MOZART’S “Zauberflote” “The Magic Flute” is the oldest German opera holding a place on the American stage, though not quite 118 years old ; but so far as my memory and records go, it has had but four performances in the original tongue in New York in a whole generation. There have been a few representations in English within this time and a considerable number in Italian, our operatic institutions being quick, as a rule, to put it upon the stage whenever they have at command a soprano leggiero with a voice of sufficient range and flexibility to meet the demands of the extraordinary music which Mozart wrote for the Queen of Night to oblige his voluble-throated sister-in-law, Mme. Hofer, who was the original representative of that character. The same operatic conditions having prevailed in New York and London for many years, it is not strange that English-speaking people have come to associate “The Magic Flute” with the Italian rather than the German repertory. Yet we have the dictum of Beethoven that it is Mozart’s greatest opera, because in it his genius showed itself in so large a variety of musical forms, ranging from ditties in the folk-song style to figurated chorale and fugue, and more particularly because in it Mozart first disclosed himself as a German composer. By this Beethoven did not mean that Mozart had not written music before for a German libretto, but that he had never written German music before in an opera. The distinction is one more easily observed by Germans and critical historians than by the ordinary frequenters of our opera-houses. “Die Zauberflote” has a special charm for people of German blood, which is both admirable and amiable. Its magnificent choruses are sung by men, and Germany is the home of the Mannergesang; among the opera’s songs are echoes of the Volkslied ditties which seem to have been caught up in the German nurseries or plucked off the lips of the itinerant German balladist; its emotional music is heartfelt, warm, ingenuous, and in form and spirit free from the artificiality of Italian opera as it was in Mozart’s day and as it continued to be for a long time thereafter. It was this last virtue which gave the opera its largest importance in the eyes of Otto Jahn, Mozart’s biographer. In it, he said, for the first time all the resources of cultivated art were brought to bear with the freedom of genius upon a genuine German opera. In his Italian operas, Mozart had adopted the traditions of a long period of development, and by virtue of his original genius had brought them to a climax and a conclusion; but in “Die Zauberflote” he “stepped across the threshold of the future and unlocked the sanctuary of national art for his countrymen.”
In this view every critical historian can concur, no matter what his tastes or where his home. But it is less easy for an English, French, or Italian critic than a German to pardon the incongruities, incoherences, and silly buffooneries which mar the opera. Some of the disturbing elements are dear to the Teutonic heart. Papageno, for instance, is but a slightly metamorphosed Kasperl, a Jack Pudding (Hanswurst) twice removed; and Kasperl is as intimately bound up in the German nature as his cousin Punch in the English. Kasperl is, in-deed, directly responsible for “Die Zauberflote.” At the end of the eighteenth century there was in Vienna a singular individual named Emmanuel Schikaneder, a Jack-of-all-trades so far as public amusements were concerned musician, singer, actor, playwright, and manager. There can be no doubt but that he was a sad scalawag and ribald rogue, with as few moral scruples as ever burdened a purveyor of popular amusements. But he had some personal traits which endeared him to Mozart, and a degree of intellectuality which won him a fairly respectable place among the writers for the stage at the turn of the century. Moreover, when he had become prosperous enough to build a new theatre with the proceeds of “Die Zauberflöte,” he was wise enough to give a generous commission, unhampered by his customary meddlesome restrictions, to Beethoven ; and discreet enough to approve of the highly virtuous book of “Fidelio. At the beginning of the last decade of the eighteenth century, however, his theatre had fallen on evil days, and in dire straits he went to Mozart, whose friendship he had enjoyed from the latter’s Salzburg days, and begged him to undertake the composition of an opera for which he had written the book, in conjunction with one of his actors and choristers, named Gieseke (though this fact never received public acknowledgment at his hands). Wieland’s “Oberon” had filled the popular mind with a great fondness for fantastic and Oriental subjects, and a rival manager had been successful with musical pieces in which the principal character was the popular Kasperl. Casting about for an operatic subject which should appeal to the general liking for romanticism and buffoonery at once, Schikaneder hit upon a tale called “Lulu; oder, Die Zauberfiöte,” written by Liebeskind, but published by Wieland in a volume of Orientalia entitled “Dschinnistan.” He had got pretty deep in his work when a rival manager brought out an adaptation of the same story, with music by Wenzel Müller. The farcical character of the piece is indicated by its title, which was “Kasper, der Fagottist ; oder, Die Zauberzither” ; but it made so striking a success that Schikaneder feared to enter the lists against it with an opera drawn from the same source. He was either too lazy, too much in a hurry, or too in-different to the principles of art to remodel the completed portion, but finished his book on lines far different from those originally contemplated. The transformation thus accomplished brought about all the blemishes of “Die Zauberflöte,” but also gave occasion for the sublime music with which Mozart transfigured some of the scenes. This will be understood better if an outline of Liebeskind’s tale is made to precede the story of the opera as it came from Mozart’s hand.
