Mozart: Three Arias from Zaide, K.344 (336b)

Three Arias from Zaide, K.344 (336b)
Introduction | "Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben" | "Tiger! Wetze nur die Klauen"

Joannes Chrisostomos Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, who began calling himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777 (but never Wolfgang Amadeus except in jest and in the combination "Wolfgangus Amadeus"), was born January 27, 1756, in Salzburg, Austria, and died December 5, 1791, in Vienna. He composed his music for the singspiel that became known as Zaide in 1779-80, but it apparently was not performed publicly during his lifetime. The libretto is by Johann Andreas Schachtner. The first recorded performance of this music took place January 27, 1866, in Frankfurt. “Ruhe sanft” has been performed once previously at San Francisco Symphony concerts, in February 1985; Sally Wolf was soloist and David Milnes conducted. The other two arias receive their first SFS performances at these concerts. The arias use different instrumentations. “Ruhe sanft” calls for oboe, bassoon, and strings; “Trostlos schluchzet Philomele” is for strings with no winds; and “Tiger!” uses a relatively full Classical orchestra of two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and strings. In Mozart’s time a keyboard instrument likely would have been employed as a continuo. Total performance time: about twenty minutes.

When Wolfgang Amadè Mozart celebrated the new year of 1778, he was ensconced in Mannheim, more than three months into a tour that had begun when he left his native Salzburg the preceding September 23. He was accompanied by his mother, while his father and sister remained at home. The goal of Mozart’s trip was to secure a remunerative professional appointment. Although he formed important musical friendships in Mannheim and snagged some commissions for new works, a staff position was not forthcoming.

The travelers proceeded to Paris to try their luck there. Mozart would not reach Salzburg again until about January 16, 1779, on the verge of his twenty-third birthday. During his nearly sixteen months away, the former child prodigy did a lot of growing up. While in Mannheim he fell in love with a singer named Aloysia Weber, one of four daughters of a musical family in town. Adolescent heartbreak ensued, but wounds heeled and in 1782 Mozart ended up instead marrying her sister Constanze. In Paris, maturity was thrust on him still more severely. His mother died, and he had to inform his father of the tragedy, tend to the necessary arrangements, and get himself back to Austria without parental supervision—serious responsibilities for a young man who had never before been on his own.

Paris also failed to yield an ongoing appointment, although in mid-May 1778 Wolfgang wrote to his father, Leopold, that he had been offered a post as organist at Versailles and was inclined to reject it. Leopold, who always had one hand on his wallet, argued that such a position would have a lot going for it: excellent pay, time off to freelance, job stability, visibility at court, the possibility of moving up the ladder to a music directorship. Nothing came of it. Two weeks later Leopold wrote, saying he thought that even word of the possibility of such an appointment might bear fruit at home. The organist at Salzburg Cathedral had died, and this might open up a job for Wolfgang. Once Wolfgang arrived back in Salzburg, he was formally granted the post of organist and settled in to his responsibilities, even though what he really wanted was to be a Capellmeister, a full music director.

Wolfgang did have another idea percolating. He knew that the emperor, Joseph II, wanted to establish a German opera company in Vienna and sought a young music director. Mozart wanted that position and asked his father to contact friends who might help. One of them, a mover-and-shaker in the city’s theatrical circles, suggested that Wolfgang compose a German comic opera and submit it to the emperor for consideration, thereby throwing his hat into the ring. This rubbed Mozart the wrong way. “Does the fool really think that I will write a German opera, with no assurance of acceptance, just on the off-chance?”

But that is precisely what Mozart would do, or at least embark on doing. The project would wait another year, but after he returned home to Salzburg he did set to work on a German opera “with no assurance of acceptance.” It was a serious opera rather than a comic one, but it nonetheless seems to have been born of Mozart’s hope to be involved with Emperor Joseph II’s promotion of German opera in Vienna, where Italian opera otherwise reigned supreme.

The librettist was Johann Andreas Schachtner, a Mozart family friend who was a poet and musician, and who played trumpet, violin, and cello in the Salzburg musical establishment. He had a hand in writing the text for Mozart’s early opera Bastien und Bastienne (1768) and he created the German versions of the librettos for Mozart’s operas Idomeneo and (perhaps) La finta giardiniera. The project he undertook with Mozart in 1779 would become known as Zaide when it was published a half-century later.

He and Mozart fixed on a so-called “Turkish” plot involving Europeans marooned and enslaved in a Muslim country. Eighteenth-century Europeans were fascinated by the Middle East, a locale they generally referred to as Persia or Turkey. Literary and dramatic depictions of Middle Eastern characters were largely based on fantasy; Austrians had had some first-hand military experience of the Turks, but by the time Mozart embarked on Zaide the Ottoman Empire’s last siege of Vienna was already a century in the past. Sometimes Turks or Persians were invoked as stock figures characterized by polygamy, bellicosity, and barbarity, but on other occasions they were used to provide ironic observations on the shortcomings of Western society (as the Sieur de Montesquieu did in his famous Lettres Persanes in 1722), emerging as morally superior to Europeans.

