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In the Summer of 1791: Genius on a Busman's Holiday

By: Dr. Benjamin B. Dunlap

Some have argued that, however we define it, bad music, like bad art of any sort, is inevitable and maybe even necessary, at least aesthetically. That may well be true, though great composers rarely seem to produce it—and, even when they do, it’s bad in a special way, like this doggerel ascribed to the poet John Keats:

Give me women, wine, and snuff
Until I cry out “hold, enough!”

We understand, of course, that he was merely having fun, the way George Washington loved to dance and Marcel Duchamp chose to embellish the Mona Lisa with a moustache. And, in general, if Homer sometimes nods, it doesn’t necessarily embarrass his muse. . . because genius has its prerogatives, one of which is the assumption that whatever they do with serious intent bears the lineaments of sublimity, and whatever doesn’t must have been a joke.

And yet, despite such pious convictions, banality persists in showing up like Geraldo Rivera in even the most sacred precincts of the arts, posing such inanities as whether, midway through King Henry VI, Shakespeare was, as rumored about in London, sued for an unpaid butcher’s bill? Whether, choking as he did on the bitter bread of exile, Dante, as claimed by querulous Florentines, once kicked a patron’s barking dog? And whether Goethe felt chagrin when, standing beside him as royalty passed, Beethoven refused to doff his cap—though Goethe had, Goethe had?

We tolerate such crassness, we say, because it tends to humanize, whittling the sacred down to size—though you could certainly be forgiven for supposing that’s hardly a problem when it comes to Mozart, if only because we’re all too familiar with Peter Schaffer’s caricature in Amadeus, and also, of course, because what is wistfully ideal in Mozart’s work is almost invariably juxtaposed with what is human-all-too-human. . . just as, in the opera we’re about to discuss, the composer’s own affinity is, I think, as much or more with the affably plebian Papageno as with the princely Mitt-Romney-like Tamino.

Some will protest, no doubt, that genius is by definition “inexplicable” and that, as I’ve noted already, it’s notorious in our pseudo-democratic age that we do our best to reduce the sublime to the level of network news—as if it were important to point out that, when it rained, Homer got just as wet as we, that Leonardo’s hangnail drove him nuts, and that, judging from the evidence, Bach must have had a rock-star’s libido.

“Still, what’s the point?” you might object—unless, of course, we’re trying to guess why Shakespeare would in the first place have invented a character named Dick the Butcher and had him suddenly exclaim, “Kill all the lawyers!” Then we’d be delighted to turn up an unpaid butcher’s bill, just as we ought to prize the thought of how much it must have been worth to the Bard to hang with such rollicking chums as William Kempe and Richard Burbage. “O reason not the need!” he had King Lear beseech. For even genius needs company—bird-catchers of a feather, as it were—and the ordinary and everyday are like lead in the alchemist’s lab, waiting to be changed to gold.

In other words, though it’s true enough that genius tends to transcend whatever lies at hand, it’s equally true that it savors and transmutes it in ways that any reader of a work like Joyce’s Ulysses will readily concede—making allusions, cracking jokes, winking at those who know the score. . . and, no matter how ethereal or esoteric one might otherwise be, hobnobbing with friends who know the score can play a crucial part in the making of a masterpiece. Joyce wasn’t the first to figure that out, nor was Mozart. Nor, for that matter, were the painters of the Lascaux cave.

So what would you give to have been. . . not a genius for the ages, but a modestly gifted theatrical type destined for no particular fame, knocking about in Vienna in the summer of 1791? Let’s say you’re 33 years old and, though you’re a native of Bohemia, you’ve been in the big city long enough to have met your arty counterparts, those who, like you, make their way on the fringe—acting, singing, playing the flute, even composing now and again. Let’s also say you’d set out from Prague to study medicine and philosophy, but that was many years ago when the world was more predictable. So, at 28, you’d joined a travelling theatrical troupe that had recently settled down on the outskirts of town at the somewhat sketchy Theater auf der Wieden, presenting popular entertainments of every sort from low comedy to tragic opera. Among your assets are a good tenor voice and a quick-witted disposition that help you seize on whatever presents itself as a chance to earn a few talers and have some fun with your more creative friends—one of whom, only two years older, is himself a composer who as a child once sat in the lap of Maria Theresa and seems to have a knack for getting into the laps of his more attractive sopranos.

