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Analysis: Don Giovanni no.15, trio ‘Ah! taci, ingiusto core’

We join Donna Elvira in Act II at her balcony, scorning herself for still loving the notorious philanderer, Don Giovanni. Meanwhile, the Don has set his eyes on his next conquest, the maid of Donna Elvira. To be successful in this latest exploit, he must lure Elvira away. Don Giovanni and Leporello exchange outfits and Leporello, “disguised as his master is commanded to court Donna Elvira” (Fischer, 2007, p. 144). Don Giovanni remains hidden and calls to Elvira, begging for forgiveness and promising her “faithful love”. Elvira’s opposition weakens and she “rushes from her balcony” to be reunited with the one she believes to be Don Giovanni.

It is rare for an ensemble to come so close to the “precise plan of sonata form, for a single dramatic action rarely falls precisely into the sonata-form dynamic” (Kerman, 1952, p. 86). However, ‘Ah! taci, ingiusto core’ is a trio which conforms to the sonata principle in both music and drama; through opposition, intensification and resolution (Rosen, 1988).

Table 1 Don Giovanni

The baroque tradition of ‘da capo aria’ was a rather limited form in causing dramatic motion. The returning ‘A’ section was a return in emotional state as well as musical. Ratner (1980, p. 408) states ‘Ah! taci, ingiusto core’ as a “fully worked-out compressed da capo number”. This may well be due to not utilising existing themes for the development section. However according to Kerman (1952, p. 84) “the situation changes, and everybody feels differently; this was never so within a baroque aria or chorus”. On this subject of sonata form in Mozart’s operas, Rosen (1971, pp. 301, 302) views the relationship between drama and the “sonata aesthetic” to be “indissoluble”. The plot certainly reflects this form in ‘Ah! taci, ingiusto core’, Donna Elvira begins by scorning herself for having feelings for Don Giovanni in the exposition, to hating him when he appears at the development, to once again falling for him at the recapitulation. We follow Elvira in her emotional journey, stabilised by a coherent musical form.

The trio opens with bare orchestration (strings only) aiding the setting of Donna Elvira standing alone on her balcony, her feelings exposed to the audience. Elvira’s opening musical line is intermittent, only lasting for two bars adjoined by two bars of rest. It is “not properly a melody”, further conveying her conflicted state of mind (Johnson, 2007, p. 181). After the ascent of a 4th the melody inevitably falls downwards, she is losing the battle of her emotions (see Figure 1). The accompanying violins and violas have a syncopated two-quaver motif, perhaps representing the heartbeat Elvira is trying to keep under control.

Bar 14 sees a change in orchestration, motif and personnel as Don Giovanni and Leporello begin a dialogue with one another. Mozart sets this “in a rapid buffa style” (Johnson, 2007, p. 183), with undulating movement of adjacent scalic intervals. It is a vivid depiction of Don Giovanni and Leporello muttering out of earshot of Elvira. The antiphony created as the motif is passed round the orchestra evokes the sense of real conversation between the Don and his servant. Once again there is a pedal point on the dominant, this time in the first violins with an ostinato of C# to D in the second violins. This fluid, murmuring passage also illustrates the movement of Don Giovanni and Leporello, rather than the stagnant, broken line of Elvira. The repetition of the semiquaver passage (heard eight times) has the effect of acceleration. This is preparing for the dialogue between Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira carried out in the same melody she has sung, but in the dominant, E major. Modulated to by descent down a perfect 4th in the manner of a passus durisculus, the higher, brighter E major “quickens the attention without drawing attention” (Johnson, 2007, p. 181). The previous silences in Elvira’s version of the melody now provide space for Elvira to reply. Giovanni manages to musically shapeshift depending on whom he is with, “slipping into buffa when he is with Leporello, a virtuosic seria style with El­vira” (Johnson, 2007, p. 181).Figure 1: Bar 3. Top to bottom – Horns, 1st violins, 2nd violins, violas, Donna Elvira

A horn in octaves on the dominant is introduced as Elvira begins to sing which is then passed to the flutes in bar 5, still on the dominant. This inverted pedal point on the dominant builds “cadential drive” (Ratner, 1980, p. 65), seeking a resolution to Elvira’s inner turmoil.

The opening 4 bars repeat with shortened note values, each quaver in the violins and violas is replaced with two semiquavers. This highlights both Elvira’s fervency to keep her emotions under control, and that she is proving unsuccessful, her heartbeat is in fact quickening. The first perfect cadence encountered in ‘Ah! taci, ingiusto core’ is in bar 12, until that point kept waiting for a resolution through a series of imperfect cadence. However in bar 12 the chromatic movement of thirds in the violins, clarinets and bassoons (derived from the consonant ascending thirds of bar 4) blur the tonic chord. Therefore it is bar 14 where we find a strong, perfect cadence landing on the tonic. This of course does not simply aid the drama on stage, it creates the drama. The implication of a lack of musical resolution transmits to the audience that Elvira herself is looking for a resolution to her feelings for Don Giovanni.

