The Magic Flute

Mozart and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)

The life and times of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) are covered so well in books, on the Internet and through other media sources that we need not spend much time on his biography in this limited amount of space. But it would be good to put one of his final works, the opera The Magic Flute, in the context of his last year.

There are so many myths about Mozart’s life and death that it is often difficult to distinguish truth from fiction. It is true that Mozart had occasional financial worries, and in fact borrowed money from one of his friends from time to time. But his final year, 1791, seems to have been excellent financially. He brought in 2,000 florins from various commissions that year, not including any fee he might have received for The Magic Flute. For the period, this was excellent money for a musician and placed him well within the growing Viennese bourgeoisie.

Another myth of sorts was Mozart’s never having received a royal position in the Viennese court. He did, in fact, receive a position, it just wasn’t the position he wanted, that of Royal Court Composer. The position was that of Royal Court Chamber Music Composer, for which he was required to write dance music for royal balls. Although this wasn’t as prestigious a position as court composer, it was a relatively lucrative position. But by the beginning of 1791, the emperor Joseph II had been dead for nearly a year, and anyone with any talent in Vienna despaired of receiving support from the new emperor, Leopold II, for artistic endeavors. Leopold was completely disinterested in music, art and theatre. In fact his empress, upon hearing Mozart’s opera La Clemenza di Tito after their coronation as King and Queen of Bohemia, called the work ‘una porcheria tedescha’, a bit of German hogwash! Mozart was a realist and he gave up any hope of continued monetary support from the Hapsburgs.

One of the greatest myths deals with Mozart’s death and his supposed burial in a pauper’s grave at the end of 1791. In fact, Mozart was buried in a communal grave, not a pauper’s grave. This was not because he was destitute but because Joseph II had issued an edict that funeral processions, obsequies and burials should be made less ostentatious and, for sanitary reasons, deceased citizens of Vienna had to begin sharing gravesites. This edict was promulgated due to a lack of burial sites in the old city of Vienna. A grave was to be used for one whole week before being limed and covered over, in order that it could take as many deceased as possible.

There is another myth, of course, that being the supposed poisoning of Mozart by a jealous Antonio Salieri. This has been so carefully and creditably debunked by Mozart scholars that we need not spend any time on it at all. But it’s a myth that piques peoples’ curiosity and it will never completely go away.

The abundance of myths concerning Mozart surely stems from the fact that he died so young, leaving such a remarkable collection of works, that we find it impossible to believe that there wasn’t something remarkable and mysterious about his death as well. As difficult as it may be to accept, this unbelievably gifted musician had a quite un-remarkable death due to rheumatic fever, and like many of his contemporaries was taken from his life way too soon simply due to the inadequacy of 18th century medicine.

The Magic Flute seems to have taken much of Mozart’s attention during the second half of that fateful year of 1791. It was a project presented to him by his old friend Emanuel Schikaneder, impresario of the suburban Theater auf der Wieden, also known as the Freyhaustheater. Although its composition was interrupted by a royal commission for La Clemenza di Tito (leaving some of the parts of Zauberflöte unwritten until days before the premiere) the opera premiered at the Freyhaustheater on September 30, 1791. The librettist Schikaneder played the role of Papageno himself. Audiences were excellent and even court composer Antonio Salieri made an appearance, applauding the work warmly. Twenty performances were given in that first run, and by the year 1800 Schikaneder had performed it over 200 times. In the first production, Tamino was portrayed by Benedikt Schack (who performed the flute parts himself from onstage) and Mozart’s sister-in-law Josepha Hofer (nee Weber) was the Queen of the Night.

The production of the opera, as was true of most of the operas performed at Schikaneder’s theatre, was spectacular and involved many special effects. Even a flying machine was used for the appearances of the Three Boys. Those first audiences had to wait many hours in line for tickets to the opera, and found it necessary to be in their seats by 4:00 PM for a 7:00 PM performance. The opera made Schikaneder a rich man (at least for a time) and his theatre the most popular in Vienna.

The Source of The Magic Flute

The libretto for Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) was created by Emmanuel Schikaneder (1751-1812). Schikaneder was an actor of great breadth and talent who made his reputation by playing the classic roles of Shakespeare and Schiller in a touring company originating in his native Regensburg and that spent some time in Salzburg, Mozart’s home town, in 1780. Although he was best known for his Hamlet, he was evidently an actor of fine comic talent, and by the time he hit Vienna he was well known for his clown characters. Invited by Joseph II to establish a singspiel tradition in Vienna, he chose as his first production Mozart’s Die entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). He eventually re-located to Vienna and managed the Theater auf der Wieden (or Freihaustheater) with his wife. Schikaneder was a canny administrator who was capable of coming up with clever schemes to keep his company afloat in desperate times. The Theater auf der Wieden attracted a large cross section of people, aristocrats as well as common folk who enjoyed the great variety that Schikaneder’s company had to offer.

