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The Magic Flute, K. 620

About the Work

Wolfgang Mozart
Quick Look Composer: Wolfgang Mozart
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Sarah Chang, violin, performs Brahms Jan. 17 - 19, 2008
© Richard Freed

Mozart composed Die Zauberflöte ("The Magic Flute") in 1791, to a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, and conducted the premiere at the Theater auf der Wieden, in Vienna, on September 30 of that year. The National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of the Overture was conducted by Hans Kindler on February 11, 1932; the most recent one was conducted by Leonard Slatkin at Wolf Trap on June 13, 2003.

The Overture is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration, 6 minutes.
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The Magic Flute  was Mozart's penultimate opera, but it was the very last to be produced. It was substantially complete in July 1791, when Mozart set it aside to compose La clemenza di Tito for the celebration of Emperor Leopold II's enthronement as King of Bohemia. Tito was composed in about seven weeks, and was produced in Prague on September 6; Mozart then returned to The Magic Flute and completed the score on September 28, just two days before the premiere. As usual, the Overture was the last part—or one of the last parts—to be composed; it was apparently the last music Mozart composed for orchestra without either voices or a solo instrument; the Clarinet Concerto followed in October.

Emanuel Schikaneder, a well known theatrical figure whom Mozart had met back in his Salzburg days, not only provided the libretto for The Magic Flute, but took the role of Papageno in the first production. An actor who performed Shakespearean tragedy as well as comic roles, he was also the author of nearly a hundred plays and librettos; a director, a producer, and eventually manager of the Theater an der Wien, which opened a few years after Mozart's death.

Another playwright who had a minor role in creating The Magic Flute was Carl Ludwig Giesecke: his claim to have made a major contribution to the libretto has been fairly well refuted, and he renounced the theater altogether after this endeavor, ending his days more than 40 years later as a respected professor of mineralogy in Dublin. It is pertinent, though, that both Schikaneder and Giesecke, like Mozart himself, were Freemasons, for The Magic Flute is filled with Masonic symbolism. It was a convenience, perhaps, but no mere coincidence, that these Masonic symbols happened to correspond closely to several in the tale from which the libretto was derived, a story by Jakob August Liebeskind called Lulu, oder die Zauberflöte, which appeared in Wieland's Dschinnistan, a collection of Oriental fairy tales published in 1786. (That collection was also the source of the tale Mozart's cousin-by-marriage Carl Maria von Weber, who was born that year, used for his valedictory Oberon forty years later.)

It is hardly necessary to review the plot, to expound upon the inadequacies of the text, or to cite specific examples of Masonic material in order to validate Bruno Walter's description of The Magic Flute as "Mozart's own spiritual will and testament." No matter how clumsy Schikaneder's contribution (and there are many who find that clumsiness endearing), the music is in the best sense ennobling. Various latter-day attempts at revising or replacing the original text only seem to confirm the aptness of its naïve style to the deepfelt but utterly unpretentious "higher nature" (Bruno Walter again) that illumines this work.

The Overture does not encapsulate the action of the opera or reflect the range of its characters, but might be regarded as a series of symbols representing a distillation of the work's noble spirit. It opens with the three "Masonic" chords that figure prominently in the early portions of Act II, proclaimed here in the "heroic" key of E-flat rather than the B-flat setting heard at that point in the drama. The brief Adagio intnroduction gives way to a "fugal" Allegro which is not a fugue at all, but is treat , as Ernest Newman observed, "in a free sonata style, with a great deal of contrapuntal device." (It has been suggested that Mozart borrowed this theme from the opening of Muzio Clementi's keyboard Sonata in B-flat, Op. 24, No. 2, which Clementi performed in his legendary contest with Mozart in the presence of Emperor Joseph II in 1781, but it seems unlikely tha Mozart would consciously so honor a musician he held in such contempt as he did Clementi.) The "Masonic" chords return about halfway through the Overture, as if prelude to a fresh second half in which the Allegro material is further developed.