Le Nozze di Figaro: Tonal Drama in Act II Finale / by Honza Cervenka

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In this essay, I look at how Mozart used various tonal areas to present a structured narrative to the ever-changing power-balance of the finale of the second act of Le Nozze di Figaro.  We have two rival forces on the stage: The Count, who at the very end is aided by Marcellina, Don Basilio and Bartolo; and the Countess, who is supported by Susanna and Figaro. The multi-movement finale is marked by numerous characters entering and exiting the stage. With each entrance, new information surfaces that tips the scales to one end or the other. A structured analysis will reveal how tonality is used to express the changing power balance in order to provide the finale with a sense of structure.

Section 1: Count and Countess: Eb Major

The finale begins with a duet between the Count and Countess in Eb Major: “Esci omai, garzon malnato.” The Count, suspecting Cherubino to be hiding in a locked closet, is jealous and demands that the Countess give him the keys. He believes that he has the upper hand in the argument, that he holds the truth, and he is thus very confident that he has the situation under control. The key of Eb Major, then, becomes a symbol for the Count’s confidence in the ever-changing drama of the finale. The choice of this particular key is to no surprise: The 3-flat key is often used to represent regal and heroic subjects by many composers (for example, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony and Emperor piano concerto); a good fit for a count indeed.

Towards the end of this section, the Count becomes enraged and he renounces the Countess, ordering her to leave his sight: “Va lontan dagli occhi miei!” This passage is in the key of F Major, which symbolizes the angered Count. The key will make a poignant return in the third section of the Finale, when the Count is in an argument with Figaro.

Section 2: Count, Countess, Susanna: Bb Major

Susanna’s surprising entrance, “Susanna! Susanna!,” marks the beginning of a new section and new tonality: Bb Major. Susanna rushes to aid the Countess in her struggle with the Count, and successfully tricks him into believing that Cherubino was never in the closet. The two ladies are increasingly more and more successful at convincing the Count that he had wronged them.

Tonality follows suit in this new development. The Count, once armed with a key signature of three flats, sees his power diminishing as the finale transitions into a key with two flats. The section ends with the Count begging the Countess for forgiveness--a quick descent from his earlier threats.

Section 3: Count, Countess, Susanna, Figaro: G Major – C Major

The appearance of Figaro mixes the cards yet again. He enters confidently announcing that all is ready for the wedding party: “Signore, di fuori son già i suonatori.” This proclamation is followed by a drastic key change to G Major.  The choice of G Major key is, at first, surprising. The previous modulation, from Eb to Bb hinted at a sequence based on the circle of fifths, which would make one expect this section to begin in F Major. The departure from the circle of fifths only accelerates the decline of the Count, who now has to negotiate with sharp key signatures.

There are two possible explanations for the departure from the circle of fifths. First, one may view this as a natural extension of using tonality to show a shift in power balance on the stage, only, this time, much more drastic. Had Mozart instead modulated to F Major, he would have suggested that Figaro’s entrance was equally disruptive as Susanna’s had been. But since Figaro’s interference with the Count’s plan was greater, Mozart decided to modulate further away from the previous key of Bb Major, to the key of G Major. Interestingly, the key, with F# in its signature, may serve as a particularly strong negation of the Count’s enraged episode in the first section of the Finale, which was in the key of F Major.

Alternatively, one can link the key of G Major to the opening number of the opera, Figaro’s duet with Susanna: “Cinque, dieci.” In this duet, the couple is excited for their wedding and they measure the floor space for a bed they will purchase. It is no surprise that some of this mood, instilled in the key of G Major, returns in the finale, when Figaro joyously enters the stage to announce that the wedding band is ready.

However significant in impact, Figaro’s G Major intervention is short in duration. The Count seizes the opportunity t and questions Figaro about an incriminating letter: “Conoscete, signor Figaro, questo foglio chi vergò?” Figaro struggles to answer, and the Count’s confidence rehabilitates slightly: the music reflects this latest development and settles in a neutral key of C Major. This key, with no accidentals, represents a blank slate, a mid-point in the conflict. The drama starts anew.

Section 4: Count, Countess, Susanna, Figaro, Antonio: F Major - Bb Major

The penultimate section begins with the arrival of yet another character: Antonio, a gardener. Antonio complaints to the Count about a man, who jumped out of the window and destroyed his plants: “Ah, signor, signor!” The Countess-Susanna-Figaro alliance knows that this man was Cherubino, who desperately exited the stage moments before the Finale. Their negotiating position is weakened and the Count now has a new ally--this change of power balance is, again, accompanied by a key change. The piece turns to F major, with one-flat in its key signature, and clearly signals that the Count is recovering his strength.

As a last resort, Figaro saves the situation by pretending it was him who jumped out of the window. But Antonio has one last trick up his sleeve: a letter the fugitive lost. The Count seizes it and recognizes the letter belonged to Cherubino: “Vostre dunque saran queste carte.” His confidence grows further, which warrants a corresponding change of key to Bb Major. The count gains another flat accidental in the key signature and is now only one step away from the original key of Eb Major.

Section 5: Count, Countess, Susanna, Figaro, Marcellina, Don Basilio, Bartolo: Eb

As the final turn of events, the entrance of a new trio in “Voi signor, che giusto siete,” seals the Count’s victory as Marcellina, Don Basilio, and Bartolo bring condemning evidence against Figaro. Their legal documents read that Figaro is legally bound to marry Marcellina since he failed to repay a debt. Susanna, Figaro's fiancée, is desperate. The key changes to the original Eb Major and the act concludes with the victorious Count joyfully announcing that the wedding between Figaro and Susanna is postponed until the new evidence is investigated properly.

The tonal outline of the finale (Eb Major – Bb Major – G Major – C Major – F Major – Bb Major – Eb Major) closes a full circle. Throughout the finale, Mozart traced the balance of power carefully and consistently mirrored any developments with appropriate key signature changes.  Careful planning was crucial to the success of the drama of the finale, which was much longer than audiences at the time were accustomed to.  It is thanks to the ever-changing tides that the Finale remains one of the most beloved of the oeuvre.

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