It’s one of Mozart’s most serenely beautiful melodies, evoking quiet dignity, nostalgia, and underlying sadness.
“Dove sono i bei momenti” is sung by the Countess in Act III of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). Amid all of the craziness, scheming, and entanglements of this whirlwind “day of madness,” she pauses to lament her circumstances—loneliness, betrayal, and humiliation as a result of her husband’s serial infidelity. In the shifting stream of consciousness of the recitative, her righteous anger boils over. Yet all of these emotions fade away as the aria begins and the Countess enters into dreamy reflections on memories of better days. “Where are the lovely moments of sweetness and pleasure?” she asks. “Has the memory of that goodness not vanished from my breast?”
The Royal Opera House’s Emma Beatty writes,
Dove sono is the complaint of a woman who finds herself alone in a broken relationship and at risk of losing her dignity. Except that Mozart intervenes by giving her this most dignified of laments: a song of tender but controlled beauty that maintains its self-possession. And, however vague, the possibility of hope.
Mozart’s music leaves behind the trivialities of opera buffe to provide a window into the deeper psychology of the character. Listen to the way the oboe enters into a sublime conversation with the vocal line:
There are some interesting foreshadowings of this sublime melody in the Agnus Dei of Mozart’s Coronation Mass, written some seven years earlier in 1779. It begins as the same melody and then veers off in a slightly different direction. It’s interesting to consider why Mozart might have returned to this liturgical music as the basis for the Countess’ aria.
Haydn’s Musical Homage to Mozart?
Franz Joseph Haydn was in London when he learned of Mozart’s death. He wrote to a friend,
For some time I was beside myself about his death. I only regret that before his death he could not convince the English, who walk in darkness in this respect, of his greatness—a subject about which I have been sermonizing to them every single day.
Symphony No. 98 in B-flat Major was the first piece Haydn wrote after receiving news of Mozart’s death. Listen carefully to the solemn and majestic opening of the Symphony’s second movement (Adagio cantabile). Can you hear echoes of Mozart’s melody? With quotes from the “Jupiter” Symphony, some commentators believe that this could have been Haydn’s musical homage to Mozart. Regardless, listen to the way Haydn takes the melody in exciting new directions.
Haydn returned to this melody in the Agnus Dei of the Harmoniemesse. Written in 1802, this was his last major work. As with our other examples, you will hear the reference to Mozart’s melody in the opening bars. Out of this familiar seed, the music unfolds in new, exciting ways. It’s interesting to hear the way each of these melodic “siblings” forges their own, distinct path.
- Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro, K. 492,”Dove sono i bei momenti,” Renée Fleming, Sir Georg Solti, London Symphony Orchestra Amazon
- Mozart: Coronation Mass, K. 317, Barbara Bonney, Catherine Wyn Rogers, Jamie MacDougall, Stephen Gadd, The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock, The English Concert Choir Amazon
- Haydn: Symphony No. 98 in B-flat Major, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amazon
- Haydn: Harmoniemesse, Eva Mei, Elisabeth von Magnus, Herbert Lippert, Oliver Widmer, Arnold Schönberg Choir, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Concentus Musicus Wien Amazon