Beautiful Music and Moral Discomfort in Mozart’s "Cosi fan tutte"

by Edsel Kreisler

The idea for this paper originated in a conversation with my friend S. D. regarding Mozart’s opera Cosi fan tutte, in the course of which we discovered a shared, felt repugnance to something emanating from this opera.  During that initial conversation, blunt but rather vague charges of moral looseness, not to say depravity, were aimed at a libretto which Mozart had shamelessly clothed in some of the most moving and sensuous music he ever wrote for opera.  I began to ponder this sense of repugnance, of moral discomfiture, which so many of  this opera’s listeners have experienced since it premiered in Vienna in 1790, one year before Mozart’s death at the age of 35.  Now I propose to swim a while in these uncomfortable waters, in hopes of understanding the tension that we feel in the presence of  this great work of art.

A sketch of the plot: We are in the Naples of Mozart’s own day, the late 18th century.  Two young soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, are sincerely and passionately in love with two charming young Neapolitan sisters, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, who return their lovers’ affections with equal sincerity and passion.  Ferrando loves Dorabella, Guglielmo loves Fiordiligi.  As the opera opens, Don Alfonso, an older and more worldly-wise friend of the two soldiers, mocks his young friends for their naïve confidence in their lovers’ faithfulness.  Don Alfonso aims to reveal to them the inescapable disappointments of human erotic attachments, and thereby to offer both his friends and their lovers a chance to align their temperaments, in consort with reason, with the true natural tides of human emotions. 

To this end,  Don Alfonso proposes a challenge:  Upon a wager of a considerable sum of money, each of the young men, in disguise, is to attempt to seduce the other’s lover.  Ferrando will try his luck with Fiordiligi, Guglielmo will pursue Dorabella.  Should the seductions fail, Don Alfonso’s loss of the wager will be the price he must pay his young friends for his contempt of their trusting natures and for his insult to the virtue of their beloveds; should the seductions succeed, however, Don Alfonso wins the money and his young friends gain a painful but valuable lesson in the affairs of the human heart.  The two young men eagerly accept the wager, confident in their lovers’ faithfulness.  In the end, as we know, both seductions succeed, great emotional pain is inflicted on the lovers, and a somber and sad reconciliation of the two couples is achieved at the end, as both couples sing, “How happy is the man who looks on the bright side of everything, and in all circumstances and trials lets himself be guided by reason.”

What, to begin with, is the immediate source of our discomfit with the opera?  Surely it is not, or not merely, that we observe the irresolution of young lovers straying from the noble path.  This is the stuff of many comic operas.  No, our umbrage is aroused by the manner in which the seductions are effected.  As the libretto makes clear, the course of the seductions of the two women causes them deep emotional turmoil; and in the case Fiordiligi, who we come to learn is the more morally sensitive of the two women, the tempestuous roiling of her erotic feelings is conjoined to deep currents of grief and shame at her awareness of her own weakness and her unworthiness of being the object of her presumably faithful lover’s persisting faith in her.  The seductions, in short, are brutal and brutalizing, profoundly cynical attacks on the moral integrity of two sympathetic natures which we have no independent reason to impugn.  It is a kind of emotional betrayal in which we find little amusement and less enlightenment.  And as if to hammer home this distasteful outcome, the story does not end merely with the accomplished distraction of the young women’s affections: no, but the women must be finally and completely humiliated at the end of the opera by the re-appearance of their now-undisguised soldier lovers, who basely accuse them of basely betraying their trust.

Since its premiere, unfavorable reactions to Cosi fan tutte have clustered in several distinct modes.  The earliest and most persistent of these has it, roughly, that the libretto of the opera, written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, was unworthy of Mozart’s genius; that Mozart, in writing the music for the opera, debased his divine talent by lowering himself to the level of the libretto, which has been variously characterized as trivial, silly, farcically artificial, outrageous, improbable, superficial, immoral, frivolous, etc., etc.  The impact of this unfortunate mismatch between the book and the music is a feeling of strain, that something here is not just technically flawed but aesthetically unacceptable.

In the opera houses of Europe in the century following the premiere, it was the German critics who pushed this line of criticism most assiduously, as for example the great music impresario and publisher Eduard Hanslick, who wrote, “The boundless triviality of the libretto everywhere deals a deathblow to Mozart’s lovely music… The civilization of our time cannot come to terms with it even with the best of intentions.  I deem Cosi van tutte to be no longer stageworthy.”  Richard Wagner intuited a creative variation on this position.  The problem with the opera, according to Wagner, was not that Mozart wasted his sublime music on an inferior text, but rather, to the great composer’s (i.e. Mozart’s) eternal credit, Mozart was simply unable to compose truly great music to such an unworthy book.  Faced with the dilemma of a beloved artist’s music hitched to a repugnant text, Wagner chose to devalue the music.  Wagner writes, “How doubly dear and above all honor is Mozart to me, [when I realize] that it was not possible for him to invent music for Cosi van tutte like that of Figaro!  How shamefully (the libretto) would have desecrated the music!”

