Magic Flute

Mozart 101, part 3 of 4: The Magic Flute

Mozart’s last opera has mesmerized music lovers since its premiere in September 1791. The Magic Flute, a zauberoper or “magic opera,” embodies all that was expected from the popular genre. With its intentionally jumbled plot full of comic relief and larger-than-life characters, the opera was an immediate success with audiences, who became enthralled with its quirkiness.

Critics, on the other hand, weren’t quite so pleased. The Magic Flute was called “one of the most absurd specimens of a form of literature in which absurdity is regarded as a matter of course.” So how could Mozart – a talented, successful, and highly-celebrated composer with a passion for opera – be the one responsible for such a puzzling and eccentric work?

The answer is simple: there is more to the opera than meets the eye. A lot more, actually. German poet Goethe once said about The Magic Flute, “If the multitude find pleasure only in what is actually visible, the initiated will not fail to perceive the higher meaning.” Those “initiated” are none other than the Freemasons.

Freemasonary Logo - Mormon - Books of Foundation - Peter CrawfordMozart became a Mason in December 1784 and was an active member until his death seven years later. Freemasonry in Mozart’s time was driven by a desire to spread the ideals of the Enlightenment – reason, tolerance, and humanism. Mozart found solace in these principles as he dealt with the passing of his father, troubles in his marriage, and his ever-growing debt. It is no surprise then that his later works became saturated with Masonic themes. The Magic Flute is certainly no exception.

Written at a time when Freemasonry was condemned and discredited, The Magic Flute has been called an “Enlightenment allegory, veiled in masonic ritual.” At the time of its premiere, many read the allegory as one reflecting that very moment in history. The Queen of the Night – embodying the darkness and superstition of The Middle Ages – represented Empress Maria Theresa, whose decree had closed most of the Masonic lodges. Long story short, the Queen ends up as the bad guy. In contrast, Sarastro, the benevolent leader who uses Enlightenment ideals to unite the opera’s young lovers, personified Joseph II, son of the empress and advocate of the Masonic order.

Mozart didn’t limit his Masonic nods to just the abstract allegorical level. Freemason rituals and symbolism are scattered throughout the opera. Take the number three, for example. This numeral, an important figure to the Masons, occurs again and again: the main character Tamino is rescued by three ladies and guided along his journey by three boys; he must endure three trials to join the brotherhood; the snake representing ignorance is cut into three pieces. Mozart even goes so far as to write the work in a key signature with three flats. And that’s just scratching the surface of the symbolism. You can find a more detailed listing here.

The Magic Flute, meant to epitomize the meaning of Freemasonry, was Mozart’s last completed composition. He fell ill two days after its premiere. In the delirium of that fatal sickness, Wolfgang would run through the opera in his head, experiencing the power of his own music. He died after the show’s 67th performance. One hypothesis regarding Mozart’s death is that Masons poisoned him for revealing their secrets.

Next week, we learn about Mozart’s unfinished Requiem and the mysterious circumstances behind its commission.

Explore the Mozart 101 Series:

Mozart 101, Part 1: Mozart’s Life
Mozart 101, Part 2: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Mozart 101, Part 3: The Magic Flute
Mozart 101, Part 4: The Requiem