The plot to Mozart’s The Magic Flute has been described as a curious combination of political satire, naïve humor, and the symbolism of Freemasonry, all set in ancient Egypt at the Temple of Isis. It is an opera of many levels, a magical fairy-tale for children, a comical singspiel, and a Masonic allegory. This masterpiece is a testament of the Masonic principles which Mozart cherished.
Freemasonry has its roots from biblical times and the building of Solomon’s temple. Modern masonry evolved from the mason guilds of the middle Ages. The sorority began to invite men of all trades, and its popularity grew in the mid-eighteenth century. Masonry was attractive to supporters of the Enlightenment and included some of the best minds of Europe. Freemasonry was in a state of crisis when The Magic Flute premiered in 1791. The Masonic leadership of the American and French revolutionary wars led the Austrian leaders to associate masonry with revolutionary activity. Fear of Masonry was increased by the European infiltration of Masonry by the Illuminati. In their correspondence, Count Rottenhan described to Emperor Leopold II this situation in 1792:
“There is indeed a great deal of fanaticism among the Masons here, and I believe that at the time when the Illuminati sect was being established, many of the Masons here joined Weishaupt and other apostles of this dangerous order in Vienna… But if I consider the everyday activities and the family background of these men, the whole organization is, in my view, rendered very innocuous.”(1)
Count Rottenhan also said that at the peak of Freemason popularity, young men would be hard pressed to secure a solid career without seeking entrance to the brotherhood. While this may have been true for some, men like Ignaz von Born, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Friedrich von Schiller, and Benjamin Franklin were genuinely interested in promoting the Enlightenment through the Masonic motto “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.”
Emanuel Schikaneder described his desire to join the brotherhood on July 4th, 1788 thus: “Not curiosity or selfishness but the most sincere esteem of your exalted assembly motivates my most humble prayer for admission to your sanctuary from which, in spite of the greatest secrecy, radiates a glimmer of nobility, humanity, and wisdom.” (2) Likewise, Joseph Haydn expressed his enthusiasm for the fraternity, “Oh, to feel the unspeakable joy of being among such worthy men!” (3) Many men in Vienna shared in these sentiments.
J.W. Goethe, a renown Mason and author, addressed the masses outside the circle of free-masonry regarding The Magic Flute. He stated, “It is enough that the crowd would find pleasure in seeing the spectacle; at the same time, its high significance will not escape the initiates.” (4) This statement is revealing in its implication that there is a deeper meaning to Die Zauberflöte than meets the untrained eye.
An examination of the The Magic Flute’s sources will bring to light the relationship between The Magic Flute and Masonry. Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte was not the first opera written to honor Masonry. Johann Gottlieb Naumann, a freemason, had earlier composed the Masonic opera Osiris. If not similar to The Magic Flute in musical style, it is in dramatism. Orus, like Tamino, is faced with ritualistic trials before his marriage to Aretea, and at the end of the opera, righteousness conquers evil followed by a grand finale in the temple of the sun.
Another source for The Magic Flute was Abbé Jean Terrasson’s novel Sethos. It is unknown whether Terrasson was a Mason. However, the Egyptian rituals and trials in Sethos are very similar to Masonic practices, and they make their way into The Magic Flute. Egyptology was then very fashionable in France and Schikaneder would have been familiar with its influence on French Masonry.
Freemasonry symbolism is entwined in The Magic Flute beginning with the overture. It begins with three distinct chords, symbolic of the knocking at the door of the temple as part of the Masonic rites of initiation. These chords are heard again at the beginning of act II during the temple scene. The opera’s home-key of Eb was used by Mozart for most of his Masonic compositions because of it’s signature of three flats. The symbolism of the number three also appears with the three genii, the three boys, and the three trials. Some of the most dramatic symbolisms are at the beginning of act II. Sarastro informs his brothers that Tamino is waiting at the North gate. The brotherhood asks three questions, “Does he possess virtue? Also discretion? Is he charitable?” These questions are similar to the questions the mason brothers ask about the initiate. Sarastro asks if his decisions are approved, and the brotherhood agrees that Tamino is worthy. Likewise, initiation to a lodge requires the unanimous consent of all the members.
While it is readily apparent that there are similarities between the brotherhood and The Magic Flute, the reasons for displaying Masonic symbolism on stage are not. Did Mozart wish to take advantage of the populace’s curiosity by revealing Masonic secrets? Or was his purpose to honor Masonry by educating the public of virtuous Masonic principles? Mozart understood that his composition was accepted by the Masons, for he informed the brotherhood that he was going to compose a masterpiece to honor Masonry. He later expressed his satisfaction to his wife that they approved of the work.
Mozart collaborated with many other freemasons to create this masterpiece. Emmanuel Schikaneder wrote the libretto. Ignaz Alberti published a book about the opera the day of the first performance. He also engraved the original title page for the libretto (shown here (5)). Paul Nettl, author of “Mozart and Masonry”, believes that the illustration represents the entrance region of the initiating rooms. There are many Masonic symbols in this illustration. One is the obelisk, a Masonic symbol associated with the sun and symbol of continuity, power, resurrection, and immortality. Also, in the illustration are a square and trowel, a five-pointed star, and an hour-glass, representing the first, second, and third degrees of Masonry respectively. It is the combined efforts of these three prominent men that convinces me that The Magic Flute was written to honor the Masons.
Like The Magic Flute in 1791, modern media also combines elements of philosophy, religion and entertainment. One such example can be found in the movie Left Behind. In our culture, the Christian belief in an apocalypse has given Left Behind an audience of millions. This movie by Cloud Ten Pictures shows the enactment of the apocalypse from The Book of Revelation. Audiences of this film have increased curiosity for biblical study. Whether the movie was created to honor Christianity, or to intrigue the populace, the results have been the same.
The Magic Flute had an influential effect on society in the years that followed. The popularity of the ideals of Freemasonry increased. Finding themselves incapable of banishing a work so popular, the Austrian Police State created two brochures that described The Magic Flute as a political allegory. In 1795, after these publications, the oppression of Freemasonry was finalized by the closing of all the lodges in Austria.
Mozart has created a legendary opera that has never left the repertoire of major opera houses. While Masonic lodges may have been banned, the symbolisms, rituals, and moral standards of the Freemasons have become immortal through this work. Scholars will continue to be intrigued by the symbolic eccentricities of the work, audiences will continue to be curious about the brotherhood, and the Freemasons themselves will continue to appreciate the profound wisdom and character of their beloved Brother Mozart.