Something is just not right about this mode of criticism. As we listen to Mozart’s sensuous music, we find ourselves propelled, perhaps against our wishes, ever deeper into the psychological upheaval and moral duplicity of Da Ponte’s characters.  The text and the music together do indeed produce a strain, but they do it in concert.  Rather than sensing words and music at odds, we resonate in quite the opposite key: the music, we should be inclined to say, expresses too well the emotional content of the libretto, it succeeds in putting too much emotional weight on a story that upsets us.  The musical expression of this story upsets us not because the music is badly matched to the text, or is trivial or inferior, but because it succeeds at the composer’s intention, which is precisely to give expression to the upsetting emotions unfolding in the story.  We might imagine another composer setting Da Ponte’s libretto to music, Donizetti perhaps, with very different intentions and consequently with very different results: a bright frolic of shallow romantic giddiness which leaves us in end amused, perhaps bored or even cynical, but not morally disturbed. 

So this is the central observation that grounds the second general mode of criticism levelled at Cosi van tutte: the problem, so the new criticism goes, is precisely the fact that Mozart has chosen to give, and has brilliantly succeeded in giving, expressive force to emotional situations which are intrinsically repellant from a moral point of view.  How can we justify the setting to music of such repugnant goings-on?  How can we tolerate the musically inexorable, musically ineluctable expression of the sort of emotional abuse we witness in this opera?

These two forms of criticism of the opera, if we take them as given, seem to be in direct opposition.  On the one hand, the first complaint has it that Mozart’s music and Da Ponte’s text are incompatible, dischordant, unharmonious artistic creations, and therein lies the problem with the opera.  The second complaint, on the other hand, has it that the music and the text are too compatible, too congenial, too harmonious, and therein lies the problem with the opera.  It seems to me that the first complaint perceives the problem as a fundamentally aesthetic failure; the second complaint conceives it to be a fundamentally moral disfigurement.

I suggest that it is the second of these concerns, namely, that it is the very success of the opera’s music which morally disfigures it, that comes closer to explaining the state of dis-ease, of upset, in which modern listeners find themselves when listening to Cosi. Our first and most natural reaction to this uncomfortable state of affairs, which is also the historically most popular, is to walk away: we announce our disdain for the work and relegate it to a lower rank of Mozart’s musical accomplishments.  That path I am loathe to tread.

I want instead to attempt a formulation of  a view of the opera that gathers a number of seemingly incompatible notions into a single sensibility: that the moral upset we feel in the face of the shameful treatment of the two young women, is both genuine and warranted; that this discomfiture is a direct reflection and consequence of the music’s congeniality to the text; that this moral dis-ease is in fact the aesthetic aim of both the librettist and composer (our moral discomfort, in other words, is simply proof of Mozart’s artistic success); and, finally, that the aesthetic aim of inducing moral discomfort in us is itself justified, at least within the historical setting of the opera’s creation. 

When Mozart set about composing Cosi fan tutte, the fires of the French Enlightenment still burned brightly: Rousseau and Voltaire both dead scarcely more than a decade; the French Revolution underway; the foundations of the ancien regime crumbling.  Unexamined assumptions about the relationship of the individual to the state, in particular, the unquestioned consonance of the individual’s worth with his position in society, were being challenged. The basic structures of society, according to Rousseau, were a poisonous tissue of lies and deception.  The pursuit of the ideal human life, he said, depended on self-knowledge, and this in turn could be attained only by the stripping away of the self-deceit, the masks, the vanity, which prevented us from gaining a true understanding of our human nature.  This task, at the level of society as a whole, would require the spilling of blood.  For the individual who chose, or was forced to endure, this course of education, the only immediate recompense would be severe emotional and intellectual dislocation.  Reason, of course, was to guide both society and its individuals towards their perfected states.  One of the principle illuminations of Rousseau’s reason was that all human beings, both men and women, were possessed of a common human nature.  One of reason’s first imperatives was thus the re-education, the dis-illusioning, of its subjects regarding their own limitations and potential, together with the correlary injunction that they treat each other with kindness, tolerance, and forgiveness.

Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, was, we might say, both an engaged warrior in this intellectual ferment, and a free rider on its moral commitments. He was Italian, a baptized Jew who became a priest without the baggage of a discernable religious vocation; a professor of rhetoric at the seminary at Treviso which discharged him for radicalism; a Venetian expatriot banished for fifteen years, so one historian puts it, “on charges of libertinage, blasphemy, sacrilege, adultery, and public concubinage.”

The cynicism evident in Da Ponte’s public life is belied by the psychological insight and surprising moral idealism he brought to his libretto for Cosi.  The young lovers are characterized as hopelessly blind to their own limitations and weaknesses.  The plot structure turns this blindness into the cause of their own self-inflicted torment.  From the tragicomic device of the mutually destructive seductions flows the painfully gained knowledge of their true natures.  All this can be read as tracing a blueprint for the Enlightenment project of aligning the mind and sentiments to authentic human nature. But Da Ponte went further.  The invocation of reason at the end of the opera as the key to personal happiness is not simply a popularized and politically correct dramatic device, but rather serves as the psychological warrant for the forgiveness that is dispensed among the disillusioned couples.  In the still-roiling sea of woeful emotions released in the denouement, it is reason that offers a hope of stability, of personal repair.  Out of a dark and despairing place, the call to reason, to a life founded on a true understanding of one’s imperfect nature, appears as a healing salve, an escape from a life of illusion and towards a life of greater emotional fulfillment. 

