Explain the puzzle, tell me now.”

—Tamino, Act 1,
The Magic Flute

The libretto of The Magic Flute, once dismissed as absurd and undeserving of serious scrutiny, is today overmined for buried “meaning” and “significance,” and often uncritically praised as a “faultless dramatic structure.” Nor will a balance between Philistine ridicule and sanctimonious approbation be found in the latest spate of books about the opera, which are far more concerned with the interpretation of the libretto than with the musico-dramatic entity. In all likelihood the inadvertent as well as the intentional enigmas of the plot, along with the perennial controversy over the authorship of the libretto, will continue to provide a rich quarry for musicologists. But two other particular mysteries envelop The Magic Flute: the question of the representation of Freemasonry, which some believe was more important to Mozart than his Catholicism, and the seeming coincidence of death as a theme of the opera and Mozart’s own tragic end after he completed the work.

Most audiences for Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute will come to it as they would to any other film, being quite unaware that the allegorical content has provoked more than a century of debate. Though trying to experience the cinema version through moviegoers’ eyes and to judge it on its own merits, the reviewer still must mention from the outset that the film highlights the inconsistencies and structural weaknesses of the libretto. That Bergman also recognizes them is evident in his transpositions of episodes; one of these, the switching of the Papageno courtship scene from the end of the opera to a place immediately preceding the scene of the Ordeals, eliminates a serious anticlimax. The camera also points up illogicalities that may not trouble opera audiences, inured as they are to the conventions of that form, but will disturb Bergman addicts who are accustomed to expect at least a modicum of rational sequence.

The film seems to have been conceived in misunderstandings. Bergman revealed a surprising aspect of his artistic approach in a publicity release:

The most important factor to me was that the singers should have natural voices. You can find artificially cultivated voices that sound marvelous, but you can never really believe that a human personality is doing the singing.

The truth is that only the most highly trained voices can even attempt to sing The Magic Flute. Nor, by way of compensation, does Bergman’s cast, which is unable to sing it, abound in “human personalities.” The opera’s greatest musical delights can be achieved only if the role of Pamina is entrusted to a consummate artist possessing a superior voice—unfortunately not the case here. Musically inadequate, too, are Tamino, whose singing certainly does not suffer from too much “cultivation”; Papageno, whom the film audience might easily take to be the opera’s chief protagonist; and the Queen of Night, who sounds extremely harsh in Act II (a touch of Bergman, not Mozart, realism) and who is uncertain in pitch toward the end, the final B flat of her second aria belonging to some species of unidentified flying objects.

If the voices are “natural,” Bergman’s simulated theater audience, over which the camera periodically and distractingly pans, is too obviously artificial, being a veritable Family of Man—though with Swedes outnumbering Indians, Japanese, and Bushmen, and no one actually wearing a bone in the nose. The expressions on the faces in this spurious melting pot are studied, and all are intently watching something invisible to the film audience. Throughout the Overture the camera jumps from one blank face to another, sometimes even on the beat, as if Bergman were asking the public to ignore the musical fugue and to watch a visual one on the countenance of mankind. At the change of tempo, however, the camera offers a glimpse of Lange’s portrait of Mozart’s inspiring face, then returns to the audience, then once more, during a measure’s rest, shunts back to Mozart, and, finally, in accelerando, again settles on the now-transfixed audience.

The illusion of an actual performance is partly established through some preliminary shots of Drottningholm, whose Royal Theater is contemporary to the one in which The Magic Flute was first played. The film also uses the eighteenth-century thunder-maker, creaky deus ex machina, and other props—though not Tamino’s charmed animals, which look like expensive Christmas toys from F. A. O. Schwarz. The pretense of a live production is further sustained by the sound of an orchestra tuning up, by applause at the ends of scenes and acts, and by backstage tours, on one of which we see Papageno preparing to make an entrance, the Queen of Night’s Ladies puffing cigarettes, and a slave of Monostatos reading a Donald Duck comic. Another theatrical, as opposed to cinematographic, device is the occasional display of posters spelling out maxims from such songs as “Könnte jeder brave Mann.” But almost the only special technique of the film medium that Bergman employs is the close-up; rarely does the camera look at the stage even from the perspective of the Drottningholm audience, and during Pamina’s great aria, “Ach, ich fühl’s,” the lens focuses claustrophobically on her mouth and—that currently overpublicized anatomical feature—jaws.


