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“Feelings are ‘vectors’; for they feel what is there and transform it into a here.” Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality

Let me begin by saying to our alumni: Welcome home! My lecture is intended to be its own kind of homecoming, since I plan to take you back in time—back to the sophomore music tutorial. It was there that you took up the study of musical elements: tone, interval, scale, mode, rhythm, structure, as well as the fundamental rules of counterpoint and harmony. You may recall some of the big questions that came up in your classes. What makes a melody a whole rather than a mere sequence of tones? What light do ratios and the overtone series shed on the phenomenon of music? What is time in music? What does it mean for tones to have meaning? What is the connection between words and tones in song? What does it mean for human beings to be musical?

I shall not attempt to answer any of these questions tonight. My goal is humbler, though still daunting. It is to recapture the spirit and substance of the music tutorial by attempting the musical equivalent of a close reading of a text. My “text” is an aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute: “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön,” “This image is enchantingly beautiful.” One of the most exquisite love-songs ever written, it occurs early in the opera and is sung by Prince Tamino as he gazes upon a likeness of Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night and Tamino’s destined Other.

The Magic Flute has been called Mozart’s “Masonic opera,” and so it is. Mozart was a serious Freemason. So was his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, at whose Viennese theatre the work was first produced and who was the first to play the birdman, Papageno. The opera—or rather Singspiel, “play with songs”—is filled with Masonic ideals, symbols, terms, rituals, and numerology.[1] The mystic Three is especially prominent: three flats in the key signature, Three Ladies, Three Boys, Three Temples, and, of course, three tones in the major triad, which Mozart highlights in various ways throughout the opera, notably in the middle section of the Overture. I say all this now because the Masonic influence, though pervasive, will not be my concern. I want to focus instead on the power and precision of Mozart’s music.

We love music because of how it makes us feel. We listen to some works more than others because we want to experience the feelings they stir in us. But feeling is not primary in music, nor is it always the reason why we listen. Most of the time we listen to a piece of music because, well, we want to hear it. We take pleasure in the hearing. But the pleasure is not in the pleasure, as though music were a drug used only to produce a “rush.” The pleasure is in what we are hearing, in the distinctive aisthêton or object of perception. Sometimes we listen to a musical work because we wish to hear a quality or perfection that is present in it. We listen for the sake of an active, even strenuous, contemplation in which we participate in, are one with, the life and shape of the musical object. To be sure, feelings are aroused, but these are grounded in, and prompted by, what we perceive in the tones, in what is there in the phenomenon we call music. We might say that in responding to music we perceive feelingly and feel perceptively. But in saying this, we must bear in mind that perception is primary. We do not, except incidentally, hear musical sounds and associate them with various feelings, images, or experiences. On the contrary, we perceive what is there and take on the condition that rhythms and tones communicate to us.[2]

There is a wonderful passage by Paul Valéry on “the musical universe,” the phrase that inspired the title of my talk. It occurs in his lecture, “Poetry and Abstract Thought.” The passage makes clear the primacy of musical perception:

The musician is … in possession of a perfect system of well-defined means which exactly match sensations with acts. From this it results that music has formed a domain absolutely its own. The world of the art of music, a world of sounds, is distinct from the world of noises. Whereas a noise merely rouses in us some isolated event—a dog, a door, a motor car—a sound evokes, of itself, the musical universe. If, in this hall, where I am speaking to you and where you hear the noise of my voice, a tuning fork or a well-tempered instrument began to vibrate, you would at once, as soon as you were affected by this pure and exceptional noise that cannot be confused with others, have the sensation of a beginning, the beginning of a world; a quite different atmosphere would immediately be created, a new order would arise, and you yourselves would unconsciously organize yourselves to receive it.[3]

Let us observe that the beings that populate Valéry’s musical universe are tones pure and simple. If words are to gain entrance to this world, they do so by the grace, as it were, of tones. The tones are primary. This is crucial in the essay in which the passage occurs, since Valéry wishes to contrast the musical universe with the “poetic universe.” The musical universe is an autonomous realm that contains objects perfectly suited to the art of music, whereas the poetic universe is forced “to borrow language—the voice of the public, that collection of traditional and irrational terms and rules, oddly created and transformed, oddly codified, and very variedly understood and pronounced.”

