Mozart’s Zauberflote: Alchemical Text?

Thank you, JAB, for the great work you’ve done here as HogPro Web Master! I have finished the revisions and four new chapters for what was Looking for God in Harry Potter and what will be How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning Behind the Mania — and I have you to thank for keeping the conversation going here so I could meet my deadlines. I have to think no one missed me given the quality of your posts and commentary! I certainly enjoyed checking in here during my bancha tea breaks.

I have to return my interlibrary loan copy of M. F. M. van den Berk’s The Magic Flute: An Alchemical Allegory this afternoon so my first post here will be a short review. Let me start with the downside.

Forgive me my bourgeois concerns but I am flabbergasted by the price of the book. Even with the 3 CD set that can come with the book, and its being a 672 page hardcover with a generous selection of illustrations on glossy plates, and the fact that it required translation does not in any way justify a $279 price tag. Even with the more than $100 discount on, the $175 “sale price” puts this book so far out of the range of the buying public as to be laughable. What a shame that the publisher, Brill Academic, has made this work de facto available only to University libraries with generous budgets.

Or to geeks living near a library with interlibrary loan capabilities. What a shame, nonetheless, not to be able to have this book on the shelf for reference and refreshment…

Anyway, the other disappointment beyond the painful price point is that Dr. van den Berk restricts his alchemical analysis of the book to the libretto. This makes sense, of course; the text has to be the first and perhaps the longest stop in establishing that Mozart’s wildest opera is an alchemical initiation in song. But, as engaging and delightful as Emanuel Schikaneder‘s singspiel words are, who, when they think of The Magic Flute thinks “ah, the genius of Schikaneder! I must read that opera again…”? No one I know. Dr. van den Berk has made his case from the libretto; a work as interesting as this one (I hope by Colgate’s music hermeticist Joscelyn Godwin) remains to be written about the match of the score to the text. It is the combination of story and music that are what make Die Zauberflote magical. [Dr. van den Berk’s chapter on ‘Music and Alchemy’ is the best thing I have read on this subject, it should be noted.]

I might also whine a bit about the Jungian perspective on alchemy that Dr. van den Berk works from; a means to psychological individuation” certainly isn’t the idea of alchemy that Schikaneder and Mozart as Masons and hermeticists had. The depth of the alchemical analysis, however, in historical context, from a Paracelsian view, about the libretto writer, composer, and other key figures, not to mention the careful walk-through of the nigredo, albedo and rubedo stages of the work really makes the above complaints forgettable, even trivial (do I hear “petty”?). This is a grand work of scholarship that I wish I had more time to revisit. No doubt I will be re-submitting my interlibrary loan request next month so I can do more than rush through Dr. van den Berk’s exposition and argument. [The copy I have been able to read is from the University of Pittsburgh library; hey, Beth, do you have privileges there?]

Why would I want to spend more time with The Magic Flute thinking about alchemy? Three quick reasons.

(1) Any time spent listening to or thinking about Mozart’s compositions is, like watching Shakespeare, standing in an Athonite monastery, or staring at the ocean, a mountain range, or the Grand Canyon is time very well spent.

(2) The alchemy of this artistry, especially with the fantastic elements of The Magic Flute, are of special interest to me as a Potter maven; is the transformation-via-identification the audience experiences a Masonic, Christian, or universally human thing? Is alchemy a large part of the answer to the riddle of Die Zauberflote‘s meaning? Its popularity can be attributed almost entirely to the score — but are the music and libretto magically cued to one another? Dr. van den Berk is answering these questions, I think, or at least providing the material for substantive reflection on them.

(3) I’m reading Planet Narnia by Dr. Michael Ward after I saw him speak at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Paoli, PA, two weeks ago. Dr. Ward in his talk (I cannot find it in the book) cites Lewis’ comment in The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version that “an influence which cannot evade our consciousness will not go very deep” (page 22). Dr. Ward’s point is that Lewis’ astrological artistry is something about which Lewis was silent and which he intentionally left as never-to-be-noted stage setting that doesn’t intrude into the storyline because he wanted it to penetrate deeply as the vehicle of the story’s larger message.

