“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni premiered in the fall of 1787. The complete original title was Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni, or “the libertine punished, Don Giovanni to be precise.” The Don is a rapist and murderer with a particular taste for underage girls, and he’s eventually dragged to hell by the ghost of the Commendatore, the father of Donna Anna, the woman Giovanni is trying to rape as the opera begins.
If only, if only, you may be thinking. Don Giovanni was my soundtrack for the fall. Nothing else spoke so directly to the contemporary moment, which was horrible and crazy—Don Giovanni is a weird and difficult balance of sex crimes, comedy, and the supernatural. While it takes genius to make it work on stage, there’s nothing in contemporary music that has anything like its ambition or irreverence. Or genius.
Mozart was a genius, one of the few who really deserve that label. His music, and classical music in general, is so much better for the present moment than anything pop music can muster. All the protest songs in the world, all the anthems that bring you together in sympathy with your fellow citizens, can’t touch the possibilities that classical music offers, and the lessons that it shows.
Let’s stay with Mozart: he lived in a world that was almost constantly heaving with war. He depended for his livelihood on the patronage of Dons and Donnas, people who were his social betters for no other reason than the accidents of their births. And yet he still showed them to be the degenerates they were.
Take droit de seigneur. Without it, we would not have Le nozze di Figaro, the greatest opera ever made. Do we call that entitlement of power atavistic? It’s in literature from Gilgamesh to 1984, and was practiced on a governing level just in this generation by Mobutu Sese Seko. The motivating sense of privilege, if not always the success of the exercise, never went away, and now it will be part of the social culture in the highest office in the land, sanctioned by the loudest and most sanctimonious moral lecturers in the country.
There’s more than one Don doing damage to America. We’re not supposed to have aristocrats, we are supposed to be the land of opportunity, free of the worship of power symbolized by monarchs and divine right. But that is less true every day, and social mobility, one of the most exceptional parts of the American experiment, is in danger of disappearing. The whiff of authoritarianism in the air is the perfume of the dream of a permanent, dynastic ruling class, with corporate holdings instead of land, and executive titles replacing all those dukes and duchesses, barons and princesses. They will wish to have every privilege, and to get away with everything; “when you’re famous” also means “when you’re powerful.”
We think the idea of the dissident is something from the 20th century. But Mozart mocked the hands that fed him (though with such exceptional style that he also managed to seduce them). Before him, William Byrd courted prison and execution merely by being a Catholic composer in Elizabethan England. Beethoven, who rejected that the nobility was in any way better or more important, was spied on by the political police.
Beethoven was also the first modern artist, eventually paid as a professional writing for an interested public rather than the aristocracy, and making the music that suited his own inner desires, not those of anyone else.
His time too was also wracked by revolution and war. That’s history, and classical music is a window into history in a way that no other music can approach. We have about 1,000 years of it, to begin with, but we also have the accumulation of workable, lasting ideas that developed like science has, with experimentation and discovery leading to new breakthroughs and new ideas of what is possible.
If only human affairs were the same. All of us exist in the same time stream that encompasses classical music and history, and yet cultural life goes in cycles. Pop music rehashes what went on twenty years ago (or is it ten years now?), supply-side economics comes back again and again and again, and now good old fashioned all-American racism is back, more fabulous than ever. The past is never past because people are no better or more rational than they were 100, 200, 1,000 years ago. All the drugs and smartphones and driverless cars will never eliminate revanchism.
Nor will any songs. Go ahead and listen to them and sing them; I will, they fortify the soul. But did Bob Dylan ever enlighten one bigot? Has Chuck D ever flipped a vote? Has Bruce Springsteen ever gotten one extra voter to a polling place? I doubt it—but I kind of would like to see Springsteen run for president.
I have nothing against activism, it’s good for morale if nothing else—but we need something more fundamental. Political and social issues are manifestations of something deeper, which is order versus chaos. Chaos is 1984’s O’Brien and his vision that the future is “a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” That vision has been with us since the beginning of civilization, and it has been in America all along, the difference now being that it is unashamedly out in the open. Chaos is cyclical time, tending toward infinite entropy.
Order is linear time, in which life is formed out of mere particles. Order is the reduction of entropy, shoving away chaos. Order is the Commendatore dragging Don Giovanni down to hell, Count Almaviva returning to his wife at the end of Figaro. Order is what Mozart spun out of the messy human lives of his characters. Order is life, and life is what we need.
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.