These things we know for certain. It is the spring of 1791 and Mozart is in desperate debt. He owes at least twelve of his brothers at the Benevolence Masonic Lodge, including thirty-thousand (in today's dollars) to one member, while his annual income has dwindled by half to about forty-thousand. His wife of nine years, Constanze, is pregnant again, for the sixth time, and ill; gone with their only child Karl to the spa at Baden for convalescence.
Faced with such straits, Mozart agrees to collaborate on a Singspiel (a German musical with comic patter) with an old acquaintance, Emanuel Schikaneder (pictured right), a longtime singer, actor and all-around theater hack, five years older than Mozart. Schikaneder recently became manager of the Freihaus Theater on the city's outskirts, so called because it is a free theater, as opposed to a court theater, and caters to the lower brow tastes of Viennese suburbanites. Those tastes are partial to fairy tales with stock characters, exotic settings, and spectacles of stage magic and machinery. Schikaneder, whose chief concerns are openly and doggedly commercial, intends to satisfy all his customers' tastes. Aided in small part by one of his actors, Karl Ludwig Giesecke, Schikaneder's libretto is adapted from a new and popular fairy tale of villainy and deliverance by Jakob August Liebeskind called Lulu, or The Magic Flute. Most of the plot is derived from Lulu, while the setting and elements of the action are inspired by a French novel by Jean Terrasson, Sethos, which depicts purification initiation rituals of ancient Egypt. Moreover, the stage at the Freihaus is equipped with an array of theatrical gadgetry, including three trap doors, and Schikaneder wants the new Singspiel to use them to the fullest.
Mozart is given use of a wooden hut in the theater courtyard in which to work. His daily needs are provided for: oysters and wine, and, rumor has it, ladies from Schikaneder's troupe. By July 1, he completes Act 1. He is well into Act 2 when word comes of a commission to write an opera for the celebrations surrounding the coronation of Austrian Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia. It is guaranteed money, unlike Schikaneder's Singspiel, which is speculative, so Mozart has no choice but to interrupt his work. In eighteen days he writes La Clemenza di Tito, a mannered, stilted affair for aristocratic palates, and in late August travels with Constanze to Prague for the premiere. Back in Vienna by mid-September, he is suffering from faltering health. His skin is yellowish and puffy, his eyes protruding. He has just enough time and energy to finish the Singspiel, dashing off the overture two days before the premiere on September 30.
Mozart conducts the first two performances, which the audience of 800 receives warmly, demanding that two parts be encored, and offering, in Mozart's words, "silent approval" to other parts. Given the chance to write for the people, as opposed to the court, Mozart has delivered an egalitarian blend of musical styles like nothing before it. The birdman Papageno (Papagei is German for parrot) is played by Schikaneder to folk-style Singspiel music. The Queen of Night delivers Italianate coloratura arias suitable to a European court. For Sarastro and the truth-seeking priests, there is solemn and painstaking contrapuntal music not unlike Mozart's occasional works for Masonic funerals. For the lovers, Tamino and Pamina, Mozart writes the most pliant music, from naïve to sublime, for it is they who pass through transformations. The Viennese immediately recognize The Magic Flute for what it is: a humanistic morality fable clothed in the costumes of popular theater, an entertainment, complete with special effects.
It has twenty sold-out performances in October. For one, Mozart in the orchestra pit plays the glockenspiel obbligato that accompanies Pagageno's aria "A little maid or wife," intentionally mistiming it as a prank on the hapless Schikaneder. "Everybody laughed," Mozart writes to Constanze, back at the spa, "and I think that many in the audience noticed for the first time that he doesn't play the instrument himself.” Schikaneder is reduced to hissing into the pit, "Shut up!"
How pathetically prophetic. A month later Mozart is silenced and on his death bed. Each night as The Magic Flute is in progress he follows in his mind's eye, watch in hand: "Now they've finished the first act…now comes 'May our vengeance be a sacrifice to you, great Queen of Night!'" In his final hours, he sings in his weak voice the opening measures of Papageno's opening aria, "The birdcatcher am I, always merry and bright, tra la!" He dies December 5, age 35.
By the following November, The Magic Flute is staged for the 100th time, and will continue to be performed at the Freihaus Theater for many years, making a fortune for Schikaneder, which he will squander, while Constanze, who survives her husband by fifty years, sees none of it. To this day, the opera has never left the active repertoire.
Then there are those things we do not know for certain, the myths that have surrounded The Magic Flute since Mozart was alive. At one time or another, speculation, both popular and scholarly, has given currency to each of these myths.
Is Tamino Neoplatonistic, that is, drawn in the reflected image of Orpheus, thus representing Plato's ideas of a spiritual quest? Or is he a stand-in for Emperor Joseph II, recently deceased and an advocate for the Enlightenment? Did the Queen of Night represent late Emperor’s mother Empress Maria Theresa, strewing the stage with color and coloratura, who suppressed Freemasonry's lofty consciousness? For that matter, is Sarastro the Age of Enlightenment scientist Ignaz von Born, a Mason, like Jefferson, Washington and Franklin? Was the major arcana of the tarot pack (the twenty-two picture cards) the determining factor in the creation of the twenty-two music numbers in The Magic Flute? Was Mozart driven by an inner compulsion to advance the cause of German opera? Was the libretto altered significantly mid-way after Mozart attended a play similarly based on the Lulu fairy tale, causing irreconcilable incongruities in the plot? Was The Magic Flute a misogynous stonewall, and Mozart "eternally seeking vengeance for having been, as a child, a learned birdcatcher, trained to catch harpsichord birds"? Goethe warned, "It takes more education to appreciate the worth of this libretto than to deny it.” Myths die hard, but scholarship has, one by one, eviscerated each of these myths, all but one.
What has not been disproved is the influence of the Ancient and Venerable Order of Freemasons. Mozart and Schikaneder seemed to delight in dropping Masonic references in The Magic Flute, notably right out of the gate in the overture where the rhythmic sign of the Fellow Craft is played in the winds three times. This also occurs in the Temple scenes. Indeed, the symbolic figure three, which dominates Masonic symbolism, likewise dominates the opera. Most of the music is written in E-flat major (a key with three flats, B, E, A). There are three temples of Wisdom, Reason and Nature. The Queen of the Night has three ladies-in-waiting. Tamino and Papageno have three boys as their guides. Tamino at the temple tries three doors, etc. And a case has been made for the notion that Mozart and Schikaneder were cleverly trying to reform the secretive all-male Order by asking that women be allowed initiation. Goethe, a fellow Freemason, was delighted by the success of The Magic Flute: “It is enough that the crowd would find pleasure in seeing the spectacle; at the same time, its high significance will not escape the initiates.”
Was Mozart among the initiates? Mozart clearly joined the "gorging and boozing" Benevolence lodge for its social benefits. Schikaneder drifted in and out of lodges with seeming indifference, his lodge membership haphazard at best. For its own survival, The Magic Flute had to score at the box office. Mozart, a man of the theater as surely as was Schikaneder, had to have known that references to an esoteric Order did not make for good box office. Is The Magic Flute a Masonic Opera, and should it be viewed through an Enlightenment prism?
Instead, when hearing Mozart's most serene opera, we might instead heed the words of Maynard Solomon, foremost in Mozartian studies: "Mozart is one of those rare creative beings who comes to disturb the sleep of the world, to trouble our rest, to remind us that all is not well, that neither the center nor the perimeter can hold, that masquerade and reality may well be inter-changeable, that love is frail, life transient, faith unstable."