Measures of Greatness

"Ach, ich fühl's," Pamina's Act II aria in Die Zauberflöte, is like nothing else written by Mozart. WILLIAM R. BRAUN takes note.

Measures of Greatness 1 sm 1213
Barbara Bonney as Pamina at the Met, 1998
© Beth Bergman 2013
Measures of Greatness 2 sm 1213
Conductor Harnoncourt
© Silvia Lelli 2013

Midway through Act II of Die Zauberflöte, a few minutes before the extended grand finale, Pamina sings her only aria in the opera. This moment, and indeed the opera itself, has become so familiar that it might be easy to take the music for granted. Yet the aria, "Ach, ich fühl's," doesn't sound like anything else in the work. Indeed, it doesn't much resemble any other music that Mozart ever wrote. We often toss around the notion that Mozart was a composer of genius without examining what that truly and specifically means. "Ach, ich fühl's" is a useful place to start.

It is always rewarding to study the elements that Mozart puts into a score, but with this composer it is equally productive to examine what has been left out. Die Zauberflöte is written for an orchestra of the standard string sections, plus sixteen players of woodwind, brass and percussion instruments. For "Ach, ich fühl's," thirteen of those sixteen players set down their instruments, leaving only a single flute, oboe and bassoon. Then, at the start of the aria, Mozart gives a single word for tempo, "andante," with no modification. Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, whose preparation for leading a Mozart opera involves knowing everything else the composer ever wrote, has catalogued more than forty ways in which Mozart fine-tunes the indication "andante" — "andante maestoso," "andante un poco adagio," etc. — but Mozart has (conspicuously) not used any of those gradations here. Also missing is a particular rhythm that would have helpfully placed this aria in the company of many other pieces of music. In the 6/8 meter of the classical period, the common sicilienne rhythm of long–short–long in the first half of the measure would automatically signal a certain mood and expression. But this rhythm, most famous from the opening of the A-Major piano sonata K. 331, is nowhere to be found. In fact, it is just about the only possible rhythm in 6/8 that Mozart does not use in the aria, and Pamina, almost unbelievably, sings a new rhythm in just about every bar.

The singer and the conductor, then, are almost forced into a moment of personal expression. There is no default position for this aria. But it isn't entirely an open field either. A soprano who is attuned to everything that happens in the orchestra will be well on her way to a heartbreaking interpretation. When the bassoon, the first of the woodwind players to enter, joins the music in the fourth bar, the initial note of the phrase is a dissonance. This is an unprepared stab of pain, and it is nothing like anything else in Mozart's operas. Here, the soprano is singing the word "hin," expressing that all hope of happiness is behind her now, and if she is listening to the bassoon she can hardly go wrong in her expression of the word. Then the bassoon begins to play a descending scale, but the last note unexpectedly rises by a fifth rather than moving down a step, in order to meet the oboe line on its own first note. There is a small but perceptible change in tone color, immediately echoed when the oboe line itself rises to the octave above and meets the first note of the flute's initial phrase, the tone color again becoming slightly brighter. The three instruments thus create the illusion of a single instrument able to mutate its color, an instrumental technique later taken to extremes by Webern. The second half of the aria is to be an extended, defeated descent in both the instrumental and vocal lines, mirroring Pamina's increasing dejection at Tamino's refusal to speak to her. The first part of the aria fills out the upper registers so that the expression of the lowest notes can later be our final impression of the piece.

All the while, until the instrumental coda of the last four bars of the aria, the string players offer essentially a single rhythm. There is an extraordinary tension between the rigorously unchanging accompanimental rhythm and the prodigious variety of rhythms in the vocal line. Again, a soprano who thinks about why this aria is written so differently from other Mozart arias will hardly go wrong with her interpretation. It is completely proper for the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, trapped in the parameters of her station in life and in rigid conventions, to repeat entire sections of the music (both in the slow and the fast movements) in "Dove sono." She is bound to express herself in the musical equivalent of complete paragraphs in the formality of her time. It is proper for flighty Despina, the seen-it-all-and-not-impressed maid in Così Fan Tutte, to quickly grow bored with the first part of an aria and simply decide to sing something else, which she does twice. But Pamina is expressing certain emotions for the very first time. First love, first hurt, first loneliness have all come at once. The rhythm of the strings is like the bars of a prison cell, but the rhythms of the vocal line show the way she is tentatively trying to grope a path to enlightenment.

