Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

"It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived."
- General George S. Patton, Jr

Friday, May 28, 2010

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, May 22 through Friday, May 28.

1) David Mermelstein in the WSJ: Placido Domingo is the Last Superstar Tenor.

2) In Prospect, Peter Popham on the restoration effort at Pompeii.

3) At the New Liturgical Movement, Matthew Alderman on German Gothic: a new model for church construction?

4-5) Two documentaries on Stanley Kubrick:
  1. Stanley Kubrick's Boxes [Youtube Video]
  2. On Kubrick's Unmade Napoleon [Youtube Video]
6-7 ) Remembering science author Martin Gardner, 1914 – 2010:
  1. from Roger Kimball
  2. from Stefan Kanfer in City Journal 
8) In the WSJ, Peter Berkowitz on "Why Liberal Education Matters":
How can one think independently about what kind of life to live without acquiring familiarity with the ideas about happiness and misery, exaltation and despair, nobility and baseness that study of literature, philosophy and religion bring to life? How can one pass reasoned judgment on public policy if one is ignorant of the principles of constitutional government, the operation of the market, the impact of society on perception and belief and, not least, the competing opinions about justice to which democracy in America is heir?

How can one properly evaluate America's place in the international order without an appreciation of the history of the rise and fall of nations, and that familiarity with allies and adversaries that comes from serious study of their languages, cultures and beliefs?

A proper education, culminating in a liberal education, gives science an honored place. It teaches students, among other things, the fundamentals of the scientific method and the contribution that science has made to human security, freedom and prosperity; it exposes all students to the basic achievements of biology, chemistry and physics; and it encourages those with aptitude to specialize. At the same time, a liberal education brings into focus the limits of science, beginning with the impossibility of explaining the value of science and math in scientific and mathematical terms—to say nothing of science's incapacity to account for the worth and dignity of the individual.
9) In Spiked Online, Tim Black interviews scientist Mike Hulme:
‘Even in a secular setting, people have very different attitudes that inform their relationship to climate change. For instance, some see nature, and therefore the planet, as something that is fragile and easily dislocated. Others see that nature is actually quite robust and resilient. And then there are different attitudes – secular or religious – to technology. People have very different views on the ability of technology to mitigate against risk and danger. Some people see technology as inherently loaded with further problems and complications and unintended side effects.’

Why isn’t the battle, the argument and the public debate about the Good Life, about how we should organise society, being had in its own terms? Why is it being had through the prism of climate science?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Around the Web

For Saturday, May 1 through Friday, May 21.

1) In City Journal, Benjamin A. Plotinsky thinks "The Left’s political zealotry increasingly resembles religious experience."

2) In the WSJ, Stuart Isacoff on Musical Instruments From Every Single Nation.

3) In the WSJ, Heidi Waleson reviews the opera "Amelia," recently given its world premiere by the Seattle Opera on May. 8.

4) In The American Scholar, "A young psycholinguist confesses her strong attraction to pronouns."

5) In City Journal, Claire Berlinksi asks, "Why doesn’t anyone care about the unread Soviet archives?"

6) David Mamet's Top Ten American plays.

7) In Standpoint, Edward Norman reviews "Newman's Unquiet Grave: Portrait of a Reluctant Saint" by John Cornwell.

8) In Philosophy Now, Roger Caldwell is happy to introduce Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

9-10)Two great lectures on capitalism:
  1. Art Carden speaking at the "In Defense of Capitalism" Conference addresses "common objections to capitalism."
  2. Larry J. Sechrest on "Anti-capitalists: The Barbarians at the Gates."
    11) In Cato-At-Liberty, Ilya Shapiro with an update on the legal challenges to "Obamacare."

    12) I also missed Jessica Duchen's tips for page turners in Standpoint from back in April. (Extra points for linking to Victor Borge's classic and hysterical "Page Turner" routine.)

