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The Scrivener: Mozart's The Magic Flute - Part 3

Brian Barratt tells of the hints of Freemasonry in Mozartís opera The Magic Flute. This is the third in a series of five articles about what many consider to be the finest of all operas.

Do please visit Brianís intriguing Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/


Secrets on stage

The two instruments we see a lot during Mozart's opera The Magic Flute are a set of magical bells or chimes given to Papageno, the bird-catcher; and the magic flute itself, given to the handsome young prince, Tamino. These are fun, and their sounds reflect the characters who play them ó Papageno is light and flighty; Tamino is clear and purposeful.

If we're looking for hints of Freemasonry, the bells and chimes say nothing. The three opening chords of the overture, however, tell us a great deal. They are used in two other places during the opera. They are in effect a musical echo of knocks which are used in Masonic lodge meetings. In a ritual published not too long after Mozart's time, we find:

The Tyler steps to the door, gives one rap, i.e. if opened on the First Degree; two raps, if Second Degree; three raps, if the Third Degree.

In the same ritual, they are repeated in a different way during the Third Degree:

The Deacon then closes the door, repairs to the centre of the Lodge-room before the altar, and sounds his rod on the floor three times, which is responded to by the Master with three raps of the gavel.

Present-day practice might be slightly different, but the relationship of Mozart's three chords to Masonic knocks, and when they occur, is clear.

A further clue is provided at the beginning of Act 2 of The Magic Flute, when the high priest, Sarastro, questions his fellow-priests about Tamino's suitability for initiation. The extended form of questioning was used in the 19th century, starting with the following lines which are echoed in the opera:

Q. Is he worthy, and well qualified?

A. He is.

Q. Duly and well prepared?

A. He is.

Q. Of lawful age and properly vouched for?

A. He is.

There seem to be clues to ancient Egyptian secrets in the invocation of Isis and Osiris, in Sarastro's wonderful aria at the beginning of Act 2, and the occasional appearance of pyramids in the background scenery of the opera. They could be, however, something of a red herring. The basic three degrees of Freemasonry relate to the building of the Temple of Solomon, not to Egyptian gods and pyramids.

We know that Emmauel Schikenader gave the libretto an Egyptian theme. Given that he and Mozart, as well as the composer Haydn, were members of linked Masonic lodges, how did Isis and Osiris come into the picture?

At the time, stories and plays were being written about ancient Egypt. Indeed, a couple of Freemasons (perhaps genuine, perhaps imposters) set up their own rituals and degrees, supposedly based on ancient Egyptian mysteries. One of these gentlemen called himself Count Cagliostro.

Cagliostro made money from his fraudulent magical activities, such as making gold and silver, but finished up in jail, sentenced by the Roman Inquisition for setting up a Masonic Lodge. This had been his Egyptian Rite, which he claimed was the only true form of Freemasonry, he himself being its Grand Master and the bearer of 'the Mysteries of Isis and Anubis'.
Because such pseudo-Masonic orders were popular in Europe at the time, it is not unlikely that some of these ideas crept into Schikaneder's work. Isis and Osiris, sister and brother, wife and husband, were the ancient archetypes of the Mother of God and the suffering Hero ó dangerous ideas to play with in Roman Catholic countries where the Inquisition is looking over your shoulder!

Sources:
A Member of the Craft, The Text Book of Freemasonry, 7th ed. revised, William Reeves, London, c.1890?
Cotterell, A., & Storm, R., The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology, Lorenz Books, London 1999.
Duncan, M. C., Masonic Ritual and Monitor, facsmile ed., Crown Publishers, New York.
Hamill, J., & Gilbert, R.A., World Freemasonry: An illustrated history, Aquarian/Thorsons, London 1991.
http://www.newmusicclassics.com/orpheus_24.html
Jones, B., Dictionary of World Biography, 3rd, ed., Information Australia, Melbourne 1998.
Mackey, A.G., rev. Clegg, I., Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, The Masonic History Company, Chicago 1873, 1929.
Pick, F.l, Knight, G.N., rev. Smyth, F.K., The Freemason's Pocket Reference Book, Frederick Muller, London 1983.
Waite, A.E., A New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry, c.1930's, facsimile University Books, New York 1952.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2008

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