Mozart, W. A.

W. A. Mozart — Quintet in D Major for Strings, K. 593

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Wolf­gang Amadè Mozart (1756 – 91) was an invet­er­ate play­er of cham­ber music. Today, with 20/20 hind­sight, we might assume that such an august musi­cal genius would grav­i­tate to the first vio­lin parts when he played string quar­tets with his friends. But in fact Mozart much pre­ferred to play the vio­la on such occa­sions. He loved the instru­ment, with its warm, mel­low tim­bre, and he seems thor­ough­ly to have enjoyed being at the cen­ter of the music, rather than play­ing one of the more imme­di­ate­ly notice­able out­er voic­es.

By the time Mozart fin­ished writ­ing his first string quin­tet, in Decem­ber 1773, the sev­en­teen-year-old had already com­posed fif­teen string quar­tets. It is pos­si­ble that Mozart decid­ed to try his hand at the more unusu­al five-instru­ment form because Michael Haydn, younger broth­er of the com­pos­er Franz Joseph Haydn and a good friend of the Mozart fam­i­ly, had writ­ten what he called a “Not­turno” for two vio­lins, two vio­las, and cel­lo in Feb­ru­ary 1773. This must have been suc­cess­ful, because the younger Haydn soon fol­lowed it up with a sec­ond quin­tet, and in Mozart’s let­ters from that year he speaks of play­ing both works.

Odd­ly, Franz Joseph Haydn, who wrote so much cham­ber music and whom Mozart revered, nev­er wrote a string quin­tet. When asked why, he is said to have replied that no one ever com­mis­sioned one from him. A great excep­tion to the usu­al quin­tet instru­men­ta­tion of two vio­lins, two vio­las, and one cel­lo is Schubert’s sin­gle string quin­tet, D.956 in C major, where the cel­lo is dou­bled rather than the vio­la.

Though Mozart wrote far more string quar­tets (twen­ty-three) than quin­tets (six), he obvi­ous­ly had a great per­son­al affec­tion for the five-voice form. Two string quin­tets com­prise the last cham­ber works he wrote: K. 593 in D major, com­plet­ed in Decem­ber 1790, and K. 641 in E-flat major, which he fin­ished on April 12, 1791. Both works were writ­ten on com­mis­sion, though exact­ly who com­mis­sioned them remains a mys­tery.

A cou­ple of years after Mozart’s death the quin­tets were pub­lished with the note: “Com­posed for a Hun­gar­i­an Ama­teur.” Since Mozart’s wife, long after the fact, said her hus­band had writ­ten some music for Johann Trost (a vio­lin­ist from Eszter­háza and a musi­cian to whom Haydn had ded­i­cat­ed some of his quar­tets), some writ­ers have spec­u­lat­ed that Trost was the “Hun­gar­i­an Ama­teur” in ques­tion. We know that, before Haydn left Vien­na on Decem­ber 15, 1790 for the first of his two vis­its to Lon­don, he joined Mozart in play­ing the younger man’s quin­tets, espe­cial­ly (accord­ing to Max­i­m­il­ian Stadler, a friend of Mozart’s and one of the oth­er string play­ers) the new Quin­tet in D major. Stadler added that, dur­ing these cham­ber music ses­sions, Haydn and Mozart took turns play­ing first vio­la.

Mozart’s D major String Quin­tet is in four move­ments. The first, one of the most unusu­al first move­ments in all of Mozart, begins with a twen­ty-one-mea­sure Larghet­to intro­duc­tion in ¾ time. This is — sur­pris­ing­ly — brought back in a slight­ly mod­i­fied form at the end of the movement’s main, duple-meter Alle­gro sec­tion. The first move­ment is then fin­ished off, rather abrupt­ly, by an eight-mea­sure restate­ment of the movement’s prin­ci­pal theme.

The Ada­gio is one of Mozart’s most beau­ti­ful lyric cre­ations, with the indi­vid­ual instru­ments jux­ta­posed with enor­mous skill. In the Menuet­to, the com­pos­er makes dra­mat­ic use of sud­den shifts in the dynam­ics, ask­ing the play­ers to go from forte to piano with­in one or two beats. The Alle­gro finale is in 6/8 time. The delight­ful, bounc­ing open­ing theme gives no hint of the aston­ish­ing polypho­ny that Mozart will employ before fin­ish­ing the Quin­tet.

