Techniques | The Sonata Principle | Classical Era | Opera
One of Mozart’s most brilliant achievements in his mature operas is the way he harnesses the symphonic energies and key structures of the Classical sonata style to reveal character and propel the action forward. The sextet from Figaro is a famous example: here the sonata design is a perfect musical equivalent of the stage action as the initial situation spawns confusion, discord (in the central ‘development’) and, with the restoration of the original key of F major, eventual reconciliation.
Another sextet, in Act II of Don Giovanni, is an equally inspired manipulation of the sonata principle. It begins in E flat as Elvira and Leporello (disguised as Don Giovanni) grope their way in the darkness, and modulates to the ‘tensing’ dominant, B flat, as Leporello becomes ever more agitated. Then, with a breathtaking shift to D major (enhanced by the solemn new sonority of trumpets and drums), Donna Anna and Don Ottavio enter. The tonality darkens to D minor (the opera’s key of death and retribution) when Anna remembers her dead father; and a far-ranging development culminates in the glorious comic-dramatic moment of Leporello’s ‘unmasking’. Confusion yields to unanimous denunciation of Don Giovanni. The accumulated harmonic tensions are released in a long E flat molto allegro that emphasizes the basic chords of tonic and dominant.
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