Book Reviews: Magic Masonry

The Magic Flute (Criterion Collection, 1975) DVD Directed by Ingmar Bergman

July-August 2011

By James T. Tresner II, 33°, Grand Cross Book Review Editor

It has been some time since we have talked about The Magic Flute in these pages, and some of our newer members may not be familiar with the work. As to “why now?”—the first book below was published on March 22, 2011.

Scott Mariani, The Mozart Conspiracy: A Novel, (New York: Touchstone Books [Simon and Schuster], 2011) hardbound, 352 pages, ISBN-10 1439-1933-65 Cover price $24.99 Available on the Internet, new and used, from about $8.00.

OK, it’s a mystery/action novel, so I don’t want to give away too much. Suffice it to say that the bad guys (really bad guys) are members of an Italian organization called “The Order of Ra.” Supposedly they were Masons in the time of Mozart, and they did not agree with the Enlightenment values of freedom, individual liberty, and democracy which Masonry was espousing, and so they formed a terror organization, still operating today, to suppress the ideas. And, because Mozart wrote the opera The Magic Flute, “exposing Masonic secrets,” they arranged to have him killed. References to the opera weave in and out of the novel.

The idea that Masons have Mozart killed is not new, it is as old as WWII. The story was invented by Hitler’s propaganda operation as part of his program to discredit and destroy the Fraternity. Just as a reality check, consider the following points.

  • There are no Masonic secrets exposed in the opera. That fact that Masonry teaches brotherhood and toleration is hardly a deeply-held mystery.
  • Yes, Mozart found inspiration for the music and its structure in the ideals of Masonry (see the books below) but the use of a key with three flats in the signature is not likely to expose the fraternity to the world.
  • The most likely place to find exposure of Masonic secrets would be in the plot and/or the lyrics of the songs. But Mozart did not write those—they were written by another Mason, Emanuel Schikaneder, a minor composer, comic opera performer, and librettist. Surely he would be the most likely target for assassination. But The Magic Flute opened in 1791, and Schikaneder died in 1812 at the age of 61, which was a ripe old age for the time. There is simply no credible evidence of Mozart’s murder, especially by his fellow Masons.

So, enjoy the story, but don’t fear that his brother Masons offed Mozart because they didn’t like what he wrote. That’s carrying musical criticism a little far!

Now to DVDs of the opera (it really isn’t an opera, but a singspiel—more like a musical with spoken material between the songs). Four different recordings are presented here, selected from many more. In short form, Prince Tamino enters, pursued by a dragon or serpent of some sort. He collapses from exhaustion as three ladies from the court of the Queen of the Night slay the beast. They depart to report to the Queen, and a bird-catcher (Papageno) enters. The ladies return, give the Prince a portrait of Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, and he is smitten by her beauty. The Queen appears and tells the Prince that Pamina has been kidnaped by Sarastro, an evil sorcerer, and Tamino vows to rescue her. The Ladies of the court tell Papageno that he is to accompany the Prince. The Prince is given a magic flute and Papageno is given a set of magic bells to assist them on their journey.

When Tamino arrives at the Temple where Sarastro rules, he discovers that Sarastro is a wise and good leader, and that the Queen of the Night is a villainess. He resolves to join the Brotherhood by passing through the ordeals. Papageno doesn’t want to go (he tells us that wisdom isn’t his thing) but is forced to accompany the Prince.

Ultimately, the Prince passes the ordeals and is united with Pamina. Papageno doesn’t make it, but he is given a pretty wife (Papagena) with whom he will lead a happy, but unenlightened, life. Much is left out, but this is the basic plot outline.

The Magic Flute (Criterion Collection, 1975) DVD Directed by Ingmar Bergman, run time 135 minutes, sung in Swedish with English subtitles, ASIN 0780023080, available new and used on the Internet from about $19.00.

I own about ten different recordings of the opera, but this is my favorite, and certainly the one I would recommend to someone who is new to opera. Bergman, arguably the greatest film director who has ever lived, made it a masterpiece. As you would expect, the filming is powerful and the characterizations clearly drawn. There is much humor in the score, and Bergman gave that its full value. Whether you like classical music or not, this DVD is fun to watch and enjoyable to hear. And kids love it!

The Magic Flute (BBC/Opus Arte, 2003) DVD Directed by Sir Colin Davis, Covent Garden opera production, run time 185 minutes, sung in German with English subtitles, ASIN B0000C5RQF, available new and used on the Internet from about $20.00.

Very different from the Bergman film, this DVD of the opera is often dark and brooding, although the comic moments are not overlooked. But the staging allows full playing of Light against Darkness. Diana Damrau is magnificent in the role as the Queen of the Night. Her evil is almost palpable. The production places more emphasis on character than on plot line, and it works very well.

Die Zauberflöte [The Magic Flute] (Deutsche Grammophon, 1991) DVD Conducted by James Levine, Metropolitan Opera Television production, run time 169 minutes, sung in German, with English subtitles, ASIN B000050X31, available used and new on the Internet from about $16.00.

Again, a completely different production. Being a production of the Met, of course the singing is magnificent. The settings are bright, almost cartoon-like, and definitely Egyptian. The comedy is a little more broad. You have to work a little harder to pick up the battle between darkness and light in this production—I have the feeling that they thought of it more as a fairy-tale, which is not an uncommon view of the work. There is less sense that the first act represents the mundane world of illusion and the second act represents the real world of the spirit.

The Magic Flute, (Kultur Video – 2007) DVD, The Australian Opera, run time 160 minutes, sung in English, ASINB000R06K1M, Available in the Internet, new and used from about $11.00.

A very different version, using minimalist staging and costumes of Mozart’s period rather than fantasy costumes. In some ways the Masonic elements are more overt (at the opening of the second act, they essentially set up a suggested Lodge room with the lesser lights). My own experience is that it is easier to listen to another version and read the English subtitles. It is well sung, but in some ways less exciting than the other versions shown here.

