theologian, it may seem apparent that Mozart and da Ponte paint her with a theological
brush, at first with a wink perhaps, but later on more and more seriously. Her first
aria, Come scoglio, sets the tone.132 After the first onslaught of quite suggestive
declarations of love from her supposed Albanian suitor, Fiordiligi declares—with a
seriousness that does not quite match the comic context of her confession—the
constancy of her faith and love: ‘‘As a reef immovable stays against the winds and
the tempest, so always my soul is strong in loyalty and in love.’’133 The aria is a
genre-typical simile aria of the sea storm, which draws on a number of literary
sources, including Denis Diderot and Ariosto.134
Yet, the aria also plays on biblical and Christian imagery. Sea storms feature
prominently in the Bible as a danger for the believer’s faith. Take, for example, the
disciples in the boat with the sleeping Jesus (Mark 4:30–40). Their faith is shaken
by a sea storm. When Fiordiligi thematizes her fede in Come scoglio, then, she
seems to be speaking about more than just her fidelity to Guglielmo. Given the
impending storm of amorous temptations, the sole purpose of which is to prove her
131. Consider God’s instruction to Satan: ‘‘The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant
Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns
away from evil’’’ (Job 1:8).
132. Act I, Scene 11, No. 14 Aria (‘‘As a reef’’).
133. ‘‘Come scoglio immoto resta contro i venti e la tempesta cosı` ognor quest’alma e` forte nella fede e
nell’amor’’ (ibid.).
134. Natošević identifies Denis Diderot’s ‘‘Jacques le fataliste et son maitre.’’ See Natošević, Cosı` fan
tutte, 149–156. Edmund Goehring refers to Ariosto’s ‘‘image of the lonely figure steadfastly
braving a hostile fate, here allegorized as elements . . . [as] a commonplace in epic literature.’’
See Goehring, Three Modes of Perception, 226.
Lösel
135
fede wrong and Don Alfonso’s materialism right, it is ultimately her religion which
seems to be under attack. In other words, the ideological struggle between religion
and materialism provides the philosophical subtext for her emotional struggles. In
fact, Fiordiligi resembles a Christian virgin-martyr when—even if with a bit too
much seriousness for the occasion—she declares that nothing short of death can
change ‘‘the affections of our hearts.’’135 With her first aria, then, Fiordiligi solemnly puts herself in the tradition of early Christian blood witnesses to the faith,
thus pointing to what is philosophically at stake in the opera.
Note how Mozart translates this theological image of the reef into music,
namely, as Natošević observes, through a ‘‘massive initial chord and the punctuated unison.’’136 Moreover, as many have observed, Mozart quotes from the Kyrie
of his Coronation Mass of 1779 (K. 317), thus underlining the aria’s theological
connotations.137 Natošević suggests that ‘‘If the composer quotes note for note in
this way, then the ‘Kyrie’ quasi-automatically provides a sort of subtext for the
rock-aria. In other words, Fiordiligi conjures up not only her fidelity, but at the
same time she voices her prayer ‘Lord, have mercy!’’’138 Indeed, the musical quotation adds to Fiordiligi’s self-characterization as a martyr a prayerful plea to the
Lord for protection from the at once emotional and materialist tempest.139
To be sure, Mozart’s portrayal of Fiordiligi’s rock-like faith also serves to indicate early on that her faith(-fullness) eventually falters. Natošević identifies in the
second measure ‘‘seemingly diminutive trills in the piano section and . . . dance-like,
upward leading staccato-eighth notes,’’ which she interprets as a question mark
behind Fiordiligi’s self-portrayal as a rock.140 Additionally, the pauses between
Fiordiligi’s cues may add a comical element. It is as if the orchestra voices Don
Alfonso’s materialistic commentary on Fiordiligi’s statement of faith. Through its
joyfulness the music questions Fiordiligi’s perseverance and perhaps even formulates an ‘‘ironic question mark’’ that reflects Don Alfonso’s derision.141 This does
not imply, however, that Mozart did not take the faith of his heroine seriously.
Edmund Goehring points out that in opera buffa ‘‘the elevated style by itself did not
automatically signal mockery,’’ and that one therefore must avoid interpreting the
aria as ‘‘simply a comic overstatement’’; instead, ‘‘Mozart’s musical portrayal of
Fiordiligi rejects such overt sabotage.’’142 The musical rendering of Fiordiligi’s aria
takes her commitment quite seriously, even if it also indicates that this rock will
135. ‘‘[E] potrà la morte sola far che cangi affetto il cor’’ (Act I, Scene 11, No. 14 Aria).
136. Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte, 149.
137. Both works have several dotted sixteenth notes in the triadic ascent after a powerful tonic chord.
Also, both sport a quick and frequent change between forte and piano at the beginning. See
Steptoe, The Mozart–Da Ponte Operas, 225.
138. Natošević, Cosı` fan tutte, 154.
139. See ibid.
140. Ibid., 149.
141. Ibid., 150.
142. Goehring, Three Modes of Perception, 228.
136
Theology Today 74(2)
eventually crumble. What Fiordiligi’s music may indicate here, is that the Baroque
Catholicism of the ancien re´gime, which she represents, might well falter under the
onslaught of the secular Enlightenment’s materialism. In 1789, Mozart could not
have known yet how the French Revolution would developed in the near future.
And yet, his music seems to anticipate the coming struggles of the old-time-religion.
