An Enlightenment Parrot: Birds, Birdsong, and Mimesis in Mozart's The Magic Flute
paper given at "Literary Birds" Conference,
Thursday 11th October, 2018
Mozart's singspiel, The Magic Flute, was completed in the final year of his life, 1791. Singspiels were popular entertainments, often based on fantastic or magical storylines, combining music and spoken text rather like a modern stage musical, usually with a good deal of pantomime, double entendre and slapstick thrown in. In The Magic Flute two apparently antithetical realms figure in the scenario, the mountainous and barren region ruled over by The Queen of the Night and the complex of temples dedicated to Reason, Nature, and Wisdom ruled by Sarastro. In terms of Enlightenment geographies, Sarstro's realm is bounded by architecture, the Queen's by geology (though she dwells in "a closed building"), the Queen stands in relation to nature as Sarastro stands in relation to human culture in a familiar binarism where female=nature and body and male=culture and mind.
The first scene begins with an unknown youth about to be destroyed by an enormous snake. He cries out for help, and faints, at which point "three ladies" - associates of the Queen of the Night - appear and kill the monster. Having each noted how beautiful he is and how much they'd like to be alone with him, they leave, at which point the youth - Tamino, who is to be our "hero" - wakes up, and barely has time to realise what has happened when his attention is distracted by the arrival of Papageno, the bird-catcher, whose folksy song, Der Vogelfänger bin Ich, ja! introduces him as the bird-catcher.
Papageno is a "Naturmensch", a "natural man". He lives by trapping birds, which he attracts using his pan-pipes with which he can imitate their calls. By his own admission, he has no use for thinking, or anything beyond his two aims in life - to eat and drink, and to find a mate. His panpipes are emblematic of his whole existence - through them his mimetic relationship to the birds, combined with his uncomplicated, animal existence mark him as, in a sense, one of Rousseau's "noble savages". The significance of mimesis in his world is further marked by his name - Papageno, from papagaj, a parrot, a bird reknowned for its mimetic abilities.
When Tamino asks Papageno who he is, Papageno retorts - "Who am I? Stupid question! A man like you".
In the dialogue which follows there is an odd little detail, though, which is often missed amidst Papageno's comical pragmatism.
Tamino asks Papageno: How do you live?
Papageno replies: From eating and drinking like all other people.
Tamino: And how do you get that?
Papageno: Through exchange - I catch various birds for the star-blazing Queen and her ladies and in return I receive food and drink.
The Queen of the Night - as a bird . . .
The Queen of the Night is the third of the main characters we meet in Magic Flute, the "star-blazing" - sternflammende - Queen of the Night. She rules the mountainous land where Papageno lives. Why she supports Papageno, whose only function is to provide birds for her, is not mentioned in the opera. The music of her celebrated "vengance aria" Der Holle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen in the second act of the opera though can be read as a clue to her fascination with, and perhaps need for, captive birds.
The extreme high register of the voice, the close accompaniment with bird-like flutes and oboe, the chattering imitation from high strings, and the twittering melodic outline evoke a set of conventions for the representation of birdsong in music reaching back at least to the early 17th century. The insistent repetition of single pitches within the Queen's coloratura in this aria bears a remarkable similarity to the alarm calls of many songbird species, underlining, for those in the know, that we are dealing here with a very angry bird. This aria itself imitates a typical "set-piece" in the courtly genre of Opera Seria which Mozart sends up at several points during Magic Flute.
Are we to assume, then, that Papageno captures birds so that the Queen can learn to sing from them?
Why could she not simply listen to birds singing through the window?
Why do these birds need to be captured?
Mimesis, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was closely associated with caged birds, who were taught to sing popular tunes, and sold. This was big business. Bullfinches, canaries, linnets, and starlings especially were valued for their ability to imitate human music, and captured in their thousands for this purpose. The extent of this industry can be imagined by reflecting on the fact that the French invented an instrument - called the "Serinette", a small barrel organ - for the express purpose of repeating a tune over and over so that birds would learn to sing it.
In 1708 John Walsh published, in London, The Bird Fancyer's Delight, a tutor for the flageolet in which he notes that
". . . the Flagellet . . . is not only delightfull, but also profitable, particularly to Bird Fanciers, it having been often known that Birds after being taught by the Flagellet [have] been sold for great value . . .".
