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The Scrivener: Merry Romp Or Mystic Resonance?

Brian Barratt explains why Mozart's opera 'The Magic Flute' has such a strange mixture of ideas and seems to have contradictions within it.

This is the second in a series of six articles by Brian which will enrich your enjoyment of what is perhaps the most popular of all operas.

Another look at Mozart's 'The Magic Flute', Part 2

Mozart's opera 'Die Zauberflöte' ('The Magic Flute') features a motley cast: A talkative happy-go-lucky bird-catcher. A handsome young prince. The wicked Queen of the Night. Her beautiful daughter. The benign master of a mystic temple. A lascivious captain of the guard. Three seductive but somewhat ghostly ladies. Three little boys who float through the air. A fire-breathing serpent or perhaps it is a dragon. The setting is, more or less, ancient Egypt. 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.'

There are three basic degrees, steps to full membership, in every branch of the movement known as Freemasonry. Mozart was initiated and rapidly raised to the third degree, Master Mason, 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'.

It is thought that the writer of the libretto, Emmanuel Schikaneder, also 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 and seems to have contradictions within it.

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 a song written in about 1723 for use in the second degree of Freemasonry, the Fellow Craftsman: '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. There is more than a hint of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in a duet sung by two armoured guards. And let's not forget the fire-breathing serpent (or dragon) and the three little boys who sail through the air in a gondola (depending on the availability of stage mechanics) and sing so sweetly.

Merry romp or mystic resonance? 'The Magic Flute' offers both. We can enjoy it and interpret it in several different ways. The next article in this series deals with some possibilities.

Copyright © 2011 Brian Barratt


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