Your name, which could be Kugelmass, is, in fact, Benedikt Schack, and your friend is none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (a.k.a. Gottlieb, Amadeo, Wolfgang, or simply “Wolfie” to his pals), a former prodigy, now a harried middle-aged man who, despite his philandering, truly loves his wife Constanze and his children—the sixth of whom is on the way—and who, though no longer in such high demand as he was as an enfant terrible, is nevertheless exuberant company and an indispensable friend when it comes to dishing up an aria or duet for your latest effort at Singspiel (a music-hall combination of dialogue and song in the local vernacular, featuring crowd-pleasing plots full of comedy, adventure, and romance). And the truth of the matter is that, given the vagaries of politics and fashion, living on the rough-and-tumble fringe of respectability and momentary fame is even more uncertain today than it was a few years back. The butcher’s bill and the hole in the shoe are as real and persistent as the fugitive hope of pleasing an emperor, so it’s good to have brilliant, randy friends with whom to commiserate. . . and it’s good for the soul, now and then, to put posturing behind and frequent some taverns and dives.

And what are they talking about in the bierstubes of Vienna in that summer of 1791? What else but the vagaries of politics and fashion? For who can help noticing that, just when the Montgolfier Brothers were enjoying such vogue in France for their increasingly fanciful flying machines, ballooning about above Versailles, the sans-culottes next-door in Paris had risen up and, unthinkable though it was, laid their wine-stained hands on the king who, in June of that very summer of 1791, would try to escape with his children and his Austrian wife, Marie Antoinette, who was hoping against hope that, while her brother in Vienna, Joseph II, was still alive he would intervene on their behalf. But, ruthlessly pragmatic to the end, Joseph had died having taken no such risky action, and King Louis and his dwindling entourage had been captured and imprisoned, and everything in Europe was turning topsy-turvy, with Catherine of Russia (later known as “the Great”) incessantly scheming to get Austria and Prussia sufficiently distracted by the brouhaha in France for her to annex additional bits of Poland and the Ottoman Empire, Austria’s old nemesis to the east with whom, in August of 1791—again, that very summer—the Treaty of Sistova would finally end the latest Ottoman-Hapsburg war, causing the Saracen threat to recede as it had before. All grist for the music-hall mill. . . plus other topics of conversation like a slave rebellion that, according to still uncertain reports, had broken out on the Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue, and news that equally seditious former colonists were concocting a so-called “bill of rights” in the backwoods of America, and a campaign at home by the newly crowned Emperor, Leopold II, combatting Free Masonry, which, like his mother, the pious Maria Theresa, he considered incompatible with Catholicism. This mattered to Benedikt Schack’s friend Mozart because, like Schack’s other friend and sometime boss—the impresario-slash-lead-actor of his troupe, Emanuel Schikaneder—he was a practicing Mason, having been introduced into Vienna’s “Beneficence” lodge by the respected iconoclast Ignaz von Born, a leading scientist and would-be satirist who, like all Hungarians, was at odds with much of the status quo. . . as, at least implicitly, Mozart himself must have seemed in adapting that incendiary play Le Mariage de Figaro. That was in 1786, while the French Revolution was still simmering. But Mozart himself was no incendiary, at least not in politics. He was, or tried to be, both a good Catholic and an ardent Free Mason, an increasingly quixotic combination In Vienna. For that matter, he was, somewhat paradoxically—as we’ve already noted—a very loving, if profligate and now-and-then licentious, husband and father who, with chronic liver trouble and nagging financial problems, had managed to remain unfailingly high-spirited and stunningly productive.

At some point in early June, 1791—certainly by June 11th—Mozart had met with that same artistic freebooter, Emanuel Schikaneder, then 40 years old and, like others in that opportunistic world, by turns a singer, composer and actor who, by the end of his career would have written some 99 plays and assorted libretti and earned considerable renown in the roles of Hamlet and King Lear. He and Mozart had met before, but they’d come together in that summer of 1791 specifically to discuss a new collaboration, a singspiel that would borrow its plot from the best-selling supposedly “ancient Egyptian” hoax of some 60 years before entitled simply Sethos, an anthology of tales including one “Lulu, oder die Zauberflöte”—“Lulu, or the Magic Flute”—that had especially captured Schikaneder’s fancy. He had used such sources before, tailoring them in clever ways that his regulars had applauded, and, as he’d done in the past, he quickly winnowed through the details, retaining the basic narrative of a young but intrepid prince, equipped like Orpheus and his lute with a sort of musical mojo but dispatched by a fairy queen who declares she has chosen him to rescue her beautiful, innocent daughter from the clutches of a powerful magician who had carried her off to his all but impregnable lair which seems to have been constructed by the set designers for “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
 
