Note: This film guide is part of a collection of film guides on history, politics, and war.




I have selected Mozart as an example of the extraordinarily rich cultural life of late 18thC Vienna during the reign of the enlightened despot Joseph II. As historian and musicologist Nicholas Till correctly observes of Mozart and Austria under Joseph II:

As the pace of change accelerated under the impetuous Joseph II (who ruled from 1780 to 1790) the destruction of the traditional institutions of social cohesion led to an economic and social individualism - even libertarianism - that threatened to undermine the authority and security of the state itself and forced Joseph to rescind many of his reforms. It was during these ten years, when Mozart lived and worked in Vienna, that the Enlightenment was to be impaled most cruelly upon its own contradictions (ideal of freedom brought about throught state direction). The enlightened bourgeoisie of Mozart's Austria found itself torn between those who placed all their faith in the dynamic rationalizing powers of the absolute monarchy, and those who recognised that this modern absolutism threatened individual freedom far more effectively than had the Church and feudal order from which they had recently escaped. It was also riven between the desire to maintain its liberties and its fear of the inevitable outcome of liberty (the chaos of the Queen of the Night).

The rift split Mozart's immediate society - the coterie of statesmen, intellectuals, freemasons and artists who constituted the Viennese Aufklärung, whose ideals of social and material progress were to collapse into disillusion, retreat and reaction by the end of the decade. The greatest chronicler of that history and - to the extent that it encapsulated the whole history of the Enlightenment - of the Enlightenment itself was Mozart, the only member of the Viennese Aufklärung able to see beyond the Enlightenment's limiting polarities to a more profound understanding of the spiritual as well as social needs of humanity (as expressed in ZF). (Nicholas Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart's Operas (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), p., 6.)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Salzburg, 1756 - Vienna, 1791) was one of the greatest, most gifted composers who has ever lived. Child prodigy who could play perfectly on only one hearing. Taken on tour at an early age by his father. Seemed to have the ability to compose perfect music almost effortlessly. Good example of a gifted commoner who was hampered in his development by the restrictions of Old Regime Europe. Dependent on the patronage of aristocrats and official court society rather than a buying public (which was to emerge only in the 19thC with the development of a prosperous middle class of purchasers of music scores for home entertainment). WAM also good example of the intellectual influenced by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Example, the opera "The Marriage of Figaro" (1786) based on a revolutionary play by Beaumarchais about an intelligent and witty servant who is forced by birth and circumstance to serve a stupid nobleman, whom Figaro outsmarts and manipulates. Predicts the overthrow of the nobility and the rise of a meritocracy based on talent not birth or class.

In the last year of his life (1791 - bicentennial 1991) WAM wrote 2 operas, "La Clemenza di Tito" and "Die Zauberflöte", and the Requiem Mass. The occasion for the performance of WAM's last operas was the death of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II in February 1790. He was succeeded by his brother Leopold II who was crowned king of Bohemia in Prague in August 1791, for which WAM wrote an opera in praise of enlighted despotism "The Clemency of Tito".

"The Clemency of Tito" (1791) and Enlightened Despotism

"The Magic Flute" (1791): Free Masonry and Enlightenment

On his return to Vienna WAM completes "The Magic Flute", an opera with strong Masonic and enlightened sentiments, sung in German (and not French or Italian) which WAM wanted to be the German opera. Masons were a secret organisation with the aim of spreading enlightened ideas about individual freedom and toleration. WAM joined a Masonic lodge called "Zur Wohltätigkeit" (Charity or Beneficence) in December 1784. Lodges were a means by which the Austrian intellectual elite could meet and discuss issues. It was watched closely by the Austrian secret police because of its suspected revolutionary implications. WAM was a dedicated member of the Masons and composed music specifically for them. Joseph II closed down a number of lodges in 1785 because he feared their critical influence. His less enlightened brother Leopold II was even less tolerant of the lodges and it is argued that WAM wrote the opera "The Magic Flute" as an attempt to defend the liberal ideals of the lodge with an allegorical opera. What was daring about WAM's effort was to do so so soon after the coronation of an unsympathetic emperor who had been frightened by the events of the French Revolution, and who thought the Masonic lodges were spreading revolutionary ideas throughout Austria. A number of references are made to masonic ritual in the opera: the knocking three times in succession, the fire and water rituals of admission to the higher degrees of the masonic order, the praise of tolerance, wisdom and justice (in the form of Sarastro).

Handout of Synopsis of opera.

Themes and Characters in "The Magic Flute"

Below surface layer of trivial lowbrow hunour is deeper allegory about the Nature of man and search for harmony within oneself. Contradictory forces within each person. The ZF as an enlightened and Masonic-inspired "Bildungsoper" - the inner development and intiation into adult life ("initiation journey" Till, p. 281) of a young hero, prince Tamino. Individual initiation journey of T (using symbols of masonic initiation) parallels the spiritual journey of the human race which has lost its original innocence and seeks to gain its freedom, autonomy and spiritual unity. Till neatly sums up the message of Mozart's ZF:

On one level, therefore, Die Zauberflöte can be interpreted as a story of the process by which the individual gains integration into society and achieves individuation - a complementary process that lies at the centre of the later Enlightenment's preoccupations. As such, it presents a mythic answer to the impasses of the bourgeois opposition of the individual and society, and to dangerous, individualist regressiveness represented by all forms of popular Rousseauism. It reminds us of that the individual and society do not stand in isolated and hostile distinctness, but that the individual only attains individuation through social existence, recalling, as Goethe writes in Wilhelm Meister, 'the measure by which, and up to which, our inner nature has been shaped by culture.' Mozart and Schikaneder, like Goethe, recognized in the mythic stories of intitiation a symbol for this process. (Till, p. 280).