Mozart’s The Magic Flute Story (View Video, 2001) DVD Children’s Cultural Collection, run time 45 minutes, ISBN 0-8030-2422-3 narrated in English, sung in German, Available on the Internet, new and used, from about $11.00.

Note: This is not a complete recording of the opera. Instead, it is a program designed for children (or the young at heart) with a narrator to tell the story in English while selections from the opera are sung in German. It’s a good introduction for the little ones, and the winner of several awards from parents’ groups and publications. I’m giving a copy to my great-nephews.

Now, some books on the topic.

Paul Nettl, Mozart and Masonry (originally published in 1954, republished in 1987 by Dorset Press in paperback, currently being republished) available new and used on the Internet (hardcover) from $2.65. Also can be downloaded for free from the Internet—search for Mozart and Masonry, Nettl.

This is an enduring classic in both Masonry and Musicology. Brother Nettl gives an excellent background for Mozart’s music, including the musical “atmosphere” of the time, other Masonic musicians, etc. But the chapters on The Magic Flute are especially helpful. You can hardly go wrong with a free download, but copies of the hardcover edition are available at a very low price.

Jacques Chailley, The Magic Flute Unveiled: Esoteric Symbolism in Mozart’s Masonic Opera, (Inner Traditions, 1992) paperbound, 388 pages, ISBN 9780-892-1358-2 Available on the Internet, new and used, from about $10.00.

If you really want to deal with the symbolism in the opera, this is the book you need. Chailley was a professor of music history at the Sorbonne. He studied enough about Masonry to understand the basic symbolism and the culture in which the fraternity arose (one can only imagine the depth of the book if he had been a member) and did a remarkable job in connecting the musical structure of the work with the traditions of Masonry. It really gives an entirely new insight into the music and provides a new level of appreciation. You do not need to be trained in music to read and enjoy the book, although I suspect it would help. It’s one of the best discussions of the opera I have ever read.

M. F. M. Van Den Berk, The Magic Flute: Die Zauberflöte – an Alchemical Allegory, (Brill Academic Publishers, 2004) hardbound, 672 pages, many illustrations, ISBN 9004-130-99-3, Available on the Internet for about $316.

Let me admit up front that while I have read reviews of this book, I do not own a copy—the $316 price is a little rich for my blood—but I am including the book in this column because reviewers and musicologists say it is an important work in the understanding of the deeper levels of the opera.

The author holds a Ph.D. in Theology and taught at Utrecht Catholic University.

In reviewing the book, Boudewijn Koole of the Netherlands wrote “Proving anew and definitely that the opera is an ‘alchemical’ one is what he does…. He does so by interpreting the diverse characters, symbols and processes, as well as the totality of them, as illustration of the ‘magnum opus,’ the great work of the alchemists…. Everything is shown in the most convincing details, from classical Greece and old Egypt to the Rosicrucian works of the 16th century. From Isis and Osiris to Mozart’s visit to Pompeii, and the history and meaning of the etchings which accompanied the publication of the opera—with detailed insights into Mozart’s membership in Freemasonry, his personal views about what it stood for, and the way this influenced his musical and theatrical creations.”

Bro. Jacques Henry, trans. by Jack Cain, Mozart the Freemason: The Masonic Influence on His Musical Genius, (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2006) paperbound, 160 pages, some illustrations, ISBN-13: 978-1594-771-286, Cover price $14.95, Available on the Internet, new and used, from about $6.00.

Bro. Henry, a musicologist, has produced a fine book which is a little easier for a non-musician to read than is Chailley’s book. Because the publisher’s book description gives a good overview, I am quoting from it.

Thanks to recently discovered documents, we now have a fuller picture of the esoteric influences on the life and work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Musicologist Jacques Henry shows that the Masonic influence on Mozart goes beyond those pieces, such as The Magic Flute, that fulfilled a ritual purpose for the composer. His works actually provide a complete musical lexicon of Masonic symbols inspired by the principles of the craft and the spirit of the Masonic quest. Mozart constructed his Masonic compositions by creating auditory correspondences to the symbols present in the rituals, choosing keys and tempos that transpose their content into harmony…

A number of musicologists believe that the place of the Masonic spiritual vision in Mozart’s work is comparable to that held by Lutheran Christianity in the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. Mozart wed his deep understanding of music to the esoteric wisdom he gained as a Freemason. He shows that when we lose ourselves in the expression of pure harmony, it is the same as the symbol being lost in what it symbolizes.

“And now” in the words of Monty Python, “for something completely different.”

Bro. Richard Allan Wagner, The Lost Secret of William Shakespeare, electronic book, on CD, available from the author for $13 which includes shipping of the CD, or for $10, for which he will send the book to your computer in a pdf format. Send check or money order to Richard Wagner, 6117 Vineland Ave., Suite 4, North Hollywood, CA 91606.

I must admit I approached this book with a somewhat jaundiced eye. I really had had my fill of “who was Shakespeare, really” books. But I truly enjoyed reading the book. It might as well be a novel, for all the unexpected twists and turns, but Bro. Wagner is writing about real people, and he makes a powerful case that they are real events.

In fact, it’s hard to write a review of the book, because I don’t want to deny you the fun of following the developments—usually a problem in reviewing an adventure novel, not a historical discussion. And what a “cast!” Freemasonry, Shakespeare, Bacon, Sarah Winchester (heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune and builder of the famous “Winchester house”), King James, and the biblical translation which bears his name. Bro. Wagner takes us into the world of the English Renaissance, to a people we know loved anagrams, ciphers, and word/number puzzles.
Whether you accept his conclusions or not, it’s a fascinating read.