But at some point in this adaptation, crucial changes were made: “Lulu” was (happily) dumped as the hero’s name, and, prompted no doubt by lofty considerations related to their Masonic vows, a decision was made to reverse the story’s moral equation, transforming the queen into a nightmarish future mother-in-law resembling Catherine of Russia on steroids and opposing her fiendish scheming with the wisdom of a truly enlightened leader—not a magician, but a solemn high priest cast in the righteous mold of a Grand Lodge’s Worshipful Master who, though he too has selected Prince Tamino to rescue Princess Pamina, has still more grandiose aims for them both as a sort of royal couple leading the world towards enlightenment based on the secret wisdom that he and his fellow priests have preserved from ancients cults or cribbed from the Rosicrucians.

Whatever part he played or didn’t play in making these changes, Mozart must have approved—not just as a fellow Mason but as someone who would himself have preferred a faith much closer to that of John Paul II than to that of Hieronymous Colleredo, the autocratic Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg who once had said so dismissively of the youthful prodigy, "Soll er doch gehen, ich brauche ihn nicht!"—“So let him go, who needs him?” Now it was Mozart who had no need of Colleredo or of any despotic authority, male or female. Let it be Sarastro then, the Zoroaster sound-alike, who shows the way to peace and love.

But was this truly the plan at the outset, after they’d agreed on a working libretto and Mozart had started to compose? Though we can’t know for sure, it’s tempting to suspect that, as the work evolved throughout the summer, Mozart made a few far-reaching musical leaps that required some serious adjustments to the text. When one of priests declares, “Then it’s a woman who’s beguiled you? A woman does little, but gossips much,” or when Sarastro observes of women in general, “A man must guide your hearts, / For without a man every woman tends / To step beyond her natural sphere,” that’s almost certainly Schikaneder speaking and, through him, the anti-feminist Free Masonry to which he subscribed. But when, on the other hand, Pamina sings her heartbreakingly beautiful song of desolation, “Ach, ich fühls. . .”—“Ah, I feel it has vanished, / Gone forever the joy of love,” or when, in the second act, Tamino and the Men in Armor exclaim, “A woman unafraid of death and night is worthy to be initiated,” we know—or we hope—that’s Mozart’s voice, subverting authority as surely as he had when, having married Constanze Weber without his father’s approval, he’d signed a letter to Leopold with bit of doggerel that, slightly altered, would recur some nine years later in Die Zauberflöte when Papageno and Pamina sing, “Mann und Weib, und Weib und Mann / Reichen an die Götter an”—“Man and wife and wife and man / Reach up together to the gods”. . . those deities who, wherever they reside, are beyond the power even of Sarastro. It is possible to argue, I think, that Pamina becomes, in effect, the most heroic figure in the opera, compared to whom its ostensible hero Tamino seems somewhat doltish and stolid, just as in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Pierre Bezukhov, for all his quasi-Masonic search for meaning, seems merely wooden beside Natasha Rostova.

So who would play Pamina? It must have been Mozart who suggested that the 17-year-old Anna Gottlieb who, five years earlier, at the age of 12, had been the first Barbarina in Figaro, would be perfect for the part—and there’s a fair amount of evidence that he himself would play the part of her offstage Tamino. Indeed, the only soprano he doesn’t appear to have wooed was his sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer, an accomplished coloratura, whom he helped cast as the wickedly dazzling Queen of the Night. On the other hand, once the basic plot was set, Schikaneder decided that he himself should play the scene-stealing part of a bumptious comic sidekick who became, as the story progressed, the bird-catcher Papageno. And, when he learned that, by sheer coincidence, a rival singspiel theater was planning to stage a similar work entitled Die Zauberzither (“The Magical Zither”), he concluded that it was a point of artistic honor that his hero should stick with the flute as his magical instrument—which, as luck would have it if you were Benedikt Schack, is the instrument you played and yet another compelling reason for you to be cast in the lead as Tamino, which you were, he was. . . not bad for a kid from the sticks whose talent was basically run-of-the-mill! Other friends and hangers-on would soon join in as well, no doubt expecting both fun and profit as, with Mozart, the former was almost guaranteed, and, with Schikaneder, the odds for the latter were really quite good (Mozart was counting on that).