    Scholarship and Crooked Things

    Several months ago in The New Criterion author Anthony Daniels reviewed "Any Rand and the World She Made" by Anne C. Heller. His review was provocatively titled "Ayn Rand: Engineer of Souls" [1] and received a torrent of furious replies in the message board. Some were thoughtful, even insightful. Many were foolish, childish, and absurd. As readers may know I am rather familiar with both Rand's fiction and non-fiction. Yet I did not weigh in on the conversation here or on the New Criterion comments section. Frankly I saw little point in doing so. Once situations become so seriously inflamed, in my experience most people are no longer considering the arguments and ideas but rather simply looking for allies. Also, I rather enjoyed the article. I did not agree with portions of it, which is not unusual. My only issue with the essay remains that it was unclear where he had actually read Rand's work or was simply reviewing Rand and her ideas via Heller's book. As anyone who remembers being told in high school about  "primary sources" can tell you, this not an insubstantial claim. You would not trust the scholar who wrote an essay on a Beethoven string quartet, but had only read other books about it and had not actually heard the piece or looked at the scores. Similarly, if you really wanted to know Aristotle or Homer, say, would you first turn to books about them or to their actual work?

    Now do not mistake me, I am not comparing Rand to Homer or Aristotle, though doubtlessly she would have welcomed comparison to the latter. My point is about the difference between scholarship and criticism. The reviewer looks at a piece of work, of any kind, and says I like A, B, and C and I don't like X, Y, and Z about it. They write this down, often with great wit and verve, and submit it for publication. As I understand it they are often well-compensated for the endeavor. This is not the scholarly approach. The scholar is first and foremost concerned with his own body of knowledge. All of the critical work that will come shortly is subject to the following two concepts. The first is sentimentally stated by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in his Criticism of the Kantian Philosophy.

    It is far easier to point out the faults and errors in the work of a great mind than to give a clear and full exposition of its value. [2]
    I suggest this idea not because Rand is or is not a "great mind" but as a starting principle for any scholar of any subject. We may thus re-state this axiom more briefly and precisely for our purposes: what is this author or artist correct about? Truth being the ultimate goal of the scholar, anything that contributes to it helps him. The second principle is stated by by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Book I of his "Meditations" where he thanks Rusticus, Stoic philosopher and the emperor's teacher and mentor of sorts, for

    . . . teaching me to read books for detailed understanding and not to settle for general summaries or accept uncritically the opinions of reviewers. [3]
    The scholar does not read summaries of Aristotle, he reads Aristotle. (In Greek.) The scholar does not skip Suetonius when he studies Augustus just because Suetonius includes odd anecdotes and leaves much out.  He does not leave out Apollonius of Rhodes when studying Vergil or Mozart when studying Beethoven. We may thus re-state this second axiom more briefly and precisely for our purposes also: the scholar does not study simply one work but the tradition from which it sprung.

    Now I do not mean to be so hard on Daniels. I have read his books and enjoyed them. I always look forward to his new work and I agree with him often. He conveys such a gentlemanly disposition in his writing the vitriolic outburst against him was particularly distressing. Daniels in fact followed Schopenhauer's advice, finding some truth. (He may have followed Marcus' too, but it did not show.) He simply did not like some aspects of her ideas and style. He didn't get the "big deal" about her. Fair enough.

    In fact it was not even Daniels' essay in the New Criterion that brought me to write this afternoon. It was Corey Robin's piece in The Nation. [4] For its misapprehensions and wrongheadedness it warrants correction. For its sterling incompetence it deserves a modicum of awe and much ridicule. Yet for its lack of scholarship and lack of a systematic approach it deserves to be ignored. Robin's piece by way of contrast  reminded of Dr. Daniels' essay, which I do not now praise because he was easier on Rand than Robins. (Daniels was not easier on her.) Yet because the topic was the same I remembered Dr. Daniels and his essay and the world of difference between the two minds struck me. Such is why I have opted not to deconstruct Robins' piece, with Socrates' statement in mind:

    "Do you want to look at shameful, blind, and crooked things, then, when you might hear fine, illuminating ones from other people? [5]


    Perhaps a natural complaint about my little essay above is this: both Daniels' and Robins' essays were not "scholarship" they were "criticism." Well what is criticism? "Scholarship Lite?" Obviously we cannot thoroughly research everything we encounter. Naturally we will research what we like most. So what of criticism then? Is it half-scholarship of things we are half-interested in? Is it very laudable or useful then?

