Today, you will go dancing, but genius will play
the tune. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Mozart wrote The
Marriage of Figaro for a new market -- for
the public subscription concert. He was an early
pioneer of listener-supported music. You couldn't
be very radical when you wrote for royal patrons.
Here you had means for taking your case to the
It was 1786. Revolution was afoot. Mozart's
librettist adapted The Marriage from a
play by a French clockmaker, born Pierre Caron.
When he was only 19, Caron invented a fine new
clock escapement mechanism. That earned him enough
money to run with the rich. He married a wealthy
widow. He took the fancy name of Beaumarchais.
By the age of 27, he was teaching harp to Louis
XV's daughters. He had a nose for court intrigue.
He soon gained the title of Count Beaumarchais. He
moved from mechanics to music to social climbing.
Then he took up play-writing. And his plays
supported the cause of revolution -- from inside
the palace walls.
His best known works were the original Barber
of Seville and Marriage of
Figaro. The Marriage came out
after a long bout with French censors -- the same
year Mozart began his concert series.
Beaumarchais's plays were fast-moving comedies
about clever servants who outwitted the nobility.
You've all heard Mozart's Figaro singing behind
Count Almaviva's back: "You may go dancing, but
I'll play the tune." So Mozart also allied himself
with 18th-century Revolution.
But Mozart's genius is not so easily named.
The Marriage ends with the famous
garden scene. Six characters meet in a terribly
convoluted plot of mistaken identity. Count
Almaviva is finally unmasked as a philanderer,
trying to seduce Figaro's fiancee. It reads like
Opera Buffa, but Mozart's mind is in another place.
The scene ends as Almaviva seeks and gains the
Countess's forgiveness. Mozart takes a few
throw-away lines of repentance and weaves them into
a musical glory. He transforms a farce about
revolution into a great celebration of
reconciliation. He does it all in a wondrously
complex sextet that defies gravity and lifts us
above farce and venality. By musical means alone,
he leads us to the finest of all human acts -- to
Beaumarchais and Mozart were both more than they
seemed to be. Beaumarchais: the inventor who became
a playwright -- the aristocrat who served
revolution. Mozart: the composer who seemed to
embrace revolution -- then speaks to us as a moral
theologian. In the end, genius of such size always
outwits us. It does indeed set us dancing to tunes
we had not expected to hear.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Raynor, H., A Social History of Music.
New York: A Crescendo Book, 1978, Chapter 18.
Bronowski, J., The Ascent of Man.
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973, Chapter 8,
"The Drive for Power."
Kerman, J., Opera as Drama. New York:
Albert A. Knopf, 1956, Chapter 4, "Mozart."
See also the Encyclopaedia Britannica
entry under Beaumarchais.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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