Der Hölle Rache Kocht in Meinem Herzen

From the Magic Flute, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart’s Magic Flute was one of his great triumphs. It is a comic opera, light hearted in its story, spectacular in its jaunty, witty music, delivered in Singspiel style — spoken dialogue and singing, similar to a Broadway show. At the same time, it is full of serious and political messages. The story is a mixture of fun and high ideals, of Masonic philosophy and high jinx, of brotherhood and love affairs, of melodrama and rational philosophy.

The composer’s life at this time was anything but happy. Mozart was in dire need of money, was in bad health and his wife was very sick.  He needed a hit, and to that commercial end collaborated with the prominent writer, actor, producer, and personal friend, Schikaneder to provide a suitable libretto. This was completed in 1789.

Schikaneder was popular, and his “machine comedies”, produced by his “rowdy group of actors” had been very popular throughout Austria and Germany. Slapstick comedy, and heavy special effects were hallmarks of his dramatic fare. The combination with Mozart was dynamite. During its first ten years, The Magic Flute was presented two hundred and thirty-three times in the original theater, and radiated out over Europe.  Its American premiere occurred in New York on April 17, 1833.

Mozart conducted the Overture’s premiere on September 28, 1791 at the Freihaus Theater auf der Wieden. He also conducted the opera premiere, September 30, 1791.  He managed to conduct two successive productions before ill health forced him to take to his bed. The opera ran for 100 performances, and it was said that Mozart held a watch on his sickbed, timing the opera as it unfolded.  He died after performance number 67.

The story is a mixture of fun and high ideals, of Masonic philosophy and high jinx, of brotherhood and love affairs, of melodrama and serious thought.  Within this context Mozart sent his final message of personal conviction and standards of living, which had been confirmed by his membership in the Freemasons, on January 7, 1785, admitted into the Zur Wohltätigkeit Lodge in Vienna. There, he was in familiar company. Other contemporary members of this Lodge were Joseph Haydn, his patron Prince Lichnowsky, his father Leopold, Michael Puchberg and Gottfried van Swieten, two of his most important patrons, Anton Stadler (clarinetist) and Angelo Solimon, a good friend.

Mozart strongly identified with and embraced the rationalist and Enlightenment component of Masonic philosophy, represented by the faction known as the Illuminati. One of their dangerous ideas was that those born in low circumstances could share nobility, that nobility automatically accorded to the aristocrats by birth was fraudulent. These were dangerous thoughts, and the government was wary.

For several years the political/social stance of Freemasonry and its connection to The Magic Flute was worrisome to the Austrian monarchy, which was anxiously witnessing revolutionary events in France. The opera’s ethical symbolism was overtly provocative. It seemed that the characters in the opera were thinly veiled representations for members of the government (the Prince, for example was really Emperor Joseph II.) The Viennese government sought and encouraged any new interpretation of The Magic Flute was which would divert attention from the Masonic content and the implicit treason. In 1794 an important,  “interpretation” (pleasing to the government) appeared under the title “The grand opera, The Magic Flute was clearly explained so as to understand its true meaning.”

Like the libretto, Mozart’s music was filled with references to Freemasonry starting with a trio of chords, which begins the Overture. The initiation ceremony for a freemason begins with the applicant knocking three times on the door of a Lodge. Reference to the number, three appears constantly throughout the opera — for example, in the opening key of E flat major (three flats) the Three Ladies (attendants to the Queen) the Three Spirits, the tri-partite dissection of the serpent, three couples dominate the plot, three boys announce the three ordeals the lovers Tamino and Pamina must endure before they unite. There are three temples: Wisdom, Reason, and Nature. Connection to Freemason philosophy is unmistakable.

The Queen of the Night is Pamina’s mother.  In Act II, she sings Der Hölle Rache (The Revenge from Hell) when she discovers that her daughter has converted to her kidnapper’s philosophy and she swears retribution. At this time, she gives her terrified daughter a dagger, and insists that she kill her rival, Sarastro.  If Pamina does not kill him, she is subject to possible death and certainly to being disowned and cursed.

This aria demands every ounce of control, endurance, and skill from a soprano coloratura. Its vocal range spans more than two octaves. The Queen’s threats are clearly declaimed, interspersed with dazzling, bel canto style vocalizing.  Like the Overture, this aria is often separated from the full opera as a stand-alone performance.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015

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