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Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Men, Women, War, and Love

Renée Fleming as the Countess.

Renée Fleming as the Countess.

In her new book, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, Martha Nussbaum thinks that Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786) emphasizes “human sentiments that are the necessary foundation for a public culture of liberty, equality, and fraternity.” (29-30) Chief among these sentiments is love. Although I hope to review her book in much more detail in a later essay, here I’ll just briefly summarize her intent and then deal with her thoughts about what Mozart’s opera has to say about men, women, war, and love. Moreover, those wishing to examine visual evidence of her main points can do so by accessing the three-hour Youtube version of a 1994 English-captioned production of Figaro with Renée Fleming as the Countess. (While page references to quotes from Nussbaum will be in parenthesis, I’ll indicate the time locations of the Youtube opera in brackets.)

What Nussbaum sets out to do is indicate that a "decent" liberal society that aims at achieving justice and equal opportunity must appeal to people’s emotions as well as their intellects. Otherwise, they will not be motivated to sacrifice for the common good. Further, she argues that “all of the core emotions that sustain a decent society have their roots in, or are forms of, love,” and “a compassionate and generous attitude toward the frailties of human beings—prominently including oneself—is a linchpin of the public culture I am recommending here.” (15, 22)

After her introductory chapter, Nussbaum divides the remainder of her book into three parts, and the first is entitled “History.” The first chapter in Part I, “Equality and Love: Rousseau, Herder, and Mozart,” deals mainly with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. She believes this opera, first performed in Vienna in 1786, just three years before the beginning of the French Revolution, “is as political and as radical as the play [by Beaumarchais that it is adapted from] and more deeply so.” (29) In its emphasis on love and its attendant virtues it challenges the old monarchial emphasis on “status, shame, and kingly prerogative.” (28)

And Nussbaum thinks that this “ancient-régime” emphasis “has formed men undefined in a certain way, making them utterly preoccupied with rank, status, and shame, and that both high and low partake of this social shaping.” She notes that the two main rivals in the opera, “Figaro and the Count[,] are quite similar, both musically and thematically. What do they sing about when they are alone? Outraged honor, the desire for revenge, the pleasure of domination. The energies that drive these two men are not alien, but deeply akin.” (31, 32)

Besides the two rivals, most of Figaro’s other men share this male attitude. The only exception is the teenage Cherubino, whose part is played and sang by a female mezzo-soprano. Raised by women without much male contact, he is fascinated with women and with love. His feelings are expressed beautifully in his aria Voi che sapete, which he sings to the Countess in Act II

[57:06-59:44]. Nussbaum writes about this aria:

Cherubino simply talks about his feeling of love, and about its beautiful female object. . . . He seems utterly impervious to all questions of honor, shame, and competition. Furthermore, he is eager to learn something, and to learn it from women. . . . All the other men want to teach rather than to learn; what they are eager to teach is a lesson in competitive one-upsmanship, and they want to teach it to other males. . . . Cherubino, unlike all the other males, is utterly vulnerable, and he makes no attempt to conceal his vulnerability. . . . And most remarkably, he locates what he is pursuing in a place outside of his own ego: ‘I seek a good that is outside myself .’. . . Hearing these words, we realize that no other male in the opera does seek a good outside himself: all are preoccupied with winning a competitive victory, or shielding the ego from shame. . . .

The music of the aria would tell us all this without the words, and indeed it communicates, well beyond the words, the young man’s delicacy, vulnerability, and sheer kindness. (39-40)

At the end of Act I, Figaro indicates well how Cherubino’s personality needs to change if he is ever to live up to the male ideal. The Count has just told him that he was going to make him an officer in one of his regiments and send him off to serve, and Figaro then sings his aria Non più andrai to the young man [43:02-46:50]: “Amorous butterfly, no more will you flutter around . . . disturbing the ladies night and day.” Instead, as Nussbaum sums up Figaro’s words, Cherubino “will have to enter a world of drunken men (they swear by Bacchus) with inflexible necks (collo dritto), tough faces (muso franco), long mustaches (gran mustacchi), and ‘lots of honor’ (molto onor).” And “the world of male honor knows nothing of beautiful music. Its only music is ‘the concerto of trumpets, of shells and cannons, whose shots, on all pitches, make your ears whistle.’”