A wicked magician, Dilsenghuin, has robbed the “radiant fairy” Perifirime of her daughter, Sidi, and carried off a magic talisman. The magician keeps the damsel in confinement and persecutes her with amatory advances which she is able to resist through a power which is to support her so long as her heart is untouched by love. Perifirime promises the hand of her daughter, whose father is the King of Cashmere, to Prince Lulu, son of the King of Chorassan, if he regain the stolen talisman for her. To do this, however, is given only to one who has never felt the divine passion. Lulu undertakes the adventure, and as aids the fairy gives him a magic flute and a ring. The tone of the flute will win the hearts of all who hear it; by turning the ring, the wearer is enabled to assume any form desired at will ; by throwing it away he may summon the fairy herself to his aid. The Prince assumes the form of an old man, and, like Orpheus, softens the nature of the wild beasts that he meets in the forest. He even melts the heart of the magician himself, who admits him to his castle.
Once he is within its walls, the inmates all yield to the charm of his magical music, not excepting the lovely prisoner. At a banquet he throws the magician and his companions into a deep sleep, and possesses himself of the talisman. It is a gold fire-steel, every spark struck from which becomes a powerful spirit whose service is at the command of the possessor. With the help of genii, struck from the magical implement, and the fairy whom he summons at the last, Prince Lulu overcomes all the obstacles placed in his way. Discomfited, the magician flies away as an owl. Perifirime destroys the castle and carries the lovers in a cloud chariot to her own palace. Their royal fathers give their blessings, and Prince Lulu and Princess Sidi are joined in wedlock.
Following in a general way the lines of this story, but supplying the comic element by the creation of Papageno (who is Kasperl in a habiliment of feathers), Schikaneder had already got his hero into the castle of the wicked magician in quest of the daughter of the Queen of Night (in whose character there was not yet a trace of maleficence), when the success of his rival’s earlier presentation of the story gave him pause. Now there came to him (or to his literary colleague) a conceit which fired the imagination of Mozart and added an element to the play which was bound at once to dignify it and create a popular stir that might lead to a triumph. Whence the suggestion came is not known, but its execution, so far as the libretto was concerned, was left to Gieseke. Under the Emperor Leopold II the Austrian government had adopted a reactionary policy toward the order of Freemasons, which was suspected of making propaganda for liberal ideas in politics and religion. Both Schikaneder and Mozart belonged to the order, Mozart, indeed, being so enthusiastic a devotee that he once confessed to his father his gratitude to God that through Freemasonry he had learned to look upon death as the gateway to true happiness. In continuing the book of the opera, Schikaneder (or Gieseke for him) abruptly transformed the wicked magician into a virtuous sage who had carried off the daughter of a wicked sorceress, the Queen of Night, to save the maiden from the baleful influence of her mother. Instead of seeking to frustrate the efforts of the prince who comes to rescue her, the sage initiates him into the mysteries of Isis, leads him into the paths of virtue and wisdom, tests him by trials, and rewards him at the last by blessing his union with the maiden. The trials of silence, secrecy, and hardihood in passing through the dread elements of fire and water were ancient literary materials ; they may be found in the account of the initiation of a neophyte into the mysteries of Isis in Apuleius’s “Metamorphoses ; or, The Golden Ass,” a romance written in the second century. By placing the scene of the opera in Egypt, the belief of Freemasons that their order originated in that unspeakably ancient land was humored, while the use of some of its symbolism (such as the conflict between light and darkness) and the proclamation of what were believed to be some of its ethical principles could safely be relied upon to delight the knowing and irritate the curiosity of the uninitiated. The change also led to the shabby treatment which woman receives in the opera, while Schikaneder’s failure to rewrite the first part accounts for such inconsistencies as the genii who are sent to guide the prince appearing first in the service of the evil principle and afterward as agents of the good.
