Don Giovanni’s Downfall

Music historians have long associated D minor in Mozart’s dramatic works with revenge and death, from the Queen of the Night’s hair-raising vengeance aria, “Der Hölle Rache,” in Die Zauberflöte to the lugubrious opening strains and the retribution-soaked “Dies Irae” of the Requiem. And indeed, D minor figures prominently at three critical moments in Don Giovanni: the opening bars of the Overture, the Act I revenge duet of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio (“Fuggi, crudele, fuggi!”), and the Banquet Scene at the end of Act II.

Historical and modern audiences rightfully consider the Damnation Scene (Track 2) to be one of the darkest, most dramatic operatic scenes ever written. As the Commendatore knocks on the door and a “clap of thunder” (specifi ed in Da Ponte’s stage directions) shakes the sky, a series of blasting, syncopated D minor chords rock the orchestra pit. The overture, too, begins with a series of D minor chords, but whereas the opening of the opera features simple triads, the chords that herald the Commendatore’s arrival are packed with dissonance. Mozart leaves us with no doubt as to the diabolical nature of this scene, brazenly adding a tritone (often called “the devil’s interval”) to the chords. And he twists the harmony even further: The first chord is an applied (or secondary) dominant—a chromatic vii°7 chord that resolves to the main dominant triad (A major)—which thus falls outside the D minor diatonic tonality. It is only when the marble statue begins to sing that these dissonant chords resolve to the relatively stable home key of D minor.