By the time that Mozart wrote The Magic Flute for the Viennese suburbs, he was highly adept at writing commissioned work. He was raised in Salzburg, then not strictly part of Austria but ruled over by the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg, where, like his father, Mozart was on the Archbishop’s music staff. Given his children’s considerable talents, however, Mozart’s father Leopold took the opportunity to parade his children around the courts and cities of Europe. Yet, having enjoyed success on tour, the returns to Salzburg were always an anti-climax. At home Mozart had little opportunity to spread his wings beyond writing endless masses and anthems. He had to escape.
The composer’s initial destination was Vienna. As the heart of the Habsburg Empire and the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor, the city enjoyed an unparalleled cultural life. It had opera, churches, and numerous potential patrons. Mozart attempted to find employment there in 1773, but the plan failed and he returned to Salzburg with his tail between his legs. Over the next eight years, he repeatedly tried to find the job that would release him from the Prince Archbishop’s clutches. In 1781, Mozart went to Munich for the premiere of his opera Idomeneo, and then caught up with touring Archbishop’s retinue as it arrived in Vienna. When the court returned to Salzburg, Mozart stayed behind; it was to be the making of him and, indeed, Vienna.
At the time, Emperor Joseph II was making marked reforms across the Holy Roman Empire, aimed at diminishing the power of the church and the Jesuits in particular. While he inadvertently put many church musicians out of work, Vienna’s theaters flourished, as did an atmosphere of Enlightenment and entertainment. Having leased the theaters to outside producers, the Emperor then took over the central Burgtheater himself, employing his friend Count Rosenberg as director. The Emperor insisted on German-language works, an avoidance of opera seria, and a general predilection for comedy. As Mozart wrote to his father, Vienna was “the best place in the world for his profession.” This happy-go-lucky environment brought about Mozart’s first stage work for Vienna, the cheeky Abduction from the Seraglio and, after some wrangling, adaptation and kowtowing to Imperial demands, the controversial Marriage of Figaro.
But theatrical Vienna was not entirely focused on the politics and premieres at the Burgtheater. Around this time, the Emperor took a more lax approach to theaters outside the city walls. While Vienna is now a seamless sprawl from the center to the Vienna Woods, in Mozart’s day, the inner city was separated from the suburbs by a ring of medieval walls. Despite this marked division between city and outlying villages, the Emperor had sway over all of it. Within his new policy of “theater freedom,” the Emperor allowed for the establishment of three new auditoriums including the Freihaus-Theater (1787), southwest of Vienna.
Each of these theaters had its own traditions, not least the Freihaus, run by the spirited impresario Emanuel Schikaneder. He and Mozart first met in Salzburg, when Mozart contributed music to some of his touring productions. The pair subsequently met again in Vienna when Schikaneder mounted a new production of Abduction. And the actor-producer would certainly not have been far from Mozart’s mind when he pitched The Marriage of Figaro to the powers-that-be at Court; Schikaneder’s recent production of the play had been cause for much controversy.
Mozart was instantly attracted to these maverick tendencies and, although connections to Court had proved fruitful, Mozart craved independence—much as he had done in Salzburg. But rather than just wishing for new avenues of interest, the Freihaus soon became a necessity. Following the death of Emperor Josef II in 1790, Mozart was forced to look for work. Coronation celebrations for the new Emperor, Leopold II, provided a commission for a new opera called La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus), but it was not enough. The rent was due for Mozart and his wife.
Calling in a favor from his friend the tenor Benedikt Schack— Mozart’s first Tamino —Schikaneder’s theater troupe provided that financial lifeline. The move away from the splendor of the Burgtheater in the center of town to the suburban theater could not have been more marked.
It was called the Freihaus because, thanks to the owners, it was free from all taxes. In the great courtyard there was a garden with allées, flowerbeds and a wooden pavilion. The theater accommodated 1,000 people and was equipped with all the necessary requisites— safety, comfort, and stage machinery. Since, in this enormous place, there was no lack of room, the director and most of the company lived in the Freihaus.
