Mozart: Overture to The Magic Flute

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Lakeview Orchestra will perform Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute on Tuesday, March 19th at 7:30PM at the Athenaeum Theatre.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
Overture to The Magic Flute, K. 620

Although, by any standard, Mozart was one of the most successful composers in Europe at just 34 years of age, he found himself in serious debt. Despite his vast musical talent, he suffered financially as a result of bad investments, overspending, and all-around terrible fiscal planning. So when Emanuel Schickaneder (1751 – 1812), a well-known theater entrepreneur, suggested that they collaborate on a new opera that was sure to be a hit, Mozart jumped at the chance. Schickaneder could offer no money immediately but promised Mozart that the composer would obtain all the royalties for subsequent productions after the premiere. Sadly, though, there was no written contract, and Schickaneder reneged on the deal after the composer’s death. Consequently, Mozart’s widow, Constanze Mozart (1762 – 1842), was left to fight creditors for years while the opera made money all over Europe.

Schickaneder had initially proposed that he would write the libretto and Mozart would compose the music. The opera itself (titled The Magic Flute) would be a light-hearted, feel-good work – the 18th century version of Sunday afternoon musical theater. In crafting the libretto, Schickaneder drew on collections of stories and fairy tales popular in Germany and Austria at the time.  For his part, Mozart composed music that generally withheld the more experimental melodic development he had been playing with for the past several years, and he just stuck to music with which audiences were familiar. The plan was, by design, a win-win. Give the public a fun story line with an entertaining musical accompaniment – easy on the brain, easy on the ears – and watch the ticket sales rise. Escapism art at its finest!

Mozart threw himself into composing the music for The Magic Flute in May of 1791. Early in June, he sent his wife to the suburban spa town of Baden to ease the last months of her current pregnancy. Mozart visited her whenever he could, but Schickaneder was eager to finish the new production and encouraged Mozart to stay in Vienna to complete the score sooner. As an incentive, Schickaneder provided Mozart with a little hut on the grounds of the Theater-auf-der-Wieden in Vienna where the composer could work. By July, most of the composition was completed, and Mozart had received two additional commissions – one for an opera, to commemorate the coronation in Prague of the new Emperor, Leopold II, as King of Bohemia; the other, a mysterious order for a Requiem Mass, the work that was to cast such an ominous pall over Mozart's last months. By August and September, Mozart began the final preparations for the premiere of The Magic Flute, which included composing the Overture – always the last movement of his operas to be written. The full score was finished on September 28th, 1791. This was a mere two days before the opera’s premiere at Theater-auf-der-Wieden and just 66 days before Mozart’s death.

Unfortunately, the audience responded without much enthusiasm to the premiere, though the production was elaborate (with thirteen scene changes), and the performance was generally well-reviewed. The listeners were probably bewildered by the seeming inconsistencies in the plot (which continues to this day to incite much musicological debate) and by the variety of Mozart's music – from folk-like ditties to austere chorale preludes, and from slapstick comedy to soaring profundity. However, word of this new musical curiosity quickly spread throughout the city, and the crowds came to see it for themselves. Crowds kept coming, and soon, The Magic Flute was a hit. Schickaneder announced his 100th performance of the opera in November 1792, and he mounted the work again in 1794, 1798 and, at his new Theater-an-der-Wien, in 1802. It was heard in at least 59 towns before 1800 and reached New York in 1833. Mozart, however, enjoyed little of this success. He attended the performances almost nightly during October 1791, and he was extremely pleased with the response of the audiences, especially with the praise he received from Court Composer Antonio Salieri. (“There was not a single number that did not call forth from him a bravo,” Mozart boasted.) By November, however, Mozart’s health had given way to such an alarming degree that he was forced to take sick leave. Yet The Magic Flute was constantly in his thoughts, and each evening he would sit, watch in hand, imagining the progress of the performance – “Now the first act is ending.... Now comes the Queen of the Night,” he would mutter. Just nine weeks after he had unveiled The Magic Flute to an astonished world, Mozart was dead.

The Overture to The Magic Flute is one of the supreme orchestral works of the 18th century. Rich in sonority, concise in construction, profligate in melodic invention and masterful in harmonic surety, it balances the seemingly polar opposites of the opera - profundity and comedy - with surpassing ease and conviction. The slow introduction opens with the triple chords associated with the solemn ceremonies of the priests, the Overture's only thematic borrowing from the opera. The Allegro is built on a tune comically treated as a fugue. The complementary theme, initiated by the flute, is characterized by its sensuous ascending chromatic scales. The balance of the Overture follows traditional sonata form, with the triple chords of the priests reiterated to mark the beginning of the development section.

Lakeview Orchestra will perform Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute on March 19th, 2019: Learn More or Get Tickets

Program Notes by Luke Smith.

Luke Smith