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An Ode to Masonic Idealism: An Analysis of Mozart’s "Magic Flute" And Its Relationship to Freemasonry

By the late eighteenth century, the Free Masons — despite being shielded from public view as a secret society — represented a significant social force across Europe, garnering significant involvement from prominent aristocrats and even ruling princes. The Free Masons vowed to disregard social distinctions, advocating equality and tolerance and uniting members with pledges to fulfill Enlightenment ideals such as rational benevolence, secularism, and human liberation.1) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the prominent and influential Austrian composer, was an active member of the Free Masons beginning with his inception to the Masonic Lodge “Beneficence” (Zur Wohltätigkeit) in 1784. He is also said to have attended Illuminati meetings in Salzburg and was known to have regularly attended meetings at the Masonic lodge “True Harmony” (Zur wahren Eintracht) in Vienna.2)

With the developing fear of public dissent spreading across Europe, Joseph II, ruler of Austria, declared an edict in 1785 ordering that eight of the Viennese lodges be reduced to three, and ordered that records and membership be regularly submitted to the police. The entire Masonic movement was weakened and Mozart’s own lodge “Beneficence” was merged with two others which became “New Crowned Hope” (Zur Neugekrönten Hoffnung), but Freemasonry continued to be a prominent effect on Mozart’s later works.3)

Mozart wrote a number of works for specifically Masonic occasions. For the ceremony on 24 April 1785 which celebrated Ignaz von Born — master of the lodge “True Harmony” — and his discovery of a new method of smelting metals, he composed Die Maurerfreude (K.471).4) The work is said to serve as “an impressive and solemn ode to Masonic joy that already prefigures some elements to come in [Mozart’s] the last operas.” 5)

His last completed work, Eine kleine Freimaurer-Kantate (K.623), was composed in November 1791 and was proclaimed to be a cantata for the inauguration of a Viennese Masonic lodge, to be accompanied by a text written by a fellow mason. Katharine Thomson draws a comparison between the text — supposedly composed by Adolph Franz Friedrich Ludwig Knigge and awash with ideas of the Illuminati — and the ideas and words of Mozart’s last cantata to suggest that Mozart was at the very least versed in the ideas of the Illuminati.6)

Thus, Mozart was clearly an active member of the Masonic Brotherhood, and there is no question that Freemasonry influenced his later works. Quite fitting with this notion is Mozart’s Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), which highlights the influence of Freemasonry on Mozart. The Magic Flute, composed by Mozart in 1791, was undoubtedly molded by Masonic doctrines and riddled with Masonic symbolism. It — through allusions to Masonic ideals, imagery, rituals, initiations, and lodges, through musical symbolism of Freemasonry, and through political allegory of the relationship between Freemasons and government — clearly exhibits significant Masonic influence.

The Magic Flute directly reveals the essential nature of Freemasonry, albeit adorned with allusions discernable only by Masons themselves. Still, there are many easily recognizable allusions to Freemasonry throughout the work. Freemason history is commingled with the mysteries of ancient Egypt which serves to explain the location of the Magic Flute and its shaping by the mysteries of Isis and Osiris.7)

Emanuel Schikaneder, librettist for the Magic Flute and fellow freemason, provided Mozart with the ingredients to celebrate and honor the Brotherhood and littered the text of the Magic Flute with symbolic glorifications of Masonic doctrines of brotherhood, tolerance, and equality.8) It is more than likely as well that Karl Ludwig Gieseke — of the same Masonic lodge as Mozart and Schikaneder — proposed much of the particularly Masonic characteristics of the Magic Flute.9)

Edgar Istel notes that a German Masonic writer quotes a ritualistic passage from the Magic Flute not only as an ancient Egyptian ritual, but also as the “epitaph of Hiram” — said to have been read aloud at specific Masonic ceremonies.10) There are numerous other allusions to Masonic lodges and initiations as well. The young enlightenment-seeker Tamino’s final trials by water and fire are also supposedly an actual part of a Freemasonic initiation.11) The serpent that attacks Tamino is an image that is commonly seen in lodge paintings. A scene in the opera where three ladies serving the Queen of the Night padlock Papageno’s mouth shut has its derivation in an initiation ceremony of “Les Loges d’Adoption.” 12)