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nal­ly in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cis­co Sym­pho­ny and is used here with per­mis­sion.

 

W. A. MOZART — DIE ENTFÜHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL

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Mozart’s Die Enthührung aus dem Serail—The Abduc­tion from the Seraglio — was writ­ten dur­ing a par­tic­u­lar­ly hap­py peri­od in the composer’s life. In March 1781 he had been sum­moned to Vien­na by his patron, the Arch­bish­op of Salzburg, who was in res­i­dence for the cel­e­bra­tions sur­round­ing the acces­sion to the Haps­burg throne of Emper­or Joseph II. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, as a mem­ber of the Archbishop’s house­hold, Mozart was essen­tial­ly a ser­vant, seat­ed at the table below the valets but above the cooks, and had to ask per­mis­sion (which was often refused) to play con­certs to earn mon­ey on his own.

These insults were espe­cial­ly galling, since in Munich, where his opera Idome­neo had been a suc­cess at its pre­mière only a few weeks before, Mozart had been accept­ed as an equal by the nobil­i­ty. Final­ly, the young com­pos­er had had enough. And on May 9 he asked for his release from the Archbishop’s ser­vice. He was refused, but the fol­low­ing month the com­pos­er was final­ly grant­ed his free­dom (“with a kick on my arse…by order of our wor­thy Prince Arch­bish­op,” Mozart report­ed).

Mozart about 1780

At the age of twen­ty-five, Mozart found him­self on his own, free to pur­sue his career as he saw fit. By all accounts he had land­ed in Vien­na at just the right time. As Nicholas Till writes in Mozart and the Enlight­en­ment, “Under Joseph, for a few brief, fever­ish years, Vien­na became the freest, most open, lib­er­al and tol­er­ant city in Europe, guid­ed by the pur­pose­ful vision and forth­right hand of the emper­or him­self. Vien­na also promised to become the seat of a renewed Ger­man cul­ture in which the­ater and opera played a cen­tral role.” In 1776 Joseph had suc­ceed­ed in estab­lish­ing a Ger­man-speak­ing Nation­al The­ater in Vien­na, and two years lat­er, a Ger­man opera.

Today’s opera-goers accept as a mat­ter of course the fact there are dif­fer­ent kinds of opera: Ital­ian opera, Ger­man opera, and French opera all sound dif­fer­ent from each oth­ers, yet all are an inte­gral part of the oper­at­ic world. When Mozart began writ­ing opera this was not the case. Opera pre­dom­i­nant­ly meant Ital­ian opera, and more often than not its hero was a cas­tra­to. Our idea of an unneutered male voice (whether tenor, bari­tone, or bass) being the hero of an opera was almost unheard of at the time. So when, in The Abduc­tion of the Seraglio, Mozart wrote the role of Bel­monte, the roman­tic lead­ing man, for a tenor, it was still a nov­el expe­ri­ence for his audi­ence.

Only a few weeks after break­ing with the Arch­bish­op, Mozart had been asked to write an opera — a Singspiel (lit­er­al­ly a song play, or a play with songs) — to a libret­to by a pop­u­lar play­wright of the time, Got­tlieb Stephanie. The libret­to was based on the play Bel­monte und Kon­staze by Christophe Friedrich Bret­zn­er. When Bret­zn­er dis­cov­ered his play had been used as the basis for an opera, he took out an adver­tise­ment in a Leipzig news­pa­per accus­ing Mozart of “abus­ing” the play and “solemn­ly protest­ing against this ille­gal inter­fer­ence.” Since copy­rights did not exist, there was lit­tle else Bret­zn­er could do, espe­cial­ly since his play, appar­ent­ly, was itself a close copy of an old Eng­lish pas­tiche.

At first Mozart and his libret­tist assumed their new work would be a part of the enter­tain­ment sur­round­ing the state vis­it of the Russ­ian Grand Duke Paul to Vien­na in Sep­tem­ber 1781. (As things turned out, the opera was not pre­miered until July 16, 1782.)

