Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791)

Born January 27, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria.
Died December 5, 1791 in Vienna, Austria.

Overture to Die Zauberflöte K. 620

Composed 1791.

First Performance: September 30, 1791 at the Theater auf der Wieden (Freihaustheater), Vienna conducted by Mozart.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

In the last year of his life, contrary to popular myth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was beginning to see a turnabout in his professional fortunes. True, he had been in ill health, burdened by debt and a falling-off of his popularity with fickle Viennese audiences. But by the spring of 1791 he was busy at work on two operatic projects at the same time: Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), a German-language Singspiel (similar to modern Broadway musicals where spoken dialog and singing alternates), and La Clemenza di Tito, K. 621 a rather old-fashioned “serious” opera in Italian. While Tito was intended for a gala performance in Prague as part of the celebrations of the coronation of a new emperor, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) was written for more modest circumstances: performances in a small theatre in the suburbs of Viennese, before middle-class “family audiences.” While the Italian opera turned out to be a disappointment, the singspiel was an instant, long-running popular success – perhaps a sign of what might have been had Mozart lived.

Commissioned by a roustabout theatre-manager, one Emmanuel Schikaneder, who himself wrote the libretto (and even created the popular role of Papageno, the Bird-Catcher in the first performances), The Magic Flute was a confusing scramble of pseudo-Egyptian mythology (complete with references to Osiris and Isis), a boy-meets-girl story, plus a fascinating admixture of Masonic symbolism as well. (After years of prohibition by the Church, under the tolerant Emperor Joseph II the masons were permitted to exist, many of the most prominent artist and intellectuals of Vienna becoming members, including both Haydn and Mozart.)

The custom of opera overtures setting the mood of the action or previewing the big tunes did not become common until well after Mozart’s time. The overture begins with a brief adagio introduction featuring heavy, portentous chords (suggesting the Masonic element). The allegro that follows is similar to his Jupiter Symphony where fugal techniques are applied to a sonata form. The subject is first presented by the second violins.

The four part fugal exposition continues with the second violins offering glimmers of a counter subject before the first violins present it in its entirety while the subject is played in the lower strings. From this simple material weaves a remarkable contrapuntal tapestry where these materials are subjected to many variations including double counterpoint. The exposition ends with a brief codetta and settles on a unison B flat.

The opening chords return, played twice now, before the allegro returns to signal the beginning of the development section. We hear more extensive contrapuntal re-workings of the fugal subject and counter subject including a few canons. The recapitulation begins but we don’t hear the entire subject right away. We recognize it as a recapitulation but Mozart was much too skilled to offer a simple repeat of the opening.

There is a coda that resembles the closing codetta of the exposition but is more extensive. Midway the music pauses, and three massive intonations in the brass and winds are heard, yet again a Masonic symbol. The whirling energy resumes, and the overture concludes in triumph.

Resources


Public domain scan of the score.