Let us now enter the musical universe of Tamino’s aria. The aria is inspired, as I mentioned earlier, by an image of Pamina. The portrait is given to Tamino by the Three Ladies, who serve the Queen of the Night. The Queen, as we discover, means to use Tamino’s love for Pamina to seduce the hero into saving Pamina from Sarastro, the “villain” who has abducted Pamina. Given the young hero’s fervent devotional response to what he sees, we might call this image an icon. It is said to be magical, but surely it needs no magic beyond Pamina’s likeness to enchant the young prince, who sings as if caught up in a dream. The words to his song are as follows:

This image is enchantingly beautiful,

such as no eye has ever seen!

I feel it, I feel it, how this divine portrait

Fills my heart with new emotions.

I cannot name this,

yet I feel it here burning like fire;

Could the feeling be love?

Yes, yes, it is love alone, love, it is love alone!

O, if only I could find her!

O, if she were already standing before me!

I would, would, warm and pure … what would I?

Enraptured I would press her to this burning breast,

And forever would she then be mine.

Tamino’s fire-filled words trace out a progression in three stages: first, he marvels at a divine image; second, he asks whether the feeling it inspires in him, and which at first he cannot name, is love but then affirms that it must be love; and third, he wonders what he would do if the beloved were standing before him, concluding that he would press her to his breast, and she would be his forever.

Tamino is doing more in this song than expressing his feelings. He beholds his inner state and makes it an object of reflection. He marvels at the power of the magical object that he perceives and at his passionate response to it. He does not immediately identify his new emotion with love but rather reaches that conclusion through inner dialogue and questioning. Mozart’s music perfectly captures the stages of Tamino’s awakening, the meaning of his words, and the motions of his soul. Let us hear how the words of the aria sound when they are lifted into the universe of tones.

I begin with the observation that the aria is a precisely formed, perfectly balanced whole. Tamino is agitated and confused. But his music, though passionate, is restrained, stately, and inward sounding. It embodies, as I noted earlier, not merely his feeling but his awareness. The music critic and writer of tales E. T. A. Hoffmann once said that Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all had the musical virtue of “Besonnenheit.”[4] The word means something like rational awareness, sensibleness, being in one’s right mind. Tamino’s aria, in its concision and restraint, is a superb example of this virtue.

The song is in E-flat major—the solemn, heroic key of the opera—and has a moderately slow two-beat measure. It is scored for strings, clarinets, bassoons, and French horns (no flutes or oboes). Their sound is like a warm glow emanating from Tamino’s heart, or rather the sound of the new world in which Tamino finds himself. The aria is in a truncated version of sonata form. It follows the usual tripartite structure—exposition, development, and recapitulation—and its key-area plan goes from tonic I to dominant V and then back to the tonic, but there is no repeat of the opening theme, as is customary in the sonata. This allows for greater compression and dramatic urgency.

The aria opens with a tender statement of the E-flat major triad—the sound of an awakening—spelled out in dotted rhythms and played by the strings, which give Tamino his cue. Clearly, the singer we are about to hear—unlike Papageno, with his bouncy bird-catcher song—is noble. Tamino’s first utterance is a leap on the words “Dies Bildnis,” “This image”—a rising major sixth from scale degree 5 in the E-flat major scale up to scale degree 3 (B-flat to G). The leap is an event in Tamino’s soul, the sudden wonder inspired by Pamina’s likeness. When his sentence is spoken in German, the accent is on “schön,” “beautiful”—“Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön.” But the tones accent the word “Bildnis,” “image,” leaving no doubt that for Tamino the focus is initially on what he sees, on the source and cause of his surging passion.

After the inspired leap from 5 to 3, the melody gently descends by steps, pausing on degree 4 (A-flat), an unstable degree that tends downward toward 3. The musical phrase corresponds to the first phrase of the sentence: “This image is enchantingly beautiful.” As Tamino moves to the second part of his sentence—“as no eye has ever seen”—he sings a second rising sixth—from 4 up to 2, A-flat to F. He then descends by steps to 3, the tone to which his earlier 4 was pointing. Whereas the first phrase landed on a tone that was unstable and “wanted” to move, the second complements the first and brings it to rest. Thanks to the postponement of the move from 4 to 3, the two phrases form a single phrase—not two sets of tones but one coherent movement composed of two sub-movements. The entire phrase is bounded by an octave that extends from the high 3, to which Tamino leaps, to the low 3, to which he descends by step.

