Siouxland Observer

Master of Science

Friday, May 26, 2017

Mozart’s Bird of Prey. ..?

Mozart, to our ear, mimicked his pet starling in “A Musical JokeAmerican Scientist.

Mozart wrote The Magic Flute in 1791 for Emanuel Schikaneder, the director of a theater in suburban Vienna, which, according to, boasted a deep stage and a capacity of 1,000.  Schikaneder's “popular productions specialized in parodies, satires and fantasies, using imposing sets, ornate props and spectacular stagecraft.”

Both Schikaneder and Mozart were wholehearted Masons, according to classicalnotes, and may have seized upon the opera as an opportunity to communicate their spiritual ideals and boost Masonic moral in time of need. 

H. Paul Jeffers, in his book Freemasons, said the principles of Freemasonry encouraged men to believe in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, and to work to overthrow the despotism of the absolute monarchies of the 18th century and the Catholic Church.

Masonry was under dire attack from both Church and state when Mozart’s opera was first staged and, according to classicalnotes, would become nearly extinct in the years right after Mozart’s death.

But in 1791, progressive governments and local elites were abolishing the old feudal obligations, according to Wikipedia, and the peasants were learning to be ex-serfs. They could own land, sell land, and move about freely. Paternalistic relationships were still ingrained, but changing. And while the Queen of the Night's demand for servitude would have made Schikaneder's audience squirm, her defeat no doubt brought relief.

“Die Zauberflöte" —  The Magic Flute — was part of the zeitgeist that enabled an evil Queen's banishment.  The zeitgeist, or Enlightenment, arguably, still felt today is another reason Mozart's opera, mythically born of poverty in a vaudevillian theater, is still relevant today.

Even non-opera lovers love it.  At least three movies, including The Smurfs and the Magic Flute, have retold the story of love, renewal and the power of good over evil. There is controversy, of course. The racial stereotype of Monostatos, is troubling, and many consider the opera pagan, but it continues to delight.

“The Magic Flute” is a colorful romp.  Clare Colvin, author and opera critic for the Sunday Express said its as close to pantomime as opera gets, and has all the ingredients of a fairy tale “including a wicked witch, a monster and a chorus of wild beasts.”

But the Queen of the Night, die Konigin der Nacht, is without question on the edge of change, making not only her compelling, but humanly evil.  And hands down Diana Damrau’s performance (seen above) captures the rage best. The opera also hints of something much larger.

In the beginning of the opera a “star-blazing queen of night” sings an aria.  Most sopranos do her arias (especially the stunning second aria, Der Hölle Rache) almost passively — even though the Queen makes an impossible demand of a captive guest — when it should be complicated, compelling and tragic.

In her selfish act of preservation, the Queen of the Night demands her "daughter" kill another.  She is defeated in this quest, but asked the question: “Sarastro wants to destroy me and annihilate my dark kingdom (the night).  Are you on his side, or mine?”

On one level this is just a fantasy, a struggle between day and night.  And yet it's more nuanced than this.  Among other things, it asks us to understand how a matriarchal order can go wrong in seeking redemption from a changing world order.  A world order that will continue subjugating women.

In more ways than one, the Queen of the Night can be regarded as an early symbol of a free woman,” Villains Wikia said, “given that she claims something which she regards as her legitimate heirloom, but whose property she was denied because she is a woman.

“She strongly resents this, and is willing to defy the patriarchal order who denies her all authority by any mean she can.  She can also be regarded as a symbol of ignorance, either one who covets the Enlightenment she was denied or one who wants to destroy said Enlightenment out of intolerance.”

According to Jeffers, the Freemasons would not admit women into their lodges because, historically, “ women had never been operative masons; because the presence of women would distract the men from from attending to the serious business of the lodge; and to prevent anyone from suggesting that immoral conduct took place in the lodge.”

Women gossiping was also mentioned by Jeffers, “that women, with there tendency to gossip, could not be trusted to keep the secrets of the lodge.”  There have been women, occasionally, accepted into lodges, but even today Masonic Lodges maintain a long-standing tradition of restricting membership in Freemasonry to men, according to

This would not sit well with the Queen of the Night, or any woman, especially today.

Damrau's portrayal is more than just aria; she channels the actor, and her performance reveals the struggle for redemption as if she were a bird of prey struggling to survive in whatever way possible. said Damrau's flawless singing and amazing acting “is perhaps the greatest interpretation of this iconic role, and really, the only performance that truly matters."

Meredith J. West and Andrew P. King, in a remarkable study published in American Scientist, concluded Mozart did, in fact, write musical compositions that mimicked birds.  Their comprehensive study of A Musical Joke made it clear Mozart gleaned inspiration from unusual sources.

But Mozart is often quoted, without attribution, that he did not know where his inspiration came from.  It just happened.

“Whence and how do they come?” he said, according to multiple sources. “I do not know and I have nothing to do with it...."

Serious readers of Mozart's life will have read countless anecdotes.  Mozart was inspired by life and what was happening in it.  When Konstanze talks with Selim in Act 1, Scene 7 of The abduction from the Seraglio, for example, she is talking to Leopold, not Selim, who is probably Leopold being cajoled by his son, Mozart, who wants to marry Constanze with a "C," and is asking his father, not Selim, to accept and understand this fact of life.1

And Die Zauberflöte?

Both Schikaneder and Mozart were wholehearted Masons, according to classicalnotes, and may have seen the opera as an opportunity to communicate their spiritual ideals and boost Masonic moral in time of need.  But nobody really knows for sure.  There is no reference to the Queen of the Night being a bird of prey, for example (although research is far from exhaustive here).  And most performances of Der Hölle Rache do not harbor an entourage either, although the Queen most certainly would have had one.

Spaethling said in Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life, that more than three-quarters of his letters referenced music, fellow artists or full-scale reports from his workshop. “What is special,” Spaethling said, “ the way he humanizes the compositional process.  When writing about his craft, Mozart rarely uses professional terminology.  Not only is his language utterly simple and nontechnical, but his musical creations become live beings that march, walk, sigh, sleep, drag their feet, and use the bathroom.

“Tonalities relate to each other not in consonance or dissonance but as friendly and unfriendly neighbors.  A improvisation is is called not allegro or rondo but a "merry little thing" that is taken for a walk by Herr Mozart and returned to home base....”

The Queen of the Night and Sarastro weren't the best of neighbors, that's for sure.  What was Mozart thinking and feeling when he wrote Der Hölle Rache?  Was it as simple as Mozart needing money?  Schikaneder sure got a fine ending — and the Freemasons got a pretty easy pass overall in the opera too.  Just like A Musical Joke, and other musical compositions Mozart wrote, there was a lot going on.  But mostly it was the composer himself.  That's really all there is to know.  It's why Mozart's music is still fresh and studied today.  It's the best.

 1 The University of Victoria said the opera was “initially requested by Emperor Joseph II as entertainment for visiting Russian royalty,  Mozart's singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail represents the first comic opera of the composer's mature career in Vienna.  For Mozart, the honor of having his opera performed in such company would have presented an opportunity to present his work to the Viennese court, an important event that, if successful, could potentially ensure royal patronage for years to come.  Therefore, it is understandable that he wished to edify Joseph II before his guests. To achieve this end, Mozart and Johann Gottlieb Stephanie created in the role of the Turkish Pasha an “Enlightened Renegade,” a character of great nobility who displays the ultimate show of power, that of mercy toward his worst enemies.”