Overture to The Magic Flute, K. 620

            Mozart’s incomparable musical gifts enabled him to compose at the highest level of artistic brilliance in almost every musical genre.  We are privileged to experience his legacy in symphonies, chamber music, wind serenades, choral music, keyboard music—the list goes on and on.  But, unquestionably, his greatest contributions to musical art are his operas.  No one—not even Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, or Richard Strauss excelled the perfection of Mozart’s mature operas.  The reason, of course, is clear: his unparalleled musical gift is served and informed by a nuanced insight into human psychology that is simply stunning.  While Mozart composed both comic operas and serious operas, and in both German and Italian, his major body of work lies in his opera buffe--Italian comic operas. Almost every music lover cherishes his Cosi fan tutte, The Marriage of Figaro, and Don Giovanni, but his last opera is rather different from these. 

            Die Zauberflöte was given its première in 1791 in Vienna, the last year of Mozart’s life; it is in German, with spoken lines written by his collaborator, Emanuel Schikaneder.  It garnered immediate popularity, never diminishing to this day, for any number of ingratiating elements. A varied cast of singers and characters entertain us from the rise of the curtain:  a comic, feathery pair of bird/human lovers, an earnest pair of real human lovers, an evil Moor (standard in Viennese drama of the times—the Turks were a very real threat to Europe), a noble high priest and his chorus of priestly followers, an evil queen and her retinue, a pair of ghostly men in armor, trios of boys and virtuous wraith-like women, and to top it all off, enchanted animals.  On the stage!  Did I mention “magic” flutes and bells?  You get the picture—something to please almost anyone.

            But it’s not all fun and games—this allegory, like, perhaps, Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream, is a profound exploration of some of life’s deepest and most essential issues.   Courage, transfiguration, wisdom, romantic love, illusion and perception, freedom, and brotherhood—all are examined in depth.  It has been said that one definition of a masterpiece is that it is rather like an artichoke:  one peels tasty layer after layer only to find the best part hidden at the center.  And thus it is with this work.

            Many significant men of the Enlightenment were Masons, and so were Mozart and Schikaneder.   Generations of Masons and scholars have found that The Magic Flute is permeated from beginning to end with Masonic values and symbolism, and we hear it right from the opening chords of the overture:  three chords, dominated by three trombones, and in the key of Eb (three flats).  This emphasis upon the symbolic three continues throughout the opera, with a plethora of other symbolic allusions.  After the somber opening, the strings zip off in a vivacious fugato (you can hear each section come in one after the other) that takes us to a dramatic ending that sets a perfect introduction to a perfect opera—one that speaks to the common nature of us all.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan