Saturday, October 12, 2013

Mozart's Supreme Achievement, Part II

Here is a brief continuation of yesterday's exploration of the thoughtful question, "what does The Magic Flute have to say to audiences today?"

I have enjoyed reading the Bach and Mozart scholar, Christoph Wolff's new book, Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune, which explores the last 3 years of the composer's life in Vienna from the perspective of his increasing success and rising popularity. Wolff's chapter devoted to TMF is called "What's in a Name?" and, like Cairns (see below), he sees Flute's manifold variety and unity-through-diversity as a major asset. The 35 year-old composer had integrated a "philosophy of music drama in which genre boundaries become porous and conventions increasingly irrelevant."

I don't know how many times I've been asked what the difference is between opera and musical theatre, but The Magic Flute often forms part of the discussion. The short answer is, "whatever the composer calls his or her musical-dramatic work." Mozart called his Da Ponte operas "humorous dramas," and though TMF is referred to as a "Singspiel" (a musical comedy), Mozart called it, "Eine Grosse Oper" (a Grand Opera). It is "grand" in vision and scope, and it is witty and breezy as an Italian dramma giocosa. Like Whitman, Mozart "contains multitudes" within his remarkable imagination.

At the risk of hyperbole, Mozart was able to articulate his creative vision with a clarity achieved by a near-perfect union of form and content. This impossibly flawless balance - the grace and beauty we ascribe to Mozart - is one source of his art's inexhaustible power, and the unmatched universality of this "second-to-none" genius.

To return to practical examples of TMF's success and popularity, it was one of the first pieces of musical theatre to feature "hot off the press" editions of sheet music. Wolff cites its "unusual degree of popularity," noting the individual numbers appearing for sale "in competing editions...only a few weeks after the premiere - something that had never happened before."

Flute was more than just a passing fad with the Viennese public. Wolff reminds us one of its principal themes is "the power of music." This was neither a slogan nor abstract concept. As mentioned below, the Orpheus legend and the origins of music are an important source for Flute. Orpheus "mate" in Christian hagiography is St. Cecilia, patron of music. The 17th century poet, John Dryden's "A Song for St. Cecilia's Day" was the source for 2 major works by Mozart's idol, G. F. Handel. Both Alexander's Feast and Ode for St. Cecilia's Day.* Wolff strengthens the connection between the works by mentioning the German translation of Dryden's poetry, Die Gewalt der Musik (The Power of Music).

Mozart composes the "power of music" throughout his "grand opera" (that is also a "musical comedy" - remember, he is working with "nearly unrestricted possibilities," and is "impervious to labels"). This strength emanates the principal characters, especially the polar opposite royals, the Queen of the Night and Sarastro. If not as extroverted or dynamic in the young initiates/lovers, Pamina and Tamino, it courses like an inexorable undercurrent of passion whenever they take the stage and sing.

The power of music is further evidenced by the orchestration of TMF. Not only is this score Mozart's richest - clarinets and basset horns, three trombones, divided strings - it features the "magic" instruments which set it apart. Tamino's "golden" flute, Papageno's panpipes and glockenspiel all play key roles, and thus, take "center stage" in both the drama and the score.

And what a score! For musicians and conductors, the score is what defines the opera from the pit. As if creating an uncannily brilliant prism, Mozart's orchestration across the final decade of his life continued to develop and evolve. This is nowhere more apparent than in the 7 operas from Idomeneo through Flute.

The orchestra - though small by 19th century standards - displays astonishing variety. 30-some players in the pit play nearly 20 different combinations of instrumentation across a score with 21 individual numbers! Come hear the "humorous drama" as our friends in the RSO bring this score to life. Click on the Jefferson Center link for tickets.

(*Yours truly and my more talented, lovelier half, Amy will be performing Handel's Ode at Greene Memorial UMC. Click here for more info.)

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