Disquiet, defiance and the point of no return in Mozart’s Don Giovanni

There are fewer more dramatic moments in opera than the ending of Don Giovanni, when the title character refuses to repent for his sins and gets pulled down into hell by a chorus of demons. However, this showstopping coup de théâtre is in fact a footnote to the oft-overlooked actual narrative and musical climax, which occurs a few minutes earlier, at Don Giovanni’s dinner table. In this post — born of a desire to polish my rusty music analysis skills — I’ll explain why.

In brief, Don Giovanni follows the last days on earth of a dissolute nobleman who exploits his position in society to rape and seduce as many women as he can. At the opening of the opera, he attempts to rape a woman called Donna Anna, but her father, the Commendatore, catches him in the act. Don Giovanni murders him and escapes. The rest of the opera focuses on the relationships between the other characters as they work to uncover the identity of the Commendatore’s murderer and finally recognise the monster in their midst.

Besides Don Giovanni, Donna Anna and the Commendatore, the other characters are:

  • Don Ottavio, Donna Anna’s fiance;
  • Donna Elvira, a woman whom Don Giovanni once seduced and promised marriage to;
  • Zerlina, a peasant woman whom Don Giovanni attempts to sleep with on her wedding day;
  • Masetto, her husband;
  • Leporello, Don Giovanni’s loyal but conflicted servant who keeps a catalogue of all his sexual conquests.

However, Don Giovanni is not brought to justice by his fellow human beings1: instead, the statue from the Commendatore’s grave comes to life and knocks on Don Giovanni’s door in the midst of dinner. The statue gives him the opportunity to repent but Don Giovanni refuses and is condemned to eternal punishment. The last we hear from him is his screams of terror as the hell-fire starts to burn.

So how about that dinner table? Act II, scene xv: Don Giovanni’s dining room. Two punchy D major chords signal a clean break from the previous scene and the ending of Donna Anna’s final aria (Non mi dir, bell’idol mio) in F major, in which she laments Don Ottavio’s decision to leave the punishment of Don Giovanni to “the will of heaven”, but agrees to marry him anyway. We instantly hear Don Giovanni calling for Leporello to serve his food. Melodically and rhythmically, the opening of this scene is an almost exact call back to the exposition section of the overture. But why is that important? Let’s examine the overture in more detail.

Once heard, never forgotten: the thundering opening D minor chords of Don Giovanni instantly indicate that this opera will be more dramma than giocoso.

The overture is in a very loose and under-developed sonata form, reminiscent of the first movements of symphonies from the same era, beginning with that stunning introduction in D minor. This section, though short, provides some hints to the conclusion of the unfolding drama. A heartbeat pulses in the strings

and two small but important motifs are introduced, which we can refer to as disquiet and defiance.

Disquiet: after being introduced by the violins in the overture, this motif prominently recurs in Don Giovanni’s line at the moment of the Commendatore’s death, and then subsequently when Don Giovanni is answering the statue’s demands during the dinner scene. It represents Don Giovanni’s fear, uncertainty and doubt, and the chromaticism of the motif hints that it’s specifically the fear he feels when faced with the supernatural power of the statue. This is Don Giovanni grappling with his faith and his potential punishment in the framework of Catholic morality.

Disquiet.

Defiance: this motif is often — but not always — paired with disquiet, occurring straight afterwards if it is present (Leporello, un altra cena!). It represents Don Giovanni’s ultimate rejection of repentance and his desire not to be seen as a coward in the face of death. The motif is short, fast and frantic, and the descending notes contrast the rising, questioning nature of the disquiet motif. With each repetition of defiance, Don Giovanni convinces himself his decision is the right one. Importantly, the disquiet motif is repeated to an almost excruciating degree throughout the Commendatore’s murder, but defiance is never present to provide a resolution.

Defiance.

The unsettling introduction over, the tempo increases slightly and we switch to D major. There are two main musical ideas presented in the exposition section. The first subject consists of descending staccato quavers in the first violins followed by block D major chords in the woodwinds. The second subject, powerful descending unison chords, is linked to the first, and together these two form the bulk of the development section. Slotted in between these two themes is a shorter idea introduced by the violins, more rhythmically complex, and entering via a D major diminished 7th chord which resolves into A minor. However, this idea is left largely undeveloped. The recapitulation restates the first and second subjects in D major and the final six bars of the overture are used as a short coda to modulate to F major for Leporello’s opening aria (Notte e giorno faticar).

The harmonic contrast between the introduction and the rest of the overture serves to highlight the tension between the comedic and tragic elements of the opera itself. Mozart’s other main achievement in the genre of opera is The Marriage of Figaro. On the face of it, it is far more comedic than Don Giovanni, yet it too contains explorations of deeper themes such as class dynamics and marital strife. This blending of comic and dramatic themes, paired with extremely insightful observations on human nature, all expressed through deceptively simple music, are arguably why Mozart’s operas (not forgetting the contribution of the librettist for both works, Lorenzo Da Ponte) are considered amongst the best of all time.

Back to the dinner table. The scene opens with a brisk D major chord that immediately calls back to the exposition of the overture.

But we, as the audience, have also already heard the introduction section of the overture in that dark D minor key. The harmonic progression of the overture is mirrored at the end of the opera, starting with the dinner scene (in fact, Donna Anna’s final aria ends in F major, mirroring the key of Leporello’s opening aria). We as the audience can dimly begin to see what is going to happen during the dinner scene: a return to that supernatural D minor key and the themes that came with it. Don Giovanni, oblivious, begins to gorge himself on rich food and vintage wine.

The opening of the dinner scene.