Having spent no little time struggling with the locks on Ms. Rowling’s artistry and having found five keys that work — all of which are motifs, writing techniques, and symbols that do not leap up at the reader on first reading — the alchemical craft and remarkable popularity and endurance of Shakespeare, Donne, Lewis, Rowling, and Mozart inspire reconsideration of Aristotle’s point about the cathartic effects of drama. Is it possible that identification with the play’s leads via a Coleridgian suspension of disbelief is not the only requirement for transformation alongside them in their agonies? Artistry, in my mind at least as I understood the classical formula, was only about securing the necessary engagement for identification, for believing I am Hamlet, or Oedipus or Willy Loman and suffering alongside them.

I wonder now if the real artistry isn’t about creating believability or creating fascination alone, however important that remains. The hermetic and Christological artistry of the Narniad, Magic Flute, Taming of the Shrew, and Harry Potter epic, the evasion of conscious understanding in this artistry, and its consequent penetration as archetype and vehicle of corresponding message may be as great a part of our transformation by story.

Books like Planet Narnia, The Magic Flute: An Alchemical Allegory, even Unlocking Harry Potter help lift the curtain on the wizards who write the magical novels, operas, and plays to understand this process and perhaps further it. Here’s hoping I can convince my local library to let me borrow Pitt’s copy of Dr. van den Berk’s book soon.

Your comments and corrections, please, AllPros.


  1. Robert Trexler says

    Welcome back, professor. Allow me to mention that tomorrow night Dr. Michael Ward will speak at the New York C.S. Lewis Society. As the Hogwarts Professor indicated above, Ward’s presentation is very entertaining and informative. Powerpoint style illustrations and even a selection of music to go with some of the pictures. The meeting time and address are listed on the website:

  2. Arabella Figg says

    It’s great to have you back Professor John! Thanks, JAB for keeping us going, you did a great job.

    I’m afraid this was w-a-a-a-y above my head (although I’ll have to pass it on to my husband who has a masters in music composition). However….

    It made me think in mundane terms of medicine. When I take a spoonful of cough syrup or down a pill, I’m not aware of the individual ingredients (such as, “Oh, I can taste the _____! And doesn’t this ingredient tend to stand out?)” Nor am I aware of the chemical composition of the drug. I’m only aware of it’s effecaciousness. My headache’s gone; I’m not coughing. And I’m happy.

    However, I can see on the patient information sheet the drawing of the chemical compound/molecular structure of the drug and, if I were educated enough to understand it, I would understand how this drug that helps me works. And I would appreciate the chemists and their artistry hidden in a red syrup or green pill.

    Does this make sense?

    The kitties wave their tails to you in welcome…

  3. Arabella Figg says

    I forgot to add, John, thank you for your so-hard work on behalf of readers everywhere. I really look forward to and am excited about How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning Behind the Mania. With all your responsibilites and commitments I’d think you needed a tropical vacation.

    Don’t let kitties around lime and cocnuts, they drink it all up…

  4. JohnABaptist says

    Welcome back, John.

    It was fun while it lasted, but I have absolutely no regrets about returning the keys to your blog:) How on earth do you keep up with it all?

    Can’t wait to see the updated book.


  5. Perelandra says

    Glad to have you back on the board, John.

    Brill’s motto should be “always high prices.” And they never remainder books. With electronic book production techniques, they could publish more cheaply but that would reduce their cachet.

  6. A staggering price indeed. And to think the original Dutch edition (admittedly, without the CD set) costs only 39,90 Euros, less than $ 60. Strangely enough, though, this Dutch version has less than 500 pages. So either Brill has blown up the text, or for some reason it is actually longer.

  7. Hello – I feel like a new “research assistant” joining the lab. I’ve been around the HP Online World a while, but couldn’t stand not being able to join in these discussions any longer. I’ve some general comments on the things I’ve read here:

    1) Thanks John! I bought your “Keys to Understanding HP” back in late 02/early 03. Been following you and your books ever since. Can’t wait for your latest updated book!

    2) Having read the “Wisdom of,” “Philosophy of ,” “Science of,” and “Gospel According to” Harry Potter, “The Keys”, “The Field Guide” about myth, legends, alchemy etc… etc… , and being a “Synthesizer of Information” by trade, I find JKR’s works to be a magnificent blend of all these things, and not solely any one. The beauty of her work is the blending of images, symbols and allusions. Like C.S. Lewis I think she would argue, as he did, that her works are NOT allegories.

    3) I think “God and Religion” in Harry Potter is “assumed” just as the existence of magic is. It’s just part of every day life and really doesn’t need to be mentioned. Especially when taken from Harry’s point of view. Rather a typical Church of England way to be. Christmas and Easter, and God are just “given.” In several places in the books (citations available) Harry calls out to a “general” Higher Power (not Dumbledore) – for example in OOP at graveyard “Let it be dead…” Who is he talking to if not God?