Walsh's publication claims to provide melodies specially composed to suit the specific musical characters of a variety of different species. Papageno, we know, has similar entrepreneurial tendencies: when he first meets Tamino he is excited to learn of the "many hundreds" of countries beyond the Queen's dominions into which he could potentially expand his "business".
But the similarity to birds does not simply lie in the human voice imitating the sound of birds. The Queen of the Night is several times referred to as the "star-blazing" Queen - die sternflammende Königin. If any actual bird deserves the epithet "star-blazing" it is surely the Common Starling, Sturnus vulgaris, whose plumage consists of a dark background flecked with white or silver "stars".
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
Though the etymology of "starling" and "star" are consistently separate in both English and German - the English name, at least, seems to have a plausible origin in the similarity of the bird's plumage to a starry night sky. If the Queen is, indeed, mimicking her captive birds (rather than the other way round), then the Starling, known as one of the most expert mimics among European birds, might be her perfect alter ego - emblazoned with stars - sternfllammende - and with superb mimetic abilities. Interestingly, like the Queen, captive starlings unlike most other birds, will sing at night, and Mozart knew this because he owned a pet starling to which he was extremely attached.
This bird was purchased on the 27th May, 1784. Mozart records the purchase in his expenses diary . . .
27. Mai 1784 Vogel Stahrl 34 Kr. (27th May 1784 bird starling 34 kreutzer).
. . . and jots down the melody that the bird sang
Below the musical notation he writes "Das war schön!" - "That was nice!" because the tune is almost identical to the last movement of his own Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K. 453, written in the same year!
Mozart was so attached to the bird that when it died, three years later, and just a week after the death of his own father, Leopold, Mozart held an elaborate funeral for the bird, composed a funeral elegy, and had friends sing over the grave.
The magical flute
The eponymous Magic Flute, which I'll distinguish from the title of the opera by referring to it as the magical flute from now on, is given to Tamino by the Queen as a magical device by which he will rescue her daughter, who has been abducted by the "evil" Sarastro. The flute's music gives the player control over living things, and Tamino, on first playing it sings how:
". . . durch dein Spielen
Selbst wilde Thiere Freude fühlen."
"Through your playing even the wild beasts feel joy".
Given the representation of the Queen as the eternal, feminine, maternal principle of "Nature", the gift of an instrument having magical power over living things seems unsurprising.
There is, however, an important dimension to the ideological symbolism carried by the magical flute, as a flute. Music without voices, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, was seen as an inferior form in comparison to vocal music. The reasons behind this are complex, but instrumental music's presence as recreation in the domestic space marks it as inferior to vocal music, whose significance in court and public opera, or as the sung accompaniment to religious ritual, set it at something of a social premium. The absence of verbal texts was another factor in instrumental music's relative inferiority. Without language instrumental music could only hint at phenomena in the external world, a distinct disadvantage for an artform operating under an aesthetic system in which mimesis was a central principle. At best, instrumental music might evoke very general emotional states, or imitiate - often rather unconvincingly, and in conformity with rather tired conventions - natural phenomena like the flow of water, thunder, or birdsong. The inadequacy of instrumental music in this respect was emphasised by Kant, who placed instrumental music in the category of the "merely pleasurable" and excluded it from the realm of the "fine arts" - mehr Genuß als Kultur - "more pleasure than culture", and, significantly I think, in the same category as wallpaper - underlining its domestic associations.
Kant notwithstanding, though, instrumental music's status had undergone a dramatic transformation during the eighteenth century, such that by the end of the century it was seen in some circles - the German Romantics, in particular - as the highest of all the art forms because it was neither limited by language nor by mimesis, the slavish imitiation of the external world. The later symphonies and chamber music of Mozart, Haydn, and others are among the first instrumental works to have established their own credentials as "absolute music" - music that is valued on its own terms as music, rather than in relation to the ideas expressed through sung texts, or through its success at evoking images or feelings from outside of the music itself. Seen from this perspective Mozart's magical flute, in 1791, is an emblem of instrumental music "victorious". Somewhat ironically, given its place within a work that is overwhelmingly sung, the magical flute stands on its own. Its music is no longer subservient to language - whenever it is played, voices fall silent, and it accompanies Tamino's vow of silence, which is one element in the several trials he must undergo. Nor is it tied - like Papageno's panpipes are - to the mimetic.
