Music/Book Reviews

Intro to Figaro, For Anyone Who Wanted to Know

Just felt like revisiting something from my college days. This is really telling about how much you get to bask in the brain juices while dwelling in academia land. In my case, the obsession is obvious, yet directed in forward patterns of logic.

An Analysis of David Lewin’s Figaro’s Mistakes by Emily Laughnan (May 13, 2005)

For Context: Lewin, David. “Figaro’s Mistakes,” Current Musicology 45-60, (57) 1995

My understanding of this material is limited by 3 months of composition study, period. I tried here to incorporate my understanding of keys, counterpoint, harmony and tendency tones into the argument as they pertain to Lewin’s. I simultaneously tried to open consideration beyond the pointed interest of Freud-loving psychologists of the world. The specific arguments weave later into the paper, starting on page 4, as opposed to by section.

In his presentation to a panel of psychologists, David Lewin extends the idea of tension and resolution as expressed through musical composition and performance. This tension and resolution, he argues, is precise and premeditated based on the tenets of musical melodies as two, Susanna’s and Figaro’s, are sung simultaneously and as one is sung against the orchestra: a repeating baseline, the pitch, etc. He weave’s the characters’ circumstances and the relevant text into the argument with success given the Freudian frame used. Yet many more subtle notation realities work here to introduce social context understood by circles wider than those containing Freud connoisseurs.

The interaction of the two melodies, Lewin argues, illustrates a “hypocritically helpful, manipulative and truly helpful (Lewin, 52)” pattern of intentions on Susanna’s part. The interaction of Figaro’s melody with a three-time repeating baseline of music further highlights what Lewin argues is his attempt to defy the key and tonic, and use a dominant key to rise above the flow of the music and perhaps distract Susanna and surely himself from his immediate circumstances. As he stands apart from the music, he creates an awkward separation from it, an air of business and importance – a need to be left to his work – given his arguable insecurities as proposed by Lewin (even exercising authority over the tonic and creating a context for it to become dominant as set up in example 1c of Lewin’s presentation).

Indeed, Lewin is good at focusing on immediate circumstances from one angle – and he only has enough time to do so – but it’s only one step away from this actual argument, and into the direction of common sense about relationships, to note that the party most dependant on the relationship for future happiness sometimes injects strategy into the present tense to achieve future objectives given a wider range of circumstances. So Susanna, because of her circumstances, may have many, many measures in mind as she must plan to pull him into a different patch of the bigger G major picture, which includes her needs.

Throughout the introduction, Lewin shows the two melodies as a series of interacting tones in the context of their beat placement. He reinforces his argument by pulling out every instance of immediate relationships between downbeats and subsequent and preceding notes, melody amidst melody, and sung word, or number, between the tones associated with those expressions. He reinforces his argument continuously using the subtleties of these relationships.

From here, we can either become enthralled and walk away with his argument as conclusive evidence that this was the intent of the composer and writer of the operatic version of the Marriage of Figaro, or we can look closely at the evidence as it is based on the tenets of music and then offer alternative perspectives on the notation and the interaction of melodies.

This is an interesting presentation because, as instructor David Dies said during a group study session in a teacher’s lounge, Lewin relies on solid evidence in notation, subtle contrapuntal ideas and the music as it acts above a three-time repeating baseline. He also relies on the circumstances of the characters to reinforce the motivations behind their “use” of notes to impress each other with ideas. We are supposed to experience the resulting tensions, resolutions and Freudian mistakes as proposed by Lewin. I argue further that if we open the floor to contemporary common sense in relationships and so too to the continuous struggle of an individual to express their own circumstances and needs within a larger realm of reality, we further awaken to Mozart’s breadth of genius.

Lewin introduces his argument with a fleeting contrast between Beaumarchais play, Le Marriage de Figaro, and the opera at hand. The play lacks tension or any kind of manipulative connotations on the part of either character; indeed they support one another immediately. This furthers his idea that the element of specific musical intonation works in this case to magnify the drama of their circumstances as expressed in the introduction of the opera.

That said, I don’t think Lewin is arguing against any kind of established theory of this part of the opera so much as arguing that by taking a closer, deeply-contextual look at what is going on here, we can see the tripping, Freudian psychology given Figaro’s circumstances and resultant insecurity and Susanna’s motivations given her circumstances and need to pull him out of his absorption and into a new absorption in her. Lewin looks at the numbers used by Figaro in measuring the bed with a measuring instrument that widens from increments of a 5th to a 6th and then a 7th that collapses, with the music.

