The Magic Flute, Freemasonry and prelude to feminism

This summer, we propose you a series devoted to philosophy in music and to the relationship between philosophers and music. In this second article, we mainly focus on The Magic Flute, an opera in two acts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The Magic Flute, Freemasonry and prelude to feminism
La Flûte enchantée

Mozart’s Magic Flute is too often seen as a light and simple opera, dominated by the magic element. Sometimes the audience does not have an overall picture of the work and it misses its deep sense, concealed by an influence of Freemasonry, which not all of us know about. This method is not new: many authors or composers wrote entertainment pieces hiding a more serious message, such as Molière, Beaumarchais, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), “grand opera in two acts” to a German libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder. The opera premiered on 30 September 1791 at the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna, property of the librettist, who also played the role of Papageno.

Thinking about the score of The Flute, the divine Mozart himself told his friends to focus their attention on “certain words”, on the message conveyed by the text, and not on the musical peculiarities. The composer’s main interest (he actively participated in the elaboration of the libretto) is focused on the strength of the work's message, glorified by music. A mirroring experience takes place between philosophy, Masonic or not, and opera.

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Mozart and Freemasonry

Dreaming of a German grand opera, Mozart sees the proposal of the librettist to write eine Zauberoper (a magic opera) as an opportunity to persevere with the line of The Abduction from the Seraglio, and to put an end to his many Italian operas.

Mozart is admitted to a Masonic lodge in 1784. If on one hand Freemasons are not much respected in 18th-century Europe, lodges are still present, and are somehow tolerated by Joseph II, Archduke of Austria from 1780 to 1790. The noose starts to tighten once he is succeeded by his brother Leopold II, more influenced by the clergy. In 1791, Mozart is working on his Magic Flute, and he has belonged to the “Zur Wohltätigkeit” (Beneficence) lodge for seven years; he has acquired the Masonic rituals just like Schikaneder, who was also Mason before he was excluded from his lodge.

If the libretto of The Magic Flute draws from the mysteries of ancient Egypt and from Freemasonry, first of all because another theatre had chosen the tale (Lulu or the Magic Flute by Liebeskind) based on which Schikaneder and Mozart planned to work. The composer, who was very close to the principles of Masonry that spread the philosophy of the Enlightenment, had already written Masonic compositions: Die Maurerfreude ("The Mason's Joy") in February 1785, or also Maurerische Trauermusik (the Masonic Funeral Music) in November of the same year.

The plot of Mozart and Schikaneder’s Magic Flute challenges us for both its simplicity and its confusion between a variety of characters and a story that appears abstract... The story does not find its roots in any era, any country (although Tamino is Japanese), but it exists for and by those symbols that glorify enlightenment and knowledge, and therefore the philosophy of Freemasonry.

A whole lot of symbols

The libretto and the score are complementary. Mozart takes, for example, the symbolism of Masonic numbers in the score, differentiating males and females. Freemasonry associates number 5 with a female character: it is the number of Aphrodite, being the goddess of procreation and love. Number 5 is also complementary to number 3, and it’s associated with the masculine. This process is particularly evident in the introduction of the Magic Flute, which begins on 5 chords, introducing a dark atmosphere, propitious for chaos. The second part of the ouverture (Allegro) becomes brighter, neat and precise. It starts and ends with 3 majestic chords in E flat major.

Ouverture Flûte enchantée
Ouverture Flûte enchantée

As to the distribution of the characters and of the accessories, it follows, of course, the same logic: 3 ladies, 3 child-spirits, 3 instruments (transverse flute, pan flute and glockenspiel - similar to the xylophone), 3 thunderbolts to announce one of the 3 attendants of the Queen of the Night... The use of colours is not meaningless and allows us to “categorise” the characters. The Queen of the Night and her 3 ladies, as well as Monostatos the Moor, are dressed in black or silver (silver is also a feminine symbol), whereas Sarastro and the priests have white and golden clothes, symbols of light, purity and of the masculine gender.

The main characters are often associated with a musical “colour”, with a tone. For example, in the second act, Sarastro’s only aria has 4 sharp notes (in an E major tone) which is an exception to the triptych E-flat Major/G Major/C major that Mozart uses throughout the piece.