The scenery and costumes represent a variety of periods that does not include the Egyptian, the only one traditional to the opera. Thus Pamina is dressed like a Habsburg princess. Monostatos sports a von Stroheim tunic and haircut, and Papagena wears a modern fur-collar coat and matching hat—in the snow, this apocryphal substance apparently being intended to suggest still another Ordeal to add to those of Water and Fire. Except that the flames are very loud, the back-drops might have been adapted from Doré’s Dante.

Bergman generally follows the libretto, despite minor cuts, interpolations, and changes of order, most of which are justifiable. A more serious complaint might be that he missed an opportunity to alter the spoken dialogue and thereby, if possible, clarify the subject-matter and the story. Scholars have attempted to show that the action of the play is coherent, obscurities and inconsistencies notwithstanding. But their explications usually depend on vague references to “Mozart’s genius.” Here, for instance, is the argument of a critic for the London Times:

The contradictions make reasonable sense and do not need to be explained away. Chiefly it is Mozart’s music that makes sense of the peculiar mixture…in the humanity which he found rooted and grounded in every scene and character.

But does this say anything? In truth, the libretto makes so little sense that such eminent Mozartians as Edward Dent1 and Hermann Abert2 reached the conclusion that the original dramatic scheme must have been changed after the first scenes had already been composed.

The crux of the Dent-Abert thesis is that the forces of evil, as they are so presented at the beginning of the story, must have been intended to continue as such throughout, and that later Mozart and his librettist, wishing to expand the representations of their Masonic rituals and beliefs, reversed the line-up, making the good Queen bad and the bad sorcerer good. At the beginning, the Queen of Night enlists the spectator’s sympathies by saving the life of Tamino, a wandering prince to whom she entrusts the rescue of her daughter, who has been kidnaped by Sarastro. The Queen does not trouble to explain that this supposedly evil magus is actually the girl’s guardian and her dead father’s deputy.

But when Tamino becomes fully acquainted with Sarastro it is revealed that he and his brotherhood are the virtuous ones and the Queen and her followers the villains. This switch is effected without preparation either in the development of the characters or through dramatic incident, and, as a result, during most of the opera viewers are confused and unable to identify with one side or the other; after being deceived about the first alignment, they naturally mistrust the second.

Professor Chailley and others dispute the Dent-Abert theory, holding that the turnabout in roles is a calculated ruse, and that the ambiguities are resolved by the end of the first act. Chailley commits himself to the postulate that

Nothing appears in the behavior of the Queen of Night of the legendary change in the subject, no alteration, but instead an altogether normal psychological progression….

In order to account for the Queen’s anger and violence in Act 2, he rationalizes that, being thwarted in the “hope of the domination of Woman over Man, [she] becomes deranged.” But no “psychological progression” leading to madness has been shown. And if the libretto is to be analyzed in these modern terms, why does the Queen undergo such an overwhelming change, while her daughter, who is subjected to attempted rape, imprisonment, rejection by those closest to her, and extreme mental cruelty, survives unscathed—and all this without the advantage of her mother’s supernatural powers? What makes Chailley’s thesis even less tenable, however, is that it implies an audience sophistication far beyond that of the popular theater for which the opera was written.

Further blurring of the division between right and wrong is exemplified in the character of Pamina’s actual jailer, Monostatos, whose wickedness is manifest and consistent throughout the opera, but who, for some reason, is Sarastro’s trusted servant. Here the audience balks, having already learned that Sarastro has the power “to read hearts” and must therefore be aware of Monostatos’s evil designs on Pamina. Sarastro is further suspect for his failure to explain to the terrified Pamina that her abduction and captivity were for her own protection. Then, when he states his case against her mother, the charges prove to be petty and unimpressive: the Queen is arrogant and too ambitious for a woman, although these same qualities are acceptable in Sarastro himself, who in addition is self-righteous, tyrannical, and a slaveholder.


Fairy stories—and The Magic Flute is one—are based on Manichaean oppositions; the right side triumphs in the end and the moral is made. But in this opera, while the audience is frequently advised of Sarastro’s virtues, he actually shows himself as vindictive, and both he and the Speaker of the brotherhood are revealed as rabid misogynists: after condemning her mother, Sarastro tells Pamina, “You need a man to guide you,” while the Speaker warns Tamino that women are mere chatterers and not to be trusted. No sharply contrasting character traits are distributed to either side, in fact, and the real contest reduces to one between the sexes, a war actually fought in the opera’s penultimate scene—and predictably won by the men in five seconds flat.

True, when Tamino is ordained into the brotherhood, Pamina stands by his side wearing the same robes, thereby indicating that she too has been admitted in at least a limited capacity (as women were allowed to become Freemasons in Mozart’s time). But this does not gainsay the opera’s profoundly anti-female bias—from which it is not possible to infer Mozart’s own views on “women’s place,” although The Magic Flute does reflect his well-known idealization of the institution of marriage.