H.C. Robbins Landon calls ZF the first Masonic opera, glorifying the rituals and ideals of the Masons. Written at a time when Free Masons were under attack (threat of extinction) in Austria due to reaction of Joseph II. Later voluntarily closed their lodges in 1795 as Francis forbad all secret societies and instructed secret police to monitor all suspicious activity following execution of French king and Terror. Masons correctly blamed for spreading enlightened and republican ideas but wrongly for causing Terror. WAM and librettist Schikaneder wanted to present basic ideas of Free masonry positively. Key pasages:

  • 1. "In diesen heil'gen Hallen" (HO) p. 152 Klemperer
  • 2. "O Isis und Osiris" p. 124 Klemperer
  • 3. the March of the Priests p. 120 Karajan
  • 4. the final chorus "Heil sey euch Geweihten" p. 208

Play extract "In diesen Heil'gen Hallen" 4 mins.

Papageno: "There are black birds in the world, why not black men?"

Papageno (to Prince Tamino): "I am a man just like you."


1. Sarastro (Zoroaster) - high priest who rules over world of male initiates of Temple of the Sun; against evil world of Women and the Night. Three Boys act for S. Initially appears evil Sarastro - Kidnaps Pamina. Is he really evil? Force for enlightenment.

2. the Queen of the Night - reigns over Darkness; three initiates are the Three Ladies

3. Tamino - prince or superior man destined to join with a suitable woman in a true couple. Prince Tamino's moral uprightness and open-mindedness. Idealised Man in love with an idealised Woman, Pamina.

4. Pamina - destined to join with Tamino, daughter of the Queen of the Night, kidnapped against her will by Sarastro, caught by Monstatos and threatened with rape, assists Tamino in his initiation by trials before being united in marriage.

5. Papageno - ("Papagei" - parrot) engaging character of the Bird catcher who sells birds to the Three Ladies. Common man. "Hanswurst" humour. Unworthy of initiation because he lacks courage and intelligence.

6. Monostatos - Greek for the isolted one, blackness symbol of evil, black magician? Carnal man who desires women only for sex.


1. the 3 temples - at beginning of quest Tamino faced by three temples, Wisdom, Nature and Reason. T repulsed by Nature and Reason (key pillars of Enlightenment). One needs wisdom before entering temples of reason and nature.

2. spirituality of mankind. Celebration of spirituality of mankind and search for spiritual fulfillment within life. Divine spark of eternal light in all matter. Tamino capable of finding internal truth and redemption. Unlike Naturmensch Papageno - material man only interested in eating, drinking, sex and economic exchanges.

3. ideal of spiritual marriage. Expressed by duet of Papageno and Pamina. Hymn to power of love. "Mann und Weib und Weib und Mann/ Reichen an die Gottheit an" (attain divinity). Nature of true love and faith. Tamino's pledge of silence.

4. idealised or autonomous woman? Pamina acts as guide and companion to Tamino in quest before she too is admitted to (all-male - except in France) Masonic lodge. Is WAM repeating traditional repressive idea of women as bearers of moral virue (Till) or giving us a feminst defense of female equality and right to be intitiated as adults? WAM's treatment of Queen and Three Ladies - anti-feminist? vs Pamina's redemption and rise to equality with man in the "mystery of the couple" ( Chailley, p. 74).

5. metaphor of light (reason) and darkness (evil). Struggle between the Queen of the Night and Sarastro (Zoroaster) and the Priests of the Temple of the Sun - struggle between good and evil.

Conclude with Till's assessment of meaning of title of ZF:

Die Zauberflöte, of course, is an Orphic story; a parable of the magic powers of art, and especially of music, to redeem mankind from its subjection to earthly nature, and ultimately to reunite humanity with the cosmos and restore harmony and bliss. Tamino, with his magic flute, has the power to rouse, and at the same time to time, wild beasts. But ..., the power of the flute is a symbol not of the subjection of nature by art, but of mankind's escape from its subjugation to a baser nature, and its reconciliation with a higher concept of nature through art. The magic flute is carved from an ancient oak, and at the moment of its creation was baptised by the elements; its powers are a gift from nature herself. With his flute Tamino is able to summon Pamina, his ideal, and Pamina in turn restores the flute to him before they undergo the final trials. Armed with his flute, Tamino, like Orpheus, enters the underworld and there invokes his art to conquer death itself, to hold at bay the flux of earthly transience and material decay, Through the mysterious power of the flute, Tamino and Papageno are able to penetrate the raging elements and emerge unscathed and purified. (pp. 317-8).