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Duality at the centre of the work

The libretto is based on the duality enlightenment-knowledge/obscurantism that we can see throughout the work and appears through the fight between Good (represented by Sarastro), and Evil (the Queen of the Night). This opposition also brings to the stage the fight between men and women lodges in Vienna (one of which in particular, the so-called “lodge of adoption” under the name of Mops-Orden, or Order of the Pug, was defended by Mozart and Schikaneder); men-only lodges were constantly trying to discredit women.

However, it would be simplistic to see the Queen of the Night as the personification of evil. She is opposed to the day and to light, because of her title and also in her appearances. The Queen of the Night only appears in the moonlight like at the beginning of the second act, when she orders her daughter to kill Sarastro. The moon is also a symbol of womanhood, which the Queen and her ladies wear and show also in their accessories.

This original conflict reaches its conclusion in the union between Tamino and Pamina, who embody the perfect expression of equality, the couple who managed to overcome all obstacles. Feminine and masculine go hand-in-hand into the light of knowledge, harmony is rediscovered and a new golden era can begin. The Queen of the Night is far from being evil: she wears the veil of ignorance as well as the symbol of rebellion against male dominance.

The trial against womankind

In their “Italian triad” written between 1786 and 1790 (Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte), Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte celebrate the frivolous, flirtatious and chatty woman, as well as men's domination on her. This basis will allow to develop the following counter-argument, embodied by Pamina: women are equal to men only if they go out of their comfort zone (Act I, finale n°8, Sarastro: “She is an arrogant woman. – A man must guide your heart, for without that, every woman tends to overstep her natural sphere.”).

A trial is carried out against womankind, which Pamina will no longer be part of at the end of the opera. In the first act, the three ladies who appear wearing veils (the veil of ignorance) kill the serpent that threatened the young prince thanks to their silver javelins. Once the beast is defeated, the ladies look at the unconscious prince at their feet and they later start arguing about who is going to take care of the young boy, while the others go to the Queen. This trio - in a very pleasant genre that used to be very appreciated at that time - is a representation of the “living-room women” of the 18th century. Throughout the opera, there are many sanctimonious verdicts, especially by Sarastro, when meeting those ignorant ladies who prefer the chitchat over truth.

The advent of equality between men and women

But the time of gender equality is near. Pamina, at first prisoner of priest Sarastro, suffers because of her complicated ancestry. In the first act, her rejection of Monostratos' vulgar love and her fainting at the thought of the Moor (which refers to the beginning of the Masonic initiation), allow her to reveal herself as a pure heart to Sarastro.

“Arise, be of good cheer, beloved one, for even without questioning you I know more from your very own heart” Sarastro, Act 2

Pamina really undergoes only two of the four trials of initiation, a trial by Water (Female) and Fire (Male). In the libretto, the trials are grouped and hidden. But attention should be paid to what happens before this ritual, when Pamina guides the young prince: “Wherever you go, I shall be at your side. – I myself shall lead you – Love is my guide – She will strew the way with roses, for roses are always found with thorns.”

After the last two examinations, the princess is recognized as the necessary element for the creation of the perfect couple. At this time, she comes out of the Empire of the Night. After the priests choir of the second act, Sarastro removes her veil, sign of her ascension to Knowledge and Truth, thus allowing her to become equal to Tamino.

If, on one hand, Pamina’s passage from a world to another forces her to separate from her mother, on the other this saves both her and womankind in general, because she is now allowed to achieve equality with men. At the end of the opera, the perfection of the couple Tamino/Pamina is complete: they managed to become “Göttern gleich” in other words, like the gods, who suffer no gender discrimination.

In his opera, Mozart shows that access to knowledge is universal and involves both sexes, and one is not subordinate to the other, both want to access knowledge. Through its symbols, its music and the message it conveys, the Magic Flute begins the process of recovering the role of women in the sphere of knowledge. Hegel will also write about this masterpiece: “The empire of the night, the queen, the sun empire, the mysteries, the initiation, the wisdom, love, the examinations and thereby a sort of a mediocre moral which is excellent in its generality - all this, with the depth of the charming sweetness and soul of the music, widens and fills the fantasy and warms the heart.”.