Evidently Schikaneder’s request for an opera from Mozart stemmed from one of the theatre’s financial crises. He was looking for a work that would attract as large an audience as possible, that would be of high artistic merit but popular at the same time. He evidently ordered it in the form of a singspiel, a typically German form of opera that used spoken dialogue with sung numbers. This was a style of musical entertainment popular in the non-aristocratic theatres in German speaking countries that can be traced back to the first performance of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera in German translation in the early 18th century. Since that time the singspiel had become quite popular as a form, and many of the libretti for these pieces came from the more fantastic strains of German literature. Schikaneder derived the libretto for The Magic Flute from various sources but most significantly from a story called Lulu, oder der Zauberflöte from a collection of pseudo-oriental fairy tales published in 1786 under the title Dschinnistan. But the most significant source, at least underneath the surface, seems to be the ritual and symbolism of the fraternal order of freemasons, a group of which both Schikaneder and Mozart were associated.

It should be noted that Schikaneder was not allowed to become a Freemason in his native Regensburg because his character did not fit their moral code of ethics (he was evidently something of a womanizer). It is rumored that he was a member of the lodge in Vienna that Mozart belonged to, but there is no evidence to support this claim.

That Zauberflöte is a barely veiled Masonic allegory cannot be doubted. It acts, in fact, as a kind of introduction to the secret society. Its story celebrates the main themes of masonry: good vs. evil, enlightenment vs. ignorance, and the virtues of knowledge, justice, wisdom and truth. The evocation of the four elements (earth, air, water and fire), the injunction of silence in the Masonic ritual, the figures of the bird, the serpent and the padlock as well as the ‘rule of three’ all play important roles in the plot or in the musical fabric of the opera (three ‘Ladies’, three ‘Boys’, three loud chords at the beginning of the overture signifying the three ‘knocks’ of the initiates at the temple, three temples, the three flats of E-flat Major which is the primary tonality of the work, etc.) All of these symbols and characteristics come from Egyptian lore and the various urtexts of Masonry; hence the opera’s libretto is set in Egypt, although many productions eschew that specification.

The Music of The Magic Flute

Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte comes from the singspiel tradition that developed in Germany and Austria during the early 18th century. The singspiel was semi-operatic, with sung numbers and spoken dialogue. Subjects tended towards the mystical, the fantastic and the bizarre, giving ample opportunity for exotic music and spectacular stage effects. Fairy tales and myths were the normative source materials in order to appeal to a broad audience. The score to Zauberflöte, therefore, is a fascinating mixture of operatic and non-operatic forms. From the world of the opera seria or serious, tragic Italian operas of the time, we have the aria “O zittre nicht”, sung by the Queen of the Night. It is standard operatic fare from the period, with a recitative, slow movement and fast movement. It could not be more different from Papageno’s entrance aria, “Der Vogelfanger bin ich ja” which is like a German folksong with orchestral accompaniment. Similarly folk-like is the duet between Papageno and Pamina, “Bei männer, welche Liebe fühlen”. And what to make of the ensembles, “Hm, hm, hm” (quintet for the three ladies, Papageno and Tamino), the trio “Du feines Täubchen nur herein” (Pamina, Monastatos, Papageno) or “Pa-pa-pa”, the Papageno/Papagena duet in the finale? These all seem to be from a kind of ‘music hall’ or vaudeville tradition with that rare combination of wit and theatrical savvy not often found in the world of opera. (In fact, these are the pieces that bring Zauberflöte closer to the singspiel tradition than any of the other musical numbers).

The opera also has its philosophical, serious moments. With the introduction of Sarastro and the whole concept of the Brotherhood we enter a musical world where hymns, marches, fanfares and choruses are the rule. Combine these elements with the ensembles involving the Three Ladies, the Three Knaben (or ‘boys’) and the lyrical outpourings of Tamino (“Dies bildnis”) and Pamina (“Ach, ich fühls”) and you have something of a musical patchwork. Strangely, because of Mozart’s personality, the patchwork is wonderfully successful. The Masonic symbolism (emphasis on three’s: even the opening overture is in a key featuring three flats) helps unify the piece, and the comic numbers involving Papageno and the Three Ladies offer some relief. It helps to remember that this was meant by both the composer and his librettist Schikaneder to be a popular offering, and like every opera it was meant to communicate some kind of moral or lesson in order to uplift the audience. Understanding that, we can see Die Zauberflöte as a wonderful example of the operatic and theatrical traditions of the late-18th century German tradition into which has been poured the elegant music of the Salzburg master.

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