In many respects, then, Tamino's magical flute ought to be at home in Sarastro's ordered world, which has renounced mimesis and magic in favour of abstract moral principles and reason, and whose temples of Reason and Nature are accessible only through the temple of Wisdom, a world of Enlightenment order. But we must not forget that the Flute is the gift of the Queen of the Night, not Sarastro.
The example I played was her second aria, a vengance aria in which she demands that Pamina, her daughter, kill Sarastro. In her first aria, though, directed at Tamino, she sings a long - and seemingly genuine - lament over her abducted daughter, bemoaning her own weakness to prevent Pamina's abduction, but deciding at the end, with resolution, that Tamino will be her hero, will rescue Pamina from Sarastro's clutches, who will then become Tamino's bride. Here her coloratura - fast, virtuosic scales and arpeggios sung to a single syllable - could be heard as birdlike, but it is in fact much closer to instrumental music than singing or birdsong. Coloratura is in fact often talked about in terms of instrumental music for the voice, something for which generations of singers have berated J. S. Bach, in particular. The stark contrast to the weeping lyricism of the first section of the aria also makes the "instrumental" quality of the coloratura stand out in quite stark contrast.
In Sarastro's realm there are temples of Reason and Nature, mediated by the temple of Wisdom, but it is in the Queen of the Night's voice, that we find Nature and Reason co-existing - the imitation of birdsong marking the enduring significance of mimesis, alongside instrumental music, with its explicit rejection of the same. It seems that the Queen, like a starling, is an excellent mimic not only of the birds, but also of the magical flute which seems to infuse her voice with something of the order and rationalism of Sarastro's world.
The Magic Flute and the origins of language and music
Papageno, despite being asked to accompany Tamino through his trials, with the possibility that he too might gain entry to Sarastro's world, remains an unrepentant "noble savage", holding fast to a world in which mimesis holds sway. Though he fails the tests set him, the gods smile upon him and he is permitted to live, and to be united with his long-desired partner Papagena. The duet in which the two "bird people" meet and pledge their love to one another is one of the most charmingly comic sections of the opera. Reminiscent of two old hens clucking at one another, they sing the detached syllable "pa-" in a tentative call and response which grows more confident until finally they both blurt out the other's name.
Rousseau, who we have to thank for the idea of the noble savage so suited to Papageno's outlook on life, speculated, as many others have, on the origins of music and language. In one scenario Rousseau believes it possible that music and language were originally the same thing, and that their later separation in another marking of the Fall. But in the pre-lapsarian state of nature, language and song emerged as initially the same vocalisation of primal desire. In his Essay on the Origin of Languages of circa 1760 he writes:
"In arid regions, where water could only be had from wells ... the first meetings between the sexes took place. Young girls came to fetch water for the household, young men came to water their herds. . . . Beneath old oaks, conquerors of years, spirited young people gradually forgot their ferociousness; little by little they tamed one another; in striving to make themselves understood, they learned to make themselves intelligible. . . . an eager gesture no longer proved adequate, the voice accompanied it with passionate accents, pleasure and desire merged into one and made themselves felt together. Here, finally was the true cradle of peoples, and from the pure crystal of the fountains sprang the first fires of love" (Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages, c. 1760).
The trials of love in Sarastro's temple are by water - Rousseau's "pure crystal of the fountains" - and fire - his "fires of love". Is it too far fetched, then, to hear Papageno and Papagena's duet as a comic rehearsing of the scenario which Rousseau imagined music and lanaguge to have emerged from, their names forming out of the sound of the music. And if the emergent autonomy of instrumental music in the eighteenth century marks an ever greater distance between music and the physical world, can we hear the Queen of the Night as a polymorphous, and very human embodying of these two apparently antithetical ideologies of music - the mimetic, through her mimicry of an angry bird in her vangance aria, and the autonomy of instrumental music through the flute-like use of her voice in her first aria.
Contrary to conventional readings of the opera, in which the Queen of the Night is demonised as a threatening relic of nature, magic, and superstition transcended by the Enlightenment, I believe we can recover an embodying which, given that The Magic Flute premiered less than two years before the Revolutionary Terror in France would demonstrate where an excess of Sarastroan rationalism might lead, the Queen of the Night seems, in many respects, and at the risk of using a rather arch phrase in this context, the very embodiment of reason.