Poster for the first per­for­mance

Mozart knew exact­ly what he want­ed to do when he was writ­ing Abduc­tion: he want­ed to write an opera that would please the Vien­nese pub­lic and place Mozart-the-opera-com­pos­er on equal foot­ing in their minds with Mozart-the-vir­tu­oso-per­former, this ensur­ing — among oth­er things — finan­cial secu­ri­ty and, pos­si­bly, even a court appoint­ment. “The Janis­sary cho­rus is all that can be desired,” he wrote his father. “That is, it is short, live­ly, and writ­ten to please the Vien­nese.” And to his sis­ter he con­fessed, “You know I am writ­ing an opera. Those parts which are already com­plet­ed have won extra­or­di­nary praise on all hands, for I know these peo­ple.”

Turk­ish” music was all the rage in Vien­na at the time. Even though the army of the Turks had not threat­ened Vien­na for a cen­tu­ry, in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, the Turks (which stood for all of Islam) were still seen as “the ene­my.”

Inter­est in Turk­ish music was not a sign of genial Aus­tri­an com­plai­sance toward a benign neigh­bor, as is often argued,” observes Nicholas Till. “It was expe­di­ent for Joseph to keep the Turks in the pub­lic eye as bogey­men in antic­i­pa­tion of the right moments to seize pos­ses­sion of one or the oth­er chunks of ter­ri­to­ry which were crum­bling from the fringes of the Ottoman Empire.… If Joseph II was will­ing to coun­te­nance Turk­ish music, it must have been because it was con­sid­ered a just rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Turks them­selves, its clash­ing and jan­gling apt­ly sug­ges­tive of the sup­posed bar­barism of the ori­en­tal bogey­man.”

In Abduc­tion the Turks are rep­re­sent­ed by two char­ac­ters, Pasha Selmin and his over­seer Osmin. Osmin’s unre­lent­ing cru­el­ty and anger (i.e., his bar­barism) are a con­stant source of humor, and though the Pasha is even­tu­al­ly revealed to be the embod­i­ment of the Enlight­en­ment, in the first act he does not hes­i­tate to threat­en Kon­stan­za with tor­ture if she will not yield to him. Today we real­ize this sin­gle-mind­ed view of Islam­ic cul­ture is patron­iz­ing, at best, but it was a fact of eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry Europe. And giv­en cur­rent events today, such a view is not nec­es­sar­i­ly for­eign to today’s audi­ences.

One of the things that hit me was that with the world the way it is right now, it would be a lit­tle embar­rass­ing to do a pro­duc­tion of Abduc­tion in which fig­ures like Osmin and even the Pasha were made into fig­ures of mock­ery,” says Edward Berke­ley, direc­tor of Aspen Opera The­ater Cen­ter. “It’s a won­der­ful opera because the score itself is amaz­ing, and the devel­op­ment of the char­ac­ters in the score goes far beyond what is in the text. So in our pro­duc­tion I’m try­ing to con­vey the sense that the opera is a satire, that it is a com­e­dy about people’s behav­ior and the mis­per­cep­tion of oth­er peo­ple. It’s about cul­tur­al mis­un­der­stand­ing. I want to keep the humor, because it’s not a mean-spir­it­ed opera.” Berke­ley points out that much of Osmin’s rage stems from his pow­er­less­ness and des­per­a­tion.

19th cen­tu­ry engrav­ing of a Lon­don per­for­mance

Of the Euro­peans, the women, Kon­stanze and Blonde, are actu­al­ly stronger char­ac­ters than Bel­monte and Pedrillo — some­thing Mozart con­veys in the score when Bel­monte actu­al­ly fol­lows Konstanze’s lead, repeat­ing her vocal line as his own in one of their duets. But Mozart’s score also clear­ly shows the humor­ous side of Kon­stanze (“a bit of a dra­ma queen,” Berke­ley points out) espe­cial­ly in her Act Two aria, “Marten aller Arten,” where the almost non­stop embell­ish­ments to her vocal line clear­ly demon­strate her “over the top” nature.

In Bretzner’s play, Pasha Selim dis­cov­ers that Bel­monte is his own son, so the hap­py end­ing is a mat­ter of course. Mozart strength­ened the plot, and the char­ac­ter of the Pasha as well, by chang­ing the end­ing — per­haps to slight­ly chal­lenge his audience’s one-dimen­sion­al view of Islam­ic cul­ture. Mozart insist­ed that Bel­monte not be the Pasha’s son, but  the son of the Pasha’s most hat­ed ene­my. To free Bel­monte and the oth­er Euro­peans under those con­di­tions is to demon­strate a nobil­i­ty that goes far beyond that shown by Belmonte’s father and, by exten­sion, Euro­peans.

