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David J. Buch: Magic Flutes & Enchanted Forests: The Supernatural in Eighteenth-Century Musical Theater
15 Jul 2009

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

Readers may recognize the author of this book, David J. Buch, a specialist on the origins of the libretto to Mozart’s Magic Flute.

David J. Buch: Magic Flutes & Enchanted Forests: The Supernatural in Eighteenth-Century Musical Theater

450 pages; University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2008

ISBN-10: 0-226-07809-4

$39.84  Click to buy

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, rè di Ponto, and Lucio Silla (both of which contain ombra scenes), as well as Thamos, König in Ägypten 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 Zauberflöte 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 Zauberflöte 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 misguided.

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

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