The Kennedy Center

Overture to The Magic Flute 

About the Work

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Early in 1791 Mozart was deeply in debt, troubled by the disinclination of the Viennese public to embrace his recent music and concert appearances, and suffering seriously from the kidney failure that would take his life before the year was out, so when Emanuel Schickaneder, a slightly shady actor and theater entrepreneur, suggested in May that they collaborate on a new opera that was sure to be a hit, the composer jumped at the chance. Mozart had first met Schickaneder a decade earlier in Salzburg, when the latter's touring company performed a season of plays, musicals and ballets to which Wolfgang's family was given free admission. (In appreciation Mozart wrote for him the incidental music to Thamos, King of Egypt and a Singspiel titled Zaïde.) After arriving in Vienna in 1789, Schickaneder took over the management of the Theater-auf-der-Wieden, a well-equipped 800-seat house just outside the city walls that specialized in presenting popular, German-language musical entertainment. The Viennese public was especially fond at that time of comic pieces with Oriental or fantastic settings, and Schickaneder had achieved a fine success soon after he arrived with the "magic opera" Oberon by composer Paul Wranitzky and librettist Carl Ludwig Giesecke. For a sequel he proposed to write the libretto for a Singspiel called Die Zauberflöte - The Magic Flute - a comic musical with spoken dialogue based on Liebeskind's story Lulu from Wieland's 1786 collection of Oriental fairy-tales called Dschinnistan, for which Mozart would provide the music. Schickaneder could offer no money immediately, but promised Mozart he would get all the rental fees for subsequent productions after the premiere. (Schickaneder reneged, however, and Mozart's widow fought creditors for years while The Magic Flute made money all over Europe.)

Mozart threw himself into composing the music for The Magic Flute in May and June. Early in June he sent his wife, Constanze, to the suburban spa town of Baden to ease the last months of her current pregnancy, and he visited her whenever he could. (On one of those trips he wrote the sublime motet Ave verum corpus for Anton Stoll, the choirmaster of the church at Baden.) Schickaneder, however, was eager to finish the new production, and he encouraged Mozart to stay in Vienna and finish the score by providing him with a little hut on the grounds of the Theater-auf-der-Wieden in which to work, and then plied him with oysters and wine and arranged encouraging visits from members of the troupe. (This "Magic Flute House" was moved to Salzburg in the mid-19th century, and may be seen today in the garden of the Mozarteum.) Most of the composition was completed by July, when Mozart received two more commissions - one for an opera seria on Metastasio's old text La Clemenza di Tito, to commemorate the coronation in Prague of the new Emperor, Leopold II, as King of Bohemia; the other, a mysterious order for a Requiem Mass, the work that was to cast such an ominous pall over Mozart's last months. As Tito was needed for performance on September 6th, he had to begin the music immediately, and was still composing the score when he and Constanze left for Prague in mid August, only three weeks after she had given birth to Franz Xaver. When they returned to Vienna a month later, Mozart began the final preparations for the premiere of The Magic Flute, which included composing the Overture, always the last part of his operas to be written. The full score was finished on September 28th.

The Magic Flute was premiered at Schickaneder's Theater-auf-der-Wieden on September 30, 1791; Mozart conducted. The audience responded without much enthusiasm to that opening night, though the production was elaborate (there were at least thirteen scene changes) and the performance was good. The listeners were probably bewildered by the seeming inconsistencies in the plot (which continues to incite much musicological debate) and by the awesome variety of Mozart's music - from folk-like ditties to austere chorale preludes, from slapstick comedy to soaring profundity. However, word of this new musical curiosity quickly spread throughout the city, and the crowds came to see it for themselves - and kept coming. The Magic Flute was a hit. Schickaneder announced his 100th performance of the opera in November 1792, and mounted the work again in 1794, 1798 and, in his new Theater-an-der-Wien, in 1802. It was heard in at least 59 towns before 1800, and reached New York in 1833. Mozart, however, enjoyed little of this success. He attended the performances almost nightly during October 1791, and was much pleased with the response of the audiences, especially with the praise he received from Court Composer Antonio Salieri. ("There was not a single number that did not call forth from him a bravo," Mozart boasted.) By November, however, his health had given way to such an alarming degree that he was forced to take to his bed. The Magic Flute, though, was constantly in his thoughts, and he would sit, watch in hand, each evening imagining the progress of the performance - "Now the first act is ending.... Now comes the Queen of the Night," he would mutter. Just nine weeks after he had unveiled The Magic Flute to an astonished world, Mozart was dead.

The Overture to The Magic Flute is one of the supreme orchestral works of the 18th century. Rich in sonority, concise in construction, profligate in melodic invention and masterful in harmonic surety, it balances the seemingly polar opposites of the opera - profundity and comedy - with surpassing ease and conviction. The slow introduction opens with the triple chords associated with the solemn ceremonies of the priests, the Overture's only thematic borrowing from the opera. The Allegro is built on a tune of opera buffa jocularity treated, most remarkably, as a fugue. The complementary theme, initiated by the flute, is characterized by its sensuous ascending chromatic scales. The balance of the Overture follows traditional sonata form, with the triple chords of the priests reiterated to mark the beginning of the development section.