Opera Blog: The Background Story, Symbolism and Legacy of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”
There are countless hypotheses as to the original source of The Magic Flute. Suggested sources include Carlo Gozzi’s fables, which were popular in the Vienna of the 1780s; Chrétien de Troyes’ twelfth-century Arthurian romance Yvain, which was translated by Mozart’s fellow Mason Karl Joseph Michaeler, and in which the hero is rescued by three ladies and later meets a mysterious magician; and Wieland’s verse epic Oberon, which tells the story of a magic instrument and the trials of three lovers (Mozart is said to have owned a copy of the book). Others have also suggested that The Magic Flute was based on Wranitzky’s opera Oberon, King of Elves, staged in 1789; on Goethe’s fragment The Secrets, published in Vienna two years earlier, in which a knight seeks admission to a mysterious brotherhood, hears sublime flute music, and sees three boys with belts of roses; on The Philosopher’s Stone (1790), the magic opera with two pairs of lovers, serious and comic, and two magicians, good and evil, to which Mozart contributed; and on The Beneficent Dervish, the third magic opera staged at Schikaneder’s theatre (March 1791). The richest source for the story of The Magic Flute, however, is Abbé Terrason’s 1731 Masonic novel, The Life of Sethos, Taken from Private Memoirs of the Ancient Egyptians, in which the hero, a prince, is bitten by a snake and later gains admittance to a temple after passing trials by cardinal elements. The book places great emphasis on the number three—the number of special Masonic significance—and its German translation shows many parallels with the libretto for The Magic Flute (Cairns and Bradbury, 2006).
The influence of the Masons on the opera is a long-standing subject of discussion among musicologists and opera lovers. Some have argued that the magical theme of lovers who undergo trials was a popular one at that time in Vienna (Schikaneder’s theatre staged three in one year alone), and that hence the semblance of themes is coincidental. Others, like the French musicologist Jacques Chailley in his book The Magic Flute, Masonic Opera (1972), have compiled massive evidence of the Masonic influence in the story. It is well known that Mozart was a Freemason and that he devoted considerable time to the activities of the brotherhood. Only a few days after Mozart’s death in December 1791, the Master of “Newly Crowned Hope” Masonic Lodge of Vienna wrote of the composer: “It has pleased the Eternal Architect of the Universe to separate from our fraternal chain the most beloved and meritorious of our members. Who did not know him? Who did not esteem him? Who did not cherish our worthy brother, Mozart?” The composer encountered Freemasonry very early on, as many of his patrons were Freemasons. He eventually joined the fraternity as an Entered Apprentice in December 1784 at “Beneficence” Lodge in Vienna. Each Masonic lodge has an order structured around three degrees, from apprentice to master, which its members progressively achieve through careful study of the history and principles of the lodge. In 1785, Mozart received the Fellow Craft and Master Mason degrees at “True Concord Lodge.” There are also three types of Freemasonry. At that time, Masonry in Vienna was different from Masonry elsewhere; its adherents practiced what came to be known as the Rectified and Strict Observance Rite. This type of Masonry uses Knight Templar themes and later included Rosicrucian and other occult practices involving alchemy and astrology.
Freemasonry in Europe developed with the goal of promoting the ideals of the Enlightenment, particularly a reliance on reason and education rather than belief and superstition as the source of knowledge. Rosicrucian Masons specifically believed that the Reformation didn’t go far enough in reforming the Roman Catholic Church and its strict doctrines. The Rosicrucian Freemasons came out publicly and declared that theirs was a secret society whose goal was to reform all forms of education. The movement started around 1610 and fell midway between the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The Rosicrucians were seen as a bridge between the magic, occultism and astrology of the Renaissance and the more rational thinking of the Enlightenment. Since they opposed the institutional authority of the Church and its doctrines, the Freemasons were in danger of death and persecution from the Counter-Reformation. They kept their activities clandestine and developed an elaborate system of codes to communicate with each other in public without provoking the ire of the Church. The enforced secrecy and mystery surrounding the brotherhood also often contributed to its notorious Cimmerian reputation.
Mozart’s lodge, Beneficence Lodge, had a membership consisting solely of Catholic Freemasons who practiced a less radical version of Enlightenment ideals and who encouraged a healthy respect for religion as viewed through the Light of Reason. Mozart was an active participant in Vienna Masonry and even encouraged his father to join the order. In fact, Mozart met many of his friends, including Joseph Haydn and Emanuel Schikaneder, later the librettist for The Magic Flute, through his participation in the Viennese Lodge. Mozart’s esteem for Masonry led him to compose many works for the fraternity and many compositions with Masonic themes, among them The Magic Flute being the most famous.