A notable feature of the development section of ‘Ah! taci, ingiusto core’ is the “bold” modulation of E major to C major (Johnson, 2007). The new C major key is remote from E major, however the modulation is smooth through the violins, flutes and bassoons descending chromatically from G# to the third of C major, E. This ♭VI modulation often appears “in Mozart’s seduction scenes” (Kerman, 1952, p. 82) and C major plays an important role within the axial tonal structure in Don Giovanni. It is the mid-point between the central tonality of the opera, D minor and its relative major, Bb. Often this remote C major is used for imbroglio, a high point of tension and confusion. This modulation therefore makes much sense when thought of in the sonata dynamic, as the development section is regarded as the point of tension (Rosen, 1988). Don Giovanni hasn’t yet won over Elvira, Donna Elvira hasn’t decided whether to return to Don Giovanni, and Leporello may ruin Giovanni’s scheme by revealing his identity through laughter. It is important to note that this development section does not develop existing musical themes in the manner of instrumental sonata forms. There are of course elements of previous themes referenced such as the ‘heartbeat’ quaver patter in the first violins of theme, but it is primarily the musical drama which heightens.

Aside from the modulation to C, Mozart conveys the drama particularly vividly in bars 46-54. After Don Giovanni’s “amorous sentiment” (Ratner, 1980, p. 408) is expressed on a new melody, Elvira interrupts him in “sudden agitato” passage (Kerman, 1952, p. 82). There are blustering demisemiquavers in the string section outlining chords of I, V7, I over a pedal point of C in the cellos and double basses (see Figure 2). This static C may well depict Donna Elvira’s resolve that she would never return to Don Giovanni. Awkward leaps of a 7th and a tritone in her vocal line along with short note values with syllabic treatment of the libretto express her outrage at the ‘barbarian’. The music modulates rapidly with overlapping phrases of the characters, Giovanni’s “increasingly ardent”, Elvira’s “a little hysterical” (Kerman, 1952, p. 82).

Fig 2 Don Giovanni

In bar 49 Mozart uses the secondary dominant of A to create what Kerman states as “the highest point of tension” (Kerman, 1952, p. 83). The bassline descends from C to A through stepwise motion, being caught at bar 50 and 51 alternating chords E7 and D minor. Elvira becomes silent, and Leporello, who often provides the “rhythmic base upon which the more serious actions can play themselves out” (Rosen, 1971, p. 181), laughs his way back to the tonic, A major. This laughter is evocatively depicted through narrow intervals and descending undulating semiquavers.

Mozart ensures that the recapitulation of ‘Ah! taci, ingiusto core’ is not simply a restatement of the exposition. There are alterations to the orchestration, expansion of themes and even changes of the character to those themes. There are subtle alterations to the orchestration, such as the horns spelling out the A major triad at bar 55 and a now divided flute harmony at 58, 59. But the most striking difference of the recapitulation is the combined use of Elvira, Giovanni and Leporello. Up to this point in the trio, the three characters have not sung simultaneously. There has been much dialogue, where “two voices alternate phrases”, which Ratner (1980, p. 168) describes as “a distribution of solo material”. But it is in the recapitulation where voices, ideas and actions unify through vocal harmony and counterpoint. This technique makes dramatic sense as well as musical, all characters are communicating to the audience as an aside, they are expressing their thoughts and emotions on a scale not previously realised before this recapitulation.

For example in bar 60 (see Figure 3) Leporello is providing the rhythmic and harmonic basis for Giovanni and Elvira to harmonise (Rosen, 1971). This is illustrated clearly in bars 56-61 where Leporello repeats the note dominant note E, with rhythmic values of quavers and crotchets. With servantly obedience he accompanies Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira harmonising together on the reiteration of the opening theme. This manner of harmonisation often connotes joint thought or expression. In bar 60 this is of course linked to Elvira’s decision to reunite with Don Giovanni, entwining the paths of the two characters once again.

Fig 3 Don Giovanni

There is an interesting transformation at bars 62-66, equivalent to bars 9-13 of the exposition. Mozart expands the “chattering” descending demisemiquaver motif in the violin to take a short detour to the subdominant, D major (Kerman, 1952, p. 83). A major plays the role of secondary dominant until we return to the B theme at bar 67. The significance of this is that the first time we hear bars 9-13 it signalled the first perfect cadence. Once again we are forced to wait for resolution until the coda at bar 79 as the ascending chromatic thirds return. The romantic chromatic thirds, previously withholding the perfect cadence at bar 12, do so again at the coda. The close of this trio has Elvira sing a motif (bar 80) newly embellished, harking back to bar 13, the first complete perfect cadence. This once again refers to her resolution, previously to forget the Don, but now she has once again given in to his seduction and descends to meet with the one she believes to be Don Giovanni.

Mozart uses every conceivable element of music not just to interpret the drama, but to create the drama.  Mozart “could embody the character or situation for himself in music, and needed the words only to…define it beyond doubt for the audience” (Abraham 1965, p. 283).


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By Connor Gaydon

I am a Music graduate and piano teacher for 5+ years. I have created a range of resources to broaden and deepen the knowledgebase of the Improving Pianists community.