But, as I’ve already hinted, something more was going on in this new production at the Theater auf der Wieden because, just as it had been decided that the easily-accessible singspiel would include both low buffoonery and high-flown ideals, so, for insiders in the know, its fairytale plot contained within it a loftier symbolism. Thus, in addition to its generalized presentation of humanist and rationalist ideals, a whole panoply of Masonic symbols and rites was incorporated into the work along with references to current events and popular clichés supported by skillful special effects—thunderclaps, trapdoors, flying machines, lions and serpents and Moorish thugs charmed into mincing nincompoops. And, as at any such spectacle, you pays your money and you takes your choice—you’re amused or you’re edified, it’s either The Inferno or Beavis and Butthead Go To Hell. But, for those with the wit to see them, the symbols were everywhere: in the repetition of triple chords that open the overture and recur at crucial points, echoed in turn throughout the story—3 ladies, 3 boys, 3 temples, even 3 flats in the E flat major home key. Also, from the opening scenes, the serpent, the padlock, the magical flute and glockenspiel. Above all, repeated throughout the work, the oppositions of male and female, fire and water, light and dark, day and night. . . all implying, to those who knew Masonic rites, a pathway to enlightenment.

And yet, this is where things get problematic—at least, in the original production—because, seen from a different point of view, the treatment of the High Priest’s black and presumably Muslim captain of the guard, Monostatos, seems blatantly racist or at best a troubling capitulation to a stereotype of the cruel and oversexed Turk that Mozart had used in previous works. And, as we’ve noted before, to most of us today (if not in 1791), the low regard for women would seem intolerably sexist were it not for that subversive twist in the final and most daunting ordeal that Pamina and Tamino face, a symbolic journey through death to life in which, at odds with the High Priest’s creed, it’s the purely innocent and loving Pamina who not only accompanies but leads her princely Tamino: “Ich werde aller Orten / An deiner Seite sein. / Ich selbsten führe dich; / Die Liebe leite mich!”—“In every place / I’ll be at your side. / I myself will lead you; / May love guide me!” In what is, in effect, a reversal of ancient myth, love guides Eurydice, who in turn leads Orpheus out of the darkness, into light. No wonder the poet Goethe, who knew the opera well, once contemplated a sequel of his own, for, defined by those lines that occur near the end, Pamina is, in effect, what Gretchen becomes in Part II of Goethe’s masterpiece. . . and “Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan”—“The Eternal Feminine leads us on.”

What I’m doing here, of course, is calling what I myself admire the obvious work of Mozart as opposed to that of Schikaneder, basing my conclusion on Mozart’s other depictions of women, his letters to Constanze, and my own intuition. But I must admit it’s a good deal harder to swallow the work’s apparent racism and anti-Muslim sentiment except to say it belongs to its time, though some have soothed their qualms by pointing out that Monostatos is, in fact, the only character in the opera who never tells a lie—just as, in the end, it’s the so-called “natural man” Papageno, of whom even Monostatos is afraid, who is most realistically grounded in the basic realities of living in this world, as if to argue that Mozart’s sympathies are always broader than mere melodrama.

Still, I must admit I am, for the most part, unconvinced by such arguments, though one could also cite in the opera’s defense a passage overlooked by most of the opera’s sociological detractors. It occurs when one of priests expresses doubt about Tamino’s chances of making the grade. “He is a prince,” the priest observes with what would seem to be an anti-aristocratic contempt. But, as if he’s been reading the works of Albert Camus, the High Priest Sarastro replies, “More importantly, he’s a man.” A mensch, he says. And, even amidst his comical iniquity, it is also as a man that, in the original production, Monostatos sings, “Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden”—“Everyone feels the joys of love. . . and am I to do without love because a black is ugly? Was I not given a heart? Am I not Flesh and blood?” Are we to laugh at this or cry? It’s not at all clear what the artists intend.

