What Happened to the Enlightenment?

mozart zauberfloete.jpg
Pamina meets the Queen of the Night © Svetlana Loboff/OnP

I don’t want to live in a world where the political agenda is dictated by ideology, populism, superstition or religious dogmatism. I don’t want to be governed by politicians guided by their emotions, their so-called “instincts” or their beliefs. I consider rationalism as the foundation of democracy and the state of law. Anything else will lead to autocratic forms of government or worse. And I am afraid of an evolution where haters repudiate, abuse of or physically attack what they call “the elites”, social, economical or scientific experts. People do not become suspect or evil because they have a higher education. Much to the contrary. But what happened to rationalism? What happened to the Enlightenment?

The dark against the white forces is the subject of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera “Die Zauberflöte” (The Magic Flute, KV 620). And love of course! But today I am more interested in the first aspect. The dark forces – the Catholic church in Mozart’s world emodying both the lust for power with its corrupting effect and the negation of reason. The white forces – the rationalist and humanist thinkers, scientists, philosophers, writers and artists fighting for the freedom of thought, of speech, of research, a spirit embodied by freemasonry.

Many symbols used in the libretto written by Emanuel Schikaneder are related to freemasonry: the Queen of the Night, guided by revenge and destructiveness opposes Sarastro, the master of wisdom and the friend of mankind. The Queen of the Night tries to lure her daughter Pamina into a conspiration where she would murder Sarastro, her father, and return to her side. To succeed, she resorts to lies and intimidation. To reach the light of wisdom, the prince Tamino and the bird catcher Papageno have to go through an initiation rite, comparable to the one free masons use when adopting a new companion.

Mozart had joined a free mason lodge, just like Schikaneder. And while he had always aspired to joint the Imperial court in Vienna, he was well aware of the reactionary tendencies of the Emperor, backed by the all-powerful Catholic church. Mozart accepted the commission by Schikaneder in 1790. The opera was first performed in 1791 in Vienna, one year before the death of the emperor Joseph II. The emperor’s motto had been “Pietate et concordia” (Piety and Unity). Though he embraced the Enlightenment, he saw the dangers arising from the French Revolution in1789. He wanted to save the monarchy and dreaded any popular upheaval. His successor Franz II set up an extensive network of spies and censors to monitor dissent. The dark forces were omnipresent.

Mozart’s opera however shows that the dark side can be overcome. The music is a perpetual source of hope and of joy, and Papageno, as the comical figure of the piece, gives the piece a lightness that more than counterbalances the oppressive historical background (and probably helped Mozart and Schikaneder to outwit the censor). The composer himself conducted the premiere; the opera’s immediate success – 20 performances in October 1791 alone – made it easy to have the score printed. By 1793 “The Magic Flute” had been performed in Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, Warsaw, Munich and Hamburg.

The “Magic Flute” is not an opera about free masonry. As Kurt Pahlen notes, it was meant as an entertaining piece of music theatre for the audience of Vienna, meant to seduce the public, meant to earn Mozart a living. Neither Schikaneder nor Mozart had any thoughts about posterity and certainly they never entertained the idea that this particular opera would become one of the most popular pieces of music for the next two centuries. Though Mozart probably would have been flattered.

I will not go into the detail of the action, nor will I even try to explain the music. This is a piece of art that just wants to be enjoyed, like I did yesterday night at the Opéra de Paris (Bastille) in Paris. What an experience! I can recommend the recording by the Akademie für Alte Musik led by René Jacobs.

© Charles Thibo


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de Chareli

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