Beside the theological allusions, such as the image of the sea storm, it is also the
musical resolution to the four lovers’ dilemma, which raises the question of religion. Despite the final exultation of bella calma as the Epicurean solution to all
problems, musically it is not the end, which provides for a credible lieto fine. We
have already recognized the importance of the women’s emotional veracity (as seen
in Per Pietà) for the credibility of the reconciliation at the end. We also need to take
a closer look, however, at the rather curiously composed celebration of forgetfulness, which takes place just before the culmination of the men’s attack on the
women’s faithfulness in a mock wedding of the new couples. In this celebration
of forgetfulness, the new couples join in a toast, in which three of the four lovers
propose to forget the past: ‘‘And in yours, in my glass,’’ they sing, ‘‘let it be
drowned every thought, and let there not remain any longer a memory of the
past in our hearts.’’143 Textually, this is a celebration of amnesia rather than anamnesis (remembrance). Therefore, it far from offers a reconciling moment. After all,
the fourth lover, Guglielmo, joins in with a sarcastic commentary: ‘‘Ah, if they only
would drink poison, these vixens without honor!’’144 Indeed, on the textual level,
because it is based on a lie, this celebration of forgetfulness is poisonous. Musically,
however, the scene exudes nothing short of salvific significance, much like the final
scene of Le nozze di Figaro. For both scenes, Mozart employs elements from the
realm of church music. In the case of Le nozze di Figaro, the composer integrated a
chorale, counterpoint, and responsorial singing between soloist and chorus to demonstrate that human life needs (sacramental?) forgiveness to continue under the
conditions of human sin. In Cosı` fan tutte, Mozart uses an ecclesiastical-style canon
for what thereby almost turns into a quasi-eucharistic celebration of forgetfulness
(wine!). He thus seems to suggest that the toast of the two newly found couples has
redemptive or sacramental significance.
Here one may ask how musical redemption is possible, given the fact that the
women’s final fall from grace has not yet occurred and that the celebration of
forgetfulness is based on deception all around. Two possibilities present themselves
to the interpreter: First, what we hear in conjunction with this secularized image of
the eucharistic table may simply be an anticipation of the future act of repentance
on the women’s part. In the wine, then, the memory of the past is not obliterated,
as the lovers initially wish or claim to wish, but it is bereft of its poisonous character. Although it still takes place between the ‘‘wrong’’ couples, the canon would
thus offer a note of redemption for the future. Alternatively, we might say, this
143. ‘‘E nel tuo, nel mio bicchiero si sommerga ogni pensiero, e non resti più memoria del passato ai nostri
cor’’ (Act II, Scene 16, No. 31 Finale).
144. ‘‘Ah, bevessero del tossico, queste volpi senza onor!’’ (ibid.).
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137
quasi-sacred moment of redemption anticipates reconciliation precisely because in
this opera both the women and the men are in need of forgiveness. Robbins
Landon rightly suggests that ‘‘the particular poignancy of Cosı` fan tutte lies in
the fact that the necessity for forgiveness is present not only at the end of the
opera but throughout the scenes of deception, when the audience know—although
the ladies do not yet—that their actions require more forgiveness than does any
other action, perhaps in any other Mozart opera. The emotions generated are
therefore doubly powerful.’’145 Even more, in this opera all need redemption and
reconciliation. How better to express this fact than by turning the culminating
moment of the whole deception musically into the very moment of reconciliation—even if none of the characters on stage are aware of it. In the end, then,
it would not be the men who have deceived the women, nor even Don Alfonso who
has pulled all the strings. Rather, it is Mozart himself who played a prank on all of
his characters on stage, and perhaps even on da Ponte. In this case, Mozart had the
last laugh after all. Fortunato l’uom che prende ogni cosa pel buon verso.146
Conclusion
Let me conclude: In all of his great operas, Mozart asks what a human community
requires to be healthy. Time and again, he elevates love, forgiveness, and reconciliation—virtues, which reflect his deep roots in Catholicism. This is no different in
Cosı` fan tutte, which thematizes human love through the eyes of the late
Enlightenment. While da Ponte’s libretto may well endorse Epicurean materialism’s attack on the church and on Christian anthropology, Mozart’s music is more
ambiguous: on the one hand, it demonstrates the weakness of Baroque Catholicism
to withstand the rationalist criticism of the Enlightenment; on the other hand, it
exposes the sobering reality which such rationalist materialism itself produces—a
reality marked by strained and ultimately impoverished human relationships. At a
time when religion is under attack in Europe, Mozart lays his finger in the wound
of a philosophy that has already grown old, but that has yet to play itself out to its
full (bloody) extent on the stage of world history. And so, Mozart sends the audience home with nothing short of an invitation to reconsider its own need for God.
Author biography
Steffen Lösel is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Candler School of
Theology, Emory University. He published his book, Kreuzwege: Ein ökumenisches
Gespräch mit Hans Urs von Balthasar (Schöningh, 2001), and numerous articles on
Balthasar’s theology, as well as on ecclesiology, liturgical theology, and on theology and the arts. In 2013/14 he was selected to be a Henry Luce III Fellow in
Theology to work on a book on theological aspects of Mozart’s late operas.
145. Robbins Landon, Mozart: The Golden Years, 179.
146. ‘‘Happy is the man who always looks on the bright side of things.’’
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