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The Scrivener: Another Look At Mozart's 'The Magic Flute', Part 3

Brian Barratt, continuing his ruminations on the origin and meanings of perhaps the best-loved work in the operatic canon, indicates direct links to Masonic ritual.

Secrets On Stage

The two musical instruments we see on stage during Mozart's opera 'The Magic Flute' are a set of magical bells or chimes given to Papageno, the bird-catcher; and the magic wooden flute itself, given to the handsome young prince, Tamino. These are fun, and their sounds reflect the characters who play them Papageno is light and flighty; Tamino is clear and purposeful. These two instruments give rise to some remarkable magic during the story, too, such as the taming of an assortment of unusual wild animals.

If we're looking for hints of Freemasonry, the bells and chimes mean nothing unless, as a member of the Craft, you interpret them as working tools. Working tools are simple items relating to ancient stone-masonry, such as the square and compass, which have important symbolic meanings in Lodge rituals.

The three opening chords of the overture, however, tell us a great deal. They are heard in two other places during the opera and are in effect a musical echo of knocks or raps 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, and varies in the several different jurisdictions of Freemasonry around the world, but the relationship of Mozart's three strong, extended 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, discusses with his fellow-priests Tamino's suitability for acceptance. 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 High Priest Sarastro's sublime aria at the beginning of Act 2, and the occasional appearance of pyramids in the background scenery of the opera, depending on how the director and designer choose to present it. The basic three degrees of Freemasonry arise from an invented story which relates to the building of the Temple of Solomon, not to ancient Egyptian gods and pyramids. However, some Freemasons like to trace the origin of the movement back to ancient Egypt rather than to the more historically accurate version of it being a speculative adaptation of activities in stone-masons' lodges in far more recent centuries.

We know that Emmauel Schikaneder gave the libretto an Egyptian theme. Given that he and Mozart, as well as the composer Haydn, were members of linked Masonic lodges, so 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 unofficial 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 dangerous ideas to play with in Roman Catholic countries where the Inquisition is looking over your shoulder!

Copyright Brian Barratt 2008, 2011


To read the first two articles in this engrossing series please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

For further mental stimulation visit Brian's Web site


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