But Pamina must express herself in this detailed, sophisticated way for an additional reason. In the larger context of the opera, she must be paired with Tamino, the prince. The idea of an opera with two pairs of lovers, one high-born and sophisticated, one earthier and somewhat comic, existed before Die Zauberflöte (including in Mozart's own Die Entführung aus dem Serail) and continues through FidelioDie Frau ohne Schatten and Tippett's Midsummer Marriage. We were introduced to Pamina in her duet with Papageno, in which she sings in his folkish, almost yodeling style. Papageno is a role that profitably might have been performed by entertainers such as Danny Kaye, Mandy Patinkin and Robin Williams, rather than opera singers; Pamina must leave this behind and find her way to a new plane of communication, where her feelings are expressed in operatic artifice. 

When we first hear Pamina sing, her music could not be simpler. She grows into a woman who, in "Ach, ich fühl's," will sing no fewer than twenty-six notes on the single word "herzen" (heart), depicting how all hope has flown away. This is the moment at which Pamina reaches maturity. She has moved from the innocence of her duet with Papageno to the world of the hopelessly languishing Konstanze in Mozart's Entführung. In Mozart's canonical operas, the only aria other than "Ach, ich fühl's" in the key of G minor is Konstanze's "Traurigkeit."

Pamina's aria is a singular moment in classical-period vocalism, but the final extraordinary stroke happens when the singer has already finished. For the final four bars, Mozart writes an entirely new kind of music for the strings. He combines the greatest amount of dissonance per measure in the aria with new syncopated rhythms and legato bowing largely unbroken by rests. Again, the soprano is given a clue to character, to the way she should walk for her exit — befuddled, staggering, fainting away.

Sopranos work hard on phrasing and breath control, but the most persuasive interpretations of the aria come only when the underlying harmony is taken into consideration. "Ach, ich fühl's," written in the last year of Mozart's life, is one of the most forward-looking pieces he ever wrote. Pamina's perplexed state and her moment-by-moment thought processes are reflected in an aria in which Mozart does everything he can do to avoid making a cadence in the home key of the piece. Mozart manages to delay a complete cadence until Pamina's last line, a brilliant touch on its own but a devastating one when the resolution is immediately swept away by the chromaticism of the instrumental coda. It is not a stretch to see the aria as a three-minute version of the harmonic plan of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, or of the outer movements of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, and it is no coincidence that Wagner and Mahler both had the experience of conducting Die Zauberflöte in the opera house.

Mozart's score is endlessly instructive. There is the way, learned from Gluck's aria "Che farò senza Euridice," of making the major mode seem even more desolate and pathetic than the minor mode, and there is the way he removes the three high woodwinds for ten bars of the forty-one-bar aria to accentuate the depths of Pamina's thoughts of death. (In her next big scene, of course, she will be attempting suicide.) But it is also valuable to hear what sopranos and conductors have found for themselves in the music. One of the most beloved recordings of the aria is also one of the earliest. As long ago as 1908, Emmy Destinn set down a highly expressive reading, one that demonstrates how the sound of a soprano in her lowest register communicates a different kind of emotion from an alto singing the same notes. The underappreciated soprano Dorothy Maynor reminds us that Pamina is meant to sing the aria directly to Tamino. Maynor offers each phrase to him personally and provisionally, as if any one might elicit a response. There are many recordings of the aria accompanied by period orchestral instruments, but the one in which the special colors of the woodwind lines can best be heard is a fine performance by Natalie Dessay on an aria album conducted by Louis Langrée.

"Ach, ich fühl's" became the locus classicus of the study of tempo in historical performance practice with a recording of the complete opera conducted by Roger Norrington in 1990. (Dawn Upshaw is the Pamina.) Norrington's briskly prancing tempo seemed impossibly fast at the time, but it was soon seconded by conductor/scholar Charles Mackerras, in a complete recording with Barbara Hendricks and in an aria album with Renée Fleming. In all these cases the aria emerges not as a reflection but as a moment of action, Pamina's decision about her situation. Yet these versions ultimately seem superficial next to Harnoncourt's version. His deep study of tempo, perhaps unsurprisingly, ultimately led him to a tempo in the dead center of those on dozens of recorded performances. With his Pamina, the ever-questing artist Barbara Bonney, we hear the moment-to-moment course of Pamina's emotions, how she gradually loses hope in the very act of singing the piece, more beautifully than in any other recording.

In 1975, "Ach, ich fühl's" was paid an extraordinary tribute. It came not from a musician but from Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. In Bergman's loving and musically responsive film of the opera, "Ach ich fühl's" is presented in a single take from a single camera. No video director of the opera today would acknowledge that the music was interesting on its own, would hear that every change of harmony except one is a surprise, or would understand that the piece represents both the culmination of Western musical thought up to its own moment in history and the course it would take in the next century. Nowadays, the aria would have eight or ten changes of camera angle, each of them swooping and gliding. But everyone agrees that Bergman knew something about making a film, and let it be noted that he had an ear for music as well. spacer

WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut.

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