The year 1991 marks the bicentenary of the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Vienna on December 5, 1791. During the current year numerous tributes have been paid to his remarkable genius; here we shall focus upon his masterpiece and last completed composition, The Magic Flute. While his libretto has been derided until recently as "childish" and unworthy of the superb musical score, Goethe remarked that "More knowledge is required to understand the value of this libretto than to mock it!" (The Magic Flute, Masonic Opera: An Interpretation of the Libretto and the Music, by Jacques Chailley, a composer as well as an eminent professor of music, provides the well-researched material that does justice to both the music and libretto, illuminating the whole opera with his knowledge of the music of the latter part of the 18th century, and the currents of ideas circulating through the courts of Europe and among scholars). To shed light on Mozart's intention we need to examine the opera against the background of Masonic ideas, symbols, and ritual connected with the process of initiation, a word much bruited abroad those days, and misunderstood then as it is in our own time.
During the period of Mozart's lifetime, Masonry was prominent in Viennese society. Mozart himself was eleven years of age when he composed a song set to a Masonic text for his physician, a Mason who, treating the boy for smallpox, had saved him from being pockmarked. When he was twelve, Mozart also composed Bastien and Bastienne, a small work still performed occasionally; its first performance was in the gardens of Dr. Anton Mesmer, whose theory of animal magnetism was libeled by Parisian medical opponents as "quackery." Dr. Mesmer is today best known for "mesmerism," quite often misrepresented as being the same as hypnosis.
Many of Mozart's early contacts were Masons, some of them close friends. Others were members of Illuminati circles flourishing at the time. In Paris, the Comte de Cagliostro — not a charlatan as certain vested interests to this day would have us believe — tried to purify the existing Masonic lodges in France, and finally set up his own "Egyptian Rite" which admitted women as well as men in a kind of "Adoption" adjunct. Some suggest that Mozart knew Cagliostro and that the name Sarastro, given by the composer to the High Priest of Isis and Osiris, was an allusion to Cagliostro. More generally, however, the name is thought to have been derived from that of Zoroaster or Zarathustra, a reformer of the ancient Persian religion.
The story of The Magic Flute deals with the entry into a course of spiritual development by Prince Tamino, son of a king who evidently had some acquaintance with the training since he had spoken to Tamino rather often about Queen of the Night, leaving Tamino with "unbounded admiration" for her. That Tamino is attired in Japanese clothing already introduces an Oriental note. The beginning of the opera indicates the preparatory labor that Tamino and Pamina — the leading feminine character — must perform on the threshold of their initiation. As for Papageno, a Birdcatcher, standing for average humanity, and his later companion Papagena, they undergo corresponding mini-trials, "but in a tone of comedy."
The action opens in a wild, mountainous place where Tamino is pursued by a serpent. He loses consciousness, a symbolic death, a " rehearsal" of the final initiation, itself the conscious experience of what actually occurs unconsciously to us during the death process. This was an open hint of what was understood to have anciently taken place in the Greater Mysteries during initiation. The candidate who was successful "returned" to self-consciousness aware of all that had happened, and from then onward could speak — if he would — of the experience with the "authority" of direct knowledge. Only those candidates capable of coping with the enormous stress involved as the soul is freed from the entranced body, and can endure being aware of what takes place after a normal death, were allowed to even attempt the trials.
Tamino's encounter with the serpent is resolved by three veiled ladies — Messengers of Queen of the Night who symbolizes "Nature still virgin and uncultivated" — who kill the monster. Papageno enters and takes credit for saving the prince, only to be punished by the Messengers. His mouth is padlocked to prevent him from chattering (his name aptly means a parrot). Shown a portrait of Pamina, the Queen's daughter who has been kidnapped, Tamino promises to free her. The Messengers give him a magic flute, and Papageno a set of magic bells. (Some have translated the word zauber to mean "enchanted," but it is the flute that creates "magic" in the sense of enchantment. This fits in with Wieland's view that its purpose was "to smooth out the difficulties of the mission." Possibly there is an esoteric meaning which obviously would not be defined. Similarly with Papageno's "bells" which in the score are called stromento d'acciajo [or steel instrument]. Perhaps it was intended to cause amusement, as a sort of counterpoint to the magic flute [pp. 123-5].)
Later, the prince, guided by three boys, comes to three temples marked Temple of Wisdom, Temple of Reason, and Temple of Nature. Tamino learns that Sarastro is not the malevolent being he had been told of. He finds Papageno, who is with Pamina. Monostatos, an evil Moor who covets Pamina, chases them, but Papageno's magic bells force him to flee.
