Mozart's Don Giovanni was composed for Prague in 1787. The libretto was penned by Lorenzo DaPonte, who had written the lyrics for The Marriage of Figaro a year earlier. Da Ponte adapted his Italian text from an early 17th-century Spanish play, El burlador de Sevilla y el convidado de piedra (The playboy of Seville and the stone guest) by Tirso de Molina. The Don Juan legend tells of an arrogant young Spanish nobleman who made a practice of seducing every woman he could, irrespective of nationality, size, age, or social status. Assisted by his procuring servant, he traveled Europe in search of prey. In many cases his seduction degenerates into trickery, and even rape.
Tassis Christoyannis as Don Giovanni - Mostly Mozart Festival, 2011
In the opening scene of the opera Don Giovanni kills the father of a young noblewoman he has just deceived by pretending to be her fiancé. Later he encounters the dead man's statue in a cemetery and mocks it. To his surprise the statue speaks to him and invites him to dinner. Brazenly reciprocating the invitation, Don Giovanni invites the statue to dine at his palace the following night. The statue accepts. In the meantime the young rake engages in more seductions, including his abandoned fiancée and a naïve peasant bride at her wedding.
The opera reaches a dramatic climax when, following a lavish ball in his palace, Don Giovanni is startled by a knock at the door. The stone guest enters and offers Don Giovanni an opportunity to repent. When he refuses, the statue asks for his hand in pledge of his honor. Fearless and unrepentant, the don gives his hand, and the statue pulls him down through the floor into a burning inferno.
Mozart wrote principal roles for three sopranos, a tenor, and three basses. All sing arias with beautiful melodies and impressive fioritura A type of ornamentation or embellishment of a melody common in the 18th century. calling for a large range and expressive delivery of the text. The action is advanced by recitative, a style of singing in speech rhythms over a harpsichord accompaniment. The characters range from aristocrats to servants, and Mozart's music accommodates them all. A particularly amusing example is the famous catalogue aria in which the don's lackey gives an account of all his master's conquests, ending every verse with the refrain, ". . .but in Spain 1003."
Mozart called this opera a dramma giocoso, suggesting a combination of serious and comic elements in the plot. His clever music adroitly presents both aspects, and despite the tragic ending there are many very funny scenes. This helps to explain why Don Giovanni has been produced thousands of times in opera theatres around the world and remains a staple of the repertoire today. It's a good show!
The Classic Period is the shortest of the six style periods, spanning only 60 or 70 years, yet it lends its name to the whole realm of classical music. The most important musical activity takes place in the second half of the 18th century in and around the city of Vienna.
Just as the development of the violin had influenced composition in the Baroque, so the development of the piano influenced the classical composers to a very large degree. Before about 1740, the primary keyboard instruments were the organ and the harpsichord. Organs were large permanent installations that required an assistant to play: the bellows had to be pumped. The practical, portable polyphonic instrument of Bach's day was the harpsichord, something like a harp turned on its side and fitted with a keyboard. Its strings were plucked by quills activated by a mechanical action.
The piano (short for pianoforte—loud/soft) offered something neither the organ nor the harpsichord had—a touch-sensitive keyboard. Players could control the volume of a note or a passage by the firmness of their touch. This technology spawned a whole new repertoire of solo keyboard music known as the piano sonata. All three of the major composers of the period, and a host of minor ones, contributed to the genre of the piano sonata. Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas are considered to be one of the most important collections of works in a single genre by any composer, and they constitute an important part of the repertoire of a concert pianist.
Sonatas were also composed for other instruments such as the violin, cello, flute, or trumpet. When the solo is a monophonic instrument, the piano is normally employed as accompaniment. So a piano sonata is for piano alone while a violin sonata is for violin and piano. Sonatas typically have three movements arranged in the order of fast, slow, fast tempos.
Concertos are like sonatas with orchestra. If you took a violin sonata and orchestrated the piano part you'd have a rudimentary violin concerto. While this is simplistic, it is a pretty accurate description of an important genre. Remember that a concerto is a work for solo instrument with orchestra, and that the solo instrument could be any orchestral instrument or the piano. Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos and they are among his most charming works. He often appeared as soloist in performances of his piano concertos. The same was true of Beethoven. Although he only composed five piano concertos, they are among his greatest works, especially the last, called the "Emperor."
Although the word sinfonia had been used to describe instrumental works before, it was in the Classic Period that the symphony as we know it came to exist. Haydn, often called the father of the symphony, composed 106! Since a typical symphony has four movements, that comes to more than 400 pieces of music for the symphony orchestra. That would be an amazing lifetime output by itself, but Haydn also produced 26 operas, 68 string quartets, 14 masses, 47 piano sonatas, and other assorted compositions.
About half of Mozart's 41 symphonies are considered masterpieces of the genre. Beethoven composed 9 symphonies, all of which are considered masterpieces, but the odd- numbered ones are generally conceded to be superior to the even-numbered ones. Of course, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 is universally regarded as one of the greatest art works of western culture, and its first movement is probably the best-known orchestral composition of all times. Everyone can name it after only four notes have been played!
The string quartet is a bit like a miniature symphony in that it, too, has four movements but is played by four solo musicians rather than a full orchestra. A string quartet is made up of two violins, viola, and cello. (There is no contrabass in a string quartet.) Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were all instrumental in the development of the genre, which is the paradigm for all chamber music. Beethoven's late quartets—written after he was totally deaf—are regarded as among the finest compositions in all of classical music.
Classic period opera is also very important to our discussion, and all three of the major composers wrote opera. Mozart is clearly the superstar of this genre. At least a half dozen of his operas are still in the repertoire of every major opera company in the world. Don Giovanni is regarded by some as the greatest opera ever composed. Haydn wrote more operas than Mozart, but none of them is now in the standard repertoire; I've only heard a few of them on recordings. Beethoven's Fidelio is a flawed masterpiece over which he labored and agonized for many years, obsessively revising it and composing no fewer than four different overtures for it. The three Leonora Overtures that he decided not to use have become standard concert repertoire for symphony orchestras. These overtures, originally intended as theatrical curtain raisers, are much like the first movement of a symphony.
While sacred music did not hold quite the important place it had in the Renaissance and the Baroque, composers continued to write liturgical music, especially masses. Masses by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and their contemporaries are typically scored for a quartet of vocal soloists, choir, and orchestra. They are longer and more impressive than 16th-century settings of the Ordinary. Many of them, like Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, are concert works with sacred Latin texts, much too long and expensive to produce to be practical for a worship service. Today you would be most likely to hear a work like this performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.