Magic Flute, The

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Magic Flute, The

The sublime music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) is frequently contrasted with the banal philosophy, purloined symbolism, obvious misogyny, and crude racism of its libretto, attributed to German librettist Emanuel Schikaneder (1751–1812). The series of contradictions between noble music and offensive text is of signal importance, not only as it relates to Mozart but as it relates to other operatic composers, notably Richard Wagner (1813–1883). Some of the most exalted music in opera is tied to the least attractive characters and most offensive situations. Indeed, the most interesting music of Die Zauberflöte is associated with words in the libretto that are not only embarrassing to modern ears, but that were completely unacceptable to the best minds of the Enlightenment.

Does this mean that Mozart was, in the words of his contemporary William Blake (1757–1827), “of the devil’s party?” The least generous interpretation is that he was, in fact, aware of and intentionally endorsed racist and sexist ideas in the libretto. This refocuses attention on the problem raised by Aristotle and Plato of whether music can communicate philosophical intent. The problem is furthermore related to the question raised in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laokoon (1766): “How it is possible to derive aesthetic pleasure from works of art that embody painful, horrifying, or disgusting subjects?”

While the opera was first performed in September 1791, its origins have been traced to a story by August Liebeskind, Lulu, oder Die Zauberflöte (Lulu, or the magic flute), which was published in a collection of fairy tales by Christoph Martin Wieland in 1789. The text is usually attributed to Emanuel Schikaneder, although shortly after its appearance Karl Ludwig Giesecke claimed authorship, and some historians safely assign coauthorship. Regardless, the libretto is no masterwork of artistic integrity, but rather an incoherent semiplagiarized text. It provides no definitive evidence, however, as to Mozart’s attitudes on gender, race, and class.

The text of Die Zauberflöte celebrates human brotherhood in lyrics similar to those of Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy, which Ludwig van Beethoven used in his Ninth Symphony, another expression of Enlightenment values. The opera’s text, like the writings of Thomas Jefferson, reveals the moral paradoxes and intellectual inconsistencies of Enlightenment attitudes on race. The “Age of Reason,” was also an age of romantic nationalism, religious enthusiasm, and maudlin sentimentality. Mozart composed in an age dominated by the madness of crowds and the febrile passions of gender, race, and class. His music is the epitome of crystalline regularity, but in the Magic Flute it is set in a plot that is disruptive and irrational. The philanthropy and interpretive Freemasonry, with its preachments of liberty, fraternity, and equality, are blandly superficial. They fall miserably short of the more inclusive philanthropy of William Blake, whose Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) are critiques of Enlightenment hypocrisy.

Mozart made no pretensions to being a philosopher, nor did he leave behind a corpus of writings on the social, political, religious controversies of his time. Indeed, in both the stage and screen versions of Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus, he is portrayed as a case of arrested development, as an infantile prodigy struggling for independence from a dominant father, and this portrait has not helped his reputation.

In contrast to Die Zauberflöte, Mozart’s great Italian operas, including La nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), for which Pierre de Beaumarchais provided the ideology and Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote the libretto, demonstrate enlightened, even revolutionary attitudes towards gender and class. Susanna, the heroine of Figaro, is not the passive victim of Count Almaviva, but a shrewd calculator, who exposes the clumsiness of his passions, and repeatedly makes a fool of him. Don Giovanni is an undisguised commentary on the meanness of the aristocracy, for the Don is not portrayed as a man of refinement, but as a pig whose insatiability at the dining table recapitulates the theme of his sexual gluttony. Die Zauberflöte contains no such obvious elements of political satire or social protest.

The serpentine structure of Die Zauberflöte recoils on itself through numerous illogical twists and turns, justifying the long-held view that it was wantonly assembled from a hodgepodge of incoherent ideas. In the opening scene, Prince Tamino, shrieking for help, is chased on stage by a serpent and he faints without putting up a fight. This unlikely Heldentenor is rescued by three spear-bearing women who cut the snake to pieces with their Walküre spears. On awakening from his swoon Tamino encounters Papagano, a comic figure attired in bird feathers, whom he mistakenly believes to be his savior. Papageno willingly allows him to persist in the delusion until the women reappear to set matters right. The Walküres, it turns out, are servants of the Queen of the Night, who enters in a thundercloud to charge Tamino with the task of rescuing her daughter Pamina from Sarastro, whom she describes as an evil priest. Eventually, the plot changes direction when it turns out that the Queen is merely a misguided and spiteful woman who foolishly attempts to upset the natural order by her unwillingness to submit to masculine authority.

The overt sexism of the opera is accompanied by acute racism located in the character of Monostatos, Sarastro’s cowardly and lascivious black servant. Monostatos contemplates raping Pamina in the second act, but he is interrupted by the thunderings of the wrathful Queen. Later, however, Monostatos woos the Queen and teams up with her to oppose Sarastro. In the meantime, Tamino decides to join Sarastro’s priesthood and submits to a rite that, by all accounts, resembles a Masonic initiation. By the end of the opera, Tamino is betrothed to Pamina, the Queen’s plottings have been foiled, and Papageno has happily discovered his feminine counterpart, Papagena, a bird-woman with whom he will sensibly settle down and raise a family.

The opera’s racism is most excruciating in the aria Monostatos sings in the second act, as he creeps toward the sleeping Pamina with loathsome intent. Monostatos is repugnant, not only because of the cowardice and fawning subservience that mark his character, but because he intends to violate the helpless innocence of Pamina:

Everyone feels the joy of love; bill and coo, flirt, and squeeze and kiss. But I’m supposed to do without love because a black man is ugly! Is there no heart set aside for me? Am I not flesh and blood? It would be hell to live forever without a woman! And as I live and breathe, I want someone to rub noses with, and feel some tenderness. I’ll get myself a white girl. Whiteness is beautiful; I must kiss her! Hide yourself, oh Moon! If you find this sight too vexing, then shut your eyes!

The music of this aria, composed in Mozart’s celebrated mock-Turkish style, certainly deserved better than these sentiments. But it is unclear whether the opera, with its misogynistic slurs and racial derision, should be considered a guide to Mozart’s thoughts on any subject. While the lyrics of Die Zauberflöte range from the banal to the opprobrious, some of them reveal an inadvertent comic wisdom. Papageno is a wise fool, and he seems to be the only character endowed with common sense. His famous aria, Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen, seems artless, unless one pays attention to the complicated glockenspiel accompaniment. Papageno’s music in contrast to his clownish, cowardly, and hedonistic manner, is the essence of classicism, if by classicism is meant strophic integrity and Pythagorean symmetry.

The racism and sexism that undermine the egalitarianism of The Magic Flute display both the strengths and limitations of Enlightenment philanthropy. The clichés about all men being created equal, mouthed by Sarastro and his council of priests, is crippled by embarrassing racial and sexual stereotypes. While its idealism is inspiring and its arcane symbolism superficially linked to an ostensibly enlightened Freemasonry, Die Zauberflöte, with its inconsistent character development and ideological defects, hardly represents the best that was thought and said about human brotherhood in the world of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.


Biancolli, Louis Leopold. 1954. The Mozart Handbook: A Guide to the Man and His Music. New York: World Publishing Co.

Chailley, Jacques. 1971. The Magic Flute, Masonic Opera: An Interpretation of the Libretto and the Music. New York: A. A. Knopf.

Keefe, Simon P. 2003. The Cambridge Companion to Music. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson J. Moses

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