Mozart’s musical language is that of tonal harmony. This means that the music is firmly grounded in a tonal center, the tone to which all the other tones point, and has a background or underpinning in the movement of what we call “chords.” We sometimes call this chordal movement an accompaniment to the melody. But it is more precise to say that the harmony is the structured movement that interprets the melody and reveals its depth. Harmony is present in the two-part phrase we have just examined. The harmonic movement is from the I chord or tonic to the V7 chord or dominant seventh and back again to the tonic or I—a musical oscillation. This works because the V7 chord, thanks to the tritone, points in a precise direction: to the I chord, in this case the E-flat major triad. We can therefore say that Mozart’s opening two-part phrase is the unity of two kinds of tension that beget movement: the melodic tension of individual tones and the harmonic tension of chords. Zuckerkandl argues, persuasively I think, that these directed tensions and their various relations to one another are the primary object of musical perception, that to listen to music, at least in the tradition of tonal harmony, is to perceive not pitches but forces—dynamic qualities that manifest themselves in and through pitches and hold the piece together.[5]

After the opening phrase, which goes harmonically from I to V and back again, the tones open up and move forward. This is due largely to the harmony, which, having so far confined itself to I-V7-I, now moves briefly to the IV or subdominant chord over a continued E-flat in the bass, then returns to I.[6] The IV chord signals the “away” move in a harmonic journey and produces a lessening of harmonic tension. Tamino here moves from the picture to his inner state: “I feel it, I feel it, how this divine portrait fills my heart with new emotions.” As he says “I feel it, I feel it,” he sings appoggiaturas on “feel”—B-natural to C, then A-natural to B-flat. Appoggiaturas are leaning tones, unstable tones on strong beats, which briefly delay the arrival of a main tone in the melody. Here the leaning tone is an affect perfectly suited to the word “feel.” The accompaniment echoes this affect. As Tamino leans into his feeling, the strings lean in sympathy with him.

Right after his appoggiaturas, Tamino speaks of his heart and the new emotions that Pamina’s image has aroused in it. His outburst on “Götterbild,” “divine portrait,” occurs at the exact center of his opening 13-measure period. Tamino here sings his second dramatic leap, from B-flat up to A-flat, the highest tone of his song. The interval, a minor seventh, is an even bigger leap than his opening sixth. It is a sudden flaring up of the passion that the “divine portrait” inspires. The melody on “Götterbild” outlines part of the V7 or dominant-seventh chord. The music does not resolve this tense chord, which points to E-flat, but rather stresses it and lingers on it.

When the tonic chord does arrive, it is not the end of the previous phrase but the beginning of a new one. Now past the flare-up on “Götterbild,” Tamino retreats to a more inwardly focused mood as he completes his sentence: “fills my heart with new emotions.” The accompaniment is measured and lovely, like the gentle strumming of a guitar: bass note, chord / bass note, chord. The harmony takes us on a little musical journey, as the melody begins and ends on an E-flat or degree 1. The sequence of chords here arouses the expectation that the tense V7 chord will resolve on the tonic, which would fit the E-flat or 1 in the melody. But this does not happen. When Tamino sings his 1 on “füllt,” “fills” (which in German closely resembles “fühlt,” “feels”), the harmony subverts the expected closure. It interprets Tamino’s E-flat as part of a dissonant diminished-seventh chord based on A-natural. This tense passionate chord, which consists of two interlocking tritones, appears four times in the course of the aria. On each occasion it functions as an audible “heat element” that captures a surge of the love-embers burning within Tamino’s breast.

With the sudden appearance of the diminished-seventh chord in place of the expected tonic, the tones seem to have gone off course. We have here a deceptive cadence: the cadence formula leads us to expect an end, but the harmony takes a detour at the last minute and puts instability—in this case, extreme instability—in place of stability. This produces tension and the need for continued movement.

The diminished-seventh chord here functions as an applied dominant (or secondary dominant). This is a chord that tenses toward a chord other than the tonic, in this case, to the V7 of E-flat: a B-flat dominant seventh chord. To sum up, three kinds of musical tension unite in a single chord on the word “fills”: deceptive cadence, applied dominant, diminished-seventh chord. Tamino’s unassuming E-flat in the melody does not reveal the full meaning of the word he sings or the “heat” it embodies. This revelation falls to harmony, which here interprets Tamino’s E-flat by releasing in it an unexpected potential. The deceptive diminished chord is the harmonic interior and soul of Tamino’s melodic tone. The inner, soul-like aspect of harmony recalls what Wagner once said: that harmony is “the first thing that fully persuades the feeling as to the emotional content of [the] melody, which otherwise would leave to it something undetermined.”[7]

Right after the deceptive cadence, the first violins, as if inspired by Tamino, sing rising phrases that form a gentle two-part wave: up and down, up and down. Their tones outline the degrees of the B-flat7 chord, to which the diminished-seventh chord was pointing. With this move, the tones regain their direction.