Mozart had judged his audi­ence cor­rect­ly, and Abduc­tion’s pre­mier was an enor­mous suc­cess. “My opera was giv­en yes­ter­day for the third time and won the great­est applause,” Mozart wrote his father glee­ful­ly. “And again, in spite of the fright­ful heat, the the­ater was packed. It was to be giv­en against next Fri­day, but I have protest­ed against this, for I do not want it to become hack­neyed. I may say that peo­ple are absolute­ly infat­u­at­ed with this opera. Indeed, it does one good to win such appro­ba­tion.”

On August 4, 1782, a month after the pre­mière of Mozart’s opera, he mar­ried his own Kon­stanze — Con­stanze Weber.

 

Abduc­tion Encore:

Mozart writes to his father, Leopold, about com­pos­ing his new opera:

Sep­tem­ber 26, 1781:

Lud­wig Fis­ch­er, the first Osmin

Osmin’s rage [in his Act One aria ‘Solche herge­laufne Laf­fen’] is ren­dered com­i­cal by the use of Turk­ish music… and as Osmin’s rage grad­u­al­ly increas­es, there comes (just when the aria seems to be at an end) the alle­gro assai, which is in a total­ly dif­fer­ent meter and in a dif­fer­ent key; this is bound to be very effec­tive. For just as a man in such a tow­er­ing rage over­steps all bounds of order, mod­er­a­tion, and pro­pri­ety and com­plete­ly for­gets him­self, so must the music, too, for­get itself. But since Pas­sions, whether vio­let or not, must nev­er be expressed to the point of excit­ing dis­gust, and as music, even in the most ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tions, must nev­er offend the ear, but must please the lis­ten­er, or in oth­er words must nev­er cease to be music, so I have not cho­sen a key for­eign to F (in which the aria is writ­ten) but one relat­ed to it — not the near­est, D minor, but the more remote A minor.

I have sent you only four­teen bars of the over­ture, which is very short with alter­nate fortes and pianos, the Turk­ish music always com­ing in the fortes. The over­ture mod­u­lates through dif­fer­ent keys, and I doubt whether any­one, even if his pre­vi­ous night has been a sleep­less one, could go to sleep over it.”

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the 2004 pro­gram book of the Aspen Opera The­ater.

The paint­ing at the top of the arti­cle is “The Recep­tion” by John Fred­er­ick Lewis (1873).

W. A. Mozart — Trio in E-Flat Major for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano, K. 498

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Wolf­gang Amadè Mozart (1756 – 91) seemed to have an affin­i­ty for sur­round­ing him­self with col­or­ful peo­ple.  Even a short list of such friends would have to include the Vien­nese clar­inet and bas­set horn vir­tu­oso Anton Paul Stadler (1753 – 1812), who played in the first per­for­mance of the Trio in E-flat for Clar­inet, Vio­la, and Piano.

Though Mozart cer­tain­ly knew about the clar­inet from his days in Munich (the orches­tra in Mozart’s home­town of Salzburg did not include clar­inets), it was Stadler who revealed the instrument’s true beau­ties and poten­tial to the com­pos­er. For this fel­low Mason, Mozart com­posed the Clar­inet Quin­tet, K.581, and the last instru­men­tal work he com­plet­ed, the great Clar­inet Con­cer­to, K.622. Stadler went to Prague to play in the orches­tra at the pre­mière of Mozart’s opera La clemen­za di Tito, and for him Mozart wrote the promi­nent clar­inet and bas­set horn obbli­gatos in the score, lat­er report­ing glee­ful­ly that Stadler had received many cries of “bra­vo” for his play­ing. Stadler’s younger broth­er, Johann, was also a clar­inet play­er, and for these broth­ers Mozart added clar­inet parts to his Sym­pho­ny No. 40 in G minor.

Some writ­ers sim­ply dis­miss Stadler’s char­ac­ter as “dis­solute,” but Mar­cia Dav­en­port, in her biog­ra­phy of Mozart (first pub­lished in 1932), does not stop there: “The most con­spic­u­ous of the leech­es was Anton Stadler, a wretched lying thief who took every advan­tage of Wolf­gang and yet made it hard for his poor friend to believe that such a superb clar­inetist could be a rogue.”