    [1] Daniels, Anthony. Ayn Rand: Engineer of Souls. The New Criterion. February, 2010.
    [2] Magee, Bryan. The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. Oxford University Press. New York. 1983.
    [3] Hicks, Scot and Hicks, David V. (trans.) The Emperor's Handbook. Marcus Aurelius. Scribner. NY, NY. 2002.
    [4] Robins, Corey. Garbage and Gravitas. The Nation. May, 2010.
    [5] Reeve, C. D. C. (trans.) Plato: Republic. Hackett Publishing Company. Indianapolis, IN. 2004. Book, VI. (506a)

    Thursday, May 20, 2010

    Movie Review: Iron Man & Iron Man 2

    Iron Man (2008)
    Directed by Jon Favreau.

    Spoilers of both Iron Man movies throughout.

    In 2008 Iron Man burst into theaters seemingly from nowhere to substantial critical and popular success. It became surprisingly popular within the conservative and libertarian community, but with good reason? Let's take a look.

    Undoubtedly what stands out most in Iron Man is Tony Stark himself: a former child prodigy, a genius, a billionaire playboy, and an unapologetic designer and seller of high tech weaponry for the United States military. He is charming, confident, and aggressive. When confronted by a reporter and accused of being a "merchant of death" he does not  recoil and mutter, "Gee, maybe you're right." He does not apologize for profiting from making weapons that defend Americans. He replies without pause that his father helped defeat the Nazis and his company's profits go into medical research.

    Stark has no qualms about killing terrorists and making weapons used to advance America's interests. His only qualm is with his weapons being used against Americans and innocent parties. When he finds out they are being used so, he does not storm into the board room of Stark Industries. . . he flies across the globe and blows them up himself. This talent and agency is what endears Tony Stark and Iron Man to the individualist in the audience. He does not buy the suit, he does not even work with a team on it. He builds it. Moreover he builds it in his basement, a situation all but symbolic of the enthusiast and entrepreneurial spirit.

    In specific contrast to Stark is Obadiah Stane, partner of Tony's late father (who founded the company after working on the Manhattan Project) and more or less the manager of Stark Industries since Tony is more interested in inventing and. . . other pursuits. Yet Obadiah is double-dealing, selling weapons to terrorists. Aside from attempting to have Tony killed and seize the Stark Industries fully for himself, he wants the Iron Man suit. Yet even with a prototype of the power source and a team of engineers Stane cannot reproduce the suit. In a great line late in the movie, Stane Says: "Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave. . . with a box of scraps!" and the hapless engineer replies, "Well I'm sorry. I'm not Tony Stark." The clarity of the sentiment is refreshing: Tony Stark is a genius. He invented this device and no one else can figure it out. That this is expressed as a positive and without ambiguity or apology is what struck individualists everywhere. Shortly later, when he finally resorts to stealing the source (and killing Tony) he tells the dying Stark, "You think all because you have an idea it belongs to you?" This was an even more surprising line. You mean Tony has a right to profit by his own effort and be secure in the property he uses to support himself? That this is expressed as a positive and without ambiguity or apology is what struck the libertarian crowd.

    These contrasting pairs are the highlight of the movie. Other elements are ancillary and while competently handled, not terribly significant. Their careful balance is in part what makes Iron Man " the film equivalent of a Rorschach test" as Sonny Bunch noted in his review in 2008. On the one hand Rhodey (Colonel Rhodes, Tony's friend, head of military weapons development, and the apparent liaison between Stark Enterprises and the military) is a capable and responsible member of the military. On the other hand he does not even care to hear about Tony's "non-military" project. Similarly, while Stark Industries is the company responsible for making these weapons, when Tony wants to change the company's direction it is not the board who objects, only Stane.

    Last we should note what is missing: any commentary on the wars in the Middle East at all. There are none, pro or con, overt or backhand. We do not know what Tony thought about going in the first place, but we can safely guess he supports winning.