It was Da Ponte’s supreme conceit to attempt to reconcile love with reason.  His dramatic methods are exceedingly harsh.  It is impossible to escape the tone of mockery that informs Don Alfonso’s and Despina’s world views, a mockery not just of conventional notions of love and fidelity but pointedly of the immediate personal sufferings of the lovers.  Yet, ironically, his philosophy is one of consolation, forgiveness, and hope.  It is worth noting that Da Ponte’s optimistic philosophy was not universally shared by his contemporaries.  We may, for example, compare his treatment of the subject with that of Pierre Laclos in his novel Dangerous Liaisons, written at about the same time.  The characters in Laclos’ story traverse similarly treacherous psychological terrain, but are subject to a cool and cynical emotional savagery that ends without hope, consolation, or enlightenment.\

Da Ponte’s sensibility is, then, the sensibility of the enlightened and aesthetically evolved woman or man, as conceived by the sages of that age.  My purpose in sketching this world view was, first, to try to do justice to what I believe is the informing spirit of the opera; and second, to clear the ground for my next argument.  For, as it happens, I do not believe that any such intellectualized sensibility as this can succeed in calming our apprehension at this opera.  Our aesthetic and moral dysphoria goes deeper, and we still have work to do. 

When I first conceived the idea of a paper on Cosi, I intended to explore what I took to be the simple central conundrum of the opera: the troubling relation between the emotions expressed by the text, and the luminous music that expresses those emotions. What I thought I saw at the outset induced a measure of anxiety: Mozart’s sublime music, it seemed to me, had the disquieting ability to express morally contorted psychological states, and to do so with deep empathy.  What are we to think when the false affection expressed by the two disguised soldiers comes across as just as sincere, just as convincing, as their genuine declarations of love?  Perplexity abounds.  When the shallow Dorabella sings of the joyful freedom of finally yielding to seduction, we are not dismayed; but when Fiordiligi, having just passed through a crushing moral anguish, gives way and sings with the same ardor of this new forbidden love’s delights, we find ourselves disturbingly at sea. We are astonished to discover how effortlessly Mozart’s music makes us complicit in this forbidden delight. The music lets us feel what it is like to be overcome by passions of such intense sweetness that the pleasures of heaven seem within our grasp on this earth. And a terrible danger is now at hand: for this same music reveals to us in the same moment how familiar, how comfortable we feel in the ecstatic freedom that accompanies such intense passion: all is possible, nothing is sacred, everything may be sacrificed on the altar of love.

My worry, my anxiety, is that the beauty of Mozart’s music in Cosi was forged on a Faustian anvil: that the music is indissolubly bonded to the sentiments of Da Ponte’s lyrics.  It is difficult to state this intuition clearly.  At a first approximation, we might say that the music is a perfect vehicle for expressing those sentiments; but this falls short. The anxiety is fixated on the idea that the sentiments pouring out of the hearts of Da Ponte’s operatic characters are the exhaustive and exclusive sensuous content of the music: that is to say, this music could not possibly give voice to any other psychological narrative.  Music, meaning, and sentiment have merged into a single irrefrangible [cf. irrefragable] experience. If this sounds like the exaltation of someone emerging from a lucid fever dream, then we are probably on the right track here, because the experience of being in the grip of this music has about it more of the delirious than the dialogical.

If intuitions such as this can be said to have consequences, then ours may be disastrous.  We take the fatal step when we join this intuition with the forgoing thought, that Mozart’s music, by its shear beauty, bewitches us into emotional complicity with its embedded sentiment. We are spellbound by the music’s beauty, but cannot opt out of the illicit sentiments that are wedded to that beauty.  We have become, by Mozart’s genius, moral-aesthetic debauchees, obliging spectators in the degradation of innocence.  Once we allow ourselves to be swept up in the musical moment, we abandon our principles and become willing receptacles of unholy musical delight.

The only escape from this hideous trap, it seems to me, is no less destructive of our aesthetic sensibilities: we must, by force of will, teach ourselves to distrust our emotional instincts when engaged with Mozart’s music.  We must resist the siren’s call to the corrosive beauty everywhere to be found in his work. That would be a tragic outcome: to glimpse such other-worldly beauty only to have to suppress it in a shroud of self-denial. 

What about the alternative solution, that we adopt the enlightened view of the opera as a call to live our lives according to reason in an age of debased and deluded sensualism?  If my concerns are well-founded, then this solution will not assuage our deepest worries about Mozart’s music, because the music affects us at a level that such intellectualizations do not plumb.

In closing, I urge us all to continue to listen to this possibly greatest of Mozart’s operas, but to go warily, to tread carefully, and to continue to seek a solution to this difficult problem.