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The Magic Flute : A Masonic Opera
The Magic Flute is not an opera with a conventional plot in the traditional sense, but a story about initiation. A convinced freemason, Mozart took his plot from the rites of the Masonic order itself and he turned the opera into an apology for the order, replete with all its symbols, but enriched with a number of infinitely more subtle dramatic elements : the many quarrels between Sarastro and the Queen of Night, the conflict between day and night; or between Man and Woman. All these themes are really variations on a central idea : Woman’s role in an ideal society. In this case, the ‘woman’ who is cast out as Queen of Night at the beginning of the opera, eventually regains her rightful place as Pamina, after a series of rites of initiation. On another level, The Magic Flute is the apotheosis of the age-old Platonic myth of the Golden Age where the struggle between God and Evil, Light and Darkness are resolved in favor of the former.
The Opera is divided in two parts, each representing a series of rites that Tamino must undergo. In act I, the individual is prepared for initiation by a series of symbolic actions with climax in a symbolic death represented by fainting (in the case of Tamino: at the sight of a snake; of Pamina : when confronted by Monostatos). This symbolic death then leads to the rebirth of ‘’New'’ individual. Only then is the person in question worthy of initiation. Act II carries this initiation further, following the traditional Masonic rituals of tests by the Elements - trial by Earth, Air, Fire and Water.
The overture is an outstanding example of how Mozart manages to express in music abstract philosophical concepts, without the help of words. The orchestra begins by sounding out a series of five chords, presented as long notes followed by short ones. We can find these same five notes at three other places in the opera : when the children make their first entrance; again in the final scene of act I, when Pamina faces Sarastro for the first entrance; again in the final scene of act I, when Pamina faces Sarastro for the first time: and finally, at the conclusion of Act II, when the Quenn of Night is swallowed up along with her followers. The number five has a very symbolic meaning in Masonic symbolism. Five represents the initiation of a woman, replacing the usual number three (representing male initiation) in a woman’s initiation ceremony.
So, with its five-note motif, the opening notes represent Woman; the second motif of three notes represents Man. Once the key of these five introductory chords has been introduced, an adagio prolongs and ‘’comments’’ on them. This adagio describes darkness and chaos. To represent Man, Mozart used a symbol that works easily in musical terms: the number 3. This is the meaning behind these three chords repeated three times and central to the Adagio. So the overture first announces the world of Darkness and Ignorance (those five chords also happen to signify Woman) and then immediately contrasts it with Light, Knowledge and Man (the three-chord motif).
These opposition between these two ‘’kingdoms’’ is the overture’s main idea : the first ‘kingdom’ is that of the Queen of Night, the second that of Sarastro. To claim that their struggle is that of Good an Evil is stretching things too far, because at no stage is it claimed that the Queen represents Evil. Night is darkness but not evil. In fact, The Magic Flute symbolically illustrates the conflict between these two universes, the masculine one and the feminine one, a conflict, which will only be resolved by union between the two after the necessary ritualistic purification. The key to making sense of the opera takes place in the second act. Pamina’s mother tells her a story, which is described but never explained. If the opera starts on an outrageous misogynous tone, it slowly develops towards the idea of Woman’s redemption. The basic theme is therefore the conflict between the two sexes, a conflict that will resolve itself in the mystery of the couple’s relationship. Man and Woman must first of all find one another : once they have, they must go beyond gender through a series of trials that will make eventually them worthy of their new condition.
Complicated in appearance, the action is really quite simple : it shows, in a symbolic way, how Man and Woman, guided by wise men, will attain the wisdom of a couple, which is necessary if the Golden Age is ever to arrive and Woman be redeemed. The Magic Flute was never a silly fable, as many have said. On the contrary, it is the forerunner of symbolic theatre, which was to be carried further in Parsifal and reached its apogee in Palleas et Mélisande. We can always meditate on Mozart’s music, but if we look beyond simple religious dogma, The Magic Flute is the most sublime form of religious expression of its time. Myriam Scherchen