That Mozart was an ardent Mason the opera gives full testimony; he was an active one, too, having induced Joseph Haydn, among others, to join this fraternity. But Mozart was also, and supremely, an artist, who understood that Pamina had to be made the opera’s central character. In comparison, Tamino is without any background, and, for the first part of the action, his only raison d’être is the search for a wife who has been selected for him by a stranger. (His later quest for Wisdom might be considered as further evidence of a change in the plan of the libretto.) Pamina is as loyal and pure as her suitor and may be even braver, for when he reminds her that they might die during the Ordeals, she answers simply: “But we will be together.”

Mozart wrote much of The Magic Flute’s most glorious music for Pamina, yet she is not a real character but a Never-Never-Land Pollyanna. By contrast, Papageno is so human that he seems to belong in another kind of opera. In fact, the Papageno story exposes the “something-for-everyone,” multilevel appeal that to some people is a stumbling block. Though apologists refer to a “perfect fusion,” in actuality the two incongruous scenarios, Papageno’s box-office matinee musical and the Trials of Tamino and Pamina, never blend into a comfortable unity. If the opera had not employed spoken dialogue, Mozart might have provided transitions between the two levels, connecting the Quintet, for example, with the first aria of the Queen of Night; the beginning of the second of these pieces—as it stands, in close juxtaposition—lets the listener down abruptly.

But Mozart could hardly be expected to tamper with the natural limitations of the slow-witted, garrulous Papageno. The composer’s logic of characterization required that bumpkins have bumpkins’ music. (In one of his letters he uses “Papageno” as a synonym for “ass.”) Undeniably the music exactly suits the part, but the repeated verses of the songs are tedious in spite of variations in the accompaniments. This of course has no bearing on Mozart’s very evident delight in composing for the glockenspiel, music reminding us that he was a native of cuckoo-clock country himself.

The role of Papageno is disproportionately large, presumably because Emanuel Schikaneder, who commissioned the opera and produced it in his own theater, played the part as well as wrote it. Obviously Mozart had little control over its dimensions and prominence, or over the preferential but misplaced position of the Papageno-Papagena scene so near the end of the opera. Nor is this bird-seller’s romance simply a foil, on another social plane, to that of the hero and heroine. Yet it is through Papageno’s fibbing and faint-heartedness, and the limitation of his world to the satisfaction of bodily needs, that the opera upholds the class prejudices of the ancien régime. (Sarastro, incidentally, seems to advocate at least one egalitarian principle when he is reminded that Tamino is of royal blood and replies: “He is a man and that is enough”; but it is evident that Papageno could never enter the brotherhood if only because of his lack of breeding.)

Unlike other Mozart operas, The Magic Flute depicts neither a class struggle, nor, as in Figaro, a class hatred. But the opera does contain two truly revolutionary innovations—as distinguished from the much vaunted but false humanism of the brotherhood. The first is that Papageno’s deficiencies are presented as gemütlich, to the conspicuous pleasure of audiences that share them. The second is that because of its spoken dialogue the opera must be performed in the vernacular. Even though these departures had been tried before, and by Mozart himself, The Magic Flute is a kind of turning point in both respects, after which opera ceases to be an exclusively upper-class entertainment.

The story of the appalling circumstances of the final months of Mozart’s life, during which the opera was written and performed, has so left its mark on the world that to this day his poverty and death are blamed on the neglect of everyone associated with him. Schikaneder has been the principal target of this reaction, partly because he apparently did not share any profits with Mozart when the opera became a success during the composer’s last days. Moreover, Mozart’s name appears on the original playbill both misspelled (“Mozard”) and in a type-size indecently smaller than Schikaneder’s. Yet the two men had been friends for eleven years, and neither the composer’s widow nor her second husband, who was Mozart’s first biographer, seems to have accused the impresario of unfairness; in fact, the widow expressed her gratitude for his gift of the proceeds from the first performance of the opera after Mozart’s death. Then too, Schikaneder himself must have been hard-pressed financially since he declared bankruptcy soon after. (Oddly, no odium has attached to Mozart’s prosperous friends, such as Baron van Swieten, a fellow Mason as well as one of the few people who had an inkling of Mozart’s genius: but van Swieten’s only help was to counsel the widow to order an inexpensive funeral.)

