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Mozart’s The Magic Flute

Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841), Stage set for Mozart's "The Magic Flute," 1815, showing the Queen of the Night

1,850 words

Editor’s Note:

I have illustrated this, the third and final Ursus Major piece on Mozart’s operas, with YouTube videos of some of its best music. I apologize that in five out of six cases, I could not find videos that combine good performances, production, and video quality with English subtitles. But the music is what counts anyway.

[With The Magic Flute] all “innuendos” [. . .] vanish and the Apollonian Canon is fully revealed in all its glory. There is a reason for this: the other operas had been written for the aristocracy; The Magic Flute (technically not an opera but a Singspiel) was a creation for all, not a minute segment of the population.

Few artistic creations have as large a bibliography as this Maschinenkomödie, taken on by Mozart for a variety of reasons (he needed money, Schickenader was an old friend of the family), primarily — in my opinion — because Apollo willed it.

There were other operas, which Mozart had started and, for one reason or another, abandoned. What remains of Zaïde indicates an opera of exquisite charm. (No monumental work like his unfinished mass, but still a work of no small import.) That Mozart even wet his quill with L’Oca di Cairo, I find curious. (Even Apollo would have had it rough, manifesting Himself with a goose commanding our attention.) Così carried little of the Canon, but it sufficed to instill awareness as to the realities of the human estate; leaving “Be ye perfect!” for saints and madmen — as Nietzsche was to show were the only ones meant for it. The Magic Flute was not abandoned; it served as the consummation of all that had gone before.[1]

When analyzing The Magic Flute, we must remember that Emmanuel Schickenader was no P. T. Barnum. He was, without question, the finest German “Hamlet” of his era. He had met his fellow-Masons, the Mozarts, when his company visited Salzburg. He was as fine an actor to be found on any German stage — and financially ruined, when he had prepared a lavish production of The Marriage of Figaro, only to have it banned after the dress rehearsal. He’d gotten “mixed signals” from Vienna.

Joseph II was as ardent a reformer as Thomas Jefferson. Joseph had confiscated all church property — an action so drastic the Pope went to Vienna in an unsuccessful effort to reverse it — had abolished capital punishment (when in England, they were hanging 12-year-olds for stealing a handkerchief), had ordered the schools, which were run by religious orders, to admit Jews without attempting to covert them, and had suppressed all contemplative orders. Religious engaged in education, caring for the sick and elderly, etc. were provided for by the government, but those that did nothing but mumble prayers were ordered disbanded.

Joseph was an adamant reformer, who believed in “Reform from the Top”: Alles für das Volk, Nichts vom Volke: Everything for the people, nothing by the people! The French Revolution was preempted by an Austrian one, as Joseph’s reforms engendered violent opposition. His confiscation of church property led the Archbishop of Liège, then part of the Austrian Low Countries, to organize open revolt. His edict that only Latin, German, and Italian were to be official languages (the Habsburgs ruled nearly all of northern Italy) led to massive riots.

Joseph was forced to retract on some of his most radical reforms; however, had he not died in 1790, he may have well proved a moderating influence in the French turmoil (at that stage, it was merely a turmoil). He set the example for the political philosophy of Edmund Burke, who was an avid supporter of Reform from the Top. Once again, the question raised by the Greeks: what is good government and how are we to achieve it? became an overriding issue — one definitively answered by The Magic Flute.

Even though Catholics were forbidden to become Masons, that didn’t bother Mozart in the least. His Masonic ties were much stronger than those to the Church, but he saw no conflict between them.

Let us dispose of some of the misinformation bantered about. The character of Sarastro is indeed drawn from a real person; however, not Ignaz von Born. The model is one Luigi Balsamo, known to history as “Cagliostro.” Today, he’s generally regarded as a humbug: one of those picaresque characters, who thrived in the 18th century. He was enormously well-known; but after his close call in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, he opted to leave Paris (where he had founded an Egyptian Masonic lodge) and went to Italy. Once there, his wife (a famous beauty, who it seems wanted to be rid of him) denounced him to the Inquisition as a necromancer and warlock, resulting in a death sentence (commuted to life in prison). As work began on The Magic Flute, he was rotting in a papal dungeon, where he was to die a few years later.

To his contemporaries, Cagliostro was yet another victim of Voltaire’s infame: the Church, not the religion. It was the Church which personified hypocrisy, preaching “love, forgiveness, and benevolence,” while wallowing in material luxury and subjecting anyone suspected of threatening its position to unspeakable torments and monstrous persecutions (the Protestants behaving scant better than the Pope, as Irish Catholics proved).

How do we know that Cagliostro served as the model for Sarastro? We must remember that Cagliostro had founded a unique Egyptian lodge, and when Sarastro offers his invocation, it is to Isis and Osiris, Egyptian deities.

Empress Maria Theresa, who haphazardly followed the papal ban of Masonry (her husband, the Emperor Francis, was an ardent Mason) is cited as the model for The Queen of the Night. Nonsense! Few rulers have been so ardently admired as this woman, who fought with determination to preserve the Habsburg legacy. Who then is the model for The Queen of the Night? Think about it!

In Act I, she is presented as a grief-stricken mother, whose only child has been abducted by an Evil Necromancer (like the type that should be rotting on bread and water in a dungeon).

