Monday, 28 July 2008

What’s in a pronoun?

From Beyond the Stave is now taking a short summer break with new postings beginning again at the end of August. In the meantime we leave you with a fascinating piece by Ian Woodfield based on his forthcoming book, Mozart's Così fan tutte: A Compositional History:

On the dust jacket of my book is reproduced a small fragment of Mozart’s handwriting: ‘Rivolgete à lui lo sguardo’, which translates as ‘Turn your gaze upon him’. With these words, Guglielmo proposes how the two sisters should pair off with their disguised lovers. It is immediately apparent that Mozart left a blank where ‘lui’ should have gone. His inability to write down the necessary pronoun is remarkable, considering that this aria comes at a critical turning point in the drama. In the end, someone else had to add it in, while in his own catalogue, he recorded a different first line altogether: ‘Rivolgete à me’.

Similar indecision is seen in the duet between Ferrando and Fiordiligi. Again, duplicity is in the air, and again Mozart was briefly unclear in his mind as to which pronouns were needed. Fiordiligi recognises that her constancy (‘la mia costanza’) is wavering, but what of Ferrando? His balancing line was changed twice: from ‘la sua costanza’ to ‘la mia costanza’ and back again. The editors of the Neue Mozart Ausgabe believed that this intermediate version was in fact ‘la tua costanza’.

There is a further example of pronoun fluidity in Don Giovanni, an opera in which there is generally little room for doubt as to what the characters on stage are thinking. In the final scene, in a moment of Così-like ambiguity, the feelings of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio for each other are far from clear. Mozart had once more to correct his pronouns, switching the letters ‘m’ and ‘t’. These signify the first or second person in the phrase ‘Al desio di chi m’ / t’adora’, which (in one form or another) is sung by both these lovers.

The unexplained discrepancy in the pronoun at the start of Guglielmo’s aria provided the starting point for this study, an earlier attempt at a monograph on Mozart as the would-be Engländer having failed. I began by trying to invent plausible solutions to this mystery, using imagination rather than factual evidence. These were unconvincingly elaborate, falling foul of a good principle of historical research that the simpler explanation is usually the preferable one. Yet over time I started to become aware that a better answer lay just below the surface of my consciousness, and the moment when this finally broke through was an exhilarating one: right or wrong, the idea that Mozart considered a plot structure in which each officer would seduce his own lover, was a workable hypothesis. It appealed immediately to my liking for lateral thinking. To the age-old question, should the original couples be restored at the end of the opera or not, we could now respond: perhaps they were not separated in the first place!

Starting out with a hypothesis and then seeking evidence to prove it is a risky procedure. There is a real danger that creative fiction will be the result. Yet I would not have been able to ‘deduce’ this theory from an objective collation of all the relevant data. For one thing, a theory of this kind tends to determine itself what is or is not perceived as being evidence. In retrospect, the initial question still seems a good one, and I remain convinced that the enigma of Così fan tutte is in some way connected to uncertainty over its pairings.

To complete this study, it was necessary to examine all the early Abschriften or copies. The lack of a proper philological account of these came as a complete surprise to me, and I spent a lot of time constructing one for my ‘compositional history’, as it was now called. Even in this last phase of work, questions about pronouns refused to go away. Scholars have sometimes expressed puzzlement over the word ‘noi’ (us) in the second stanza of Fiordiligi’s celebrated aria of resistance ‘Come scoglio’. Who is this other person on behalf of whom she suddenly appears to be speaking? By the time that the Vienna Court Theatre copy was being prepared, however, ‘noi’ (us) had already become ‘voi’ (you). The pronouns in the Act II duet underwent an even more drastic realignment. Were we to hear the opera in this form, we would listen, doubtless with growing amazement, as Fiordiligi expresses concern over Ferrando’s constancy, while he adopts an introspective pose, worrying about his own loyalty. Surely this must be a mistake? Or is it? Either way, the meaning of Così is bound up with the fate of its pronouns.

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