Marxism and opera follow-up posted to Marxism list by John Lacny

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Dec 13 10:33:15 PST 1998

*Mozart and the Enlightenment*, by Nicholas Till, is a book which Marxists might find fascinating. Check it out if you get the chance.

I've just completed a term paper for an undergrad class on the Mozart-Da Ponte Operas. The paper is a semi-critique of Till, with an elaboration on the theme of class analysis and how it can be applied to two Mozart operas. A lot of it is devoted to explaining the key concepts of class analysis to non-Marxists, but some list members may find it interesting nonetheless.

John Lacny

************************************************** CLASS AND IDEOLOGY IN *LE NOZZE DI FIGARO* AND *DON GIOVANNI* by John Lacny

I. Till on the Enlightenment

Nicholas Till's *Mozart and the Enlightenment* is a capable study which achieves a smooth integration of the two topics contained within the title. Till's Mozart is the exemplar of Enlightenment values in the world of music and-- as a humanist and Freemason-- a fairly typical participant in Enlightenment culture generally.

In the course of painting a picture of Mozart as a child of the Enlightenment, Till gives his own reading on the nature and significance of the Enlightenment itself. For Till, the Enlightenment represents the intellectual flowering of the rising bourgeoisie in Europe, a bourgeoisie which was soon to come into its own (1) politically with the advent of the French Revolution and (2) more broadly with the ensuing rise of industrial capitalism and the final turning of the tide against feudalism in Western Europe. Till studiously avoids taking the Enlightenment too much on its own terms and instead attempts to understand it within its historical and social context. The Enlightenment for Till, taken as a whole, is the worldview of the rising bourgeoisie, expressing in multifold fashion the aspirations of that class as opposed to the old aristocracy, as well as the apprehensions of that class with regard to the masses.

In analyzing Mozart's operas, Till attempts to tease out the elements of the Enlightenment worldview in all its manifestations, from musical representations of the characters to the characters' conflicting worldviews as well as their positions in the social hierarchy of each opera's setting. Given Till's conception of the Enlightenment as an expression of the bourgeois worldview, it is only natural that special attention is given to the specific motif of class conflict-- or, if one prefers a more partisan term, of class struggle-- in the operas.

While Till does not once mention the name of Marx, it seems almost unnecessary to point out that Till's method, if not Marxist to the core, is then at least profoundly indebted to a *marxisant *method of historical analysis transplanted into the world of art. In order to give a fuller picture of the motif of class struggle in Mozart's operas, and perhaps to show places where Till has missed some of the complexities involved in a class analysis, an introduction to the workings of this analytical tool will be useful.

II. The schema of class struggle

The placing of class analysis at the center of social theory is ultimately based on the supposition that the forces of production-- economic forces-- are the driving mechanism of history and society. A class, crudely defined, is a group of people who share a common relation to a given society's mode of wealth production, the fundamental division between classes being between that class which labors and that class which exploits labor. While the division is fundamentally economic, class antagonisms contain both a material and ideological component:

"Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought, and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations. *The single individual, who derives them through tradition and upbringing, may imagine that they form the real motives and the starting point of his activity.*" (Marx 266-67; emphasis added)

The material component of class struggle is therefore primary. Ideology is the expression of these interests; it is the intellectual justification for them. Material interests are the *structure* (or *base*) while ideology is the *superstructure*. An individual may fancy himself to be acting upon traditions and ideals which he merely "imagine[s]" to "form the real motives and the starting point of his activity," while in reality he is acting in the interests of a specific social class which has developed an *ideological* rationale for its *material* interests.

On a broad societal level, the material struggle between classes becomes a *political* struggle in which each social class contends for dominance-- for its own interests to be realized on a broad scale. This political struggle results in an accompanying ideological struggle in which the classes contend for *hegemony*: "The realization of a hegemonic apparatus, in so far as it creates a new ideological terrain, determines a reform of consciousness and of methods of knowledge" (Gramsci 365). A rising or *subaltern* class, in clashing with the dominant or *ruling *class it seeks to supplant in a concrete sense, also seeks to supplant the domination of that class's ideology and create "a new ideological terrain" in which its own ideology-- based upon its own material interests-- is hegemonic. That class which is most dynamic, that class whose destiny is the future-- i.e., either the ruling class or that class which is in a position to render the current ruling class economically superfluous by organizing society on the basis of new, more dynamic productive forces-- is the class which is capable of rallying other classes behind it both in a very real sense and in the sense that the ideas which reflect its material interests are the ideas which hold the greatest sway.

Some classes, however-- most specifically, the lowest ones-- are incapable of formulating their own ideological program at most points in history. Due to the immaturity of the productive forces, resulting in its own less-than-fully-developed state, such a class is incapable of perceiving its own material interests, and therefore becomes dependent on another class ideologically as well. It most often accepts the ideological superstructure of the ruling class. But in revolutionary times, when a rising class challenges the power of the ruling class and achieves ideological hegemony, the ideologically dependent class may be swept up in the struggle against the ruling class on the side of the other rising class. It will identify its own liberation with the slogans of the rising class, even though there may be very profound or at least nascent antagonisms between the hegemonic class and this ideologically dependent class. In either case, any member of the dependent class who identifies his own liberation with the slogans of another class-- even when these slogans may be partially progressive-- is said to possess "false consciousness."

