The First Performance of the Magic Flute
- Vienna, September 30th 1791 -
The music critic Neville Cardus wrote that The Magic Flute is, “the only one in existence that might conceivably have been composed by God.” Beethoven considered the opera to be Mozart’s greatest work. On one level the opera, Mozart’s last completed work, is like a pantomime with fairy tale elements to it. There are instruments of magic, clowning around, the archetypal goodies and baddies and slapstick humour. On another it is a parable containing hidden messages, such as the number 3, Masonic elements, a human journey of enlightenment with fantastical, mystical and sacred elements that are open to many interpretations.
Most composers were attached to a royal court or in the employ of a wealthy aristocrat in order to make a living. Mozart was in the service of Archbishop-Prince Colloredo of Salzburg. This lack of independence frustrated him and left to pursue the life of a freelance musician in Vienna. Although just 25 he had written more than 350 pieces of music. He used his reputation as a brilliant pianist to further his career. The pianoforte had replaced the harpsichord as a major instrument as it was able to play loud (forte) and soft (piano). Soon he became a leading figure in the cultural life of Vienna and he was invited to become a Freemason in 1784. This secret society had evolved out of the craft of stonemasonry in Britain and had spread throughout Europe. The ideals of liberty, tolerance, equality and brotherhood appealed to him and he became a dedicated member. He quickly became a Master Mason and enjoyed the rituals, which appealed to his sense of theatre. He composed music for Masonic ceremonies, the best-known being the Masonic Funeral Music composed for the memorial service of two members of his lodge. The Magic Flute was an opera that was written together with a fellow mason, Emanuel Schikaneder containing themes and symbols drawn form the Freemason community. Exactly how remains the mystery.
There are two love stories at the heart of the opera. Prince Tamino, well educated and honest is searching for truth and love with the object of his desires, Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night who is in the clutches of the ‘evil’ Sarastro, as the Queen has told Tamino. He is entrusted with the task of getting her back and destroying Sarastro and his kingdom. At first this seems a normal motherly reaction to losing a daughter but as events unfold it is the Queen of the Night, not Sarastro who is the evil one. As well as this Papageno, a down-to-earth birdcatcher, is looking for any woman at all. The opera also expresses the ideals of brotherhood, harmony and submission to the divine. Through a series of trials, both physical and symbolic, using fire and water, Sarastro proves to be profoundly good and guides Tamino through the trials to gain the light of knowledge and access to the temple - which represents goodness. Papageno, on the other hand, is unable and unwilling to learn in the same way and achieves domestic happiness with Papagena without ever being ‘enlightened’.
Sarastro eventually welcomes Tamino into the fellowship of the temple where he is united with Pamina. The Queen of the Night and the evil slave Monostatus, her henchman, are both blind to the values of Sarastro’s kingdom and try and destroy it but are vanquished by Sarastro’s power. The journey that Tamino takes are thought to be representative of the initiation that a new Mason would have taken in Vienna in the 1790s.
The opera has been one of the most performed across the world. At the premier Mozart conducted the orchestra, Schikeneder played the role of Papageno and Mozart’s sister-in-law played the Queen of the Night. It was an immediate hit and by November 1792 had been performed 100 times. Unfortunately Mozart was not to witness this as he died on 5th December 1791.