The dominant seventh chord spelled out by the first violins gently leads Tamino to repeat his sentence, this time with musical closure. Again he sings his rising sixth from B-flat to G on the words “mein Herz,” “my heart,” and then goes even higher—to his A-flat. He ends his phrase with a smooth 3→2→1. The harmony here traverses a complete cycle, at the end aligning itself, non-deceptively, with Tamino’s E-flat. A gentle rhythmic emphasis on the E-flat triad marks the end of Tamino’s opening 13-measure period.

Tamino then pauses, as clarinets in gentle thirds take us into a new section of the exposition. Here the music changes key from E-flat to B-flat, from I to V. The circle of fifths makes this standard move for a sonata-form piece in a major key perfectly natural. But observe how easily E-flat is dislodged and B-flat established as the new tonic. The upper clarinet goes from G to F, 3 to 2 in E-flat, and then repeats the F. Had it gone from G to F and on to E-flat, the former key would have been maintained: 3→2→1. It is the emphasis on 2 that subtly begins to move the tonal center from 1 to 5. It blocks the move to E-flat as scale degree 1, and begins to set up F as degree 5 of our new key, B-flat. The appearance of A-natural, degree 7 in the B-flat scale, solidifies this move.

Earlier, Tamino sang his leaning tones and the orchestra followed. Now the reverse happens. The upper clarinet introduces a new musical strain, which Tamino follows, as if inspired by it. “I cannot name this,” he sings, “yet I feel it here burning like fire” (“Dies Etwas kann ich zwar nicht nennen; doch fühl ich’s hier wie Feuer brennen”). In imitation of the clarinet, Tamino begins on his high G (now degree 6) and descends stepwise. His gently undulating phrase ends with a leaning tone (C-sharp to D) on “nennen,” “name.” He then repeats the phrase, with a slight variation: “yet I feel it here burning like fire.” The harmony is a simple oscillation between the tonic (B-flat) and the dominant (F).

A brief transition in dotted rhythms, played by clarinets and bassoons, takes us to Tamino’s first question, which he stresses by singing it twice: “Could the feeling be love?” (“Soll die Empfindung Liebe sein?”) Both phrases end on tense chords: the first on an applied dominant (the V7 of V), the second on the dominant of B-flat (an F major triad). This harmonic tension—this upward interrogative gesture—is reflected in the melody. Tamino’s first utterance of his question outlines the B-flat triad and ends on an E-natural, a tone foreign to B-flat. This E-natural is highlighted by the preceding F, which serves as a leaning tone. Tamino’s second utterance begins with a downward leap from G to B-flat (the reverse of his opening sixth) and ends on the unstable degree, 2. The E-natural with which Tamino ends the first utterance of his question is especially beautiful: “Could this feeling be love (“Liebe sein”)?” This chromatic E-natural on “love,” the applied dominant of which it is a part (C7), and the florid notes of the first violin all sound as though a light was beginning to dawn, as though the question “Could this be love?” was more than just a question. The anticipation of the answer is heightened by the brief interlude played by the clarinets. Their rising phrases in dotted rhythms gently nudge Tamino and give him his cue. His “Ja, ja!” completes the sequence of upward melodic gestures.

Tamino answers his question: “Yes, yes, it is love alone, love, it is love alone.” He sings the word “Liebe,” “love,” four times in all, three times with an expressive leaning tone and once with a climactic flourish called a “turn.” At the end of his first phrase (right after “Ja, ja!”), Tamino sings a straightforward 3 → 2→1 (D→C→B-flat) on the word “allein,” “alone” or “only.” But the harmony once more undercuts the stability of his melodic 1 with a deceptive cadence. Instead of harmonic V→I, we get V→VI , where VI is a minor chord. Musically, this is a subtle way of extending the phrase and producing the need to move on. Also, the minor VI adds a gently dark inflection and warmth to the word “allein.”

As Tamino repeats his sentence (“It is love alone”), he dwells on “Liebe” and makes it into its own musical phrase in three parts: first a leap that gently descends by a step, then this same phrase repeated, and finally an embellished ascent to a high G. The chord on this G is a dramatic diminished-seventh chord that points to the F major triad, the V of B-flat. Both melody and harmony are at this point up in the air, begging for resolution. The eighth-note rest that follows heightens the suspense. After the rest, tension is released, as Tamino completes his sentence: he drops more than an octave to an F and proceeds by step to B-flat, our new 1, this time supported rather than undercut by the accompanying harmony. The cadence, embellished by a turn played by the first violins, brings the section to a close. It completes the musical “thought” that the preceding deceptive cadence had postponed.

