March 31, 2013

En garde! Thrust and parry in Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro"

It doesn't require a scholar of European history to see foreshadowings of revolution in aspects of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. With discontent in France building up like air in an over-inflated balloon, it's hard to view the conflict between the servant Figaro and his arrogant master the Count Almaviva as anything but an allegory for the political upheaval of the times.
Unfinished portrait of Mozart by Joseph Lange

Figaro as emblem of the Third Estate is crystallized in the famous aria "Se vuol ballare" in which he seethes with rage over Almaviva's agenda of seducing Susanna, vowing to make the Count "dance to his tune":

Se vuol ballare, signor contino,
il chitarrino le suonerò, sì,
se vuol venire nella mia scuola,
la capriola le insegnerò, sì


(If you would dance, my pretty Count,
I'll play the little guitar for you, yes.
If you will come to my dancing school
I'll teach you the capriole, yes.)


The very idea that a member of the lower classes would dare address an aristocrat in such terms went beyond mere cheek in 1786 (the date of the opera's premiere); it was, well, revolutionary.

But a little two-word phrase later in the aria caught my eye, and I like to think it caught Mozart's eye as well, prompting a bit of musical imagery that informs key moments of the music. It occurs in the third stanza, when Figaro's rant turns into a rapid-fire exhibition of patter. The stanza:

L'arte schermendo, l'arte adoprando,
di qua pungendo, di là scherzando,
tutte le macchine rovescierò.


(Artfully fencing, artfully working,
stinging here, joking there,
all of your schemes I'll turn inside out.)


Those first two words - "artfully fencing" - are the two I have in mind. The image of two men dueling with swords is familiar to most of us, either in films or from watching épée events in the summer Olympics. It's in the latter that we most often see the traditional form of the sport on display, a technique best summarized as "thrust and parry". I, the aggressor, lunge forward thrusting my sword; you, the defender, block that thrust with a step backwards and a counter-motion of your blade that intercepts or "parries" mine.

Looking through Mozart's score, I find at least three examples of musical gestures that, to my mind, simulate the idea of "thrust and parry", meant to illustrate the struggle between Figaro and Almaviva.

The first example occurs in the overture. This orchestral gem, a pop-culture favorite from the Eddie Murphy movie Trading Places to a current TV ad for Pringle's potato chips, whirls along with manic energy, providing a taste of the hectic goings-on in the Almaviva palace. The coda is where I find the first musical thrust and parry reference. First, over a tonic (D major) pedal, we get a short three-note idea with a chopping, descending motion:
 
In my argument, this becomes the Count's "thrust"; his effort to keep Figaro "down" in his servile place. This motive is immediately followed by a complimentary three-note ascending idea; Figaro's "parry"; his answer to the Count's challenge:
 
 
For emphasis, to drive home his point, Mozart repeats this sequence before ending the overture in a triumphant cascade of D major chords.
 
The next example of thrust/parry occurs in that memorable miracle of invention, the Act 2 finale. Figaro is weaving a particularly tangled web of deceit in claiming it was he, not Cherubino, who Antonio the gardener witnessed jumping out of the Countess's boudoir window. The Count, holding the paper Figaro allegedly dropped during his "escape", begins to cross-examine Figaro about the contents of that paper, knowing full well Figaro can't possibly answer him.
 
Thus begins a battle of wits; what I like to call "Law & Order: Seville". The Count poses questions he's confident will stump his adversary while Figaro stalls for time, in exchanges that any previous composer would probably have set as secco recitative. But Mozart was creating a new structure of continuous musical ensemble, so the exchanges are incorporated into music perfectly capturing the tension of the moment. And yes, even here I see a subtle reference to our fencing image in the two treble clef phrases below, the "thrust" ending on a half-cadence like a question, the "parry" responding with a cadence on the tonic.:



 Finally, there is a really obvious example found in the Count's magnificant Act 3 aria
"Vedrò mentr’io sospiro". First, the text itself is a manifestation of our allegorical fencing duel, but with a twist. Figaro was the first to sing of his resolve to best the Count in "Se vuol ballare"; for the Count to only now begin to realize the conspiracy against him and thus sing of his desire for vengeance means he's in the uncomfortable position of parrying his servant's thrust. He's on the defensive, as was soon to be the case for the noble class in the face of the uprising of the commoners.

As Almaviva fumes and tirades and gleefully anticipates his triumph, he "sees" the duel in his mind's eye, courtesy of thrusting and parrying phrases in the orchestra:

 
In the Count's fantasy, the swords now even twirl dramatically in the hands of the combatants like something out of an Errol Flynn movie - the twirls represented by the flourish of trills in the example above.. And the orchestral conclusion leaves no doubt as to there being only one possible victor: the Co1unt! Notice that the final measures depict only fatal thrusts with no parry; the enemy is vanquished!
 

 
These examples may not rise to the level of a "leit-motif", but they do reveal a glimpse into Mozart's mind at work, taking images from the words given his characters to utter and fleshing them out with vivid, visceral musical imagery; imagery that plays a large part in rendering comic characters into complex three-dimensional beings with an inner life to match their outward behaviors.

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