    4) The one scripture reference I’ve never seen mentioned (though I may well have missed it) is the underlying theme of “self sacrifice” in John 15:13 – “Greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his life for a friend.” It is one of the strongest themes in the series. And while there is the alchemal process, the Stoic ethics, and other themes that run through the books, there is the allusion (not allegory) to God and religion being as much a part of life as those other things, and magic.

    5) I LOVE Jo’s writing style – despite what everyone says critically. She is a story teller. And I noticed the narrative voice, and am proud to say I suspected the narrative misdirection at the end of Book 6 (I argued successfully with the family at Christmas why I thought Snape was good, though totally missed the Draco/wand part) because being a bit of a Stoic myself I trusted Dumbledore, though I knew he was flawed. Got lucky, really. Anyway … I just love the way at an important moment she’ll throw in an adjective that is symbolic, suggests a feeling re: the event, or is downright onomotopoeic (sic). They are not over used, and when they are used they are a real treat. I don’t usually catch them till my 3rd read through.

    6) The red baby-Voldy at Kings Cross – I always thought that it was the dreadful baby like form he had from BEFORE Harry’s blood in GOF. After the final duel, when they are both unconscious, the damaged baby-form is all that is left and real of V. But that he does have the chance for redemption that Harry offers, but he’s too far gone to accept it.

    7) Finally – there had to be Seven (if more than 3): Has anyone pulled the allusions together for the “Last Supper” “3 time denial/before cock crows” “Mary/Lily” “death and resurrection” – we’ve got all the pieces, but haven’t found a clear character or story line that incorporates them all. (I once wrote a paper using these biblical references to show that Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” had biblical allusions in it. Got the highest grade in the class!!)

    I promise not to be so long-winded in future. Just had to get that off my brain. With that – I thank you for your indulgence. – Hermiroby

  8. We missed your *voice* and good humor, Professor John, and welcome back! Do you have a projected publishing date on the revisions? Thank you, JAB, for keeping us coming back to the computer daily. You did a fine job.

    Alas…I am utterly sinking in the depths of this music-related post and must flounder in the waves with eyes wide open on this one. But I love the fact that you are able to see the connections, John, and are willing to challenge us with your observations and questions. The best part is that I don’t have to take a test at discussion’s end!!!! (chapter quizzes don’t count).

    Welcome, Hermiroby. Don’t know how you stayed silent for so long!!!! I’ll have to think about #7…you bring up some great thoughts.

  9. Welcome back, John. I’m glad to hear that your new book is getting nearer to being in our hands. Any dates yet?

    I’ve not been posting much, but that’s not a reflection on JAB–I’ve quite enjoyed reading the posts and the comments, but haven’t had the time to add my own. Or by the time I get round to reading all of it, someone else has already posted what I would have added.

    I thought once Christmas was done I would have time to post here and at SOG and even on my own blog, but that didn’t happen. Maybe once we get our taxes done. . .

    Welcome, Hermiiroby. You’ve given us a lot to think of, especially that last, as pj says. I’m still thinking about that one. I’m glad that you pointed out how frequently Harry sends up those “arrow” prayers, obviously not meant for Dumbledore or any of the other professors. Another that comes to my mind is in Chamber of Secrets when he asks for help, and then the Sorting Hat appears, brought by Fawkes.


  10. Oops – miss-typed #6) Second Sentence should begin: After V’s killing curse in the forest hits Harry, and before the final duel …

  11. Arabella Figg says

    My husband, who has his masters in music theory and composition, and taught the subject, was quite intrigued by your post, John. He said, as a composer, he tends to think in structure. He enjoyed the alchemy angle and was very impressed.

    Just nothing impresses Luscious Badboy…

  12. Arabella Figg says

    Here are some additional thoughts from my husband Greene/Richard (Muggle alias) on alchemy and Mozart, which he wrote last night. He also noted to me this morning that you can find a goldmine in terms of how tonality, range, raising inflection, and the rising and falling of phrasing make music and words meld seamlessly for storytelling purposes. Any opera hounds want to weigh in?