We now enter the middle section of the aria. I think you will agree that although not much time has passed, much as happened. That the tones are embarking on a new large section of the piece is signalled by two whole measures in which the orchestra shifts to quicker rhythms that give the song more forward momentum. It is as if the embers in Tamino’s soul had greater force and impetus. The strings play sixteenth- and thirty-second notes, as the winds enter with a recurring pattern of syncopations or offbeat rhythms. The first violins surge upward in thirty-second-notes grouped in quick pairs, then play a rapid succession of appoggiaturas, as the second violins play a lovely countermelody in contrary motion. The appoggiaturas then take over and become the first violins’ principal theme. They are little flutters of the heart born of heightened expectation. Beneath this dense rhythmic complex, the bass viols provide support with a persistent B-flat in sixteenth-notes—the quickened pulse and heartbeat of this part of Tamino’s music. All these rhythms together form a complex musical image of the passion that leads Tamino to his second question: “O, if only I could find her! O, if she were already standing before me! I would, would, warm and pure … what would I?”

Tamino’s melody on these words begins as a passionate stepwise swell on his two exclamations. The ascent begins on B-flat or 1 and reaches its peak on the high A-flat. At the end of each phrase (on “könnte” and “stände”), Tamino sings the same tones he sang earlier on the word “Götterbild”—A-flat, F, and D, which are part of the dominant chord that points to E-flat. But the harmony does not go there. The tones seem to be caught in a region of harmonic indeterminacy. As Tamino now moves beyond his two exclamations, he breaks the pattern and sings a calm perfect fourth from C up to F on “ich würde” (“I would”), then another perfect fourth from B-flat up to E-flat on “würde” repeated. The repetition suggests that Tamino is suspended in mid-thought by the indeterminacy of his feelings and intentions: he does not know how to complete his sentence. The sense of indeterminacy is evident in the accompaniment, which plays mysterious, dusky sounding measures with a flurry of chromatic appoggiaturas. When Tamino sings “warm and pure,” he uses a warm-sounding G-flat, as the little heart flutters played by the first violins outline the same diminished-seventh chord on A-natural that we heard in the exposition. This chord points to the B-flat major triad that immediately follows. The tones seem to have found their direction, their tonal center or 1. But as Tamino utters his second question (“what would I?”), he ends his phrase by falling a major sixth from F down to the A-flat an octave below the A-flat we heard earlier. The gesture is an anticlimax, coming as it does after Tamino’s three dramatic ascents: two to an A-flat and one to G-flat. It suggests a momentary deflation—rising confidence that is suddenly at a loss. The low A-flat blocks the reassertion of B-flat as key. It is part of a B-flat7 chord, the dominant seventh of E-flat major, our home key. Tamino’s “What would I?”—a deflating fall from F to A-flat—finds a fitting harmonic correlate in the unresolved V7 chord that leaves this entire section of the aria hanging.

The intense anticipation that has built up in the course of this middle section of the aria, and which seems to stall on the V7 chord, is emphasized by the full measure of rest that follows. This is the longest, most dramatic pause in a song full of pauses and withheld resolutions. The soundless measure prolongs and heightens the tension of the preceding V7 chord—the harmonic image of Tamino’s aporia. It is a dynamic, charged silence. The measure is a superb example of how silence is part of the musical universe, how silence in music is not void but order. That is to say, musical silence has, or is, a form. No doubt we are to imagine that Tamino’s soul, during this measure, is gathering itself for a further revelation, for an answer to the question “What would I?” Indeed, he finds an answer, but not through words, not through questioning. The answer, or rather the inner experience that leads to the answer, wells up in him wordlessly during the silence. He is listening for the promptings of his heart and the music of his soul. These promptings will show him the way and will soon become articulate in song.

The music continues, not after the measure of silence but from it. The silence has become a source. The strings re-establish momentum with an oscillating, so-called Alberti bass played by the violas and persistent sixteenth-notes on a low E-flat played by the bass viols. They combine the quickened pace of Tamino’s newfound resolve with the tenderness that characterizes the whole aria. The oscillation played by the violas is a straightforward I-V7-I in E-flat major. This confirms that we have returned to the home key and that the recapitulation has begun. In this final section of his song, Tamino, with rising self-confidence, answers his second question: “I would press her to this burning breast, and forever would she then be mine.”

