OVERTURE TO “THE MAGIC FLUTE”
W.A. MOZART (1756-1791)
Mozart’s final opera The Magic Flute tells an allegorical story that can be experienced on many levels. On one level, it is an adventure story in which the protagonist wins his love through heroic efforts. On another, ostensibly higher plane, it is a “fairy-tale” story that metaphorically portrays a morality play”, extolling the virtue of steadfastness against severe trials when in the pursuit of a greater good. The least obvious point of view may be the most significant to its composition: a glorification of Freemasonry.
The German impresario Schikaneder, who commissioned the opera, knew full well the value of dramatic special effects on the operatic public of Vienna. He also preferred a simple story with a happy ending as his vehicle. However, for this work he had an ulterior motive: a hidden tribute to a hidden society. Both Mozart and Schikaneder were Freemasons, as were many of the intellectual elite of Austria at the time. However, the craft had fallen under a cloud for harbouring the same ideals that had led to the French revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity. As an arcane (secret) society, its rituals could not be revealed to the public, so Mozart had a challenge before him: how to make enough use of the symbolic content of Masonic rituals to serve as a monument, without directly exposing any of them.
For the most part, he elected to employ numerology (which is crucial to the structure of most masonic rituals) extensively in the opera. For example, the figure three dominates Masonic rituals. So Mozart introduces messengers from Sarastro (three boys) and the Queen of the Night (three Ladies) as groups of three. The hero, Tamino, undertakes three trials, whose locale is to be in three Temples – the temples of Reason, Wisdom and Nature. The key of the opera is E-flat (three flats). Even multiples of three are also important – Sarastro is chief over exactly eighteen priestesses. Sarastro and the Queen of the Night represent the forces of Light and Darkness, hardly a veiled allusion to “good” and “evil” whose conflict is part of the core of non-denominational Freemasonry. Mozart even openly uses the rhythm of the second degree of Freemasonry, which is the secret knock used by a freemason to gain admission to an unfamiliar Lodge (three groups of three raps each). Right in the middle of the overture he suddenly pauses in the middle of a headlong rush of agitated string playing, while the winds and brasses play a single chord repeatedly – in the rhythm of the secret knock! – before the strings resume their frenzy.
Doubtless, most of these signs went right over the heads of the audiences attending performances of the Magic Flute. However, everything else that the public wanted was there, in abundance. It became Mozart’s (and his impresario Schikaneder’s) most successful opera, and probably his greatest work for the stage. Unfortunately, it was also his last theater work. He completed only the Clarinet Concerto and his unfinished Requiem before he died within the year. Who knows whether this new approach to opera would have heralded new directions had he been able to follow their logical development. He might well have invented the psychodrama of Richard Wagner. All this, because he wanted to tangentially celebrate a hidden society that meant so much to him.
SYMPHONY NO.8 IN B MINOR “UNFINISHED”
FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Franz Schubert was a prodigy, learning violin and piano before his teens. His beautiful boy-soprano voice earned him a place the Guild of Court Singers, which lasted until puberty transformed him into an undistinguished tenor. His gilt for composing was recognized early, and at age 13 he studied with Antonio Salieri. (Yes, the same Salieri who had dominated Viennese musical life in Mozart’s day, and was thus confronted with two gigantic talents he couldn’t hope to match!) He became a school teacher at age 17, perhaps to avoid compulsory military service, if legend is correct. In any event, he didn’t care for teaching, and quit after just two years to devote himself wholly to his music.
The Romantic period in art and literature was just beginning, and along with it the Bohemian movement. Franz spent much of his time in the company of an “artsy” circle of friends, who for many years looked after both his subsistence and the advancement of his music. Schubert felt that providence had put him on earth to compose, and that the state should support him. Unfortunately, the state was less than overwhelming in its generous support of unknown young musicians, and Franz had to survive as best he could -by composing, giving concerts and later by teaching keyboard. In his short span (he actually died younger than Mozart) he produced over one thousand catalogued works.
Schubert had the soul of a romantic, at a time when the symphony had not yet wholly emerged from the restraints of classicism. His own gift was for lyric expression, and it found its best outlet in song, not orchestral music. Nevertheless, his obsession to write music for posterity saw the symphony as a vehicle. His first five were graceful but unimaginative examples of the classic form, which he understood but never took to heart. His sixth, although still in the classic formal structure, was his first attempt to emulate the grand expressiveness of Beethoven: It failed. He completed (but never orchestrated, and later abandoned) a seventh, also in the purely classic mold.
Finally, he abandoned his attempts to make his expressive need conform to the classic ideal, and gave his lyric spirit free rein. The results were his only true orchestral masterpieces: the “Unfinished Symphony” (no.8) and the “Great C-Major” (no.9). Schubert never heard either piece performed. He himself considered the eighth incomplete, therefore unpublishable. And, although he completed the Ninth, the spell of feverish activity in which he wrote it may have contributed to the health problems that led to his death. In any event he became one of the long list of composers who died after their ninth symphony.
He started the “Unfinished” at age twenty-five, but gave up the effort with only two movements finished (fragments of a start on the third movement were included in the manuscript). Shortly before his death, he gave the incomplete manuscript to a friend, Josef Huttenbrenner, and it was discovered among Huttenbrenner’s effects after his death in the middle of the century. These last two symphonies, along with Beethoven’s ninth, showed that the constrictive structure of the classic symphony could be modified (if not yet abandoned) to serve the composer’s expressive needs.
