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202 Mozart and the American Revolution PIERPAOLO POLZONETTI The American Revolution had a substantial impact on Italian opera in the late eighteenth century. At that time, Italian opera was the leading international genre of public entertainment, comparable to the twentiethcentury American movie industry. Ideas about Revolutionary America inspired many late-eighteenth-century European opera composers, including Pasquale Anfossi, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Alessandro Guglielmi, Friedrich Gestewitz, Joseph Haydn, Niccolò Piccinni, Giovanni Paisiello, and last but not least, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Nonetheless, the relevance of the American Revolution for our understanding of this repertory has passed unnoticed. This inattention is owing in part to a Eurocentric bias that affects historiography and criticism of the so-called Viennese school, which is also referred to as the classical style in music. Eurocentric criticism has been rather inflexible when dealing with Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven , the three most revered composers in the Western canon active in Vienna while the city was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Traces of the reception of the American Revolution in late-eighteenth-century opera often have been interpreted as prophecies of the French Revolution, even for works composed before 1789, regardless of the conflicting ideological positions of the two revolutionary movements. This bias has produced highly problematic interpretations of the political ideology informing Mozart’s operas . The cause for this confusion is also the lack of explicit references in eighteenth-century operas to revolutionary ideas of any kind, which makes it difficult for us to determine whether a work is revolutionary at all and, if it is, which revolutionary ideology it alludes to or is inspired by. During Mozart’s time, performing artists, especially opera librettists, composers, and singers, were reluctant to express their political views openly because their works were publicly disseminated in theaters assiduously attended by the social and political establishment on which they depended. Detecting and interpreting operas with a revolutionary ideology composed between the American Revolution and the French calls for a rigorous method of his- Mozart and the American Revolution 203 torical contextualization based on the analysis of a web of different kinds of evidence, including personal experiences of playwrights, librettists, composers , and actor-singers; information about revolutionary America shared by artists and opera audiences; purely musical topoi and their meanings; the use and subversion of operatic conventions; and so on. In this essay I will show how ideas generated in or alluding to Revolutionary America penetrated the operatic culture of Mozart’s Vienna. I will do so by taking into account the presence of American themes in the Viennese theatrical culture of Mozart’s time and focusing on the three comic operas that Mozart wrote in collaboration with his favorite librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte. Da Ponte and the American Dream Lorenzo Da Ponte died in Manhattan, New York, on 17 August 1838. He had spent the last third of his adventurous life in America. In his late American autobiography, the Compendium of the Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte (1807), he claims that he immigrated because America appeared to him a hopeful political alternative to less liberal European regimes: “I felt a sympathetic affection for the Americans. I had, besides, suffered so much in aristocratic republics [Venice], and monarchical governments, that I pleased myself with the hope of finding happiness in a country which I thought free.”1 In the fateful year 1776, while still a professor of literature and rhetoric at the Seminary School of Treviso, in the Republic of Venice, Da Ponte wrote fourteen poetical compositions in Italian and Latin informed by ideas and themes recurrent in European literature about Revolutionary America.2 The first poem is on the popular theme of a Native American man discussing how people have abandoned the pursuit of happiness by increasing societal regulations. The second poem discusses the role of human laws in the pursuit of happiness given that “the desire for happiness is the same in every man.” The fifth is introduced by the headline “whether happiness is proportioned to the distribution of goods: societal norms divide these goods unequally among men, therefore they made happiness not equally possible among men.” Finally, the seventh discusses the notion that “Man, free in nature, becomes slave under the law and therefore laws have made human happiness less attainable.” Venetian censorship reacted sternly. As Da Ponte recorded, the senators banned him from teaching in any college, seminary, or university of the republic. He recollected, “I bowed my head and I put my hands and my handkerchief...


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