Tamino takes his cue from the first violins, which play a gently rising phrase that becomes a countermelody: singer and violins engage in a musical conversation. The melody is straightforward: first, a little melodic wave that starts on a B-flat and rises to E-flat through an appoggiatura on F (“I would her”)—then the same melodic phrase repeated (“enraptured”). The next phrase, which begins similarly, introduces a pattern of skips and ends on a warm-sounding chromatic D-flat (“press to this burning or heated breast”). The phrasing exploits German word order in a gradual revelation of meaning: “I would her,” “enraptured,” “to this burning breast,” and finally the crucial infinitive “drücken,” “press,” which completes the earlier sentence Tamino could not finish. The E-flat to D-flat on “drücken” captures the very act of pressing. This chromatic tone tenses forward. It conspires with the tones in the accompaniment to form a I7 chord, that is, the E-flat major triad with the D-flat as the de-stabilizing seventh. The I7, which interprets and deepens Tamino’s D-flat, is an applied or passing dominant that pushes into the final phrase of the song: “and forever would she then be mine.” In her upcoming aria, the Queen will echo these words in a cunning effort to bedazzle and seduce the unwitting Tamino.[8]

Tamino repeats the phrase “und ewig wäre sie dann mein,” “and forever would she then be mine,” five times in all, three times with the upbeat “und” (“and”) and twice without. The phrases without the “und” have greater urgency and are allowed to begin on the crucial word “ewig,” “forever.” The I7 chord on “drücken” tends toward an A-flat triad, the IV chord or subdominant in E-flat major. But as Tamino moves to his first “and forever would she be mine,” Mozart substitutes the ii6 chord: the first inversion of the F minor triad. This chord plays the same role as IV in the harmonic cycle—the moment of stepping away and preparing for the dominant. Why the substitution? No doubt because the ii chord, being minor, has greater warmth. On this ii6 chord, which lasts an entire measure, Tamino sings a smooth measured ascent to his high A-flat. He then drops to D, degree 7 in E-flat, by way of a leaning tone. The first violins join him in this gently ascending phrase. The D is part of the chord played by the strings: the V7 of E-flat. The music pauses on this tense dominant chord.

Then, as Tamino sings “and forever would she then be mine,” we hear the calm measured phrase from the exposition, where Tamino sang “fills my heart with new emotions.” The first appearance of the earlier phrase ended, you recall, with a deceptive cadence on a diminished-seventh chord. Mozart repeats that cadence here. But whereas in the exposition Tamino ended his second phrase serenely on scale degree 1, here, at the corresponding moment, he bypasses the E-flat and leaps to his high G on “mein.” It is in this measure that phrases with “und” switch to phrases without. The shift quickens the momentum of the song. It also produces a happy elision on the tones G, E-flat, and C that allows Tamino to combine “mine” and “forever” in one phrase to form the unit “mine forever.”

Tamino goes on to stress the degrees of the E-flat major triad in a smoothly flowing phrase that seems destined to land on a low E-flat or 1. But at the last minute, he leaps from low F (scale degree 2) to the G a ninth above on the word “mein,” and then overtops the G with an A-flat on “ewig.” This is the most dramatic moment in the aria, as Tamino intensifies his previous elision—his musicalized, heat-filled dream of eternally possessing the beloved. Tamino sounds very heroic and confident here. He sings his signature G a lot, as though this single tone, scale degree 3, embodied the whole of his passion. When he gets to the last utterance of his phrase, his melody again emphasizes the tones of the E-flat major triad. He leaps, one last time, to his signature G—this time, significantly, on the word “sie,” “her.” This G, however, is not a stable degree of a chord but an appoggiatura tending toward F, 2. Tamino, in other words, does not merely stress the pronoun that refers to Pamina with a high note; he puts his whole heart into the word and leans heroically toward the beloved. Having reached high G, the tones now descend to E-flat, scale degree 1, by step, with the assistance of D, scale degree 7: 3→2→1→ 7→1 (“sie dann mein”). A straightforward cadence affirms closure.

