From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Sull’ aria from Le Nozze di Figaro

The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

More music by Mozart on gentle breezes and desire as a force for good. The version above features Lucia Popp and Gundula Janowitz, two favorites of mine. You might remember this scene from The Shawshank Redemption, when the Tim Robbins character plays it all over the prison loudspeakers. While listening to this version just now, I noticed how the echo towards the end weirdly adds something to the scene. I think it’s the emptiness of the sound and the way it effectively evokes the loneliness of life in prison. As if to say, “yes, such beauty does exist, but it’s a long, long ways off.”

I’ve always thought it telling that Kierkegaard chose Don Giovanni as the work best exemplifying his “Musical Erotic”. It certainly is great music, and there’s no denying its concern with matters erotic (unlike, say, Telemann). But why not take Figaro as your model? Great as Don Giovanni is, Marriage of Figaro is the absolute pinnacle. It, too, reveals the devastation that can be wrought by desire, but at the end of Act Four, forgiveness is asked, and granted.

Sull’aria …
Che soave zeffiretto
Questa sera spirerà
Sotto i pini del boschetto
Ei già il resto capirà

On a breeze …
What a gentle little Zephyr
This evening will sigh
Under the pines in the little grove
And the rest he’ll understand


  1. Jonathan Potter says

    Great post. Maybe SK chose Don Giovanni for the resonant iconic image of the character. The Don himself has an emblematic force SK would have lost had he cited Figaro.

    I loved that scene from Shawshank, and admire it even more now.

  2. Quin Finnegan says

    Thank you, young man.

    About The Don: true, very true.

    Here’s an important passage from Either/Or:

    “…the object [of seduction] appears in its multiplicity, but since desire seeks its object in this multiplicity, in the more profound sense it still has no object; it is still not qualified as desire. In Don Giovanni, however, desire is absolutely qualified as desire…. In the particular, desire has its absolute object; it desires the particular absolutely…. Don Juan, however, is a downright seducer. His love is sensuous, not psychical, and, according to its concept, sensuous love is not faithful but totally faithless; it loves not one but all—that is, it seduces all. It is indeed only in the moment, but considered in its concept, that moment is the sum of moments, and so we have the seducer (p. 84f., 94).”

    I’m just not so sure it really is the ideal. A pretty standard answer, based in biology, is that the male tries to spread his seed as far and wide as possible. Well, maybe it’s standard because it’s true.

    Not so for the human species. Our survival depends not just on biology, but on the tradition and propagation of inherited customs. Monogamy foremost among them. As ML’s comment following the Telemann/Viagra post below reveals so well. And that sort of sentiment (and I mean “sentiment”, but if it really bothers you, then substitute “conviction”) doesn’t at all clash with eros, as it actually does its work in a (fairly) well-functioning society. And that’s what I think Figaro reflects in a way Don Giovanni does not. He certainly represents the truth of the woeful state of eros throughout much of existence, and for all I know, this really does have its roots in biology. But if there is an ideal … or not even an ideal, but an accurate reflection of the full range of desire in human society …

    Figaro is an even better opera. That’s all I’m trying to say!

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