The overture to “Die Zauberflote,” because of its firm establishment in our concert-rooms, is more widely known than the opera. Two of its salient features have also made it the subject of large discussion among musical analysts; namely, the reiterated chords, three times three, which intro-duce the second part of the overture and the fugued allegro, constructed with a skill that will never cease to be a wonder to the knowing, built up on the following subject:—
In the chords (which are heard again in the temple scene, at which the hero is admitted as a novice and permitted to begin his probation), the analysts who seek to find as much symbolism as possible in the opera, see an allusion to the signals given by knocking at the door of the lodge-room. Some such purpose may been have in the mind of Mozart when he chose the device, but it was not unique when he applied it. I have found it used in an almost identical manner in the overture to “Gunther von Schwarzburg,” by Ignaz Holzbauer, a German opera produced in Mannheim fifteen years before “Die Zauberflöte” saw the light of the stage lamps. Mozart knew Holzbauer, who was a really great musician, and admired his music. Connected with the fugue theme there is a more familiar story. In 1781 Clementi, the great pianist and composer, visited Vienna. He made the acquaintance of Haydn, was introduced at court, and Emperor Joseph II brought him and Mozart together in a trial of skill at playing and improvising. Among other things Clementi played his own sonata in B-flat, the first movement of which begins thus:
The resemblance between this theme and Mozart’s fugal subject is too plain to need pointing out. Such likenesses were more common in Mozart’s day than they were a century ago ; they were more common in Handel’s day than in Mozart’s; they are almost as common in our day as they were in Handel’s, but now we explain them as being the products of “unconscious cerebration,” whereas in the eighteenth century they were frank borrowings in which there was no moral obliquity; for originality then lay as much in treatment as in thematic invention, if not more.
Come we now to a description of the action of the opera. Tamino, strange to say, a “Japanese” prince, hunting far, very far, from home, is pursued, after his last arrow has been sped, by a great serpent. He flees, cries for help, and seeing him-self already in the clutch of death, falls in a swoon. At the moment of his greatest danger three veiled ladies appear on the scene and melodiously and harmoniously unite in slaying the monster. They are smitten, in unison, with the beauty of the unconscious youth whom they have saved, and quarrel prettily among themselves for the privilege of remaining beside him while information of the incident is bearing to the Queen of Night, who lives hard by in a castle. No two being willing that the third shall stay, all three go to the Queen, who is their mistress. Tamino’s consciousness returning, he discovers that the serpent has been slain, and hails Papageno, who comes upon the scene, as his deliverer. Papageno is a bird-catcher by trade and in the service of the Queen of Night a happy-go-lucky, talkative fellow, whose thoughts do not go beyond creature comforts. He publishes his nature (and incidentally illustrates what has been said above about the naïve character of some of the music of the opera) by trolling a ditty with an opening strain as follows :
Papageno has no scruples about accepting credit and gratitude for the deed performed by the ladies, and, though he is the veriest poltroon, he boasts inordinately about the gigantic strength which had enabled him to strangle the serpent. He is punished for his mendacity when the ladies return and place a padlock upon his mouth, closing his lips to the things of which he is most fond speech and food. To Tamino they give a miniature portrait, which excites him to rapturous song (“Dies Bildniss ist bezaubernd schon,” or “Oh! cara immagine,” as the case may be). Then he learns that the original of the portrait is Pamina, daughter of the Queen of Night, stolen from her mother by a “wicked demon,” Sarastro. In the true spirit of knight-errantry he vows that he will restore the maid to her mother’s arms. There is a burst of thunder, and the Queen appears in such apparel and manner as the exchequer at the theatre and the ingenuity of the stage mechanic are able to provide. (When last I saw her her robe was black, bespangled with stars and glittering gems, and she rode upon the crescent moon.) She knows the merits and virtues of the youth, and promises that he shall have Pamina to wife if he succeeds in his adventure. Papageno is commanded to accompany him, and as aids the ladies