Anton Stadler

It is true that in 1791 Mozart loaned Stadler 500 Guldin, a large enough sum of mon­ey to make one won­der where the com­pos­er, who was con­stant­ly short of funds, got the mon­ey in the first place. (The debt was lat­er list­ed as “uncol­lectible” on a total­ly of Mozart’s assets; pre­sum­ably it was nev­er repaid.) In all prob­a­bil­i­ty Stadler stole some of Mozart’s pawn tick­ets and sold them, keep­ing the mon­ey for him­self. A minor com­pos­er, Stadler passed off some of Mozart’s work as his own, but he was hard­ly the only one of Mozart’s cir­cle to do so. In any event, Mozart did not hold any of his friend’s numer­ous short­com­ings against him. He enjoyed the man’s com­pa­ny thor­ough­ly and esteemed him as an out­stand­ing musi­cian.

Mozart fin­ished this Trio in Vien­na on August 5, 1786. Ear­li­er that year he had com­plet­ed his opera Le nozze di Figaro, two piano con­cer­tos (No. 23 in A major and No. 24 in C minor), and numer­ous oth­er works, among them the Twelve Duos for Two Wind Instru­ments, K.487. Across the head of the auto­graph score for the last set of pieces, Mozart scrawled, “Vien­na, the 27th of July 1786, while bowl­ing.” No such head­ing appears on the score of the Trio for Clar­inet, Vio­la, and Piano, writ­ten only nine days lat­er, even though it is known as the Kegel­statt (“bowl­ing alley”) Trio.  It is entire­ly pos­si­ble, of course, that Mozart did write the Trio in the bowl­ing alley, though some writ­ers have sug­gest­ed that he just thought about the work while relax­ing dur­ing the game.

The Trio was writ­ten for one of Mozart’s favorite piano stu­dents, Franziska Got­tfried von Jacquin (sis­ter of one of the composer’s best friend, Got­tfried von Jacquin), who played the piano in the first per­for­mance. In all prob­a­bil­i­ty, Mozart him­self played the vio­la on that occa­sion.

In is an unusu­al work. The tim­bres of clar­inet and vio­la give the music an espe­cial­ly inti­mate and gen­tle char­ac­ter, as does the fact the first move­ment is not the typ­i­cal Alle­gro, but a slow­er Andante (and in 6/8 time). Through­out the three instru­ments are beau­ti­ful­ly matched, and the sense of uni­ty aris­es from the music’s con­cen­tra­tion and the way Mozart uti­lizes each instrument’s strength.

The arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cis­co Sym­pho­ny and is used here with per­mis­sion.

W.A. MOZART — DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE

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The Mag­ic Flute is the ram­bling jour­ney of a soul in search of truth, his voy­age from dark­ness to light,” writes Janos Lieb­n­er in Mozart on the Stage, and he is absolute­ly right.  There is no doubt that Mozart’s last opera is one of the great­est operas ever writ­ten. But there is also no doubt that for quite a num­ber of opera fans — even some Mozart afi­ciona­dos — there often is some­thing of an aster­isk next to the term “great” when used with Die Zauber­flöte.

True, it has a secure place in the reper­toire, and many famous com­posers and con­duc­tors have said fab­u­lous things about it. But — the aster­isk says — while Mozart’s music is super, it is severe­ly under­cut by Emanuel Schikaneder’s libret­to with its rather sil­ly, con­vo­lut­ed, even con­tra­dic­to­ry sto­ry. What a shame the com­pos­er had to “slip” and write such a low-brow com­ic singspiel, rather than end­ing his life’s work with just one more true opera, some­thing that could hon­est­ly be put beside The Mar­riage of Figaro, Don Gio­van­ni and Così fan tutte.

In Die Zauber­flöte, the lis­ten­er must strug­gle to under­stand — or, per­haps bet­ter, to set aside — the plot for the sake of the music,” is the way one (oth­er­wise admirable) recent biog­ra­phy of Mozart puts it. “The sto­ry is hope­less­ly con­vo­lut­ed and self-contradictory…The music car­ries it all, even though the incon­gru­ous con­duct of Mozart’s cast of char­ac­ters and the flat human­i­tar­i­an preach­ments made great demands on his abil­i­ty to shift from one style of vocal writ­ing to anoth­er.”

