On a ‘guessing song’ sung by Cherubino in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro

2018.10.04 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. The devinalh, or ‘guessing song’, was a special kind of love song composed by troubadours in the song culture of medieval Provence and later adapted by master poets of the Renaissance, most notably by Petrarch. The devinalh is specially coded, so that only the one who is loved will understand—supposedly—the words of the lover who composes and then sings the song. The problem is, the code will work only if the love is truly mutual. This problem is comically explored in the opera buffa Le nozze di Figaro, or The Marriage of Figaro, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, première 1786. In this opera, a comic re-adaptation of a devinalh is sung by a mezzo soprano in the role of a promiscuous boy named Cherubino.

§1. In the macro-narrative of the opera, this boy Cherubino, whose name means ‘little cherub’, is infatuated with an older woman, the Countess. He is really not at all sure whether she would ever reciprocate the love that he offers her, but he recklessly tests the waters by singing to her a devinalh that he has composed for her and her alone—supposedly.

After The Marriage of Figaro, directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1976): Cherubino and the Countess.
After The Marriage of Figaro, directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1976): Cherubino and the Countess.

§2. Here is the text of the song sung by Cherubino, followed by my own literal translation:

voi che sapete che cosa è amor,
donne vedete s’io l’ho nel cor!
quello ch’io provo, vi ridirò:
è per me nuovo, capir nol so!
sento un affetto pien de desir,
ch’ora è diletto,
ch’ora è martir,
gelo e poi sento l’alma vampar,
e in un momento torno a gelar.
ricerco un bene fuori di me,
no so chi il tiene, o so cos’ è;
sospiro e gemo senza voler,
palpito e fremo senza saper;
non trovo pace notte né di
ma pur mi piace languir così!
voi che sapete…


You, who know what thing love is…
My ladies, see if I have it in my heart.
That thing that I experience, to you I will retell.
It’s new to me, I don’t know how to grasp it.
I feel a longing full of desire,
which is at one moment delight,
another moment, pain.
I freeze, and then I sense the soul bursting into flame.
And, the next second, I turn back to freezing.
I search for a good thing outside of me.
I don’t know who has it, or have any idea what it is.
I sigh and moan without wanting to,
I throb and tremble without knowing,
I don’t find any peace, night or day.
But still it gives me pleasure to languish this way.
You, who know what thing love is…

Cherubino_full_eyes open_1280

§3. If Cherubino had followed the rules of the game, then the words of the devinalh that he had composed to be heard in performance would be intended for one true love—and for one true love only. He would be singing a love song to be heard by one woman, who would be the only woman in the whole world who could truly understand. But Cherubino, this promiscuous little personification of ancient Greek Eros, is confused from the start. The comic cause of the boy’s confusion is his promiscuity. He is unable to follow the rules dictated by one true love, since his promiscuity will not let him know for sure which woman it is who really has that ‘good thing’ that he desires—that good thing that is love. His words are saying that he does not even know what that ‘good thing’ would be. Unable to focus on one woman—and thus to focus on the understanding that he seeks from that one woman—he addresses all women instead, expecting that all the women in the world will know what he alone does not know. What is this thing called love? I address all you women, all of you, expecting that you will know what I don’t know. Curiously, the promiscuity of the boy leads here to a kind of universalizing of love. Instead of really being in love with one woman, he is in love with a love of all women. And the reversal here in the understanding of love, where the male singer who sings about love fails to understand what all females understand, is symbolized by a conventional role-reversal: the role of this male singer called Cherubino is conventionally sung by a female singer. The Cherubino of the story is a boy, but the Cherubino of the opera is expected to be a woman—a mezzo soprano. It is as if the universalizing of love were best expressed by the female voice of the mezzo soprano.

§4. A masterful visualization of Cherubino’s song can be seen in a film version of Marriage of Figaro, directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, 1976. The mezzo soprano who sings the role of Cherubino here is the diva Maria Ewing. With her powdered wig and her cherubic face, she looks like Mozart himself in his boy-genius days.

§5. Contemplating the complexities of love songs that depend on a bond of mutual understanding between lovers, I bring this brief essay to a close by recalling a classic example of a passage in ancient Greek poetry where the ideal of such mutuality is being ostentatiously celebrated, in Odyssey 6.180–185. The speaker here is the disguised Odysseus, who wishes for the princess Nausikaa a perfect marriage. Such perfection is achieved, he says at line 181, when wife and husband are blessed with homophrosunē ‘like-mindedness’. Such ‘like-mindedness’ comes to life, I argue, in Odyssey 19.535–565, where the disguised Odysseus is challenged by his wife Penelope to interpret for her a dream she says she had about an eagle that killed her twenty geese and then declared to her that he is not an eagle but her long-lost husband Odysseus. As I argue in my comments on these Homeric lines, there are complexities in this coded exchange between lovers that reveal a poetics of eroticism. Such eroticism, I now argue, is comparable with the poetics of the devinalh—though I do not think that this medieval form of verbal art was derived from ancient classical sources. The comparison here is simply typological. (For a working definition of typology, I refer to §4 in http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:Nagy.The_Epic_Hero.2005.)