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.

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