So the questions remains: is this undeniably magical work a masterpiece that like, say, Birth of a Nation, is flawed by its ethical myopia, or is it in its own subtle fashion a moral test of the audience as well as of its central characters? As with so much great art, the answer has to be “it all depends”—or as Goethe himself once put it, it requires very little education to find Schikaneder’s text to be bad, but a great deal of education to find it good. In assessing The Magic Flute, you may see only what some have called a confused mishmash at best, or you might agree with those who describe it instead as a sublime mixture of every sort of music and, by extension, every aspect of human experience. Consider the careful distribution of musical styles corresponding to each character type: the vengeful, scintillating Queen of the Night, who dazzles us with her coloratura; the solemn and self-possessed Sarastro, who either inspires or annoys us with his somewhat pontifical Masonic hymns; Papageno, who engages and amuses with his natural idiom of folksong; and Tamino and Pamina, who, with their courage and naiveté, share what Mozart and his friends would have defined as Empfindsamkeit, a limpid lyricism that shames the jaded sophistication of the worldly. Upon further reflection, most of us are probably inclined to note that a high proportion of Mozart’s most exalted moments do, in fact, possess precisely that: Empfindsamkeit.

But what a summer that must have been! No sooner had Mozart begun to make major progress on the opera than he got two additional commissions—one for an opera seria to commemorate the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia (Benedikt Schack’s native region), and another for a requiem mass that came, somewhat mysteriously, from a representative of Count Franz von Walsegg who, as he had done with other commissioned works, intended to pass it off as his own. By mid-September, Mozart had finished the first commission and nearly completed the second. Along with novelty pieces for mechanical organ (little more than a music box) and a piece for glass harmonica (written for a blind young virtuosa), he churned out a final piano concerto, a pair of string quartets, and a concerto for clarinet. As Benedikt Schack must surely have thought, what a genius! What a man!

On September 30th, Mozart conducted the first performance of Zauberflöte, and it was a huge success. He conducted it again the following night, and, on October 7th, he described the triumph to his wife Constanze who was at a spa following the birth of their newest child—Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, who, though not a genius himself, would one day become, like his father, a pianist and composer. The following night, Mozart played a prank on Schikaneder, who was singing the part of Papageno, by playing the glockenspiel offstage at inappropriate moments, obliging Schikaneder to address his instrument with a comically indignant, “Shut up!” and giving us just a hint of how liberating it must have been to be there on the outskirts of town instead of in some stuffy salon or imperial hof theater.

The next week, Mozart took his seven-year-old son Karl to see a performance, and, that very evening, the court composer Salieri was there, applauding generously. Mozart’s fortunes had clearly turned, even in financial terms. But, in the midst of all this jubilation, his physical ailments grew worse. On November 15th, he conducted what would turn to be the last completed work in his catalogue, a Masonic cantata for tenor and piano. Then he took to his bed, perhaps with rheumatic fever, and, on December 5th, aged 35, he died. Mozart died.

The world went on. In a matter of months, Leopold II had also died amid persistent rumors that he’d been poisoned by his former mistress, an Italian opera singer named Donna Livia, though, according to scholars, the likelier explanation is that Leopold had caused his own demise by dabbling in potency pills—death by Viagra, as it were. The French Revolution would soon succumb to similar excess, giving way to the imperial ambitions of Napoleon. . . and, with that, 18th-century Europe was a thing of the past. Many years later, Constanze, by then remarried but preparing a new edition of her former husband’s biography, would write to an ageing Benedikt Schack, declaring, “I can think of absolutely no one who knew him better or to whom he was more devoted than you.” But before he could respond, Schack too was dead.

What lives is what you’re about to hear, an enchanting presentation of a work both of its time and for every time to come—for, beyond all the questions of plot and symbolism, it will most assuredly continue to live as long as there are human ears to listen. So I invite you now, in our own precarious and fleeting present, to hear it anew, as it evolved in that precious summer of 1791—and to decide for yourselves whether this paean to the all-resolving power of love is, when all has been said and done, the merest cliché or the profoundest truth. Or as Papageno and Pamina together declare, and as Mozart himself with this glorious music was surely saying to someone—to Constanze, one hopes, or Anna Gottlieb, or even to his muse:

Wir wollen unser Liebe freu’n,
Wir leben durch die Lieb allein.

Let us then rejoice in love,
We live. . . we live by love alone.