Overture, The Magic Flute

Programme note

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
The Magic Flute, overture (1791)

Trombones add terror to Don Giovanni, announcing through their dark, other-worldly sonorities that Mozart’s opera has reached its supernatural climax. Before it was written, only Gluck, along with Mozart himself in his richly scored Idomeneo, had fully recognised the theatrical potential of these traditionally ecclesiastical instruments. But Mozart’s use of them in these works was not his last. In 1791, just before he died, he would employ trombone tone again, first to convey the solemn Masonic side of The Magic Flute and then the death-consciousness of his unfinished Requiem.

Having been a Freemason since 1784, Mozart knew exactly what he wanted his trombones to express in The Magic Flute. Right at the start of the Overture, they symbolise in slow, sonorous chords the three knocks at the temple door which form part of Masonic ritual. It is perhaps worth mentioning however, that the short upbeats before two of the chords actually increase the quantity to five, representing, according to one authority, female Freemasonry and thus the presence of women in Mozart’s opera.

But three is the number which recurs obsessively throughout The Magic Flute. The cast-list includes Three Ladies, Three Boys, Three Priests and Three Slaves. The comical Papageno counts to three before attempting suicide. Even the key of the overture, E-flat major, has three flats as its signature. But the music reveals further Masonic connections. The slow introduction is associated with the weighty masculine pronouncements of Sarastro and his priests, while the succeeding Allegro, in spite of its strictly fugal structure, belongs more to the lighter, jollier, more humble and nimble world of Papageno and Papagena.

Halfway through the Overture, the solemn chords return. Then the fugue resumes, now sounding more agitated and harmonically unstable, but cheerfulness is retrieved before the music reaches its close and the curtain goes up on Mozart’s last sublime comedy.

© Conrad Wilson