In addition, Figaro tells the young man he will be marching through mud, over mountains, and through valleys, and for him there will be no more dashing hats, long hair, airs and graces. And as he sings “Cherubino, off to victory, to glory in battle!” martial music intensifies and Cherubino ends Act I pantomiming a soldier standing at attention with a rifle on his shoulder [46:02-46:51].

Opposed to such macho attitudes are the women in Figaro. According to Nussbaum, “the females of the opera inhabit a musical and textual world that is from the beginning depicted as utterly unlike that of the men [except the youthful Cherubino]. First of all, it contains friendship,” especially that of the Countess and Susanna, who (as the opera opens) is about to marry Figaro but whom the Count wishes to seduce. Nussbaum begins her chapter with a quote from Red (Morgan Freeman) in The Shawshank Redemption about a great scene in which the two women’s duet, “Canzonetta sull’aria” [2:08:01-2:10:54], is played over the prison loudspeakers. In a voiceover Red says, “I have no idea what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are better left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it . . . , and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

Commenting on the type of freedom or liberty reflected in the women’s duet, Nussbaum connects it with the two other catchwords of the French Revolution and the new civic culture it was attempting to create: fraternity and equality. “It is freedom as being happy to have an equal beside you, freedom as not caring who is above or beneath. . . . This moment contains a correct insight into Mozart’s politics and into the politics of equality more generally. You don’t get the right kind of liberty, the idea is, without also having this type of fraternity and this type of equality.” (37)

Continuing on about the new public culture which vies with that of the old monarchial regime, she adds that it “needs to be nourished and sustained by something that lies deep in the human heart and taps its most powerful sentiments, including both passion and humor. Without these, the public culture remains wafer-thin and passionless, without the ability to motivate people to make any sacrifice of their personal self-interest for the sake of the common good.” (43)

Her mention here of humor is just one of many when writing of Figaro. We read, for example, “The fondness of the women’s world for plotting, joking, every subversion of tradition and obedience, is the sign of something that ultimately becomes crucial to the Enlightenment.” The Countess and Susanna realize that “civic love . . . can aspire in a healthy way only if it is also capable of poking fun at itself, noticing the everyday messiness and heterogeneity of real people.” (46) (See here for a historical overview of the importance of humor in civic life and elsewhere.)

Figaro ends with the Count’s realization that the woman he has been trying to seduce in the final scene is not Susanna but his own wife in disguise, and he sings “Countess, forgive me” and knells down before her. After a pause, her reply is “I am more generous and I say yes.” [3:01:24-3:02:06]

Nussbaum’s interpretation of the ending is as follows. “Temporarily, at least, the male world yields before the female world, asking for pardon.” The Countess, although saying yes, realizes she is accepting her husband despite his faults and

the imperfection in all their lives, accepting the fact that love . . . if frequently real, will always be uneven and far from blissful; that people will never get the entirety of what they long for; that even if men are capable of learning from women . . . nonetheless we hardly have reason to expect these achievements to be stable, given the pressures culture and upbringing exert on human development. . . .

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So, when she says that “yes,” she is agreeing to love, and even trust, in a world of inconstancy and imperfection. . . .

. . . The new regime . . . will succeed only on the basis of a realistic conception of men and women, and what they are capable of. But sustaining the hope of fraternity without being starry-eyed . . . requires something like an unjaundiced trust in the possibility of love (at least sometimes and for a while), and, perhaps above all, a sense of humor about the world as it is. (49-51)

Another point made by Nussbaum is that Mozart’s Figaro reflects sentiments similar to those expressed by the German thinker Johann Gottfried Herder in his Letters for the Advancement of Humanity (1793–7). “Each sees the need to feminize the culture of male one-upmanship, if civic love is to be productive of true happiness.” Herder depicts peace as a woman. “His great peace woman (whom he equates with ‘universal justice, humaneness, active reason’) will seek to produce seven (emotional) ‘dispositions’ in the citizens of the future.” They include a “horror of war” and “reduced respect for heroic glory.” (48-49)

In her final paragraph of Chapter 2, Nussbaum writes:

If, however, one follows Mozart’s version of Enlightenment politics, one will still see that the world as it is needs a great deal of work, and one will not stop aspiring to get that work done, making the world of the male voice somewhat more like the world of the female voice, with its commitment to fraternity, equality, and liberty. One will not stop seeking to educate young men to love music rather than the concerto of shells and cannons. (52-53)

Although Nussbaum’s interpretation of Figaro may be affected by her own sympathies, which are critical of bellicose talk and actions, there is no doubt that the female voices in the opera are more loving and pacific—recall that the youthful Cherubino’s voice is also that of a female (mezzo-soprano).