    Overall Bunch was right to call Iron Man "not a conservative movie per se." [1] It is not, but it lacks all of the usual backtracking, ham-fisted moralizing, finger-wagging, apologizing, and sucker punches that drive many conservative and libertarian movie-goers nuts. It is not brilliantly structured but the performances are strong, it is unapologetic about what is right and wrong, and the whole project has such a gusto you cannot help but get swept up. In short, Iron Man is blast.

    Iron Man 2 (2010)

    Iron Man 2 does not quite succeed as its predecessor. This is for a number of reasons and as such, I begin this review with a little list.

    1) The writers were in a position to explore the dynamic of Tony Stark being known to be Iron Man. Sure, we see him as his usual playboy self having fun as Iron Man. Yet this does not really generate any conflict.

    2) The character of Rhodey doesn't really come into any focus. He doesn't want to steal the suit from Tony, but he does. He doesn't want to let the military weaponize it, but he does.

    3) The addition of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury and Black Widow adds next-to-nothing to the movie. They're just more characters walking around. In fact, Tony Stark's driver Happy Hogan (played by director Jon Favreau) is actually more fun to watch.

    4) The fact that Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. literally drop a crate in front of Tony with all of the answers he needs and that key to perfecting his technology lies in a miniature-scale mock-up of the World's Fair his father designed when Tony was a child is simply too silly.

    5) Similarly, Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. simply drop in and tell us the story of Ivan Vanko's and Tony's fathers. This would be more tolerable if the story were more satisfying. The rift between Howard Stark and Anton Vanko was caused by Vanko wanting to sell the technology, presumably to disreputable people. That's not bad, per se, but the story is delivered so quickly and with such sterility it fails to feel significant. Since it is so similar to other conflicts (between Tony and Stane, and Hammer and Stane) his scene needed to draw a sense of parallel and continuity among the situations. The similarity feels more like staleness than symmetry. This is particularly a shame because all of Tony's detractors could have been more significant in why they are his enemies, being symbolic of something specific: Stane of greed, Hammer of vanity, the government of collectivism, and Vanko of envy. All of this can sort of be read into the film to its advantage, but it clearly was not structured in.

    Lastly, the film does not have any new conflicts of any kind. Tony's wannabe rival Justin Hammer is essentially Stane from the first film: he wants the technology but cannot make it himself, so he steals it. Yet he is such a weakling and a loser that he is less villain and more simply pest. His sub-par suits Tony and Rhodey will battle at the climax are just fodder for a more elaborate final action sequence.

    Ivan Vanko feels like a suitable villain because he is strong and brilliant and he too makes a device based on the "arc-reactor technology" but his quick defeat and simplistic motivation are not compelling. He feels just like one of the many other characters trailing after Tony, which is unfortunate because Rourke is terrific. He is so good, in fact, one has more interest in Vanko than one ought too given the limits of the writing.

    Yet Iron Man 2 has two saving graces. First is the repercussions from Tony believing he is dying because he cannot find a suitable non-poisonous metal for his hear-replacement. At first he decides to go out in a blaze of glory, throwing a big party for his birthday and wearing the Iron Man suit throughout. Nick Fury shows up, puts him under house arrest and tells him to figure it out. (Which he does.) This was a potentially interesting situation but it was not handled well in the writing. It could have explored, or at least mentioned or alluded to somehow, Tony's need to understand himself and his father. As it happens, Tony just watches some old movies, spots the map of the fair, and figures out what to do. The fact that his father left this puzzle for him to figure out is a good premise but what follows does not live up to it. We do not feel as if Tony is finally understanding something or taking up and fulfilling his true inheritance.

    The second saving element is the clamor around the Iron Man suit. Everyone is scrambling for it. What Stane said to the terrorist Raza in the first movie, "Technology was always your weakness in this part of the world" is now true for everyone. The arms race here could have had a great symmetry between the arms race that followed his father's completion of the first nuclear bomb. Howard Stark's invention helped end a war and protect America, but a potentially catastrophic arms race ensued. Tony does something not dissimilar, but the similarities do not resonate strongly enough. This is particularly unfortunate and inexplicable given the significance of the contrasting pairs of the Starks and Vankos.

