Mozart: Overture to The Magic Flute

Overture to The Magic Flute, K.620

Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart  (He began to call himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777)
BORN: January 27, 1756. Salzburg, Austria
DIED: December 5, 1791. Vienna

COMPOSED: He wrote his opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) to a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, mostly between April and July of his final year, although the opera’s Overture and its Act II March of the Priests were apparently completed later, since in his personal catalogue Mozart dated them September 28

WORLD PREMIERE: The world premiere occurred only two days after the work was entirely completed, at Vienna’s Freihaustheater auf der Wieden

US PREMIERE: The first full production in the US was mounted in New York on April 17, 1833; the Overture had, however, been played in New Orleans as early as January 1806

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—October 1919. Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—October 2008. Peter Oundjian conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 6 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Mozart had finished almost all of The Magic Flute during the spring and early summer of 1791 when, in July, he was invited to compose an opera to Metastasio’s already much-used libretto La clemenza di Tito, for the festivities surrounding the coronation in Prague of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia. He gladly accepted, plunging into a flurry of composition that continued until the eve of the performance, which took place on September 6. La clemenza di Tito enjoyed only a moderate reception at first, due in large part to deficiencies in the casting, but audiences gradually warmed to it, and its final performance, on September 30, was a resounding success.

Mozart had to enjoy this cliffhanger of a triumph from a distance, since he had returned to Vienna two weeks earlier to oversee final preparations for the premiere of The Magic Flute. This opera marked an important new path for the composer. It was the first stage work he had written for the commercial theater, rather than on commission from an aristocratic court. This realignment may have been born out of necessity. In recent years, Mozart’s principal link to the Italian-dominated Viennese court opera had been the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. But in the spring of 1791, a series of scandals caught up with da Ponte, and the Emperor was compelled to dismiss him from his post as librettist to the royal court.

Mozart was badly in need of income, and the best way to earn serious money was through an imperial appointment (which was not likely at the moment) or a successful opera. He was already giving music lessons, playing piano recitals, and writing bushels of instrumental music, but none of this provided a sense of economic stability. Mozart’s wife was not in good health and was forced to spend the summer at the spa in Baden-Baden with their five-year-old son; and another child was due in the course of the summer. The composer had begun to borrow substantial sums and, although his condition was far from desperate, he was flirting with what could easily escalate into financial disaster.

At about this time, Mozart renewed a friendship with Emmanuel Schikaneder, a singer-actor-dancer-manager-playwright who had had regular contact with the Mozart family since 1780, when a company he directed appeared in Salzburg. Mozart’s father referred to Schikaneder as a “good honest fellow,” and the warm relationship must have only increased when, four years later, Schikaneder produced a revival of Mozart’s singspiel The Abduction from the Seraglio at Vienna’s Kärntnertor Theater, which he was by then managing. Several years later, Schikaneder re-emerged at the helm of the city’s thousand-seat Freihaustheater auf der Wieden, where he specialized in presenting lighthearted German-language singspiels, sometimes to his own librettos. His resident musical ensemble was impressive, including an orchestra of thirty-five players and a troupe of singing actors.

In crafting the libretto for The Magic Flute, Schikaneder drew on several collections of stories and fairytales popular in Germany and Austria at the time. His audience did not embrace the new work immediately but soon fell to its charms. Finally, Mozart had a hit on his hands. If he had not died little more than two months following the premiere, The Magic Flute would doubtless have changed his life.

Schikaneder’s libretto has perplexed commentators ever since, as it effects something of an about-face halfway through the action. The heroic Tamino is sent by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter, Pamina, who she says has been kidnapped by Sarastro, her “ex,” a sort of cult leader. Tamino sets out on his mission (accompanied by Papageno, a curious being who is half-man and half-bird) but soon discovers that Sarastro is actually the good guy, that he has in fact rescued Pamina from the evil Queen. In the course of his quest, Tamino falls in love with Pamina, and the two prove their steadfastness through various trials in Sarastro’s realm before the Queen and her wicked minions are banished.

THE MUSIC  There does seem to be a good deal of hocus-pocus going on in The Magic Flute, and much of it, we are told, makes sense only when one understands that the work is an allegory for Masonic beliefs and rites. Schikaneder was a Freemason, and Mozart had also joined a Masonic lodge in 1784. The number three is said to hold mystical significance to Freemasons. Accordingly, the overriding key of The Magic Flute is E-flat major, with three flats in the key signature, and the Overture opens with a grand proclamation of each of the three notes of the tonic triad. Following this grave introduction, the orchestra skips off in a gleeful, fugal Allegro, only to be interrupted by another solemn proclamation of the three chords (this time in the dominant key of B-flat). The remainder of the Overture is notable for Mozart’s brilliant use of counterpoint and dynamic contrasts, building a considerably more complex piece than one might expect from what is really only a single theme.

James M. Keller

This note originally appeared in different form in the program books of the New York Philharmonic, and is reprinted with permission. Copyright © New York Philharmonic.

MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC
Recordings:
 Colin Davis conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle (RCA Red Seal)  |  Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (EMI Classics Encore)

Reading1791: Mozart’s Last Year, by H.C. Robbins Landon (Schirmer Books)  |  Mozart: A Musical Biography, by Konrad Küster (Oxford University Press)  |  Mozart: A Cultural Biography, by Robert W. Gutman (Harcourt)  |  The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, edited by Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keeffe (Cambridge University Press)  |  The Mozart Compendium: A Guide to Mozart’s Life and Music, edited by H.C. Robbins Landon (Schirmer)

(October 2017)