The Magic Flute’s characters are representative of Enlightenment and Masonic ideals. Sarastro, “the representative of loftiest humanity, and his priests, are the champions of radiant wisdom, beauty and strength (the three “pillars” of Freemasonry), in opposition to the realm of darkness and superstition represented by the Queen of Night.” 13)

Tamino is an idealistic, high-minded prince. In searching for the light, he recognizes the path to enlightenment; he must not only seek the light of intellect, but that of fraternal brotherhood that the ideals of Freemasonry represent. Once penetrated by these ideals, he is able to emerge from darkness into light. Papageno is an archetypal figure, representing the common and admirably simple man, “whose sole care is for meat and drink.” Pamina, the Queen’s Daughter, accompanies Tamino on his trials and accordingly is offered to be accepted into the Order as a sister, despite the contrary nature of Masonic precepts. The three realms of “Light, Darkness, and Mankind” are strongly contrasted, and the ideal position of Tamino is juxtaposed against the uneventful position of Papageno.14)

Tamino, as a seeker of enlightenment, must follow through darkness on his path to the light and survive the trials by the four elements — “Earth, Water, Air, and Fire” — after which the light of enlightenment will reveal itself and his blindfold will be removed:

“On the back wall stands a representation of a natural scene with a rainbow and sun piercing the clouds – the Enlightenment’s main symbol for the light of knowledge dispersing ignorant superstition…The metaphor of day’s dawning banishing the night is not only central to the Enlightenment but it acted out in the final scenic change of Die Zauberflöte, as a sudden brilliance illuminates the entire theatre and Sarastro sings: ‘The shining of the Sun drives out Night, annihilating the power stolen by hypocrites.’” 15)

The transcendence of the trials of the elements can be viewed within the symbolism that underpins the Magic Flute in its entirety. The conflict between darkness — embodied by the Queen of the Night — and light — embodied by work’s champion of enlightened wisdom, Sarastro — is the philosophical basis for the work, and echoes the ideals of Freemasonry wholeheartedly. The queen, epitomized by dark, irrational, and destructive forces is juxtaposed against the teaching and essence of light and reason, personified by Sarastro and symbolically represented by the sun.16)

Furthermore according to Robert Spaethling, “It is frequently argued, and not without plausibility, that the figure of the priest [Sarastro] is modeled after Ignatz von Born, famed Viennese Freemason and mineralogist…It is further argued that his death may have caused Mozart and Schikaneder to shift the emphasis in the opera from that of a magic play to that of a Masonic and didactic work.” 17)

In the philosophical context of restoring light after darkness, Tamino and Pamina are joined as man and wife, appearing as the symbol of hope and of a new enlightened age. The two grapple with not only negative temptations from the Queen of the Night but their own irrational passions. Though their path is littered with danger, they succeed in their journey for enlightenment with the help of Sarastro’s divine — Masonic — guidance.18)

Putting the Magic Flute in context with other contemporary publications clarifies its Masonic implications. In 1777, the Story of King Sethos, an educational novel set in ancient Egypt was published. It had been translated into German by a Freemason named Matthias Claudius and it was extensively used as a source book for Freemasonry. The novel tells of an Egyptian prince named Sethos who undergoes a series of trials, the first of which is a bout with a serpent; he then must pass a set of trials that is reminiscent of those of Tamino in the Magic Flute:19)

“Whoever walks this path alone without looking back will be purified by fire, by water, and by air; and if he can overcome his fear of death, he will emerge again from the depth of the earth and see the light and will be privileged to prepare his soul for the revelations of the mysteries of the Goddess Isis.” 20)

The trials that Sethos faces in the Story of King Sethos relates extremely closely to those of Tamino in the Magic Flute’s libretto:21)

“He who shall tread this path so full of fear,
Shall cleansed by fire, by water, earth and air;
When he the dread of death can overcome,
From earth he mounts to find in heav’n his home.
In full enlightenment thenceforth may live
Himself to Isis’ mysteries to give.”