The full orchestra ends the piece with a brief coda composed of two complementary phrases. The phrases capture the two complementary sides of Tamino’s nature: the first heroic and forte, the second tender and piano, a recollection of the fervent E-flat chords with which the song began. It is important that the song end in a hush. What Tamino ultimately desires is not continued arousal, or heroism for its own sake, but rest—the blissful repose and heart’s ease that comes from lasting union with the beloved.[9]

So ends my journey through Tamino’s aria. I have tried to be faithful in speech to what is there in the tones. I have not, of course, captured all that is there. No one could. Mozart’s music, like all great music, is inexhaustible, and every act of listening brings new discoveries. I have tried to present the aria as a tonal time-structure that comes to us as a gift from the musical universe and is welcomed by our musically receptive souls. The time-structure “speaks to” our passion and our perception, just as the divine portrait, a visual or spatial form, “speaks to” and inspires the soul of Tamino. And just as his world is transformed by what he experiences, so too perhaps is ours by the magic of Mozart’s incomparable music.

I have placed special emphasis on directed tension as the ground of coherence in tonal music. This wholeness through tension is evident in the song’s overall form. The first section is an ordered accumulation of tension. The second heightens that tension. It is, as we have seen, Tamino’s point of maximum anticipation and perplexity. The third reaffirms E-flat as key, recalls part of the music from the exposition, and brings the whole time-structure to perfect balance and resolution. It does all this by accumulating ordered tensions of its own, with which the tones move swiftly to a satisfying close.

To listen perceptively to the aria, to hear what is there, is demanding. It takes effort and study. Following the thought of Heinrich Schenker, I would like to suggest that behind all the complexities, a simple scheme prevails. The melody, as you know, begins with a rising sixth to a G, the 3 of E-flat major. The entire piece may be heard, and certainly most simply conceived, as the attempt by 3 to reach 1 through the extended intermediation of 2: G→F→E-flat.[10] Recall that the first key change came about because the first clarinet played 3→2→2 rather than 3→2→1. This facilitated the transformation of degree 2 in E-flat into degree 5 in B-flat. The rest of the piece—key changes and all—exploits and further develops this move to 2. In other words, 2 (F) is not just an element of the E-flat major scale; it is also a principle of the unfolding time-structure. To be persuaded of this fact, one has only to observe the crucial role that 2 plays throughout the piece. The completion of the move 3→2→1 in the overarching scheme takes place only at the end, only after the recapitulation has affirmed E-flat, not merely as the key of the final section but as the governing tone of the entire piece. Only at the end of the journey do we really have, and know, the beginning.

My account of Tamino’s aria would be incomplete if I did not say something about Pamina, the enchanting object of Tamino’s love. Pamina, I believe, is the focal point of the opera. Of all the “good” characters, she endures the greatest and most prolonged sufferings: her mother’s absence, the stern tutelage of Sarastro, the violent advances and blackmail of Monostatos, and the revelation of the mother she loves as a demon bent on a murder Pamina herself is ordered to commit. Finally, she suffers despair over what she thinks is lost love, and is almost driven to suicide.

Pamina is also an exalted figure in the opera. It is she who most embodies what is new about the new, previously all-male Order, which now, through the “noble pair,” as Tamino and Pamina are called, will overcome the primordial opposition presented in the opera between Male and Female. It is Pamina, a virtuous woman, who gives the lie to all the negative things said about women in the opera. It is she who, at a crucial moment of the drama, reveals the strange origin of the flute made by her magus-father. In the Finale of Act One Sarastro tells Pamina that a man must guide her heart. This is true: Tamino gives Pamina’s heart its proper object and bearing. But in the last two trials that Tamino must undergo, it is Pamina who guides Tamino, as love guides her. Finally, it is Pamina who reveals that the magical vocation of music is not to gain power over others, or merely to amuse oneself, but to ward off the fear of death.

When Pamina joins Tamino for the final trials near the end of the opera, the two face each other in more than the obvious sense. They now see each other clearly for the first time. There is mutual recognition. This recognition is evident in the complementary phrases the lovers use to sing each other’s names: “Tamino mein! O welch ein Glück!” “Pamina mein! O welch ein Glück!” “Tamino mine! O what a stroke of good fortune!” “Pamina mine! O what a stroke of good fortune!” The phrases they sing are two halves of a little musical circle in F major—a wedding ceremony in tones. When Pamina sings Tamino’s name, she does so with a rising major sixth (C up to A)—the same interval with which Tamino’s soul rose up in response to Pamina’s image.[11] But this is not mere repetition. Tamino’s sixth was the sound of passion that aspired but did not know itself. It had shadows and heat. Pamina’s sixth is different. It is pure, luminous, and rationally aware. It has “Besonnenheit,” and in more than the strictly musical sense. Pamina’s sixth is the perfection of Tamino’s. It is the sublime moment in which passion, now perceptive, finds its purpose.