He sets up a tension around the later part of his measurements with an extended dissonance that sets, as Lewin implies, a stage for him turning the melody away from the tonic and toward his preferred dominant tone. When the leap to the 7th is supposed to occur, Figaro makes it but returns to a 3rd chord and this is where Lewin argues that the premise, the dominant D, is lost. Furthermore, this, in Lewin’s argument, is supposed to illustrate Figaro’s waning sense of manhood (Lewin, 48 P2) even within his own construct of dominance. This is also Susanna’s chance to come in and save him from the construction he is kind of trapped in and she is not helped by.

Lewin already set up the idea of Figaro converting the G as tonic to the D as dominant for his own use, and this is further demonstrated by Susanna’s pulling him out of it by meeting him at D and reverting to G as the guidepost for the key. She, according to Lewin’s argument – where her motivations are framed as “hypocritically helpful, manipulative and truly helpful (Lewin, 52)” – uses the realities of the more “socially acceptable” or familiar notation in the music, in other, partly Lewin’s, words, to her advantage to create a smoother transition between his bumbling around in insecurity to her need of him in the real context of the music and opera in general, a larger world than his created insecurities.

Beginning on page 47, Lewin argues that 36 and 43 indicate Figaro’s meandering into disjointed melodic and, as symbolized, personal territory. See figure 3 on page 47. The 5th interval leap from Figaro’s created key of D in the 1st “cinque,” the 6th interval leap in the 2nd unit of measurement “dieci,” and the 7th interval leap in the measurement “venti,” Lewin argues, builds the listener up to expect what is not met in a consistently dominant way, because the structure breaks down, or deflates, on F# instead of returning to the D (Lewin, 1 a. P49).

In a way, it is as if his line of reason is breaking down, succumbing to the G major key itself, the greater reality of the opera. The measurement phase occurs in three repetitive increments. The 1st is strictly orchestral. I perceive this as a way for the listener to enter the mind of Figaro as it operates independently of the G major key, in a D key. D is considered a more dominant key in circles wider than characters in the opera, but still does not fit with the established key of the opera and is thus slightly unstable almost like an outlaw mindset. He has not actually expressed himself in this dominant D in pass zero; instead, the orchestra sets us up to expect it by playing a melody around this key as a dominant digression from G major. We only rehearse these ideas with him as we enter his mind through the experience of pass zero.

One specific perspective on pass zero involves tendency tones: Since the proper musical key is G major, Figaro’s chosen D is a 5th scale degree and, according to Tendency Tones, the Tonic Triad, and What it Means to be “In Key,” a handout from class, this is one of the most stable scale degrees in a key. So while Lewin says this symbolizes an obsession with a five chord, another way to reason this is to note that Figaro’s melody is his effort to strike out without being noticed for his evasion of outside expectations. His 5th blends with the key.

This idea combines with those in counterpoint that strongly discourage the use of 5ths without proper discretion lest the individual melodies lose themselves in each other. So he proceeds without asserting too much independence or tendency toward resolution, or tension. Yet he is indeed thinking independently of his own situation. In other words, I interpret a stable scale degree as being one that, besides an overly-compliant octave, is the least noticeable way to shift out of the tonic (collective mindset) for an extended period of time (to get one’s own mental bearings) without creating too much tension. We experience this when we listen to the activity of the orchestral pass and feel it build into his expressions, which are examined soon.

Looking closely at pass zero as if the key were D, Figaro’s independent train of reason, we understand that Figaro forges into an independent melody that is not quite as stable as the key itself so there will always be a subtle tendency to return to the tonic. However, as Lewin suggests, D remains Figaro’s tonic for the 2nd pass of the measurement phase of the opening duet. Lewin’s respectable argument is further enhanced when you look at the tendency tones around both D and G in the same pass. In pass zero, illustrated in example 1a. (Lewin, 49), the orchestra prepares the listener for life based on a dominant 5th chord, D.