It is now possible to note how this analytical method can be applied to Mozart's operas and to the Enlightenment generally.

III. Le nozze di Figaro

If there is any opera where the class struggle is indisputably at the center of the action, it is *Le nozze di Figaro*. The schemes of Figaro and Susanna to deprive Count Almaviva of the medieval right of *prima noctie*, as well as the ancillary machinations of the Bartolo/Marcellina cohort, are excellent examples of open class struggle distilled through the experiences of individuals.

Since the Enlightenment is the epoch of the bourgeois revolution, we would expect to find the bourgeoisie advancing its interests in the face of ancient feudal domination. And indeed, we do not need to look far to find it in the characters of Marcellina, Doctor Bartolo, and Don Curzio. First of all, these individuals are bourgeois in a concrete sense. Marcellina and Doctor Bartolo are not of the nobility, and while Don Curzio is, his primary identity is that of a lawyer. The doctor and the lawyer are the quintessential professional occupations which-- along with the merchant and the banker-- exemplify the rising bourgeoisie of Europe. These are respectable people by virtue of their accomplishments, training, and bearing, and not primarily because of their noble blood, if they even possess any. They insist on being treated as respectable people.

A more literal-minded Marxist might focus on the way Marcellina's insistence on Figaro's contractual obligations dovetails with the aims of the Count, and in that way attempt to prove the complicity of bourgeoisie with the aristocracy. The element most certainly is present; in this view, Marcellina and Bartolo would represent the tendency of the bourgeoisie to blunt the revolutionary edge of its ideology by allying itself with the aristocracy against the lower orders. This focus misses some crucial nuances, however.

Given the centrality of the rule of law to bourgeois ideology, the claims of Marcellina and Bartolo are indeed bourgeois claims, and consequently are potentially revolutionary in the feudal context of *Le nozze di Figaro*. Bartolo does seek to humiliate Figaro: "All of Seville respects Doctor Bartolo! That rascal Figaro will be beaten at last!" (*Libretti* 19). He sees that in this instance his interests coincide with those of the Count, and he is willing to make use of that fact. Yet this should not distract from the implicitly revolutionary nature of his demands. Figaro is an easy target, but Bartolo is a man who insists on respect, and we know that if he were given the opportunity to turn the tables on Count Almaviva, he would do that as well. Insistence on the rule of law can also work to the Count's detriment, a matter to which we will return. (This is not to say that Marcellina and Bartolo are following specifically bourgeois logic by canceling the marriage contract upon finding out that Figaro is their son. The taboo on incest is pre-bourgeois, indeed, it is pre-feudal, one of the most ancient laws of human society. The implication that Bartolo would use the *specifically bourgeois* rule of law against the Count if given the opportunity nevertheless still stands.)

Marcellina, Bartolo, and Don Curzio are, crudely put, the *unity of theory and practice* in that their ideology and actions are in line with the material interests of their social class. Yet their struggle is ephemeral, passing out of significance early in the third act. The central struggle is clearly that between Figaro and Susanna on the one hand and the Count on the other. (The Countess plays a crucial role in her alliance with Susanna against the Count's schemes, but her participation is a consideration tangential to the current discussion.) It is to this conflict that we must now turn. Nicholas Till writes:

"Figaro and Susanna will gain legal independence in the opera, but servants do not aspire to social or political equality with their masters. For this reason the conflict in *Le nozze di Figaro* remains one between masters and servants rather than aristocracy and bourgeoisie." (145)

That the conflict between Count on the one hand and Figaro and Susanna on the other is a conflict between master and servant is self-evident, and can be gleaned merely from reading the *dramatis personae*. Till's observations become problematic, however, when he opposes the master-servant struggle to the aristocratic-bourgeois struggle as if the two were mutually exclusive.

In *A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy*, Marx writes: "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness." We have discussed the way in which the concrete relations of production-- including the respective positions of the various classes within them-- form the base upon which the superstructure of consciousness is built. Additionally, we have outlined the way in which the material interests of the contending classes express themselves in the sphere of ideology, and contend for hegemony within that sphere. The relevant part of the schema in this case is the observation that the ideology of a hegemonic class is accepted by other non-hegemonic classes or at least by many individual members of such non-hegemonic classes: this is false consciousness.

Till writes: "Servants do not represent an independent social class; they are too symbiotically wedded to their masters" (145). True indeed, but what about the struggle between master and servant? Clearly the conflict exists on a material level. What about its ideological component? Till would argue that the servant ideology is entirely non-revolutionary and incapable of liberating the oppressed: "valets rarely lead revolutions" (ibid.) But clearly there is a struggle going on, and the servants need an ideological component to their struggle. Since servants are not an independent social class, that ideological component needs to come from *another* class.

