Monday, 26 January 2015

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


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.


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.


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).


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.


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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