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The manuscript of Don Giovanni

A unique story

The manuscript of Don Giovanni

France can be proud to possess one of history's most legendary manuscripts: Mozart’s hand-written score of Don Giovanni. The score, which was written between Vienna and Prague in 1787 was subjected to numerous trials and tribulations before ending up in the music department of France’s Bibliothèque Nationale where it will forever remain filed under reference number Ms 1548! As you leaf through a few pages you feel that you are drawing closer to the source of the composer’s creativity, catching the ease and rapidity of Mozart at his desk, while travelling back in time to meet the ghosts of all those who have passed down this incredible manuscript up to the present day.

Its destiny began with the death of Mozart and the subsequent intentions of Constance, the composer’s widow and her second husband Georg Nikolaus Nissen, who authenticated with his own writing the first page of the hand-written version of Don Giovanni as being “Von Mozart und seiner Handschrift” (in Mozart’s own hand). In 1800, Constance decided to sell the score to the Frankfurt publisher Johann André whose family preciously conserved the eight binders containing some five hundred pages. Then, in 1854, the publisher’s son-in-law, a piano-maker for Johann Baptist Streicher, posted a classified advertisement in a number of journals across Europe. The manuscript of Don Giovanni is for sale! It goes without saying, for a fortune... The news spread all the way to England where the great prima donna Pauline Viardot was triumphing in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète. The daughter of the tenor Garcia and the sister of the great Malibran, celebrated all across Europe, herself a composer and an accomplished musician did not think twice about sacrificing her jewels to acquire it. And so it was that the manuscript of the opera, a myth across the Rhine since Hoffmann, became Parisian.

Conscious of the fact that she was in possession of a real treasure, Pauline Viardot conserved it like a priceless artefact. She bound the manuscript’s eight sections in magnificent mauve-toned leather and ordered a splendid presentation box inlaid with Mozart’s effigy. No doubt the generous-minded musician, who headed a highly exclusive salon, was quick to let her friends admire her recent acquisition: Gounod (the title role of whose Sapho she first performed), Berlioz (who reworked Gluck’s Orphée for her), Wagner (during his time in Paris), Saint-Saëns (who composed Samson et Dalila for her), but also Rossini and Turgenev… In 1892, Pauline Viardot decided to part with the manuscript and have it placed solemnly in the library of the Paris Conservatoire. Don Giovanni became a national affair. Hailed and celebrated in the press of the time, just after the centenary of its first performance, the work that France had been slow to embrace was thus rehabilitated. In 1935, the manuscript’s travels came to a definitive end when the Conservatoire’s library was absorbed by France’s national library, the Bibliothèque Nationale.

© Christian Leiber/OnP

Throughout the 20th century, numerous curious-minded people came to Paris to admire it. However its fragility would soon forbid its frequent exposure to light. In 1967, a facsimile was made to enable scholars to consult the original more readily. All that needed to be done now was to bring the manuscript’s treasures to a wider public. In 2006 that was done when publishing house Textuel published the most significant pages.

One doesn’t have to read music to feel a profound sense of emotion when looking at the manuscript: Mozart’s clear and precise strokes astound by their self-assurance. The seemingly effortless flow of the handwriting lends a calligraphic appearance to certain pages, at the very moment a sudden sense of urgency seems to animate the whole. Examining the numerous pages, one is fascinated by such seemingly faultless hand strokes where corrections are rare.

The lines, though hurried, are meticulously neat giving the impression that one can see the pen flow over the paper, at a presto rhythm—the same rhythm that punctuates Don Giovanni and the infernal Champagne Aria, the same rhythm that marked the life of Mozart himself. Music lovers and inquisitive minds will identify numerous signs of speed in the pen strokes: the frequent omission of clefs at the beginning of lines, the economy in the writing of certain instrumental sections which repeat others, via a system of cross-referencing and verbal abbreviations in the character notes or stage directions… Performers will by surprised to discover that just as Mozart seems to be engaged in a speed-writing contest, the directions and notations for the nuances and the dynamics, systematically copied out to all the instrumental sections, are of incredible precision.

This manuscript will help to foster new thinking on the dialectic between graphic representation and compositional thought. The Italian-style format with twelve staves effectively imposes a certain number of constraints which Mozart occasionally transgresses by adding an additional line with his own pen. His penchant for space-consuming vocal ensembles again leads him to reorganize his page by shunting certain instruments to appended pages, or by superimposing three parts on the same stave (in the finale of Act I), or even using three different clefs on the same line for reasons of space and legibility…

The different ink colours tell us a great deal about the work's stratigraphic construction—that is to say the chronology of the writing. In the first act, Zerlina’s aria “Batti, batti o bel Masetto” is written and conceived in three parts (Zerlina, cello solo, bass) before subsequently being orchestrated. Though fairly scarce—with the exception of the second finale of the act—the deletions systematically shed light on Mozart's compositional thought processes. He occasionally eradicates some of the conventional formulas inherited from opera buffa and substitutes them with a melodic line which enables him to expand the psychology of the characters. In this way, he gives greater depth to Zerlina’s character, ensuring that her vocal tenderness avoids the clichés of buffa. Other transversal deletions eliminate a number of over-obvious cadence forms, notably in the first finale of the act, in order to facilitate the dramatic continuity between sections. Another sign that Mozart was obsessed with the urgency of the dramatic rhythm.

The manuscript thus reveals the dramaturge at work and not merely a composer copying under the dictates of genius. And if one can enjoy listening to Don Giovanni at home, following the words written by Mozart’s own hand, one is above all struck by the fact that such frenetic movement can work its way across the static space of a page: as if the womanizer rushing headlong in pursuit of his prey only to be engulfed in the timeless abyss of death conveys not just the moral and social transgressions, but the musical, dramatic and graphic ones as well.

(1) Gilles Cantagrel, Catherine Massip, Emmanuel Reibel (éd.), Mozart. Don Giovanni. Le Manuscrit, Bibliothèque nationale de France / textuel, 2006.


A former student of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Emmanuel Reibel is a lecturer at the University of Nanterre. The author of a monograph on Verdi, a work on musicians of the Romantic era and an essay on musical criticism at the time of Berlioz, he co-edited the most important pages of the Don Giovanni manuscript in 2005 for the publishing house Textuel.

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