The leap, then, from D to A becomes a leap from 1 to 5 and back to 1. The 2nd leap from D to B becomes a leap from 1 to 6 and back to 1. The 3rd leap from D to C becomes a leap from 1 to 7. This is the most intense leap possible (Dies, handout) and in an already unstable key as established on a dominant chord, not a tonic. Evaluating this procession to intensity further – based on an already unstable, independently established D key – using tendency tones, we can see that the 1st leap from 1 to 5 to 1 is not so bold since the 5th chord is stable. The 2nd leap to 6 and back is a bit more risky; however, the tendency in a major key for a 6th chord to “want” to resolve is the weakest so we only start to sense, at this point, unresolved tension within the procession.

Finally, that leap from 1 to 7, as Lewin suggests (Lewin, Figure 3, 47) sounds almost nonsensical in the midst of the G major expectations of the baseline because it is so unstable on top of its foundation on an unstable key. It, the C, returns not to a 1 then but to a 3, F#, which does not resolve the tension but is enough of a resting spot if the key were D, yet all along, it has not been. Lewin argues that “in both text and music, the idea of expanding intervals, followed by a deflating collapse, is suggestive in connection with the phallic aspect of Figaro’s compulsive and unsuccessful measuring. (Lewin, 48)”

This statement makes sense, but without all of the reference to manhood and psychology, I see a melodic movement representing the thoughts of an individual character, who needed to go inside of his own mind and push the limits of his thinking about the situation at hand. We as the listeners enter his mind with the help of pass zero, which foretells the patterns he experiences before expressing them in word and action in pass one. These are his thoughts, which do not necessarily work so much as cause tension in the real world, as proven. However, they must be entertained, and are by the independent establishment of a temporary key.

This key is further emphasized after Figaro actually expresses his mental workings so that Susanna has a sense of his reality and more importantly an entry point as she attempts to pull Figaro out of the independent line of thinking and behaving and into the established key of the orchestra and opera at large. In pass one; we are used to the thought pattern because the orchestra foreshadowed it. In example 1b (Lewin, 49), Lewin shows that the orchestra returned, on a downbeat, to the tonic of the larger key just before Figaro enters into expressing his thought pattern. Lewin does not say this directly but rather illustrates it by saying that Figaro’s vocal entrance against the strong G downbeat, with an A, is defiant the G as a key but remains the 5th of the D and pulls us back slightly to what the orchestra already established, a more harmonious situation in which D is the key of his thought process and A is a suitable 5th above it. G to D is a 5th, D to A is a 5th. “Figaro’s entrance thus asserts both non-tonic and dominant,” Lewin says. (Lewin, 48) Lewin also says in example 1c that a suspension dissonance occurs when Figaro introduces his melody in A, an A that can only be resolved into major-triad harmony with the G if D is sung immediately after, how convenient that this is a basis for his whole thought process.

I also think this stacking of 5ths is more acceptable to our ears given our recent experience with pass zero and the establishment of D as dominant therein. Again, looking at Figaro’s actual entrance into the piece from a tendency-tone perspective, we see that his A, in his chord of D, is again a 5th that runs into a 4th that immediately resolves into a 3rd chord in Figaro’s D. At the same time the 4th is resolving, Figaro’s dominant tonic, D, a 1st chord, sounds and he pulls it back up into a 2nd chord, which creates the 2nd most intense leap in the context tendency tones in his major (Dies, handout), D key.

Then up again to a 3rd. This doesn’t appear smooth at all but I think it is more understandable in the context of G major as I will discuss in the paragraph after next. It is necessary now to look at these tendency tones as if they were occurring in G to really get a sense of the genius in this 2nd pass of measurement, pass 1.

Because when Figaro actually expresses his thought process, just like anyone, he must subconsciously respond to the outside world, a world that we are reminded of, with the strong, orchestral G downbeats just before Figaro’s voice enters, as Lewin notes, albeit not in the same exact context (Lewin, 48). In G, Figaro’s melody, in light of tendency tones, is not so intense. His vocal entrance is a 2nd chord that resolves back to the tonic G immediately with the orchestra, which then plays down to a 7th, which coincides with his sung 5th, a gentle movement as he acts of his own volition within the actual key, and along with an orchestra that is in the 7th chord of that key – so the orchestra actually sounds more unstable compared to his reasonable 5th.

Then the orchestra reaches up to a 6th, which is notoriously weak in its “need” to be resolved and then back to a 7th again and a resolution at one (Lewin, Figure 1b., 49, and the musical score). This all takes place in his 1st utterance “cinque,” but I think given a dissection of just that moment, we get a sense of all three realities, the reality of his mind, the reality of attempts to express his train of thought in melodic form and the local reality of the actual key of the music, G major.