Schikaned­er as Papageno

At first glance, there does seem to be an abrupt shift in the libret­to with the “good” char­ac­ters in act one turn­ing out to be evil in act two — and vice ver­sa. There are also mag­ic tricks check by jowl with Mason­ic ini­ti­a­tion rit­u­als, fan­tas­tic (in both sens­es of the word) ani­mals, super­nat­ur­al appear­ances of char­ac­ters and some of the sil­li­est car­ry­ings on to be found on the oper­at­ic stage.  This aston­ish­ing array of styles also extends to Mozart’s music itself.  “From the Hayd­nesque folk­tunes of the music for the ‘sim­ple’ beings, Papageno and Papa­ge­na, to the mys­ti­cal and rit­u­al­is­tic music for Saras­tro and his court, and from the mad col­oratu­ra of the Queen of the Night to the inclu­sion of an antique-sound­ing north Ger­man Luther­an chorale tune, sung by two men in armor,” as H. C. Rob­bins Lan­don so accu­rate­ly put it. How could such a hodge-podge of seem­ing­ly dis­parate ele­ments pos­si­bly come togeth­er into any kind of coher­ent — much less, pro­found — whole?

Yet it does. And for some of us, The Mag­ic Flute is not a messy coda to Mozart’s out­put. It is, rather, the most utter­ly per­fect sum­ming up of every­thing Mozart had poured into all of his oth­er operas, a glo­ri­ous final tes­ta­ment to life itself, with its pain and absur­di­ty, its tri­als but, ulti­mate­ly, its deep sat­is­fac­tion and joy in sim­ply being alive. And in this, the opera bears a rather aston­ish­ing resem­blance to anoth­er often puz­zling and mis­un­der­stood last work, also writ­ten by one of West­ern Civilization’s great sages, William Shakespeare’s The Tem­pest.

There are the obvi­ous par­al­lels between the char­ac­ters: the male author­i­ty fig­ures Saras­tro (Flute) and Pros­pero (Tem­pest) and their antithe­sis, the Queen of the Night and the evil witch Syco­rax; the slaves Mono­statos and Cal­iban, who rep­re­sent the baser instincts and who wish to rav­age  Pamina/ Miran­da. There is a strong par­al­lel between the young noble cou­ples who instant­ly fall in love with each oth­er, Tamino/Pamina  and Ferdinand/Miranda. Even the tri­als Tamino and Fer­di­nand must under­go before win­ning their lady loves are sim­i­lar in their “Every­man” qual­i­ty. There is no Gor­gon to slay or field to be cleared, sown and reaped in a day, instead Fer­nan­do only has to stack wood, and Tamino must keep his mouth shut, then walk through tri­als of water and fire. The Tem­pest’s deus ex machi­na, the spir­it Ariel has a direct coun­ter­part in The Mag­ic Flute’s dues ex machi­na, the three genii.

The famous poster for Marc Chagall’s tru­ly mag­i­cal pro­duc­tion at the Met.

But more impor­tant is the fact Mozart’s and Shakespeare’s last works are relat­ed by genre. “The are both adven­tur­ous, roman­tic fairy-tales with naïve mag­ic and child­ish stage tricks, car­ry­ing — in peer­less poet­ry — wis­dom and ethics and bear­ing exquis­ite under­stand­ing of human­i­ty,” Janos Lieb­n­er explains. He also points out both works con­tain “an infi­nite­ly rich vari­ety of human, sub-human and super­hu­man types, span­ning a wide range of char­ac­ters, from the mon­ster through dif­fer­ent grade of human evo­lu­tion to the pure spir­it, free from all earth­ly ties.”

Once we under­stand The Mag­ic Flute is not an opera like The Mar­riage of Figaro with three-dimen­sion­al human beings por­tray­ing day-to-day life in real time, but an alle­go­ry, sym­bol­i­cal­ly reen­act­ing the jour­ney of the soul into full con­scious­ness, every­thing falls into place.

The first scene lets us know imme­di­ate­ly The Mag­ic Flute is a fable. Tamino races on stage, flee­ing a giant ser­pent. He faints (so much for the almighty, fear­less hero) and the ser­pent is prompt­ly dis­patched by the Three Ladies.

