A Little Mozart in May

From Michael Kelly’s Reminiscences, published 1826 in London:

“I remember the first rehearsal of the full band, Mozart was on the stage with his crimson pelisse and gold-laced cocked hat, giving the time of the music to the orchestra. Figaro’s son, “Non piu andrai, farballone amoroso…” Bennuci gave with the greatest animation and power of voice.

 I was standing next to Mozart, who, sotto voce, was repeating, “Bravo! Bravo! Bennuci!” and when Bennuci came to the fine passage, “Cherubino, alla vittoria, alla Gloria militar” which he gave out with Stentorian lungs, the effect was electricity itself, for the whole of the performers on the stage and those in the orchestra, as if actuated by one feeling of delight, vociferated Bravo! Bravo! Maestro! Viva, viva grande Mozart! Those in the orchestra I thought would never have ceased applauding, by beating the bows of their violins against the music desks. The little man acknowledged, by repeated obeisances, his thanks for the distinguished mark of enthusiastic applause bestowed upon him…” 

 

No more, you amorous butterfly.

Will you go fluttering round by night and day,

Disturbing the peace of every maid,

You pocket Narcissus, you Adonis of love,

No more will you have those fine feathers,

That light and dashing cap,

Those curls, those airs and graces,

That roseate womanish color.

You’ll be among warriors, by Bacchus!

Long moustaches, knapsack tightly on,

Musket on your shoulder, saber at your side,

Head erect and bold of visage,

A great helmet, waving plumes,

Lots of honor, little money,

And instead of the fandango,

Marching through the mud.

Over mountains, through valleys,

In snow and days of listless heat,

To the sound of blunderbusses,

Shells and cannons

Whose shots shall make your ears sing

On every note.

Cherubino, onto victory,

Onto Military Glory!

(Cherubino, alla vittoria, alla Gloria militar!)

 This is one of the most famous arias in all of opera. Unfortunately, only in the Italian original will you hear the famous poetry of Lorenzo DaPonte.

Set to Mozart’s most stirring martial music, it is mockingly sung to Cherubino, the teen would-be lothario, by the servant Figaro. The Count who bosses them both has just caught the boy hanging around once too often, earlier with his wife, and just now with Susanna, the pretty maid the Count hopes to seduce. As Cherubino is a noble ward, he can’t just murder him, as he’d no doubt like to.

The army remains the classic solution for what to do with boys who are suffering from a chronic overload of testosterone and who are causing problems around the house—or on the street. Written in the late 18th Century, when war still had a cloud of romance hanging around it—no machine guns, drones or poison gas just yet—it’s straight on the mark. “Glory” here is meant ironically. Figaro is sobering the boy up, saying that soldiering means real danger, exhaustion and suffering. So get ready, kid!

It’s a nice example of DaPonte’s nuanced writing. Figaro first sings mocking praises—“Pocket Narcissus” has to be one of the best classical put-downs ever. Then he gets tougher. There will be no further perfumed romps in My Lady’s chambers. Your new bosom companions will be hardened soldiers–and your heavy knapsack. No more dances, only marching, almost always in the worst conditions. In the 18th Century, armies were often chronically without pay, not only because of ordinary bad planning, but because wrecking havoc on civilians was (and still is) traditionally part of the game. DaPonte and Mozart, both freelance artists, know only too well that honor without the cash to back it up was a hollow thing indeed.

For the coup de grace, Figaro describes the pain which bombs and gunshots cause the ears. It’s a misery particularly singled out by DaPonte and Mozart for Cherubino, a musical boy who writes beautiful love songs for all his ladies.

No more honey-dripping for you, Punk! From now on, your ears will “sing” to you only of war!

Juliet Waldron

 

 

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