Mozart illustrates the importance of “bids” in romantic relationships

The psychologist John Gottman discovered a fundamental condition of successful romantic relationships (which is consistent with my experience of 21 happy years of marriage). Partners frequently make “bids” for positive attention. Emily Esfahani Smith illustrates with an example: “the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, ‘Look at that beautiful bird outside!’ He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.” Couples who stay together respond positively to each others’ bids an average of 86% of the time. Couples who end up divorcing respond only 33% of the time.

The opening scene of the Marriage of Figaro is set in the room that Figaro and Susanna expect to occupy after their wedding the next day. They are alone together. Figaro is busy measuring the space for the bed that they will share. He sings a foursquare, masculine theme that has been identified as a march. Simultaneously but separately, Susanna is admiring herself in a new hat and telling herself how happy it makes her. Singing in her own ornamented and undulating gavotte, she asks Figaro to pay attention for a moment: “look a little, my dear Figaro.” He keeps on counting, and she keeps on asking: their two themes now playing in counterpoint. She gets more insistent as her light gavotte turns forceful: “look a little / will you look already at my hat!” At that point, Figaro notices her bid. He switches to her melody and meter to reply, “Yes, my heart, it is very pretty. It really seems  to have been made for me. Ah, next morning at our wedding …” Susanna answers in counterpoint, “How sweet is my tender groom,” as Figaro keeps singing about the “beautiful little hat.” Their melodic lines join as they sing the same lyrics about their wedding.

If you interpret the duet as a competition or struggle of wills, then Susanna wins. Daniel Heartz (1987) writes:

Susanna makes Figaro sing her tune to her rhythm, while complimenting her on her hat. With this little drama in music, which almost needs no text, Mozart has succeeded in foreshadowing the entire opera in the first number. By the end of Act 4 Figaro will have been taught a lesson by Susanna, and learnt to sing her tune for good, we hope, with regard to matters of trust and mutual respect between them. The conflict of march and gavotte, of military masculinity with the feminine grace of one of the most gallant court dances, will [recur in later scenes as well].”

But I’d prefer to see the scene as win/win. Each partner makes a bid and each replies. As soon as the duet concludes, Susanna asks in recitative, “What are you so busy measuring, little Figaro?” Statistics predict that these two will have a happy marriage.

source: Heartz, Daniel (1987). “Constructing Le nozze di Figaro.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 112.1, 77-98. For a more detailed analysis of the duettino, see Stephen Rumph, Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics, University of California Press 2011. And see why romantic relationships do not function like markets.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.