Mozart's and Da Ponte's Seville is still very much a feudal society; modern capitalism has not yet produced a working class to posit its interests as in the interest of the liberation of all society. That is why Figaro and Susanna do not even consider putting themselves on an equal footing with the Count. Yet the ideology of the aristocracy is not hegemonic, either, because Figaro and Susanna challenge the right of *prima noctie*. Clearly the class ideology which Figaro and Susanna embrace is that of the bourgeoisie.

That "servants do not aspire to social or political equality with their masters" is not, as Till claims, an argument against the *ideologically* bourgeois nature of Figaro's and Susanna's struggle. It is precisely the proletarian criticism of the bourgeois revolution that it achieves only formal legal equality without any real content, but Figaro and Susanna *cannot* make such a criticism because no proletariat-- and hence no proletarian ideology-- yet exists. Yet their insistence that the Count abide by his contractual obligations does bring about real improvement in their social condition, even if it is incapable of winning them genuine emancipation. That is the nature of the bourgeois revolution with regard to the lower class, proletarian or not.

It is in this sense that *Figaro* champions the bourgeoisie: while Figaro and Susanna are not themselves bourgeois characters, their struggle is circumscribed by bourgeois ideology.

IV. Don Giovanni

Class divisions are an inescapable aspect of *Don Giovanni* as well, but there is little open class struggle. That class struggle which occurs takes place mostly on the ideological plain. Till writes that Don Giovanni "represents those aspects of the bourgeois Enlightenment's programme that cannot be depicted in their true colours: the bourgeois, rather than the aristocratic, pursuit of libertarian pleasure" (212). If with *Le nozze di Figaro* Till downplays the ideological in favor of the material, with *Don Giovanni* he downplays the material reality of Don Giovanni's aristocratic standing in favor of his alleged bourgeois consciousness. As with *Le nozze di Figaro*, the picture he paints is problematic.

To see Don Giovanni as a bourgeois libertine is an interesting insight based on sound historical reasoning. No doubt many a *salon* regular during the Enlightenment held similar attitudes. (Till cites de Sade-- certainly an extreme example, but nevertheless illustrative of the point.) However, a wider view of the opera reveals just how tenuous Don Giovanni's bourgeois consciousness-- if it even is bourgeois.

The class lines in *Don Giovanni* are much more starkly drawn. Don Giovanni takes advantage of Zerlina the peasant girl, but initially she offers no resistance; on the contrary, she warms to his advances with extraordinary speed. That aristocrats exploit lower-class women is a fact taken for granted. The phenomenon is resented by the victims, but there is no specifically class component to this resentment; the aristocratic victims of the Don (Donna Elvira, Donna Anna, etc.) resent him in the same manner. As for the most direct class-based pairing in the opera-- Don Giovanni and Leporello-- the servant's resentment is indeed a class resentment, but there is no systematic attempt on Leporello's part to overturn the domination of Don Giovanni even in a limited bourgeois-legalistic fashion. Don Giovanni is a bad, dishonorable individual, but the opposition to him does not resolve itself into a class struggle.

Don Giovanni does receive just retribution, but from an otherworldly power rather than from a law-respecting, bourgeois-hegemonic society. This event casts further doubt on the idea of Don Giovanni as exponent of the bourgeois worldview, for it completes a picture that can only be described as fully feudal. In a feudal system, the aristocracy is ordained by the heavens to rule, and its servants are to submit without complaint. Aristocrats themselves are to be kept honest by a strict code of chivalry and honor, and those who violate the code can expect to have to fight duels with other aristocrats. And if the system of earthly justice fails, the wayward and power-abusing aristocrat can expect punishment at the hands of God Himself, i.e., the supernatural. The opera achieves a compelling combination of both worldly and otherworldly systems of feudal justice. Nevertheless, this justice truly is *feudal* in that the powers-that-be are not challenged in any way on earth and only the workings of the divine can correct the incompetence and criminality of humankind.

V. Conclusion

In *Le nozze di Figaro*, then, the bourgeoisie is clearly the hegemonic class. Its material interests are beginning to win out over the feudal rights of the aristocracy, and its ideological nostrums are championed by the lower classes in their own quest for betterment of their lot.

In *Don Giovanni*, however, the feudal system is very much intact both in the sense that it has no serious challenger in the form of a class opponent in the real world and in the sense that its ideological premises are hegemonic. While *Don Giovanni* is an artistically revolutionary opera, in its dramatic content it is a strikingly backward-looking tale hearkening back to the medieval morality play. Till and others may be in vain in their attempts to situate *Don Giovanni* under the rubric of the bourgeois Enlightenment. In either case, the tool of class analysis can provide unusual insight into the dramatic workings of an opera.


Marx, Karl. *The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte*. In *The Karl Marx Library, Volume I: On Revolution*, ed. and translated by Saul K. Pandover. New York: McGraw Hill, 1971: 243-328.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus and Lorenzo Da Ponte, trans. Robert Pack and Marjorie Lelash. *Three Mozart Libretti*. New York: Dover, 1993.

Till, Nicholas. *Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart's Operas*. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

Louis Proyect (

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