give to Tamino a magic flute, whose tones shall protect him from every danger, and to Papageno a bell-chime of equal potency. (These talismans have hundreds of prototypes in the folk-lore of all peoples.) Papageno is loath to accompany the prince, because the magician had once threatened to spit and roast him like the bird he resembled if ever he was caught in his domain, but the magical bells give him comfort and assurance. Meanwhile the padlock has been removed from his lips, with ad-monitions not to lie more. In the quintet which accompanies these sayings and doings, there is exquisite music, which, it is said, Mozart conceived while playing at billiards. Finally the ladies announce that three boys, “young, beautiful, pure, and wise,” shall guide the pair to the castle of Sarastro.
We are next in a room of the castle before the would-be rescuers arrive. Pamina has tried to escape, and is put in chains by her keeper, the Moor Monostatos. She weeps because of her misery, and repulses the protestations of love with which her jailer plagues her. Papageno enters the room, and he and the jailer run in opposite directions at sight of each other Papageno frightened by the complexion of the blackamoor, Monostatos terror-stricken at the sight of a man in feathers. Returning, Papageno convinces himself of the identity of Pamina with the daughter of the Queen of Night, tells her of Tamino, who is coming for her with a heart full of love, and promptly they sing of the divine dignity of the marital state. It is the duet, “Bei Männern welche Liebe Millen,” or “Là dove prende, amor ricetto,” familiar to concert-rooms, and the melody to some hymnals. A story goes that Mozart had to write this duet three or five times before it would pass muster in the censorious eyes of Schikaneder. After the opera had made good its success, the duet as we have it to-day alternated at the performance with a more ornate version in all likelihood one of the earlier forms in which Mozart cast it.
The three boys genii they are, and if I were stage-manager they should fly like Peter Pan lead Tamino into a grove wherein stand three temples dedicated respectively to Wisdom, Nature, and Rea-son. The precinct is sacred ; the music tells us that the halo streaming from sustained notes of flutes and clarinets, the muted trumpets, the solemn trombones in softest monotone, the placid undulations of the song sung by the violins, the muffled, admonitory beats of the kettledrums. The genii leave Tamino after admonishing him to be “stead-fast, patient, and silent.” Conscious of a noble purpose, the hero boldly approaches the Temple of Reason, but, before he can enter its portals, is stopped by an imperative injunction from within: “Back!” He essays the Temple of Nature, and is turned away again by the ominous word. Out of the Temple of Wisdom steps an aged priest, from whom he learns that Sarastro is master within, and that no one is privileged to enter whose heart, like his, harbors hatred and vengeful thoughts. Tamino thinks Sarastro fully deserving of hatred and revenge, and is informed that he had been deceived by a woman one of the sex “that does little, chatters much.” Tamino asks if Pamina lives, but the priest is bound by an oath to say nothing on that subject until “the hand of friendship shall lead him to an eternal union within the sanctuary.” When shall night vanish and the light appear? Oracular voices answer, “Soon, youth, or never !” Does Pamina live? The voices : “Pamina still lives !” Thus comforted, he sings his happiness, filling the pauses in his song with interludes on the flute, bringing to his feet the wild beasts and forest creatures of all sorts. He hears Papageno’s syrinx, and at length finds the fowler with Monostatos; but before their joy can have expression Pamina and the slaves appear and capture them. Papageno recollects him of his magic bells ; he plays upon them, and the slaves, willy-nilly, dance themselves out of sight. Scarcely are the lovers free when a solemn strain announces the approach of Sarastro. He comes in a chariot drawn by lions and surrounded by a brave retinue. Pamina kneels to him, confesses her attempt to escape, but explains that it was to free herself from the odious attentions of Monostatos. The latter, asking his reward for having thwarted the plan of Papageno, receives it from Sarastro in the shape of a bastinado. Pamina pleads for restoration to her mother, but the sage refuses to free her, saying that her mother is a haughty woman, adding the ungallant reflection that woman’s heart should be directed by man lest she step outside her sphere. He commands that Tamino and Papageno be veiled and led into the Temple of Probation. The first act is ended.