Sarastro then enters with his retinue. He punishes the Moor for his misdeeds and, after having seen Tamino and Pamina united, separates them so that they each can triumph over their trials. Tamino and Papageno are led to the crypts of the temple, where they are subjected to various temptations that they must overcome in silence. Tamino obeys, but Papageno finds it almost impossible to remain silent.
Meanwhile, Queen of the Night gives Pamina a dagger with which to kill Sarastro. Monostatos tries to seduce Pamina and snatches the dagger, threatening her with it. But Sarastro appears and drives him off. Pamina overcomes her despair and sets off to join Tamino. As Papageno remains attached to worldly pleasures, Sarastro gives him a companion of his own kind: Papagena. Finally, in the temple crypts, Tamino, accompanied by Pamina, passes through the trial of Fire and Water*: he is worthy to win his beloved. The powers of Night are vanquished.
*Reminiscent of the biblical reference to baptism by water and by fire, the latter standing for the full awakening of Mind.
What does it all mean? What is the main theme of the opera? Surely, it refers to the transmutation of character from raw material to enlightenment, the process of our maturation into full humanhood. Tamino has had to pass through various trials including the preliminary testing of his courage, humane qualities, and intuition. At that point his motives in seeking initiation are examined. Finally, achieving his goal, he is united with Pamina who, having passed through her own testing, also has attained enlightenment. On one level, these characters represent various aspects of human nature playing out a drama that takes place within each of us.
We should now look at what some symbols mean in the context of the opera: for instance, Ingmar Bergman's film version included compasses among the stage decor. The compass is the now well-known symbol of the Masonic "Grand Architect" of the Universe, usually interpreted as God, a personalized image for the great creative intelligences rendered in the Qabbalistic view of Genesis by the plural word Elohim.
The serpent in pursuit of Tamino is none other than the biblical serpent who tempted Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, in order to acquire self-consciousness and thereby the awesome capacity to choose their (our) own course of thinking, speaking, and acting: our own course of living. In their study of Mozart, Jean and Brigitte Massin wrote:
A young, idle aristocrat is out hunting and finds himself disarmed by the sudden irruption of his blindest vital instinct (the symbolism of the serpent did not wait for Jung, but was established in that sense in all hieroglyphic traditions). The first awakening is of love. To the cries of alarm that he had emitted when alone and face to face with himself, the answer is the call to emerge from himself . . . — Cited in Chailley, p. 119.
This may serve modern psychological theory, but it is inadequate from a theosophical perspective, which suggests that The Magic Flute and other works arising out of man's higher nature, introduce us into the mysteries of the cosmos and ourselves as integral parts of it. Sarastro, in this context, as High Priest and Grand Hierophant, is the initiator and revealer of the Mysteries which had a meaning in the old days far different from that held by some today. The Hierophant was the chief interpreter of the sacred knowledge. The solemnity of the initiation scene in the pyramid is evident, especially to those who seek to enter the spirit of it. The impact of the final scene is profound when the "wedding" of Tamino and Pamina is seen as a consummation indeed, the union of the higher and lower selves in each human being.
The effect upon us is due on the one hand to the sublime music, and on the other to Mozart's interpretation of the libretto — for he not only tried to penetrate into its essence, but also edited Schikaneder's text (as others have done since the first performance so that the question sometimes is asked: "Which libretto?"). In other words, the moving effect of the opera as a whole is due to the magical blend of rich, philosophic ideas and Mozart's music.
To single out one or two symbols in the opera: the flute is "magic in the sense it creates magic." Pamina reveals its origin later in the opera: it did not come from Queen of the Night but from her consort, the former Grand Hierophant — a "Priest-King" reminiscent of Hermes Trismegistus — predecessor of Sarastro.
The opera's main characters are associated with the Sun and Moon and the four Elements of antiquity: Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. These are the subtle essences of the elements out of which our physical world and cosmos were formed — not to be confused with the common elements with which we are familiar. We can picture Tamino and Papageno on a vertical line descending from Sarastro/Sun, while Pamina and Monostatos are descended from the Queen of the Night/Moon. In a horizontal alignment Fire (Tamino) warms Water (Pamina) out of its frozen state; while Air (Papageno) lightens the heavy aspect of Earth (Monostatos).
An intimate relationship or kind of dialogue between each person and the opera is needed to probe into the meanings of its symbols and even of the stage decor. That is when the real magic of understanding emerges within oneself: born in the heart, in the center of one's being. The result will vary with each individual, with the meaning unfolding more and more deeply each time such communion is established.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1991/January 1992. Copyright ©1992 by Theosophical University Press)