The Magic Flute

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The Magic Flute (German Die Zauberflöte, K. 620) is a two-act singspiel (an opera with spoken text) written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1791, the last year of his life. Composed in a popular style, to a German text by Emanuel Schikaneder, it stands in contrast to the majority of Mozart's mature operas, which were written in Italian and contained relatively sophisticated music. After an enormously successful opening production at Vienna's Theater auf der Wieden, it has since become one of the most frequently-performed operas throughout the world, and many of its arias and ensembles are familiar even to listeners who don't know their origin.

In this story heavy-laden with Masonic symbolism, Tamino is a prince who finds himself lost in an enchanted forest, being chased by a dragon. After slaying the dragon, three fairies introduce him to the Queen of the Night. She asks Tamino to go on a mission to bring back her daughter Pamina, who has been kidnapped by Sarastro. After receiving two magical musical instruments from the Three Boys, Tamino goes with Papageno, a simple bird-catcher, and soon discovers that Sarastro is the leader of a wise brotherhood, with whom Pamina has been staying willingly. Tamino and Papageno undertake rites of initiation, while the Queen of the Night tries to convince Pamina to kill Sarastro. This plot fails, and both Tamino and Papageno pass the initiation, marrying Pamina and Papagena.

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The Magic Flute and Freemasonry

An active Freemason who also composed several other works for Masonic gatherings, Mozart inserted much Masonic symbolism into the work's musical accompaniment. Foremost among these is the prevalence of the number three: the overture begins mysteriously with three slow chords separated by long pauses; the key of the overture (and much of the opera) is E-flat major, which has three flats; there are three fairies who always sing together, as well as three boys who appear three times in the course of the story. Additionally, the orchestration contains a pair of a rather obscure instrument, the basset-horn, which was considered a Masonic instrument and played at meetings.

The text contains numerous Masonic symbols as well (Schikaneder, the librettist, and also the actor playing Papageno at the first performances, was also a Freemason). The elements of initiation includes three trials. The Enlightenment values of reason, self-control, and temperance are underscored in the dialogue and in Sarastro's arias, as well as in the heavenly numbers written for the three boys.

Modern Criticism

One modern criticism of The Magic Flute, especially favored by post-modernist and feminist scholars, is the apparent racism and sexism written into the story and the dialogue. Indeed, there are some lines uttered by Sarastro and his followers (the "good guys") which sound overtly misogynistic by today's standards. The character of Monostatos, a Moor, is unable to control his urges toward Pamina, and is generally dishonest and disloyal. Modern critics jump on these as evidence of Schikaneder's and Mozart's apparent espousal of a racist and sexist worldview.

However, such criticisms are not only anachronistic, but rather ignore the subtleties of Mozart's musical characterization that defy such stereotypes. The Queen of the Night, though coldly dismissed by Sarastro as a "proud wench" (ein stolzes Weib), is blessed with some of Mozart's best music (including the rage aria "Der Hölle Rache," a notoriously difficult and thrilling showpiece), while Sarastro's paternalistic pronouncements about a woman's "proper place" are not dignified with any music at all. Monostatos is also given sympathetic treatment elsewhere; while he is punished by Sarastro for his lack of self-control, his laments about receiving only ridicule based purely on the color of his skin could have been written in the 1960's.

Notable Arias and Ensembles

Act I:

  • Papageno - "Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja"
  • Tamino - "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön"
  • Queen of the Night - "O zittre Nicht"

Act II:

  • Sarastro and Chorus - "O Isis und Osiris"
  • Queen of the Night - "Der Hölle Rache"
  • Pamina - "Ach ich fühls"
  • Papageno - "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen"
  • Three Boys - "Bald prangt, den Morgen zu verkünden"

Bibliography

  • Assmann, Jan. "'Die Zauberflöte' im kulturellen Kontext: Chancen und Grenzen eines kulturwissenschaftlichen zugangs" in Basler Jahrbuch für historische Musikpraxis, Vol. 30 (2006), 99-115.
  • Besack, Michael. Which craft? W.A. Mozart and the Magic flute, Esoteric journeys through poetry & song, No. 3, Oakland: Regent (2001).
  • Buch, David Joseph. "'Die Zauberflöte', Masonic opera, and other fairy tales," in ACTA MUSICOLOGICA, International Musicological Society, Vol. 76 Issue n2 (2004), 193-220.
  • Godwin, Jocelyn. "Layers of meaning in 'The Magic Flute," in The Musical Quarterly Vol. 65, No. 4 (1979), 471.
  • Golomb, Uri. "Feminism, Chauvinism and Masonic: Pamina and Mozart's 'The Magic Flute'" in Goldberg, Early Music Magazine 40 (June 2006), 40-51.
  • Heartz, Daniel. "La clemenza di Sarastro; Masonic benevolence in Mozart's last operas" in The Musical Times Vol. 124 (March 1983), 152-158.
  • Horwath, Peter. "Symbolism in 'Die Zauberfloete:' origin and background of the symbolism of 'Sevenfold,' 'Mighty,' and 'All-consuming Sun Disk..'" in The Opera Quarterly Vol. 8 No. 3 (1991), 58-86.
  • Thomson, Katharine. "Mozart and freemasonry" in Music and Letters Vol. 57 No. 1 (1976), 22-47.
  • Wagner, Manfred. "Zur Freimauerei in Mozarts Zauberflöte" in Musikgeschichte als Verstehensgeschichte: Festschrift für Gernot Gruber zum 65. Geburtstag, 2004.

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