“O Zittre Nicht” — Natalie Dessay, soprano

In Act II, however, she is shown to be a woman consumed by hatred and arrogance. She presents her daughter with a dagger and vows that if her child doesn’t use it to slay Sarastro, she will be disowned, devoid of any concern, an enemy, lost! The Sorrowing Mother, the Mater Dolorosa, is now a repository of hatred and revenge: kill or be excommunicated!

“Der Hölle Rache” — Natalie Dessay, soprano

Yes, The Queen of the Night is the Roman Catholic Church — all “churches” which place privilege, power, and wealth ahead of humanitarianism. Once that is realized, the volta face of The Queen of the Night between acts one and two becomes readily understood: The Queen in Act I is what the Church preaches; the Queen in Act II is what the Church practices.

“Ach, ich fühl’s” — Dorothea Röschmann, soprano

There is great subtlety in The Magic Flute, hiding behind what appears to be an absurd fairy tale; but there is nothing absurd about it. Goethe recognized this at once and wrote a sequel. When informed of Mozart’s death, the creator of Faust (the character Spengler chose to signify our whole culture) is said to have cried, “Now there is no one, who can make an opera of my Faust!”)

“Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja” — Simon Keenlyside, baritone

The characters of Papageno and Papagena are archetypal. Enlightenment is not for all. The mass of mankind fulfills its destiny by being good providers and loving parents. Such is their nature; and in fulfilling their nature, they are consummating all the gods ask of them. Enlightenment, on the other hand, is achieved — if it is achieved — only by rigorous self-discipline, constant striving, and most importantly, the ability to confront and accept one’s mortality without fear, trepidation, or false bravura. Such is the nature of Tamino’s preparation, and his trial is to confront Death — his death, his mortality — with resolve.

“Papagena / Papageno!” — Detlef Roth, baritone, and Gaële Le Roi, soprano

My interpretation (and as I noted, all the books dealing just with The Magic Flute would constitute a respectable library) is that Tamino and Pamina are not two persons, but one: Tamino is the animus, Pamina the anima. He is all reason and resolve; she is all emotion. Eventually, they are united, forming an Integrated Personality. It is this whole personality, which emerges purified by the trials. (Would Apollo care when Carl Jung would be born and supply a vocabulary for what really doesn’t need to be said? It needs to be felt. Who is so shallow to maintain that conscious comprehension is the only form of comprehension?) The Three Boys? Common Sense! The Three Ladies? The “Shadow” of the Three Boys! How much of it intentional? None! It arises, Athena-like, fully formed from the Collective Unconscious of Euro-Man: that Existential Unity.

The tenor in Schickenader’s troop played the flute, so it became The Magic Flute. Mozart’s sister-in-law had the voice of a bird — and matching brains. The Queen of the Night has many a high-f, but not much dialogue. The sons of two members of the chorus sang quite well, so did Schickenader’s 12-year-old daughter; so the Three Boys were two boys and a girl — but they could handle the notes, which are highly syncopated. What makes The Magic Flute the Definitive Apollinian Statement? Its Revelation is for everyone, and the music makes it a Unity!

“Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” — Francisco Araiza, tenor

The Magic Flute has, literally, everything: slap-stick comedy, the Philosopher-King Plato longed for, the Guardians whose serve the three entities worthy of devotion: Wisdom, Truth, and Beauty, an overture which is a masterpiece of the fugal form, choruses that would grace the grandest cathedral, the Eternal Conflict between Light and Dark: Reason and Superstition, homage to the simple life of love, family, togetherness; a Revelation of Enlightenment and the prerequisites for attaining it. Here is the folk song, the first true Lied, coloratura arias that after 200 years remain glories of the human voice, ensembles of every combination that remain unsurpassed — all placed between an opening scene, where the hero rushes on stage and faints; ending in a brief ballet of joy, of Light Triumphant. If there is any other work of human creation which even comes close, I’ve never seen it. It so moved George Bernard Shaw, that he wrote, “The Magic Flute is the one opera that might be performed before God — without committing blasphemy.”


1. La Clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s answer to Wagner’s Amerika Marsch, is without consequence. It has much of Mozart’s talent, but nothing of his soul: Rossini’s “laundry list” set to music. What better describes that shopworn libretto of Metatastio thrust upon him? Let’s be thankful for the clarinet obbligati and the choruses, which make a performance worth attending.

Extract from “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Apollo’s Anamuensis?,”


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  1. ned
    Posted November 11, 2011 at 4:10 am | Permalink

    Couldn’t you have used a far superior coloratura like Diana Damrau for “Der Holle Roche?

    Now you know for next time. Dessay is ok, but Damrau is far superior in demonstrating the crown achievements of Western man.

  2. Michael Wikander
    Posted November 11, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Nowadays, we could easily identify The Queen of the Night with Judaism. The Jews are just like women: never satisfied, always complaining, accusing others, self-righteous, feeling entitled, parasitic, self-centered, hidden agenda’s etc. Evola was right when he said the Jews were a telluric, effeminate ‘race’. Not that there are no “righteous Jews”, though.

    Sarastro of course stands for the Aryan spiritual leader. Tamino is the Aryan warrior and Papageno the Aryan farmer: the three castes of Aryan society.

    The whole opera fits the Evolean concept of initiation perfectly.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted November 11, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      Yes on all points.

  3. Jim Stark
    Posted November 11, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Natalie Dessay married a Jew and converted to his faith. NICE!!!!

    She doesn’t hit those high notes quite strong enough.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted November 11, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      That’s a shame

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