Un po’ tondo

Every Mozart study states that his last Symphony, “Jupiter” (Köchel 551), is one of humankind’s greatest musical achievements. Every description of the symphony indicates that the first movement borrows a theme from a concert aria. Every one that I have read expresses surprise at this self-borrowing and states that the reason for it is a complete mystery. I think I know that reason.

The theme as it appears in the symphony begins like this:


Click to listen [2]:

That theme is taken from the development of the short concert aria Un Bacia di Mano (A Handkiss) (K 451):


Hear it [2]:

The words sung on this theme are only part of the text, but they are the important part, emphasized and several times repeated:

Voi siete un po’ tondo
Mio caro Pompeo
L’usanze del mondo
Andate a studiar

meaning (my translation):

You are a bit of a simpleton,
My dear Pompeo.
Time for you to get out
And learn the ways of the world.

(Note to my Italian friends: yes, the Italian text  says “tondo”, not “tonto”. It may sound strange to you but apparently that’s how they talked in the settecento. The text, by the way, is attributed, although with no certainty, to Lorenzo Da Ponte.)

(Note to my American friends: yes, the current director of the CIA happens to be called “Pompeo”. From what I read in the news he could benefit from the advice. But let us not digress.)

What is this aria? It belongs to the “interpolated aria” genre, in which a composer would reuse the words of an air from an existing opera and set them to new music. Avoids having to ask a librettist for a new text, pleases singers by giving them bravura pieces, and undoubtedly for Mozart offers an excellent way to show the world how much more he could do, with the same words, than your average court composer. The text to Un bacio di mano originally came from an opera by Pasquale Anfossi.  The context of the aria is standard 18/19-th comedy fare: mock advice to an old man wanting to take a young spouse (as in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale).

All the Mozart biographies and analyses sound puzzled. Why in the world would Mozart, in one of his most momentous and majestic works, his last symphony, also the longest, insert a hint to an aria with such a lowbrow, almost silly subject. Here (from countless examples) is the kind of explanation you read:

Why risk interpolating yet another tune into the concatenation of ideas that he’s already given his listeners, and asked his orchestra to dramatize; and a melody, what’s more, that comes from a different expressive world, the low comedy of opera buffa as opposed to high-minded symphonic discussion? Mozart puts the whole structure of this movement on the line, seemingly for the sake of a compositional joke. It’s a piece of postmodernism avant la lettre, and the kind of thing that Beethoven, for all his iconoclasm, hardly risked in the same way in his symphonies.

Nonsense. Mozart liked jokes, but to think of him as some kind of dodecaphonist putting in random inserts is absurd. He would not put a gratuitous joke in a major work. “Postmodernism avant la lettre”, what is that supposed to mean? Some of the other commenters at least have the honesty to admit that they do not have a clue.

The clue is not so hard to find if you look at the words. In the aria already, the four lines cited break out seemingly from nowhere and through their repetition soar on their own, far above the triviality of the rest of the text. Mozart wanted to showcase this theme of urging a naïve man to get out and learn how the world works. And now, just a few weeks later — the aria is from June 1788, the symphony from July or August  — Mozart is broke, he just lost a child, his wife is sick, he has to beg his friend Puchberg for money, his stardom as a boy wonder is long gone, audiences (he thinks) have moved on, no one truly recognizes his genius. Other, more docile composers have decent, stable positions with a prince here or a duke there, and he who wanted to play the proud independent artist can hardly feed his family. He could have been organist at Versailles, and turned down the position as below him; which it was, but at least it was a position. Here he is, the greatest genius of musical history, composing a symphony like no one else could even conceive of, and he sits alone in his study with his wife coughing next door. He may not want to admit it, but deep down he feels that he has not long to live. Not one for self-pity, he looks sarcastically at his hungry self: you poor naïve soul, you never wanted to be a mere Anfossi or Salieri, and so you did not condescend to bow and smile humbly and flatter like everyone else did. You were so far above the rest of them that sooner or later the world was going to give you the recognition you deserve. Now this dirty attic. You are a bit of a simpleton, my dear Wolfie. Isn’t it time you got out, and learned the ways of the world?

That is the logical and human explanation. Do not ask for historical proof; it is a conjecture. But listen to the music, think of Wolfgang Amadeus in his mansard, read the words, and it will dawn on you too that this was what he meant when quoting his own looney tune.

Notes and references

[1] From Mackerras (Scottish Chamber Orchestra) performance here (first movement only). More performances (complete symphony) here.

[2] From the Bryn Terfel performance here. See more performances here. One is by José van Dam, of whom I am generally a great fan, but here I find the tempo too slow; same for the Thomas Hampson version. The Fischer-Dieskau recording is not what one would expect. Note that the aria is originally for a bass but most of these performances are by barytones (which is fine too). The Jardin des Voix (William Christie) video is fun.

[3] Symphony guide: Mozart’s 41st , see here.

[4] See e.g. here from Mozart, by Robert Gutman. Think of the effect on the later history of French music if he had been of a different mind!

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