The two passages — both telling of the princes’ trials by the elements, overcoming of their fear of death, and preparation for the enlightenment of the mysteries of Isis — are nearly identical. The libretto of the Magic Flute was unquestionably influenced by the recently translated Story of King Sethos. It exhibits the attributes of Masonic initiation, emphasizing Tamino as the Masonic apprentice in his progression from a state of ignorance, isolation, and non-enlightenment to one of social responsibility, altruism, and rationality.22)

Another contemporary work that preceded the Magic Flute and likely had significant influence on some of its Masonic symbolism was Johann Gottlieb Naumann’s Osiris, the premiere of which took place in 1781 at Dresden. Its libretto pushes the foundations of Freemasonry to the foreground of the story, preceding the motives of the Magic Flute by a decade. There are numerous parallels between the two works, such as their frequent use of Masonic ritual and emphasis of conflict between good and evil.23) The parallels between Mozart’s the Magic Flute and its contemporary Masonic works serve to clarify its role in glorifying Freemasonry and putting its doctrine to the foreground of the opera’s content.

Katharine Thomson makes an effort to musically define Masonic symbolism and consequently concludes that Mozart’s works, including the Magic Flute, are adorned with musical symbols that are associated with Freemasonic ideas such as fraternity, liberation, and equality. Thomson classifies suspensions and paired slurred notes as denoting the idea of a “chain of brothers.” 24) She considers the melodic figure of a rise of a major sixth as a metaphor for the Masonic triad of “hope, love, and joy.” She deems the rhythmic figures of dotted notes as “resolution and courage,” Grupetto — or grace notes — as “Masonic joy” and staccato chords preceding a rest as a metaphor for “courage and determination.” She goes on to classify harmonically thirds and sixths as a triad of “unity, love, and harmony.” 25)

However, it is difficult to say to what extent one can relate such musical figures to Masonic ideas. Nicholas Temperley in a response to Katharine Thomson claims, “It is hard to imagine [Mozart] writing any substantial work without parallel thirds and sixths and feminine endings, or any serious work without suspensions…Suppose Mozart chose to use some of these without Masonic significance: how could one tell the difference?” 26) It is true that there are natural limits to the interpretations of musical symbolism of Freemasonry. Nevertheless, Thomson provides interesting and compelling evidence of Masonic symbolism in the Magic Flute. There is little question of the Masonic symbolism in the libretto, and moreover, the work’s music does possess characteristics that are overtly Masonic in nature.

The musical accompaniment to the Magic Flute is indeed full of references to the Masonic temple and its teachings. As Edgar Istel points out, the motive of the introductory measure possesses three trombone blasts with specific Masonic meaning:

“We must gain entrance to the temple by means of three strong blows, which signify, Seek, and ye shall find; Ask, and it shall be given you; Knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Zeal, faithfulness and constancy are the requisites. Entrance into the fraternity, however, is voluntary, a result of one’s own intention, endeavor and strength, aimed at arriving at the truth.” 27)

Thus, according to Istel, the three trombone blasts compose the meaningful opening of the work, the significance of which is to portray Freemasonic ceremony in extravagant musical form.28)

Three, furthermore, represents a very important number in Freemasonry, and suggestive repetitions of the number are clearly interwoven throughout the entire work: the three trombone blasts repeated three times in important passages; Sarastro’s train of priests sounds three triads in three passages. “In the accompaniment to Sarastro’s aria, ‘O Isis und Osiris,’ thrice three groups of instruments are employed; three Ladies and three Genii appear regularly; the three Boys thrice bring aid to Tamino in his trials, of which he must undergo three; etc.” 29) There are many speculations about the significance of the number three to Masonic doctrine; it is at the very least an important Masonic symbol, a point which is emphasized in the Magic Flute.