The snake is a high­ly ambigu­ous char­ac­ter in mythol­o­gy. “The snake sig­ni­fies evil and dark­ness on the one hand and wis­dom on the oth­er,” Carl Jung wrote. It can kill with a sin­gle bite, so it is feared. But because it sheds its skin it is also a sym­bol of rebirth and the con­stant cycle of life itself.  Entwined around a pole it has become the sym­bol of the med­ical pro­fes­sion and heal­ing, and in some Far East­ern tra­di­tions, the kun­dali­ni snake, coiled at the base of the spine, sym­bol­izes vital ener­gy that can be released through med­i­ta­tion. But unleash­ing such ener­gy can be dan­ger­ous since it means sur­ren­der­ing to, or hav­ing a rela­tion­ship with, a part of life larg­er than our tiny indi­vid­ual egos.  No won­der Tamino is run­ning — it can be enor­mous­ly fright­en­ing to encounter such a pow­er­ful, poten­tial­ly devour­ing, force with­out any prepa­ra­tion or warn­ing.

But Tamino’s encounter with his ser­pent is what leads him into a new land, and push­es him onto his jour­ney of enlight­en­ment. The alleged dis­crep­an­cies and con­tra­dic­tions in the plot of The Mag­ic Flute dis­ap­pear when we real­ize opera is being told from Tamino’s point of view.  At the begin­ning of the opera he is like every human infant, born into a strange and unknown place. At first we learn about the world from the peo­ple imme­di­ate­ly around us. We lit­er­al­ly mir­ror our par­ents’ view of the world. Our fam­i­ly teach­es us what is right and wrong, just as the Three Ladies and the Queen of the Night teach Tamino who is good and who is bad in his new world. But then Tamino sets off on his own, and just as human beings often do, when he begins to encounter the world at large, he real­izes not every­thing he has been told is true. Saras­tro is not, in fact, evil, and as Tamino gains wis­dom, he is able to make up his own mind about right and wrong.

Schikaned­er and Mozart went to great lengths to remind us (some­times sub­tly, some­times no so sub­tly) that The Mag­ic Flute is a sym­bol­ic tale.  To men­tion only one of the clues, there is in the con­stant rep­e­ti­tion of the num­ber three, a mys­ti­cal num­ber all by itself (think of the Chris­t­ian tri­une God­head). In The Mag­ic Flute we encounter Three Ladies, then the Three Genii (or boys) who instruct Tamino in three things — “Be stead­fast, patient, and dis­creet!” (“Sei stand­haft, duld­sam und ver­schwiegen!”). There are three tem­ples (for wis­dom, rea­son and nature) and in the score Saras­tro makes his entrance rid­ing in a char­i­ot drawn by six (3 X 2) lions.

Play­bill for the first per­for­mance

Mozart reflects the impor­tance of the num­ber of three in many ways: the opera is in the key of E-flat, which has three flats. The over­ture begins with three major chords and half way through the over­ture, the three chords are sound­ed nine (3X3) times.  At the begin­ning of the sec­ond act, fol­low­ing the march of the priests, Mozart against writes the three chords to be sound­ed nine times, after which Saras­tro sings the only aria in the opera writ­ten in three-quar­ter time, “O Isis und Osiris.” (It can­not be an acci­dent the only aria in three-quar­ter time falls in the mid­dle — the heart — of the opera.)

Entire books have been writ­ten explor­ing all the sym­bol­ism in The Mag­ic Flute and, as in any work of art, the more we under­stand the sym­bol­ism, the deep­er our under­stand­ing of the opera will be.

But the rea­son The Mag­ic Flute, and The Tem­pest, so loved, is not because it engages our brains with delight­ful sym­bol­ic puz­zles, but because it warms our hearts and nur­tures our souls on the very deep­est lev­el.  As Janos Lieb­n­er so pro­found­ly point­ed out, “ ‘Every phe­nom­e­non of exis­tence is lyri­cal in its ide­al essence, trag­ic in its fate, and com­ic in its forms of appear­ance,’ says San­tayana. On Shakespeare’s and Mozart’s stages, all three cat­e­gories exist simul­ta­ne­ous­ly and melt into per­fect uni­ty. Tamino’s devel­op­ment is the devel­op­ment of the audi­ence, too, accom­pa­ny­ing their hero through his suf­fer­ing and tri­als, in order to reach, beyond the night’s cold dark­ness, the exhil­a­rat­ing warmth of the sun.”

This arti­cle orig­i­nal appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill dur­ing the 2004-05 sea­son.

The image at the top of the page is Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s design for the entrance of the Queen of the Night (1815).