Die Opern in Deutschland, a history by an ex-singer and opera director published in 1849, repeated a sensational assertion, made in Vienna thirty years previously, that except for the parts of Papageno and Papagena, the Magic Flute libretto was written not by Schikaneder but by Carl Ludwig Giesecke,3 who worked as a writer for Schikaneder at the time that The Magic Flute was composed. This story originated with Giesecke himself and was corroborated by some of those who heard it, among them a Mozart pupil (who was too young in 1791, however, to have been more than a hearsay witness). Support for Giesecke is found in a preface to a libretto by Schikaneder dated three years after Mozart’s death and referring to an unnamed literary hack’s unscrupulous claims to the authorship of The Magic Flute. Mozart’s principal biographer, Otto Jahn, who had no direct knowledge of the affair, nevertheless believed the Giesecke story, as have many subsequent Mozart scholars, including Dent, a large part of whose essay on the opera is devoted to this question.

After giving up his operatic affiliations, Giesecke had a successful career as a mineralogist, working as one in Greenland for seven years, for the king of Denmark, and later holding a professorship in Dublin. But the story of the collaboration on The Magic Flute is unconvincing. Why did Giesecke say nothing about it later in life, since he lived until a time (1833) when the opera had become internationally famous? Dent’s answers are that Giesecke might have been reticent about a former association with the stage, and that he may have had qualms about breaking a Masonic vow and impugning Schikaneder. But however compromised Giesecke may have felt by his early theatrical career, to have known Mozart was never cause for shame, besides which the vow had already been broken in 1819. The real puzzle is in Giesecke’s failure to authenticate his claim while in Vienna at that time, or earlier in Copenhagen, where he could have consulted Mozart’s widow.

Not until 1941 did anyone undertake a stylistic analysis and comparison between the Magic Flute libretto and others by Schikaneder and Giesecke. In that year, Egon von Komorzynski effectively demonstrated4 that Schikaneder was at least the principal author. More recently, Professor Batley’s A Preface to “The Magic Flute” amplifies this conclusion and attempts to rehabilitate Schikaneder’s reputation:

Productions of lesser quality had begun to appear on Schikaneder’s stage [by 1791] including the various plagiarisms, travesties and adaptations of…Giesecke.

But Professor Batley’s book is more valuable for its account of the origins and development of the Singspiel, a visual and dialogue genre of theater, popular in tone and moralizing in attitude. He traces the history of this form in Vienna in the half-century before The Magic Flute (and earlier than that elsewhere), and describes the form’s various categories—heroic, romantic, comic, allegoric, magic—from which Schikaneder drew. This study uncovers the derivations in other works of characters and incidents in The Magic Flute, and even of some copied language. Thus the prototype of the Queen of Night is found in Hafner’s Megäras, Die Förchtenliche Hexe (1763), while Papageno’s “suicide” scene was almost commonplace on the Vienna stage.

Professor Batley is neither thorough nor very sound, however, seriously undermining the reader’s confidence, for example, by such mistakes as:

The Magic Flute was not performed until September 30…. Mozart, very ill by this time, died five weeks later on December 5

The Professor also regards the question whether the priesthood in the opera

was specifically intended to portray a Masonic brotherhood [as] by no means satisfactorily resolved.

But since every other writer on the subject accepts the Masonic element prima facie, surely some evidence might have been presented to support this dissenting opinion. Finally, in his zeal to establish Schikaneder’s influence on the score as well, Professor Batley ascribes to him the suggestion that the entrance of the brotherhood in Act 2 should be accompanied by music, and the “clever” idea of introducing the Papageno-Papagena duet by gradually increasing the velocity of the repeated syllable “pa.” But Mozart had already fully exploited these plosives at the end of the duet, and the priests’ March is a miscalculation, detracting from the chorus that follows by too much resembling it in tempo and character; nor is this March one of those “happy mistakes,” like the shadow that lies in the wrong direction in a great painting though it fits perfectly in the composition.

But the caliber of the literature about The Magic Flute is sophomoric. Professor Moberly’s essay, for instance, is little more than a line-by-line guide, on this level:

the strings trip along; they have a message to make: “O, let us to our mistress hurry!”

And even Dent is capable of inanities, such as the following:

Mozart’s religious feelings [are] at their sanest and most exalted [in The Magic Flute] …the “sublime” is definitely not a characteristic of Mozart, but if he ever approached the vision of it, it was in this opera, and nowhere else…. It is just this sense of freedom and grandeur [on the entrance of Sarastro] that is often wanting in Mozart’s church music….