Lewin then points out that as Figaro acts out his premeditated — as foreshadowed by the orchestra — measurements, 36 and 43, he extends the D as a dominant tone so that, I interject, he can maintain the key of his thoughts amidst what is going on around him, this is his independent experience within the D key, which is again and again an almost unnoticeable 5th away from immediate reality.

Honestly, I look at the score and see that Lewin selectively pulls the notes for figure 1b. If you look at the notes, as those exclusively sung by Figaro, I think a slightly different argument emerges, and I evaluate it in terms of tendency tones again. This is starting at his 1st utterance of 36. His 1st “trenta (score)” is in a D to B gesture. The D is a reminder of his key and the B is for all purposes a 6th chord in D, which then moves directly down to a tonic on his D without resolving but also without leaving much residual tension, 6 chord is not so upsetting when left unresolved (Dies, lecture and handout). He is still trying to assert his individual measurements on his dominant 5th in the larger context of G major.

He must try again to sing 36. This is where Lewin’s argument takes shape in this particular segment of the music because Figaro holds the D, as his train of thought, and then continues to sing “Trenta sei” with a sweeping G to F to A, all three notes of which, in the key of D, translate to a 4 chord resolving to 3 chord and sweeping back up to a relatively restful (socially reasonable and almost pleading) 5 chord. As I listen to the piece again and again, I reflect on his entire established D, 5th chord dominance, in only this moment, this sudden, hanging end of “sei.” It is here that we are almost stranded with him in his hesitation and it is here that I notice the most marked example of his instability in this contrived key (Classical Marriage of Figaro, act 1, scene 1 as sung by Judith Blegen and Geraint Evans.)

He lingers not and dives back in keeping this A, or 5 chord, through the beginning of “quaranta …” and then returns again to inculcate his dominance as D, or 1 on “tre.” This is where Lewin says he is collapsing. I’m not in full agreement but, again, respect his argument because it is based in a narrow Freudian context. Instead, I think that while he certainly stumbles, he is more influenced by the G major key and responding to this from A to G to F# again and from the F# back to his D, and Susanna takes this opportunity to meet him in D.

“Pass zero and pass one both present the Susanna theme as moving from Figaro’s dominant back to tonic, moving from Figaro’s D back go G, attempting to pull Figaro back from his fantasy to the exigencies of dramatic reality.” (Lewin 50) From a counterpoint perspective, Susanna’s theme is, as Lewin points out, eventually supported by Figaro’s … in fact the rule of counterpoint is broken to show an outright compromise of Susanna’s, and eventually Figaro’s, individual melody to overexert support. Susanna’s sacrifice is clearly shown in example 2, measures one and three. Specifically, we see that they both sing Ds as downbeats of second species on “que” in measure one, and they both sing Ds again on the second downbeat in measure three “ci.”

Lewin says this is Susanna’s attempt to meet Figaro in D, comfort him within his key before pulling him out into a new sense of individuality, within their melodic relationship. This breaking of counterpoint is a sacrifice of both of their, melodic and otherwise, identities to achieve some end, in which we later find that they can both sing independently in the same key. The deliberate breaking of the counterpoint rule sets up Susanna’s marked A to B in measure 4 and 5 of the same example.

She uses the A, as Lewin says, to say “hey, you know this is a fifth in your key,” to Figaro. Then she starts to move him with the B and he slowly – “Susanna leads Figaro by the nose to the note B at the right time, and Figaro echoes her ‘correct’ pitch a half-measure later” (Lewin, 52) — catches on and moves there, to B, as they breach yet another time the counterpoint rule landing on the same note on a downbeat. This time the identity of Figaro’s key is at stake and lost when he moves down skipping over his chance to land on A, his former 5th in his dominant D, to her G, a tonic over many measures.


Dies, David. Tendency Tones, the Tonic Triad and What it Means to be “In Key”

Lewin, David. “Figaro’s Mistakes,” Current Musicology 45-60, (57) 1995

Score: No.1 Cinque … dieci … seven … fourteen … Duettino Figaro and Susanna (no specific source available, although this is one of many identical copies bound in the complete score at the UW-Madison Music Library.)


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