    These two "saving graces" demonstrate that Iron Man 2 was indeed a more ambitious script than its predecessor. There are many good, or excellent, ideas and elements not sufficiently brought out in the final product. The finale could have been a glorious showdown between determined and brilliant men of different character and ideology struggling at their limits to live up to their fathers' legacies. It was, in a very limited sense and perhaps because we can sense how great the movie could have been we are especially disappointed.

    Yet we are still left with an entertaining picture. The bits of the "inheritance" and "arms race" threads remain, however imperfect. Playboy "I'm tired of the liberal agenda" Tony Stark is back in full force and he is still a genius hounded by lesser men. Oh, and we have that great courtroom scene defense of property rights and nose-thumbing at big government bureaucrats.

    You want my property? You can't have it. But I did you a favor:
    I successfully privatized world peace.

    [1] Bunch, Sonny. Iron Man 1, Terrorists 0. The Weekly Standard. May, 2008. 

    Wednesday, May 12, 2010

    On Mozart's Overtures: Final Thoughts

    Mozart Overtures

    Final Thoughts

    As I reflect on the preceding series on Mozart's overtures inevitably the deficiencies present themselves first. Foremost perhaps is that we have not looked at all of the overtures. Of the composer's twenty-two or so operas we have excluded the first twelve (including Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots, a sacred drama), composed from 1767 through 1780. Likewise we have excluded the overtures to the unfinished Lo sposo deluso (1784) and the short singspiel-farce Der Schauspieldirektor (1786.) Thus we can more properly be said to have looked at the overtures to the last seven, complete, full-scale Mozart operas.

    My overall approach was to avoid both the abstruse and the banal and as clearly as possible explain how the music achieved its effect.  Sometimes I may have curtailed detail for clarity or stated details without explication. In the latter case my hope is that the listener, with the feature pointed out, can discover the effect.

    Regarding scholarship I am indebted to the scholars of the past 200 years that have produced the wealth of insight available today. Invariably all Mozart scholarship looks like "footnotes to Abert." Invariable also is the struggle to restate a basic observation in a non-identical way: how many ways can one describe a particular chord, scale, or figure? I hope I have not stepped on the toes of any scholars. All mistakes and defects are my own.

    In addition to the great quantity of scholarship I had to draw on I also had the tremendous reference that is the Neue Mozart Ausgabe, the complete scores of Mozart's music available for free online. While I have quoted portions of the scores liberally it was with critical intent. No infringement was intended.

    Perhaps we may take up one more issue, though, one that required looking at all of the overtures. What precisely is the relationship of the overture to the subsequent drama? We know the overtures except for Die Entführung) were all the last music of the operas completed. This was at least partly for the practical reason that it could be left for last since it only required, if it receive this much at all, a run-through with the orchestra, and not weeks of choreography and accommodation to the singers. Yet while it was the last music practiced and written down, we cannot know when it was finished in terms of conception (either in terms of specifics or its general plan.)

    The notion Mozart wrote down perfect scores with no revisions is indeed an exaggeration. From letters it seems likely he did compose at the keyboard, which was standard practice. Likewise some sketches are preserved, though not on the scale of the sketches in Beethoven's books. In fact, Mozart even struck out short portions of the overtures to Figaro and Die Zauberflöte. While we have a general knowledge of his habits of writing down his music we cannot speak with certainty of what Arthur Hutchings aptly called the "procedures of the mind." We cannot say Mozart wrote the opera and then chose parts or aspects of it to assemble into, or from which to create, the overture. Nor can we say they were conceived of more or less at the same time.

    Unable to discern their function from Mozart's compositional practices let us look at how the overtures work in relation to the operas. There is clearly a strong connection between each overture and its corresponding opera. No one could possibly suggest swapping the overtures for Don Giovanni and Figaro, or even the more-similar operas like Die Entführung and Die Zauberflöte.