The Magic Flute is also argued to have been a political allegory for Freemasonry and government. Ignaz von Born — celebrated Freemason — was said to be the benevolent Sarastro set against Empress Maria Theresa as the unenlightened (anti-Masonic) Queen of the Night, Tamino a representative of the hope for a more enlightened government — an allusion to Joseph II — while Pamina represented the Austrian people, ready to be united in enlightenment.30)

In the context of the push of monarchial leaders against Freemasonry, the enlightened, Masonic message of the Magic Flute is directed at Leopold II, successor of Joseph II, as “most of the Josephinian reforms were soon dismantled and the masons had to go into hiding again.” 31) Schikaneder, in the libretto, repeatedly emphasizes the virtue of silence, suggesting parallels between Tamino’s appropriate discretion during his trials and the political atmosphere which was impelling Masons into secrecy.32) The work thus served to parallel the political atmosphere and espouse a shift towards an enlightened society.

The Magic Flute was unquestionably molded by Masonic ideals and littered with Masonic symbolism. Marked by allusions to Masonic imagery and rituals, as well as musical symbolism and political allegory of the relationship between Freemasons and government, the Magic Flute serves as an exhibit of Masonic doctrine and emphasizes the influence of Freemasonry on the later works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

References

  1. Heartz, Daniel. “La clemenza di Sarastro. Masonic Benevolence in Mozart's Last Operas,” The Musical Times 124, no.1681 (1983): 152-157.
  2. Istel, Edgar. “Mozart’s ‘Magical Flute’ and Freemasonry,” trans. Theodore Baker, The Musical Quarterly 13, no. 4 (1927): 510-527.
  3. Nettl, Paul. “Freemasons’ Music in the Eighteenth Century,” trans. Theodore Baker, The Musical Quarterly 16, no. 2 (1930): 191-198.
  4. Spaethling, Robert. “Folklore and Enlightenment in the Libretto of Mozart's Magic Flute,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 9, no. 1 (1975): 45-68.
  5. Temperley, Nicholas. “Mozart and Freemasonry,” Music & Letters 58, no. 1 (1977): 120-121.
  6. Thomson, Katharine. “Mozart and Freemasonry,” Music & Letters 57, no. 1 (1976): 25-46.
1) Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995): 22.
2) Katharine Thomson, “Mozart and Freemasonry,” Music & Letters 57, no. 1 (1976): 27.
3) Katharine Thomson, 27.
4) Katharine Thomson, 28.
5) Daniel Heartz, “La clemenza di Sarastro. Masonic Benevolence in Mozart's Last Operas,” The Musical Times 124, no.1681 (1983): 153.
6) Katharine Thomson, 34.
7) Edgar Istel, “Mozart’s ‘Magical Flute’ and Freemasonry,” trans. Theodore Baker, The Musical Quarterly 13, no. 4 (1927): 510
8) Edgar Istel, 512.
9) Edgar Istel, 513.
10) Edgar Istel, 514.
11) Edgar Istel, 522.
12) , 15) Daniel Heartz, 154.
13) Edgar Istel, 520.
14) Edgar Istel, 521.
16) Robert Spaethling, “Folklore and Enlightenment in the Libretto of Mozart's Magic Flute,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 9, no. 1 (1975): 58.
17) Spaethling, 58.
18) Spaethling, 60.
19) Spaethling, 50.
20) Matthias Claudius, The Story of King Sethos, as quoted in Spaethling, 50.
21) Emanuel Schikaneder and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, The Magic Flute, as quoted in Istel, 522.
22) Spaethling, 53.
23) Paul Nettl, “Freemasons’ Music in the Eighteenth Century,” trans. Theodore Baker, The Musical Quarterly 16, no. 2 (1930): 197-198.
24) Katharine Thomson, 29.
25) Katharine Thomson, 33-34.
26) Nicholas Temperley, “Mozart and Freemasonry,” Music & Letters 58, no. 1 (1977): 121.
27) Edgar Istel, 523-524.
28) , 29) Edgar Istel, 524.
30) Spaethling, 59.
31) Daniel Heartz, 157.
32) Daniel Heartz, 153.

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