The audience at the Freihaus was far less pretentious, and it was the eating and drinking that most people remembered, including the poet Ignaz Franz Castelli.
I had to sit for three hours, bathed in heat and sweat and impregnated by the garlicky fumes of the smoked meats being consumed. Finally the lamps were dimmed and my sun started to rise. The musicians came into the pit one by one, those lucky ones, who can sit there every day.
The sun was, of course, The Magic Flute itself. Yet despite Castelli’s admiration, Schikaneder and Mozart had written something that was far from rarefied. Unlike Mozart’s previous highborn comedies, The Magic Flute had the feeling of a ribald farce. Schikaneder himself played Papageno, prompting endless encores of his arias from a loyal audience. Papageno enters the opera untroubled by life, and his easy temperament works its way through the piece. It feels only natural that he will in turn find his mate in Papagena, who is just as smilingly silly as he is (and driven by sex). In time, their charming music box transforms serious individuals into much meeker specimens; the magic of the Freihaus was at work.
But, alongside the smoked meats, the drink, and Papageno’s japes and jaunts, there is a more sombre side to The Magic Flute. If Papageno is characterised by quixotic and dancing tunes, Tamino is ardent, heroic and serious. Rather than just creating contrast with Papageno’s world, however, this yin and yang has a very clear moral point to make. Like in The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, love is something to be earned, cherished, and respected. Frivolity is all very well and good but, as Mozart had already pointed out, it can lead to the grave. Even the larky Papageno has to learn some restraint. The trials of fire and water through which Tamino and Pamina must pass in order to reach enlightenment and marriage are manifestations of the trials and tribulations of our own daily lives.
Further jeopardy is added by the Queen of the Night. She occupies her own inimitable sound world. Mozart created the role as a vehicle for his sister-in-law Josepha Weber, and he wrote a wild coloratura showcase. Weber had been the prima donna at the Freihaus Theater since 1789 and, as a central part of Schikaneder’s troupe, she required a major role in the new opera. But while Mozart pandered to such demands, creating tailored roles for both Weber and Schikaneder, they form an essential part of the opera’s fabric. The Queen of the Night first appears to Tamino, cajoling him in a style that mimics his own. But when Sarastro finally impresses himself upon the story and points the way to resolution, the Queen threatens to kill Sarastro. But through the gleeful and pure choruses of his followers and his contrasting sagacity, Sarastro makes the passage to salvation clear.The trials he sets for his newest disciples have religious connotations, taken from the book of Isaiah:
When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.
By having faith and turning away from anger and frivolity, the rising sun greets Tamino and Pamina.
In many ways, this conflation of jollity and ardor, murderous intent and religious sobriety has the feel of a review show. Each character has a turn, an aria, a duet, all presented with great flair. But, like the various characters in his suburban fairy-cum-morality tale, Mozart is able to assume almost any role and when the opera opened on September 30, 1791 (with Mozart directing from the keyboard), it was an enormous success. The composer was in his musical prime. The restrictions of the Salzburg court had prevented him from displaying this nascent skill and, indeed, the political minefield of the Burgtheater— however liberal the Emperor and his staff— had often stymied his intent. Within the collaborative freedom of the Freihaus, Mozart was able to explore the full range of his talents.
The sheer post-modern vivacity of The Magic Flute—its collocation of various styles and forms, the seriousness with which he presented religious and Masonic enlightenment, and the ultimate balm of sexual and romantic love— points to a new vein of creativity. Sadly, it was not to last. The happiness of the opera’s final moments and Mozart’s suburban success proved cruelly short-lived; Mozart was dead two months later. But in those last weeks of his brief life, the composer presented the world with a most dazzling sun, burning through the garlic and sweat of the suburbs. Neither the jollity of Papageno, Tamino’s ardor, the Queen’s anger, or the wisdom of Sarastro wins through. Each is balanced by the other and, in the end, love conquers all.
Gavin Plumley is a British writer and musicologist specialising in the history and culture of Vienna.