    Yet the overture does not in every skip and jump mirror a particular aspect of the opera proper. Generally we may say if composer uses a particular theme or progression in more than one place such  invites inquiry, by virtue of either the similarity or difference of their functions. Thus in Mozart's overtures, where the overture bears thematic and harmonic relationship to the subsequent music of the opera, we assume significance. What is the significance though? Are these similarities the heart of the overture's fulfillment of the need to be a "dramatic argument" for the opera? Do they have a subsidiary function to the same end?

    What might we make, say, of Daniel Heartz's observation that the overture "emerge[s] from the material of the opera" [Heartz, 319] Likewise what do we make of his findings of many harmonic connections between the overture and the following music [in the case of the overture to Titus?] (Regrettably I am unable to familiarize myself with Constantin Floros' studies[1] on the connections between the overtures and operas.) Let us look at a few quotations and see the state of the question:

    [The overtures] presented at once, and with the greatest concentration of emotional and intellectual content, the crux of the drama. [Heartz, 319.]
    Like its predecessors, it was the last number to be written and in consequence is a kind of general lyrical admission of Mozart's feelings about the works as a whole. Once more he relives the artistic experience that produced the opera, but instead of the work in its concrete form, it is the mood that inspired Die Zauberflöte that he now intends to instil in the listener before the following drama can make its impression – but it is, of course, the mood of the work as he, its creator, felt it. [Abert, 1258]
    Thomas Bauman quoting Walter Wiora:
    Walter Wiora, in his classic essay "Between Absolute and Program Music," has observed that "an opera overture partakes of the basic mood, the atmosphere, the overall qualities. . . of the opera, and possesses corresponding functional and characteristic traits." [2]
    All three scholars make the sensible case that the overtures are neither purely programmatic nor purely abstract. Of course if divorced from the opera and played as a concert piece, the overture is purely abstract. Attached to the opera, once you have heard both you cannot avoid drawing connections.
    Yet these similar moments do not point to analogous parts of the opera. Their significance lies in that they are assembled in such a way in the overture to state the opera's case as purely as possible.  This follows for the mature operas with the exception to the overture to Figaro which is frankly a sinfonia. The overture to Idomeneo is the distillation of the tragic ethos. The overture to Die Entführung is of exotic adventure and a lost lover, to Don Giovanni of being and non-being, to Così the endless chatters that make us all wonder, "Do they all?" and to Titus exalting a noble and besieged character. Die Zauberflöte contains multiple dimensions.

    The overtures contain both specific and general relationships to their respective operas. The generalities are what make the overtures "dramatic arguments." It is important not to get too sidetracked by the similarities of parts of the overture to parts of the opera. These are the results of a compositional process we do not fully know. They are not why the overtures are dramatic arguments since the overture could have have been a potpourri of themes in the manner of the later Romantic-French style. They are instead part of the how the overtures are dramatic arguments. They exist because the overture and opera speak the same language to express the same ideas. The Mozartian overture qua dramatic argument is demonstrated not in the similarities to Vitellia's aria, the threefold chord, or the "Don Giovanni/Commendatore" chord but rather in the statements of the overtures in toto. Though the overtures were composed last the effect is reversed: coming to the opera-goer first, the overture sets up the dramatic argument and the opera proper is "merely" the playing out.

    [1] Constantin Floros, "Das 'Programm' in Mozarts Meisterouvertüren," Studien zur Musikwissenschaft 26 (1964): 140-86.

    [2] Walter Wiora, "Zwischen absoluter und Programmusik," in Fetschrift Friedrich Blume zum 70 Geburtstag, ed. Anna Amalie Abert and Wilhelm Pfannkuch (Kassel, 1963), p.383.


    Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007.

    Heartz, Daniel. Mozart's Operas. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1990.

    Hutchings, Arthur. Mozart: The Man, The Musician. Thames and Hudson. London. 1976.

    Wednesday, May 5, 2010

    On the Overture to Die Zauberflöte

    Overture to Die Zauberflöte
    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (KV.620)

    Die Zauberflöte was the product of collaboration between Mozart and actor, librettist, singer, and impresario Emanuel Schikaneder. Die Zauberflöte premiered at the latter's Theater an der Wien
    on September 30, 1791.

    Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 clarin trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings (2 violins, 2 violas, cello, bass.)

    The score is available via the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe.

    (click to enlarge)

    James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

    It was his bequest to mankind, his appeal to the ideals of humanity. His last work is not Tito or the Requiem; it is Die Zauberflöte. Into the Overture, which is anything but a Singspiel overture, he compressed the struggle and victory of mankind, using the symbolic means of polyphony; working out, laborious working out in the development section; struggle and triumph. [Einstein, 467]

    In each of Mozart's overtures the composer transports us in the very first bars. We were whisked off in Die Entführung, swept up in the floodtide of Figaro, and thrust into the struggle of Don Giovanni. The overture to Die Zauberflöte brings about our transport by enveloping us in an extra ordinary aura of majesty and solemnity. Rising each measure and with the hint of heraldry from the three trombones, it is as if the the now-famous "threefold" chord of the opening Adagio calls us not just to hear but to partake. The key too, E-flat, contributes to the solemnity of the occasion, but this is not the E-flat of sterile galanterie or carefree baubles, or even of the heroic and dignified Sinfonia Concertante KV.365 and Piano Concerto KV.482. Girdlestone captured the spirit in calling it the "play of Botticelli's Graces" [Girdlestone, 366.] We feel this awareness of the transcendent in other E-flat works of Mozart, most of all in the Symphony KV.543, the Divertimento KV.563 and the final String Quintet KV.614.

    In the next 12 bars Mozart crafts an unbroken line of sublimest beauty and deepest reverence. The arch-shaped figures and sforzandi of m.4-7 create a loftiness that bears us along before the basses, hovering around the leading tone and dominant, create a thin stability. To the same end the second violins waver on the leading seventh and tonic until it narrows to just E, on which it remains piano. The wandering of the violins on the third and fourth degrees and the syncopated crescendos and piano bursts from the trumpets at m.8 and 11 continue to heighten the mystery until at m.12 the bassoons modulate from C to C-flat and the violins from A-flat to A. We then finally arrive firmly at the dominant (m.13) and at m.14 the long-silent oboe rings out on the tonic, holding all of the tension of the preceding bars and preparing the way for the release in the following Allegro passage starting at m.16.


    Thomas Bauman astutely notes, contra Abert, the inherent bifurcation of the theme of m.16-17 above caused by (1) the leading tone-to tonic modulation in the last two notes of the measure before the dominant of m.17, (2) the contrasting and closely-placed dynamic markings. It is even proper to say more, as Bauman does, that "these two primal degrees sound at the beginning of the subject as two distinct tonal poles." [Bauman, 288.] Bauman notes the other critical feature of this phrase, the G–C–F–B-flat figure in m.18. Similar to how the swerve to A in m. 7 of the sinfonia to Figaro prevented a full resolution at the outset, here this figure, clearly wanting to resolve to the tonic in its circle-of-fifths progression, does not.

    The first violins respond with the second part of the theme (from m.16) in a higher register against a tonic sforzando figure before they switch parts and conclude in a descending scalar figure as the main theme is taken up by the basses. The violins then present a figure which will become the counter-melody/counter-subject:


    The fugal treatment that now begins throws the built in I-V contrariety of our main theme into starker contrast. The interplay of the main theme, the rising fourths, and the second subject in the dominant build to the glorious and liberated forte restatement of the main theme at m.39. It is critical to note, though, as Bauman does:
    This restatement of the themes is not literal. The subject has shed its third and fourth bars–the ones with the anxious rising fourths–as well as its weak-beat sforzandi; this confident, triadic, metrically stable new version of the subject is now wedded to the countersubject at the octave in invertible counterpoint.
    It is not necessary to link this melding of forms to the following drama in order to sense the impact of joining these two themes which are far more brilliant together than separate. The statement here is also more intense: forte, with the flute finally partaking in the main theme, sforzandos in the basses, and tremolo in the violins. At m.49 a brief descending scalar passage in the flute ends on two half-notes, making a rather dramatic stroke before a flurry of E quavers doubled in octaves and in a higher register finally descend staccato for another dramatic flourish. At m.57 the second violins pass off the main theme to the firsts and the violas who are answered by a rising scale up in the flutes. The two parts playfully engage in their repartee before the bassoon bumbles in and steals the main theme from the viola while the oboe joins in with a figure centered on F before finally the clarinet joins the exchange. (Abert perceptively called this charming little passage in which the winds seem to "bucolicize" amongst themselves an idyll. [Abert, 1259.])