This work, in particular, is a tug-of-war between the classicist Schubert wanted to be and the romantic he really was. His lyric outlook shows in the long melodic lines. Both movements have their dramatic moments, but the real appeal of the work is its song-like beauty. His gift was the song, and it was only after he realized this that he could compose a work of symphonic depth and emotion that wasn’t simply a weak exercise in following the rules of the classic form. Another unique characteristic is his use of orchestral colors. Although exploiting a wide range of sounds to support expressive needs eventually became commonplace, no other composer of his time (other than Beethoven) made such dramatic and important use of trombones for melody, instead of just for power. Few others would downplay the strings in favor of woodwinds for such long sweeping lines.
Had he completed it, the Eighth would have been a colossal symphony, as massive as Beethoven’s giant works – its two finished movements were, by themselves, longer than any classical symphony. In it he began to achieve a grand manner, in which he fused romantic expressiveness with powerful drama. Schubert never heard his two final symphonies, which went unplayed in their proper time. This is truly unfortunate, for their lyricism might have had a great an impact on later composers, and the course of musical history would have changed. Beethoven was the point of departure, who defined a new path away from Classicism. Ironically, posterity would conclude that Schubert had been the first pioneer to set foot on that new path, and that this Unfinished Symphony would be the first step.
FANTASIE PASTORALE HONGROISE, op. 26
ALBERT FRANZ DOPPLER (1821-1883)
Although also a composer and conductor, Doppler was primarily a flute virtuoso. His father, a journeyman oboist in the Vienna musical scene, taught both Franz and his brother Joseph to play the flute so successfully that they embarked on several musical tours of Europe. The two brothers eventually settled in the city of Pest in Hungary, where they became the flute section of the German Theater and later of the [Hungarian] National Theater. Franz later returned to Vienna, to become Professor of Flute at the Vienna Conser-vatory, while his brother became director of the National Theater. Although Franz wrote 7 operas and 15 ballets (which were quite popular in their time), he was a brilliant orchestrator. He is best known for his orchestral versions of six of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, which might otherwise be known only as piano pieces.
Doppler originally composed the Hungarian PastoraI Fantasy as a chamber work for two flutes and piano, presumably inspired by his collaborations with Joseph, even though it was years after their youthful concert tours. He later revised it for solo flute, with piano accompaniment. This version, orchestrated by the Irish virtuoso James Galway as a mini-concerto for flute and orchestra, is being performed this evening.
The folk music of Hungary is associated in most audiences’ minds with the music of the gypsies. Its brilliant and flowing melodies especially suit a solo performance, and many composers have used them as basis for virtuoso works (especially for violin). In this short work, Doppler proves that they flatter the flute equally well. Its romantically plaintive strains, which might have been a gypsy love song, weave deftly into a fiery dance that probably belongs around a campfire equally as well as in the concert hall.
ORCHESTRAL SUITE FROM “CARMEN”
GEORGES BIZET (1838-1875)
Georges Bizet, the only son of musical parents, was another prodigy. He learned the musical notes and scales right along with the alphabet, and could both sing and play the piano proficiently at an early age. The head of the Paris Conservatoire, probably as a professional courtesy to his musician father, agreed dubiously to listen to young Georges’ singing and playing. So impressive was the audition, that Bizet was granted special dispensation to matriculate at age ten. His scholastic career was distinguished, and he won the Prix de Rome at age 19. The government-subsidized three-year stay in Rome produced no lasting works, but left impressions that influenced his writing throughout his career.
However, after his return from Rome he was unable to support himself by serious composing, and he had to take on various musical hack-work. He wanted to make his mark in opera, but his earliest efforts were mostly unsuccessful. Of his early operas, only The Pearl Fishers is occasionally revived today. He might have fallen into musical obscurity, except for his last two works – the incidental music for the stage play L’Arleslenne and his operatic masterwork, Carmen.
In spite of its passion and high drama, Carmen was written for L’Opera Comique of Paris, which at that time staged only “lighter” works. These usually suffered from bland plots with little dramatic impact, frequently based on preposterous assumptions or other-worldly scenarios, mostly with happy endings. Bizet transformed the genre with a fiery and emotional masterpiece, based on a novel by Prosper Merimee that featured human passions -including sexual allure, a forbidden topic for the “family entertainment” of the comic opera. He even closed with a tragic ending.
Now universally acclaimed, Carmen got off to a rocky start. During early rehearsals the orchestra complained that much of the music was unplayable, the chorus objected to having to act individually instead of just stand and sing, the director wanted the “seaminess” toned down for family audiences, and the theater management threatened to withdraw the work and cancel the commission. Bizet, with the support of his lead singers (who recognized the power inherent in the characters they played), refused to back down. Eventually, the orchestra and singers came to appreciate the greatness in-herent in the music, and gave a good performance.
Nevertheless, the work was puzzling to the audience, many of whom left the premiere in shock at the subject matter and the tragic ending (in which the heroine is stabbed after rejecting a lover whom she had seduced in the first place). Critics published reviews calling the story obscene, the characters repulsive and the score lacking in musical value. One particularly colorful review suggested that the mezzo-soprano’s interpretation of the seductive heroine was “deserving of correction in the police court”. Nevertheless, Carmen could hardly be considered a commercial failure, (its first season ran forty five performances, possibly because its “scandalous” nature drew audiences, even when they professed to be appalled).
Far from “lacking musical value”, Carmen contains some of Bizet’s most original and inspired composition. These two orchestral suites make no effort to tell the story of the tragic heroine. Their various movements do not even appear in the same order as in the opera. Instead, the goal is simply to gather up several of the best moments and bring them to the concert hall, to show them off individually. Enjoy them as you would a bouquet of garden flowers, simply placed in a vase for their collective beauty rather than ar-ranged to represent some greater meaning.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly