Magic Flutes & Enchanted Forests: The Supernatural in Eighteenth-Century Musical Theater

Buch has
written a number of articles for scholarly journals which provide an opposing
point of view to those who consider Mozart’s magical opera to be a
symbolic roadmap to Masonic nirvana. Buch’s latest opus, however, is a
much more ambitious study, focusing not so much on Mozart’s
Zauberoper as on its seventeenth- and eighteenth-century forerunners
in France, Italy, and Germany. Magic Flutes & Enchanted Forests
provides the reader with a detailed description of how the supernatural (or
‘marvelous’) was depicted in eighteenth-century operas, comedies,
pantomimes, farces, ballets, and other theatrical works, and provides extensive
analysis of the various literary sources for these productions.

Buch strives in his monograph to refute what he feels are the most common
false assumptions about eighteenth-century opera, effectively arguing against
those who have maintained that works with magical themes or sections are
inherently less important than serious compositions. He also attacks the thesis
that the ‘enlightenment’ was not exclusively a period of order and
symmetry, and that there was ample room in the aesthetic of the day for the
marvelous and fantastic. His most valuable contribution, however, is
undoubtedly the detailed and comprehensive discussion of the origins of the
fantastic in eighteenth-century operas and stage works. Buch successfully
outlines the astonishingly wide range of material used by librettists,
including fairy tales, folk legends, and obligatory references to the
underworld from classical models, which provided the inspiration for so many
memorable scenes or entire compositions.

The book is organized into a chronological discussion which also takes into
account the important differences in European national tastes and traditions.
After a brief introduction which outlines the history of the
‘marvelous’ before 1700, Buch provides two chapters on French
traditions, two chapters on Italian traditions (depictions of the marvelous in
opera seria and comic opera), and a chapter on Germanic musical
theatre before Mozart. The final chapter is devoted to the supernatural in the
operas of Mozart. The author is in his element in these discussions, and offers
important insights into the fantastic elements of Mitridate, rË di
, and Lucio Silla (both of which contain ombra scenes), as
well as Thamos, Kˆnig in ƒgypten and Idomeneo. Buch’s
discussion of Don Giovanni, particularly the infernal scene, contains
excellent background material on the origins of the story of Don Juan. The
author also focuses on Da Ponte’s effort to highlight the moralizing
aspects of the story rather than follow the tone of Bertati’s
Giovanni Tenorio, o sia Il convitato di pietra. Buch’s
presentation of Die Zauberflˆte will be of interest to any lover of
opera. The origins of Schikaneder’s libretto are explored in detail,
including his indebtedness to C. M. Wieland and other authors represented in
the Dschinnistan collection (i.e., F. H. von Einsiedel and A. J.
Liebeskind). In the course of this discussion Buch provides an analysis of the
popular fairy-tale motifs of the day, and makes his most powerful arguments
against a Masonic interpretation of the work. Buch shows clearly that most of
the fantastic elements of Die Zauberflˆte can be found in the stories
of the Dschinnistan, and that attempts to explain the work by
referencing complex Masonic symbolism (as was done by Paul Nettl and, more
recently, Julian Rushton in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera) are

In a brief conclusion Buch’s theorizes that the fascination with
supernatural, as seen in the theatrical works of Gluck and Mozart, led to a new
approach to instrumental music. Buch sees the influence of the supernatural in
Mozart’s two piano concertos in minor keys (K. 466 and K. 491, both
composed in close proximity to Don Giovanni) and in the
Requiem. The author closes by pointing out that “without this
legacy of marvelous, supernatural, and terrifying topics, Beethoven might not
have developed his own powerful expression in instrumental music (…)
neither would Carl Maria von Weber or Richard Wagner have had as rich a musical
vocabulary upon which to draw when creating their operas.”

This monograph also contains four color plates, five black-and-white
figures, an excellent index, and a detailed bibliography of primary and
secondary sources. Along with this there are five appendices: a chronological
list of operas and stageworks with supernatural content, a list of operas based
on the stories of Circe, Medea, or Orpheus, a list of operas based on the works
of Ariosto and Tasso, a list of settings of the Don Juan story, and a
chronological list of German theatrical works with supernatural content.

Donald R. Boomgaarden, Ph.D.
Dean, College of Music and Fine Arts
Loyola University New Orleans

image_description=David J. Buch: Magic Flutes & Enchanted Forests: The Supernatural in Eighteenth-Century Musical Theater
product_title=David J. Buch: Magic Flutes & Enchanted Forests: The Supernatural in Eighteenth-Century Musical Theater
product_by=450 pages; University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2008
ISBN-10: 0-226-07809-4