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The Scrivener: Merry Romp Or Mystic Resonance?

Is Mozart’s The Magic Flute merely a merry romp, or does it carry a deeper message? Brian Barratt presents the second in a five-article series on what some consider the greatest opera ever composed.

For further intellectual stimulation please visit Brian's Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

Notes on Mozart's The Magic Flute - Part 2

Die Zauberflõte ('The Magic Flute') features a motley cast: A talkative happy-go-lucky bird-catcher. A handsome young prince. A wicked magical queen. Her beautiful daughter. The benign master of a mystic temple. A villainous captain of the guard. Three somewhat ghostly ladies. Three delightful little boys. A fire-breathing serpent or dragon. Perhaps this extract sums it all up:

The Magic Flute is like an English pantomime. That is, it is in the form of a popular entertainment with songs; it allowed a well-known comedian to gag; it is highly moral; [it has] transformations and other theatrical devices.

On the other hand, it might be a lot more serious:
Freemasonry was being persecuted in Vienna at the time by the Empress Marie Theresa, and some brethren were imprisoned. Mozart, who had an obvious love of Masonic principles, wrote 'The Magic Flute' in defence and vindication of the order. Allusions to Masonic rites are cleverly concealed in the opera and the power of wisdom, truth and reason is seen to overcome the force of evil.

Mozart was initiated and rapidly raised to the third degree of Freemasonry at the age of 29, in 1784. He wrote several works specifically for use in Masonic lodges. This does not imply, however, that The Magic Flute is solely a 'Masonic opera'.

The writer of the libretto, Emmanuel Schikaneder, a Freemason, could have been working on a fairy tale he found in a collection of Oriental legends. Unfortunately, one of his rivals was doing the same thing, and produced his opera first. Schikaneder changed the setting of his own version to ancient Egypt and incorporated dramatisations of Masonic ritual. This change, halfway through writing, explains why The Magic Flute has such a strange mixture of ideas.
It was first and foremost popular entertainment for its time. Mozart, desperately needed cash, and composed music which would have popular appeal. There is a mix of pantomime and sheer musical grandeur. In fact, the two great arias written by Schikaneder for Sarastro, the master of the temple, are sung to Mozart's most sublime music:

O Isis and Osiris, grant
The spirit of wisdom to the new pair.
You who direct the wanderers' steps
Strengthen them with patience when in peril...

Within these sacred halls
Vengeance has no place.
If a man should fall,
Love leads him back to duty.
Then, hand in hand with a friend,
He goes, contented, to a better land...

There could be an echo here of part of the Masonic Entered Apprentice's Song, written in about 1723: 'Then join Hand in Hand, To each other firm stand...' However, it might be stretching the point somewhat to translate the German Mauern in the second of these arias as Masonry with a capital initial.
There are delightful humorous songs by Papageno, the bird-catcher who talks too much, and enormously difficult coloratura arias in the Italian style, sung by the Queen of the Night. And let's not forget the fire-breathing serpent (or dragon) and the three little boys who float through the air in a gondola (depending on the availability of stage mechanics).

Merry romp or mystic resonance? The Magic Flute offers both. We can enjoy it and read into it whatever we like. The next article in this series deals with some possibilities.

Blanks, H, The Golden Road: A record collector's guide to music appreciation, Rigby Limited, Adelaide1968.
Jacobs, R, & Sadie, S., The Opera Guide, Hamish Hamilton, London 1964.
Mackey, A.G., rev. Clegg, I., Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, The Masonic History Company, Chicago 1873, 1929.
Mann, W., Die Zauberflõte, Klemperer, et al. EMI Classics, CDS 5 55173 2, EMI, London 1964.
Mozart, W.A., Freimaurermusik, Istvan Kertasz, conductor. Decca 425 722-2.
Privately printed, The Lectures of the Three Degrees, etc, A.Lewis (Masonic Publishers) Ltd, London 1963.
Sullivan, R.W.Bro. John G., Let there be Light: A Masonic Lexicon, United Grand Lodge of Victoria, Melbourne 1988.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2008


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