    The main theme returns in slight variation and with great vigor at m.68 before more wind play and a repeat of the main theme. At m.84 there is a remarkable increase in tension with violins tremolo alternating on B and C, the second violins pounding on F and the basses repeating a figure alternating G and B all with a crescendo swelling up at m.87. The section and crescendo close at m.96 and in the following six measures we return to the "threefold chord" of the opening of the overture. (It is here too marked Adagio.)

    After the B-flat major triads of the "threefold chord" the main theme is restated the development section begins (at m.103) in the same key. We will see that the harmonic progression of this section is arch-like (parabolic in Bauman's terminology), in shape, beginning as we said in B-flat minor, rising, and concluding in B-flat major. At the peak of this arch (m.117) are two features, the first of which is a tempestuous canon beginning with the familiar G–C–F–B-flat pitches from the figure in m.18. The second is the bar of rest following the canon. Abert and Bauman take apparently opposite views of this pause, the former connecting it to the silence of the trials of Tamino and Pamina (the most difficult part of their tests) and Abert suggesting it points the way out of the crisis. These two seemingly divergent positions can be reconciled by considering that the moment of greatest strife is itself the opportunity for betterment. In the overture, though, it is only necessary to understand it as a brief withdrawal that heightens the struggle, as a poignant moment of detachment but without repose.

    Here the main subject and a version of the second wander before the long-awaited arrival of E-flat and the recapitulation. Gaining strength in contrapuntal treatment the main theme finally bursts forth forte at m.153, running into the crescendo beginning at m.205. The finale rises higher and higher gaining momentum and building in intensity until concluding in a brilliant outburst. (It was already [too] common in Abert's time, and apparently' Jahn's, to refer to this finale in terms of brightness, brilliance, and so forth.)

    While a profound sense of balance is the skill perhaps most frequently (and not without good reason) accorded Mozart for all of his work, such a sense is at work perhaps no more clearly than in this overture. There is solemnity but not severity, grandeur but not lavishness, earnestness without bombast or aggression, and tempest without terror. It is likewise common to speak of the later Mozart's achievement or tendency of combining fugal structure and sonata-form, and this feat too presents itself in this overture, where the canons are rather subtly grafted into the larger sonata structure. It appears that for the most fancied of his operas Mozart crafted an overture of most "formal perfection," [Bauman, 287.] Aside from its technical brilliance The Magic Flute has also been popular since its debut nearly 220 years ago, calling generation after generation to take part in the eternal opera that is parts philosophical, moral, fantastical and mystical.


    Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007.

    Bauman, Thomas. At the North Gate: Instrumental Music in Die Zauberflöte. Essay No. 16 in Mozart's Operas. (ed.) Heartz, Daniel. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1990.

    Einstein, Alfred. Mozart: His Character, His Work. Oxford University Press, New York. 1945.

    Girdlestone, Cuthbert. Mozart and his Piano Concertos. Dover Publications, Inc. New York, NY. 1964.


    Buch, David J. Die Zauberflöte, Masonic Opera, and Other Fairy Tales. Acta Musicologica, [Vol.] 76, [Fasc.] 2, pp. 193-219. 2004.

    Harutunian, John. Haydn and Mozart: Tonic, Dominant Polarity in Mature Sonata-Style Works. Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, T. 31, Fasc. 1/4, pp. 217- 240. 1989.

    Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis. (Six Volumes.) Volume IV: Illustrative Music: Overture to Die Zauberflöte. Oxford University Press. London. 1935.