When Tamino first responded to the magic that was Pamina, his love was mediated by an image. He asked himself what he would do if the beloved were standing in front of him. That moment has arrived, for here stands Pamina, not as image but as solid reality. Tamino’s first rush of love was itself a kind of image and dream. It was the first step in his journey from erotic striving and heroic aspiration, through painful disillusionment and trials, to the moment of enlightenment, when images are seen for what they are, and when the lover, having transcended mere feeling, now grasps love as act. Pamina is the Other, in and through whom Tamino can know himself as the man who loves Pamina, not as a possession but as a partner in the trials of life. He can see who he is in the eyes of the beloved because the sound of her rising sixth, as she sings his name, shows him how. Her sixth, her love in musical form, is his unfailing guide. Pamina is more than Tamino’s beloved, more than a symbol of virtuous womanhood (her mother in redeemed form), more even than the first woman to gain priestly status within the sacred Order. She is Tamino’s wisdom—and the true magic of Mozart’s Magic Flute.

My focus on Tamino’s aria prevented me from addressing other characters in the opera: the loveable child of nature, Papageno, the sometimes disturbing Sarastro, the psychologically complex Monostatos, and, of course, that titanic Mommie Dearest, the Queen of the Night. Perhaps we can discuss these characters in the question period.

Let me end where I began and say once more to our alumni: Welcome home!

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This article is based on “The Neglected Muse: Reflections on Music as a Liberating Art,” which he wrote for Basic Education, vol. 47 (2).


1. For an exhaustive study of the Masonic elements in Mozart’s opera, see Jacques Chailley, The Magic Flute, Masonic Opera, trans. Herbert Weinstock (New York: Knopf, 1971). Chailley finds Masonic meaning even in the number of notes used in individual phrases. His analysis makes the plot more coherent but ultimately distracts us from Mozart’s music.
2. See Victor Zuckerkandl, “Words and Tones in Song,” Chapter 3 of Man, the Musician, Bollingen Series, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973, pp. 31-43.
3. The lecture can be found in Paul Valéry, An Anthology, Bollingen Series, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977, pp. 136-165.
4. “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music,” in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Musical Writings, edited by David Charlton, translated by Martyn Clarke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 98.
5. Dynamic qualities may be thought of as the supersensuous within the sensuous. To listen to music, therefore, is to hear the sensuous world transcending itself. This striking thesis appears in all three of Zuckerkandl’s books: Sound and Symbol: Music and the External World (1956), The Sense of Music (1959), and Man, the Musician (1973).
6. The continued E-flat puts the IV chord in its second inversion: the least stable position of the triad. The effect is to make the move from I to IV into a mild departure from the E-flat triad, more of an inflection than a chord-change.
7. Wagner on Music and Drama, selected and arranged by A. Goldman and E. Sprinchorn (New York: Da Capo Press, 1964), 214.
8. “And if I come to see you as victor [by saving Pamina], then she is yours forever.” The Queen’s mind-numbing tone-witchery occurs, significantly, on the tantalizing word “then,” “dann.”
9. Papageno’s wistful G-major aria also ended with the desire for rest—with the image of a wife who would sleep by his side “like a child” (“wie ein Kind”).
10. For Schenker, the movement 3®2®1 constitutes what he calls the “Urlinie” or “primordial line.” See his Free Composition, translated by Ernst Oster (New York: Longman, 1979), 3-9.
11. The rising sixth functions as a leitmotif in the opera. Its other crucial appearance is in the Finale of Act I, in the interchange between Pamina and Sarastro. Pamina sings the interval twice in referring to the tender feelings she has for her mother: “The sound of my mother’s name is sweet to me. It is she, it is she…” The first sixth is from F up to D, the second from B-flat up to G (the tones of Tamino’s opening sixth). No doubt Pamina wants to say: “It is she who gave birth to me, nurtured me, loved me.” But Sarastro completes her sentence in his own way: “And a proud woman! A man must lead your heart, for without him every woman will walk outside her proper sphere.” On the words “without him [a man],” Sarastro, in his low range, repeats Pamina’s sixth from F to D, as if to transfer the chord’s tenderness to its proper object. At this very moment, Monostatos drags in Tamino, the sight of whom prompts Pamina to sing: “It is he!” (Tamino responds in kind: “It is she!”) The drama of sixths in the exchange between Pamina and Sarastro, coupled with Pamina’s shift from the feminine to the masculine pronoun once Tamino arrives, paves the way for the meeting of the two lovers in the Finale of Act II.
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