    He writes: I had given some thought to John’s commentary and wish I was more up-to-date on things, but here are a couple of things that could stand someone looking into:

    1. What we know as Opera today grew out of the Italian Renaissance, i.e., Monteverdi (“Orfeo”) and his ilk. It would be interesting for someone to review the history of early Opera.
    2. Historically, Mozart is considered an “Italian” composer, i.e., his music is more akin to the Italians in style then to the Germans. Here’s an opportunity for a musicologist to chime in. What does that really mean in terms of Magic Flute?
    3. The music of the Italian Renaissance was heavily steeped in allegory and symbolism. The terms perfect octave, perfect fifth, diabolicus in musica (devil in music), the preference of triple over duple rhythms, etc., were attempts to understand and reflect the world from a spiritual i.e., Catholic, perspective. Meter, form, orchestration (or lack of it, actually) was allegorized and symbolized. You can find this in 16th century music treatises of the times. I did a paper some 30+ years ago (that’s all I’ll admit to) on this very subject.
    4. So, the idea that Mozart wrote the Magic Flute to reflect the alchemical structure of the libretto is very, very plausible, if not extremely so.

    If I had the time I would do some research and brush up but I don’t, so perhaps someone else can follow-up, expand, elaborate, elucidate and/or debunk.

    In any event, my point of view is that music is very much like architecture—and writing, and painting. The aim of the architecture below is to create beauty above (or sell a message, or whatever) without being obvious (“Hi there, I’m a 2X4!”). Tying an aspect of human nature to a rhythm, mood, feeling, color, or symbol, is practically a given in the advertising, the theater and movies. In Disney’s Aladdin, the scenes with the evil Jafar are always against a pallet of reds (see the DVD extras). In the movie, “Second Hand Lions,” there’s a throwaway optical joke. In the scene describing how the older brother found his true love, it starts out cold and windy, filmed with a blue filter against the ocean (cold and fear). When the pursuit turned to love, the camera filter was changed—obviously, too—to a very orange one (love and passion!).


    Time to get the shovel and clean-out the cat box…

  13. Arabella Figg says

    I should amend my first paragraph above quoting what my husband said: “He also noted to me this morning that you can find a goldmine in terms of how tonality, range, raising inflection, and the rising and falling of phrasing make music and words meld seamlessly for storytelling purposes.”

    He also said, which I forgot to write down, that this was very in tune with alchemy and that many of these operas would have alchemical structures. The signoff was his.

    If it involves washing, Curious Black is going to be hiding under the bed…

  14. Thank you! This is wonderful stuff. I find it interesting that the criticism that the Magic Flute has often received is similar to that received by C.S. Lewis and his Narnia books (and which Mr. Ward has so beautifully dispelled). Each work has been described as a haphazard jumble of ideas and symbols put together with little thought or effort. To these critics’ surprise, the works nonetheless manage to come together into a work of art with universal appeal. Both works touch people deeply. I suggest that they do so, not because they are fun fairy stories, but because they make us ponder and vicariously live out the most basic question presented to man, namely, what is your relationship to God? I have no musical education, but I would like to offer up the following as a possible way to think about the Magic Flute — that it is a carefully planned exploration of discipleship, with each character presenting a different type of disciple –Tamino is the pure disciple, Pamina is the conflicted disciple, Monastatos is the hypocritical disciple, Papageno is the utterly incompetent disciple, the Queen of the Night is the anti-disciple/antiChrist, etc. The physical and emotional action of the opera revolves around each of these character’s interaction with God (Sarastro) (I like to think of the opera as a bicycle wheel with Sarastro as the hub and the other characters as spokes). The viewer, whether consciously or unconsciously, has to ask him/herself — “which character am I most like?” The most wonderful aspect of the opera of course, is that there is always grace — even if we fail miserably like Pagageno, God will still see us through. This has always struck me as a particularly lovely parting gift from Mozart. I further suggest that alchemy/literaryalchemy addresses similar issues of discipleship/faith, that that they both deal with deep, fundamental truths, and that symbols are not only helpful, but necessary, to our ability to understand those truths with our hearts as well as our minds. For example, is there much difference between the charlatan alchemists criticized by Chaucer and Monastatos? Therefore, is it at all surprising that both are presented to us as blackened by their greed and lust. I am also not at all surprised that Free Masonry would adopt many alchemical symbols and, that they would, therefore, show up in the Magic Flute. I am sorry that I do not have the benefit of reading Mr. van den Berk’s book (can’t afford it), but I would surmise that the ultimate significance of alchemical symbols in the Magic Flute is largely atmospheric rather than literal — that is, they help us understand that the story and the situations presented have far more significance/weightiness than they would otherwise appear to have. I am very much looking forward to your further thoughts on the Magic Flute.

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