In some of Mozart’s church music, like the merely brilliant Coronation Mass. But the remark is wildly untrue of the Qui tollis in the C minor Mass, which is incontrovertibly “religious,” “sane,” “exalted,” and “sublime.” Even more foolishly, Dent avers that the styles of the opera and of the Requiem overlap, and that the latter does not

express primary and elemental religious emotions, but [seeks] rather to reproduce the correct and conventional ecclesiastical atmosphere.

The entrance of the tenor and first two phrases of the soprano in the Tuba mirum do indeed evoke the opera, and the Requiem is indisputably dramatic. But only the Dies irae and the last few measures of the Rex tremendae and last fifteen of the Confutatis are complete enough to give much indication of what the Requiem would have been. If it can be compared at all, it is not to a completed work and certainly not to one for the stage, but to some great maimed masterpiece such as the Victory of Samothrace.

Professor Chailley’s investigations of the Masonic background and ritual, and his analyses of the ternary vs. quinary, and other male and female, symbols,5 are exhaustive to a degree that will discourage the general reader. Furthermore, Chailley is more concerned with the libretto than with the music, his exposition of the plot being as detailed as anyone could want. Yet his analysis of Masonic symbolism in the music raises questions. Thus the fugue in the Overture represents a form of architecture, he says, and hence stands for the craft of masonry. But the publication of the sketches6 for the Overture reveals that Mozart’s first idea for the Allegro was not this fugue but, instead, the theme of true love, the upward sixth and descending scale melodic design of Tamino’s “Dies Bildnis” and Pamina’s “Tamino mein!” This first idea may have been abandoned in favor of the fugue for the symbolic reason, but even a glance at the sketches shows that Mozart had compelling musical reasons as well. That his deepest beliefs are intrinsic to the music is demonstrable, yet his personal identification with the opera’s Masonic philosophy is irrelevant in judging its artistic features.

The Magic Flute contains remarkably few resemblances to the music of Mozart’s earlier operas. The March for Sarastro is reminiscent of Figaro, a phrase near the end of the “Auf Wiedersehen” scene recalls the first Terzetto in Così, and Monostatos’s “Alles fühlt” suggests The Seraglio, the exotic still being associated in Mozart’s mind with things Turkish. (How ingenious to have characterized the Moor’s lechery in “nervous” music!) But these few remembrances of things past are minor compared to the cornucopia of new marvels in Act 2: the Queen of Night, Sarastro, the Terzetto, Pamina’s aria, the Chorus, and the second Terzetto—a contrast of ensembles and arias, of tempi, moods, and of extremes of vocal range, that is unequaled. This diversity is carried too far with Papageno’s “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen,” which is a long way down after the others; but the array of separate numbers just before this interruption achieves a continuity as perfectly sustained as that of the symphonic finales in Figaro and Don Giovanni.

Yet if originality, as well as intensity of expression, is a criterion, the most stunning music of all is found not in these closed forms but in the two dialogues, Tamino and the Speaker, and Pamina and Sarastro. These episodes combine recitative and arioso in a manner strikingly similar to Bach, and, in the exchanges between Tamino and the Speaker, to God and the Evangelist in the Bach Passions—except that Mozart blends the older sacred style with operatic figurations. The history of opera reaches a peak with this music and prepares the path for Wagner, something that can be said only in a lesser degree even of the very remarkable choruses.

The new edition of the score7 includes the cadenza that Mozart deleted because the singers could not perform it. But the scene is too long anyway. Also, it suffers musically by following the greatest of his overtures, and dramatically because of its content, a confrontation of man and reptile being inherently less promising than one between human beings.

The sheer sound of The Magic Flute is of an unearthly beauty. This was to have been expected from the title of the opera, perhaps, but the instrumental timbres do have a special intensity, and new effects are discovered with the most ordinary combinations of instruments: in the luminosity of the flute and violins in the Quintet (No. 12), in the Bach-like sonority of the two flutes in Sarastro’s aria, and in the wind instruments in the introduction to the C-minor (Masonic key!) fugato.

These examples are taken from the latter part of the opera, but one of the features of the score as a whole is a delicacy that reflects Mozart’s acute aural sensitivity in the last months of his life, when even the singing of his pet canary caused him physical pain. This symptom, together with edema, stomach trouble, vertigo, and spasms of weeping, first suggested a diagnosis of mercury poisoning.8 If it is true that a stigma increases perception, and that disease, especially one that the sufferer may fear to be fatal, serves to heighten experience, then a purely human explanation can be hypothesized for the ethereality of The Magic Flute—though in Mozart’s case we are always inclined to suspect a Divine one.

(This is the third of a series of articles on Mozart; the final one will appear in the next issue.)

This Issue

November 27, 1975