The initiation of Tamino and Papageno into the mysteries, their trials, failures, triumph, and reward, form the contents of the second act. At a conclave of the elect, Sarastro announces that Tamino stands at the door of the Temple of Wisdom, desirous to gaze upon the ” great light” of the sanctuary. He prays Isis and Osiris to give strength to the neophytes: —
To the impressiveness of this prayer the orchestra contributes as potent a factor as the stately melody or the solemn harmonies. All the bright-voiced instruments are excluded, and the music assigned to three groups of sombre color, composed, respectively, (1) of divided violas and violoncellos ; (2) of three trombones, and (3) of two basset horns and two bassoons. The assent of the sacerdotal assembly is indicated by the three trumpet blasts which have been described in connection with the overture, and T amino and Papageno are admitted to the Temple, instructed, and begin their probationary trials. True to the notion of the order, two priests warn the neophytes against the wiles of woman. Papageno has little inclination to seek wisdom, but enters upon the trials in the hope of winning a wife who shall be like himself in appearance. In the first trial, which is that of silence, the value of the priestly warning just received is at once made apparent. Tamino and Papageno have scarcely been left alone, when the three female attendants of the Queen of Night appear and attempt to terrify them with tales of the false nature of the priests, whose recruits, say they, are carried to hell, body and breeches (literally “mit Haut und Haar,” i.e. “with skin and hair”). Papageno becomes terror-stricken and falls to the floor, when voices within proclaim that the sanctity of the temple has been profaned by woman’s presence. The ladies flee.
The scene changes. Pamina is seen asleep in a bower of roses, silvered over by the light of the moon.
Monostatos, deploring the fact that love should be denied him because of his color, though enjoyed by everything else in nature, attempts to steal a kiss. A peal of thunder, and the Queen of Night rises from the ground. She importunes Pamina to free her-self and avenge her mother’s wrongs by killing Sarastro. To this end she hands her a dagger and pours out the “hellish rage” which “boils” in her heart in a flood of scintillant staccati in the tonal regions where few soprano voices move.
Monostatos has overheard all. He wrenches the dagger from Pamina, urges her again to accept his love, threatens her with death, and is about to put his threat into execution when Sarastro enters, dismisses the slave, and announces that his revenge upon the Queen of Night shall lie in promoting the happiness of the daughter by securing her union with Tamino.
The probationary trials of Tamino and Papageno are continued. The two are led into a hall and admonished to remain silent till they hear a trumpet-call. Papageno falls to chattering with an old woman, is terrified beyond measure by a thunder-clap, and recovers his composure only when the genii bring back the flute and bells and a table of food. Tamino, however, remains steadfast, though Pamina herself comes to him and pleads for a word of love. Papageno boasts of his own hardihood, but stops to eat, though the trumpet has called. A lion appears; Tamino plays his flute, and the beast returns to his cage. The youth is prepared for the final trial; he is to wander for a space through flood and flame, and Pamina is brought to say her tearful farewells. The courage and will of the neophyte remain unshaken, though the maiden gives way to despair and seeks to take her own life. The genii stay her hand, and assure her that Tamino shall be restored to her. Two men in armor guard the gates of a subterranean cavern. They sing of the rewards to be won by him who shall walk the path of danger; water, fire, air, and earth shall purify him ; and if he withstand death’s terrors, heaven shall receive him and he be enlightened and fitted to consecrate himself wholly to the mysteries of Isis.
