Monday, 26 January 2015

Desert Island Discs: Record number three - Mozart's Magic Flute

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I did not touch the sublime in music until I experienced opera in my mid-teens - and the first time that opera hit me with full force was in watching TV.

There were two: the funniest opera - The Barber of Seville by Rossini, in the performance conducted by Claudio Abbado and starring Berganza, Alva and Prey; and then there was Ingmar Bergman's Swedish-language movie version of the best opera/ the best piece of music ever written - namely Mozart's Magic Flute.

When I got from the record library the Magic Flute excerpts conducted by Georg Solti I felt for myself musical greatness - as in the above-linked performance of Sarastro by the gigantic Finnish Bass Martti Talvela.

This is music which Bernard Shaw, the greatest British music critic of his day (as a young man) said was the only music which it would seem appropriate to hear from the mouth of God.

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Mozart's Magic Flute is both the simplest and easiest, most child-like of the canonical operas, and also the deepest, most heavenly. Through its five contrasting main characters it touches on the most important human emotions and types - Tamino, the heroic poet; Papageno, the earthy, lusty, family-loving Everyman; Pamina the innocent maiden; Sarastro the noble sage; and Queen of the Night, the beautiful, insightful, gifted, proud demon.

Bergman's film version is not just the best of all opera films, and a fine musical rendering (with good although not great singers) - but Bergman's subtle reworking of Schikaneder's inspired but chaotic libretto matches more closely the depth of the music with the words. For instance, Bergman unforgettably makes Sarastro into Pamina's father - which makes perfect dramatic symmetry.

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The role of the Magic Flute in my life was spiritual, as well as aesthetic. I recognized, but struggled to make sense of, the vision of something higher and beyond. It is to my credit that despite professed atheism I did not reductively explain-away this experience of the transcendent - but unsuccessfully tried to articulate it within my covert and imprecise belief in Creative Evolution (a doctrine which was also derived from Bernard Shaw - especially as it was put-forth in my favourite play of that time: Shaw's Man and Superman, an explicitly Mozartian drama).

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My enjoyment of The  Magic Flute and Barber of Seville led onto an intense period of opera exploration on LP recordings, with the vital assistance of the Bristol City library - such that over the next four year I listened to the whole of the canonical opera repertoire from the classical and romantic era. Sometimes I was seeking aesthetic experience, often it was a love of singing - especially technical aspects of the tenor voice.

Music, especially opera, became a serious activity: a religious activity. As often as not I would borrow a musical score of the opera - and read that as I listened; if not, I would follow the libretto; and while I listened my focus was intense - I would not be doing anything else.

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Naturally I wanted to participate in this world of classical music, and did so in the only way I could - by singing in choirs and choruses, and on my own at home - which was unsatisfying but better than nothing. I had vague, unformed, but important-to-me notions of doing something musical more seriously at some point - perhaps being a music critic.

The best of Classical Music, especially opera, was the highest thing I knew, and I deeply wanted to be 'inside' it - somehow.

But at the same time I always held back from commitment, somehow knowing that even if the luck went my way; music could not provide me, with my nature as it was, and very limited aptitude and inadequate training, with what I sought.

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