One of the most famous literary efforts of the genre was Voltaire’s 1732 drama Zaïre, which gave rise to several musical adaptations, including a German singspiel version by the theatrical producer Franz Josef Sebastiani. (Singspiel was a theatrical genre in which musical numbers were interspersed within a spoken play, rather like today’s musical comedies.) Although Schachtner’s complete libretto has disappeared, we surmise from the sections Mozart set that it basically mirrored the crux of Voltaire’s, and therefore Sebastiani’s, plot. Two young Christian Europeans—a boy (Gomatz) and a girl (Zaide)—are held captive by the Sultan Soliman, who desires Zaide’s love. They try to escape, abetted by the Sultan’s henchman Allazim, a European slave who has converted to Islam. They are foiled and the Sultan promises punishment. Allazim appeals to the Sultan’s humanitarian instincts. In Voltaire’s play, the young captives are revealed to be not only siblings but—what were the chances?—the son and daughter of Allazim, and all are forgiven and sent home.

Mozart completed sixteen musical movements for this singspiel, totaling about seventy minutes of material. For the piece to be stage-worthy, he would have needed to write at least a finale, which he did not. Instead, the score as it stands ends with a quartet in which Soliman, unmoved by the pleadings of Zaide, Gomatz, and Allazim, sends them off to await their fate. One assumes that the eventual finale would have brought the action around to clemency. The stage director Nicholas Till proposes a speculative but interesting interpretation in his book Mozart and the Enlightenment. He views Zaide as an essentially autobiographical work in which Gomatz, a near-anagram of “G. (Gottlieb) Mozart,” and Zaide (his muse, and thus representing music) are held enslaved in a hostile land (= Salzburg) by a nasty sultan (= the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg), hoping to be freed through the help of an intermediary who turns out to be their father (= Leopold). “The reason that Mozart could not complete the opera,” Till concludes, “was that the outcome of his own story was as yet unknown.”

The piece was still incomplete when Mozart took a leave of absence from Salzburg, in November 1780, to tend to the production of his new opera Idomeneo in Munich. From there the Prince-Archbishop summoned him directly to Vienna, where he was visiting. Within weeks, Mozart got himself unceremoniously dismissed, and he remained in Vienna, jobless once more, never again to call Salzburg his home. During that time of transition the unfinished project surfaces one last time, when Wolfgang wrote to Leopold on April 18, 1781: “There’s nothing to be done with Schachtner’s operetta right now.” It was a good work, he insisted, “but it’s not suitable for Vienna; here they prefer comedies.” Later that year he embarked on a proper operatic comedy in German: Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). Given that several situations in Die Entführung are similar to what we find in “Schachtner’s operetta,” it is surprising that Mozart did not pillage from the incomplete work in the interest of efficiency. Perhaps he still intended to bring the earlier work to completion, but he never did. The music remained unpublished until the 1830s, when Johann Anton André released it under the title Zaide.

The completed portion of the score includes three arias for Zaide. The first, “Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben,” has become an exquisite staple of the lyric soprano repertory. In this graciously paced aria, the singer spins out a spacious line that mimics the airy style of Johann Christian Bach, whom Mozart had admired since meeting him during a childhood tour in London. Here Zaide sees Gomatz for the first time. He is sleeping, and she leaves her portrait for him to discover when he awakens. In a slightly quicker middle section, she addresses not Gomatz but rather his sweet dreams, urgently begging them to stimulate his amorous passions.

A pastoral spirit inhabits her aria “Trostlos schluchzet Philomele,” which, along with “Tiger! Wetze nur die Klauen,” falls near the end of the completed portion of the singspiel. In this introspective andantino, she compares her captivity to that of Philomel, the nightingale, imprisoned in a cage, sobbing inconsolably (hence the short rests that add a weeping aspect to the melody). Mozart uses a modest instrumentation of just strings (with continuo) for this melancholy aria, and he underscores the spirit by advising the musicians to play sotto voce. Earlier in the action, Sultan Soliman had sung an aria in which he likened himself to a proud lion. In her energetic concluding aria, Zaide compares him instead to a tiger sharpening its claws to prey on her and Gomatz. The overriding allegro tempo supports her raging outburst, but in a central section the pace slows, the meter changes from duple to triple, and the mode shifts from minor to major as she observes how death will bring an end to the distress she and Gomatz share.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Paul Goodwin conducting the Academy of Ancient Music, with soprano Lynne Dawson (Harmonia Mundi)  |  Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Concentus Musicus Wien, with soprano Diana Damrau (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)  |  Alfons Rischner conducting the Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro della Radio di Stoccarda, in a live recording from Stuttgart in 1956, with soprano Maria Stader and, to make the recording irreplaceable, tenor Fritz Wunderlich (Opera d’Oro or Myto)

Reading: Mozart: The Early Years, 1756-81, by Stanley Sadie (Norton)  |  Mozart: A Musical Biography, by Konrad Küster (Oxford University Press)  |  Mozart: A Cultural Biography, by Robert W. Gutman (Harcourt)  |  Mozart and his Circle, by Peter Clive (Yale University Press)  |  Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue, and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas, by Nicholas Till (Norton)