A marvellous piece of music is consorted with this oracular utterance. The words are set to an old German church melody “Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein” around which the orchestral instruments weave a contrapuntal web of wondrous beauty. At the gates Pamina joins her lover and accompanies him on his journey, which is happily achieved with the help of the flute. Meanwhile Papageno is pardoned his loquacity, but told that he shall never feel the joy of the elect. He thinks he can make shift with a pretty wife instead. The old woman of the trial chamber appears and discloses herself as the charming, youthful Papageno, but only for an instant. He calls after her in vain, and is about to hang himself when the genii remind him of his magic bells. He rings and sings ; his feathered mate comes to him. Monostatos aids the Queen of Night and her companions in an assault upon the sanctuary; but a storm confounds them, and Sarastro blesses the union of Tamino and Pamina, amidst joyful hymning by the elect.
An extraordinary hodgepodge, truly, yet, taken all in all, an effective stage piece. Goethe was so impressed with the ingenuity shown by Schikaneder in treating the device of contrast that he seriously contemplated writing a second part, the music of which was to be composed by Wranitzky, who set Gieseke’s operatic version of “Oberon.” German critics and managers have deplored its absurdities and contradictions, but have found no way to obviate them which can be said to be generally acceptable. The buffooneries cannot be separated from the sublimities without disrupting the piece, nor can its doggerel be turned into dignified verse. It were best, I fancy, that managers should treat the opera, and audiences receive it, as a sort of Christmas pantomime which Mozart has glorified by his music. The tendency of German critics has been to view it with too much seriousness. It is difficult to avoid this while one is under the magic spell of its music, but the only way to become reconciled to it on reflection is to take it as the story of its creation shows that its creators intended it to be taken ; namely, as a piece designed to suit the tastes of the uncultivated and careless masses. This will explain the singular sacrifice of principle which Mozart made in permitting a mountebank like Schikaneder to pass judgment on his music while he was composing it, to exact that one duet should be composed over five times before he would accept it, and even to suggest melodies for some of the numbers. Jahn would have us believe that Mozart was so concerned at the failure of the first act to win applause at the first performance that he came behind the scenes pale as death to receive comfort and encouragement from Schikaneder; I prefer to believe another story, which is to the effect that Mozart almost died with laughing when he found that the public went into ecstasies over his opera. Certain it is that his pleasure in it was divided. Schikaneder had told him that he might occasionally consult the taste of connoisseurs, and he did so, finding profound satisfaction in the music written for Sarastro and the priests, and doubtless also in the fine ensembles ; but the enthusiasm inspired by what he knew to be concessions to the vulgar only excited his hilarity. The beautiful in the score is amply explained by Mozart’s genius and his marvellous command of the technique of composition. The dignity of the simple idea of a celebration of the mysteries of Isis would have been enough, without the composer’s reverence for Freemasonry and its principles, to inspire him for a great achievement when it came to providing a setting for the scenes in which the priests figure. The rest of the music he seems to have written with little regard to coherency or unity of character. His sister-in-law had a voice of extraordinary range and elasticity ; hence the two display airs; Papageno had to have music in keeping in his character, and Mozart doubt-less wrote it with as little serious thought as he did the “Piece for an Organ in a Clock, in F minor, 4-4,” and “Andante to a Waltz for a Little Organ,” which can be found entered in his autograph catalogue for the last year of his life. In the overture, one of the finest of his instrumental compositions, he returned to a form that had not been in use since the time of Hasse and Graum; in the scene with the two men in armor he made use of a German chorale sung in octaves as a canto firmo, with counterpoint in the orchestra a recondite idea which it is difficult to imagine him inventing for this opera. I fancy (not without evidence) that he made the number out of material found in his sketch-book. These things indicate that the depth which the critics with deep-diving and bottom-scraping proclivities affect to see in the work is rather the product of imagination than real.