The orchestration of the dinner scene also maintains that of the overture, with the theme being presented in the woodwind and brass. This lends a bright, cheerful nature to the scene, though we now realise that it is brittle and hollow. This works in a neat contrast to the heartbeat, disquiet and defiance motifs, which are all heard primarily in the strings, both at their introduction and throughout the opera. It’s no coincidence that Don Giovanni’s line is also usually accompanied by strings rather than wind throughout.

The tension builds throughout the dinner scene by the changing of time signature from 4/4 to 6/8 to 3/4 to 2/4, which makes it feel like the pace is increasing even though the absolute tempo remains the same. Everything feels off-kilter because Don Giovanni’s line continually enters on the second beat of the bar (again with the strings for company):

Don Giovanni entering on the second beat of the bar.

The music briefly becomes diegetic2, with Don Giovanni asking Leporello what he thinks of the concert, and Leporello complaining that he’s heard it too many times before. Mozart uses this moment to quote from other popular operas at the time. This is generally seen as Mozart poking fun at the composers of those operas by demonstrating his superior skill3. However, the musical quotes also serve to highlight the mockery and pity that Don Giovanni is beginning to inspire in other characters: first Leporello, who makes no effort to hide the fact that Don Giovanni’s gluttony makes him feel sick, and then shortly after Donna Elvira, who returns to make one final plea for him to change his ways (L’ultima prova dell’amor mio).

Throughout the scene, we also modulate from D major, the safe and happy (if brittle) key, to F major (whose relative minor is D minor, our key of fear and the supernatural) to land in B flat major, a darker major key which favours the winds. Is this a hint at the demise of Don Giovanni, since he’s usually string-accompanied?

Then, after Donna Elvira’s entrance, we get an unexpected new melody in the strings which is immediately echoed in Don Giovanni’s line:

Textually, Don Giovanni is making fun of Donna Elvira for caring about him: she is pleading for him to change his ways and he responds by laughing at her and asking to be left in peace to eat. Don Giovanni turns this melody into an anthem, using it as the accompaniment to a repetitious statement of his philosophy: “Vivan le femmine, viva il buon vino! Sostegno e gloria d’umanità!” or “Long live women, long live wine! The sustenance and glory of humanity!”

Beyond the text, the introduction of a new melodic idea at such a late stage in the opera indicates that this is a new facet of Don Giovanni that we’re seeing. It’s not disquiet or defiance or even his heartbeat: he’s tipped over into something even worse. It is a mockery, both textually and musically, of what Donna Elvira is saying to him. This is Don Giovanni saying he doesn’t care any more — he’s tearing himself away from all previous fears and doubts and the love that Donna Elvira and Leporello were trying to show him — and is ripping himself out of this opera entirely by giving himself a new line to sing. Amongst the final repetitions of this melody come a little hint at defiance through the falling sixth interval at the end of each phrase:

Falling sixths.

The final time we hear this melody is thus both the musical and narrative climax for the opera: Don Giovanni can be no more, because at this moment he forcibly presents himself as something outside the drama and beyond the reach of the other characters. It ends with a huge cadence to modulate from B flat major into D minor for the appearance of the statue.

The true climax of Don Giovanni.

We know what happens next: we heard it coming from the first chord of the overture. We arrive in D minor and the statue appears at the door, inviting Don Giovanni to dinner in hell. Here come disquiet and defiance for the final time:

The return of disquiet and defiance.

The disquiet motif is identical to its first appearance in the overture, but defiance has changed. It’s no longer fast and frantic; the reduction of the motif to just two notes gives the motif a slurred, slow-motion aspect. It now descends a full octave as Don Giovanni begins to realise the full horror of his situation — but nevertheless he still defies the statue. His new melody (sostegno e gloria d’umanità!) can’t help him here: the opera has taken back control. We’re in D minor again and the only options left to him are disquiet or defiance. He won’t let himself be called a coward, so he takes the statue’s hand.

And the final thing we hear in Don Giovanni’s line?

The heartbeat that pulsed from the very first bars of the overture.


Watch the ending of the dinner scene, Donna Elvira’s final plea and the entrance of the statue in the incredible minimalist and modern production directed by Peter Brook in the video below (my favourite production — the whole thing is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GY6OFYyzD1A though unsubtitled).

The full score of Don Giovanni is available on IMSLP, and a libretto with a side-by-side English translation can be found here: http://www.murashev.com/opera/Don_Giovanni_libretto_Italian_English.

The end of the dinner scene, Donna Elvira’s final plea and the statue’s entrance in Peter Brook’s production of Don Giovanni, performed at Aix-en-Provence in 2002.

  1. Don Giovanni can also be easily read as a critique of the Christian notion of sin, repentance and absolution. Don Giovanni refuses to repent and so is punished in hell, but this does nothing to ease the suffering of those he hurt during his life. The Christian characters are ineffectual at both seeing him for who he really is — a rapist and murderer — and at punishing him when they do discover the truth, whereas the two arguably non-Christian characters (Leporello, who is implied to be Jewish, and Donna Elvira, who in Molière’s Dom Juan was a nun whom Don Giovanni lured out of a convent, thus irrevocably separating her from her faith) are the only ones to show true pity and love towards Don Giovanni and attempt to get him to change his ways.
    A good starting point for further exploration of this idea is this article in the Tablet magazine by David P. Goldman: https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/divine-justice, who writes “If a supernatural intervention that silly is the only thing that will get rid of Don Juan, the not-so-subtle message is that Christendom is incapable of ridding itself of evil through its own efforts.”
  2. I suppose there’s an argument to be made that all music in operas is diegetic, since after all the characters are singing along with it.
  3. He was quite justified in doing so, since the operas he quotes from are no longer performed, only surviving through these two brief quotations.

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