And from ancient times (consider, for example, the Greek Aristophanes’ comic play Lysistrada, in which women deny sex to their men until they stop warring) to the present (as polls reveal) women have generally been less bellicose than men.

After listening to Figaro’s words “Cherubino, off to victory, to glory in battle!” at the end of Act I, I thought that just three years after the premier of Figaro the bloody quarter century of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars would begin, with so many young men from so many different countries marching off to battle, often to die. Figaro’s comment “no more long hair” made me think of scenes from the 1968 anti-war musical Hair and Claude’s mom saying “The Army’ll make a man of you.” And I vaguely recollected the gist of what the writer and Vietnam War veteran Philip Caputo said about his motivation for enrolling in a Marine officer training program in 1960. What he wrote exactly was, “The heroic experience I sought was war; war, the ultimate adventure; war, the ordinary man's most convenient means of escaping from the ordinary. . . . Already I saw myself charging up some distant beachhead like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and then coming home a suntanned warrior with medals on my chest . . . I needed to prove something—my courage, my toughness, my manhood.”

“Prove . . . my manhood” an interesting phrase. And it reminds us that overwhelmingly the violence of the twentieth century, as well as earlier centuries, was carried out by men.

Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum

But when it comes to women and war, I think of some of the outstanding women pacifists of the twentieth century. There was the American Jane Addams, who during World War I chaired the Women's International Committee for Permanent Peace, which had branches in various countries including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Hungary, British India, Italy, France, and Russia. And during that same bloody war which needlessly took so many young lives, there was the English journalist, pacifist, and feminist Helena M. Swanwick, who in 1915 wrote:

[Women] are the life-givers and the home-makers. War kills or maims the children born of woman and tended by her; war destroys “woman’s place” —the home . Every man killed or mangled in war has been carried for months in his mother’s body and has been tended and nourished for years of his life by women. He is the work of women: they have rights in him and in what he does with the life that they have given and sustained.

And there was Dorothy Day, who for a half century before her death in 1980 was a consistent pacifist, even opposing the USA going to war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—she occasionally was thrown in jail for engaging in unlawful demonstrations. (See herefor more on Day’s pacifism). One does not have to be an absolute pacifist, as she was, to admire her commitment to peace.

Of course, not all women are against war, or all men for it. Addams and Day, as well as Gandhi, learned much from the pacifism of Leo Tolstoy, and today pacifists such as Wendell Berry continue the pacifist tradition. But in general women do have more sense when it comes to war and aggression.

In his novel Hannah Coulter, Berry depicts the great grief of Hannah when during World War II she learns that her first husband, Virgil, was “missing in action” and probably dead. The grief of Hannah and Virgil’s parents, with whom she lived, was so great they could “not mention [it] without being overpowered and destroyed.” But what kept the three of them going was kindness and love. “Love held us. Kindness held us. . . . . Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.” Like Mozart’s female voices in Figaro, and like Nussbaum, Berry realizes the importance of love.

As with Berry’s novel, other fiction can sometimes capture the horrors of war better than history books. In his novel Black Dogs, British novelist Ian McEwan writes about one of his characters:

He was struck by the recently concluded war [World War II] not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust. . . . For the first time he sensed the scale of the catastrophe in terms of feeling; all those unique and solitary deaths, all that consequent sorrow, unique and solitary too, which had no place in conferences, headlines, history, and which had quietly retired to houses, kitchens, unshared beds, and anguished memories.

Women seem to feel better than men “all that consequent sorrow” that can flow from war and men like the naïve young Caputo dreaming “of coming home a suntanned warrior with medals” on his chest, having proved his courage and manhood. Mozart realized the folly of Figaro’s urging, “Cherubino, off to victory, to glory in battle!” And, as Nussbaum emphasizes, Mozart also thought it better “to educate young men to love music rather than the concerto of shells and cannons.” That was more than a century ago. Tragically, since then, too few men have learned that lesson.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss

Friday, 1 November 2013