Blog of Professor Timothy Jones

Il dissoluto abbreviato

Professor Timothy Jones - Posted on 08.03.2016

One of my (sometimes guilty?) pleasures is to imagine ‘what if…’ for music from several centuries ago. I arrange, expand or otherwise meddle with great works, and I complete unfinished or long-abandoned fragments in the style of their original composer. It is a hugely stimulating pastime and makes a welcome change from the day job. Sometimes the results get their own few minutes in the limelight – as will happen this week to my latest offering for wind ensemble, thanks to Keith Bragg (pictured below) and his talented students.

As he eats his supper, awaiting his stone guest towards the end of the opera, Don Giovanni is serenaded by a wind band playing extracts from popular operas of the day. Such Tafelmusik was standard fare for late-eighteenth-century aristocrats of a more sybaritic bent, so there is an element of social realism to this aspect of the scene, perhaps a touch of the everyday as a foil for the imminent supernatural horrors. Mozart and da Ponte wittily make the musicians play numbers that comment on the Don's predicament – the inescapable pull of the law in Fra I due litiganti il terzo gode, the metaphor of ritual slaughter in ‘Come un agnello’, and the reform of the libertine in ‘Non più andrai farfallone amoroso’. But in this, too, art reflects life: arrangements of popular numbers from hit operas were a staple diet for wind ensembles in that era. Most of the many surviving examples are short suites of reminiscences, seemingly often arranged from memory rather than with close reference to scores. And so they have much the same fascination, and can prompt some of the same frustrations, as the ‘bad’ Shakespeare quartos.

When, in 2015, Keith Bragg asked me to make some new arrangements of chunks of Don Giovanni we discussed the form this might take. Would the overture suffice? Or should we tailor a sort of Vorspiel und Liebestod along the lines of the Tristan concert music, juxtaposing the overture and the penultimate scene of the opera (two moments that are so closely linked dramatically and musically)? For my own amusement I have composed a 15-minute fantasy telling the story of the opera from the musical perspective of some secondary characters: if not Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead then perhaps The Commendatore is Undead. But that remains in a drawer in my study.

Today’s piece instead tries to imagine what a wind serenade based on themes from the opera might have sounded like in the hands of one of Mozart’s contemporaries. The first movement is an arrangement the overture with Mozart's seldom heard concert ending. The second movement is a minuet and trio which draws on a terzetto and an aria from Act 2. The third movement is a theme with four variations. The theme is itself the variation of something in the opera. Each of the variations transforms this theme into music associated with one of the women in the Don's life (Zerlina, Elvira and Anna in turn) while the final variation is – note for note – an entire scene from Act 1. The last movement is based on three themes, all in 6/8, that appear at different times in the opera. What they have in common is their chasse topic: instantly recognizable musical symbols of the hunt. As Donna Anna tells Don Ottavio in her narrative account of the events that led to her father’s murder, she chased off Don Giovanni and ‘the prey became the huntress’.

Da Ponte called his libretto Il dissoluto punito (‘The Rake Punished’). So this serenade is Il dissoluto abbreviato: the rake abridged.

Academy Symphonic Wind will perform the four-movement serenade in the Duke’s Hall on Friday lunchtime. On the basis of the marvellous job I’ve heard them doing in rehearsals, I’m looking forward to it!

Keith Bragg conducting


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