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

July 9, 2009

In the past two decades, musicologists have realised the importance of putting an operatic work in a historical, cultural, theatrical and literary context. For the most part, the research of opera scholars has broadened out to include non-musical references, especially in terms of the contemporary influences of plays and novels. Magic Flutes and Enchanted Forests must be commended for its extensive use of literary and other non-musical sources, which David Buch uses to detail the origins of the characters, plots and, most importantly for his thesis, the "marvelous" (a term dating back to the French Renaissance "to designate wondrous and exceptional tales").

With the substantiation of primary musical sources from extensive archival research found mostly in the main libraries of Western Europe, Buch reviews the use of the supernatural in 18th-century French, Italian and German opera as well as other types of theatre including comedies, pantomimes, farces and ballets. While numerous theatrical works include the supernatural to a greater or lesser degree, there have been surprisingly few musical studies devoted to this topic; rather, the secondary literature has focused on the opera itself, making mention of its magical elements in passing and/or within the context of that particular opera but not as part of a larger historical phenomenon. Undoubtedly, Buch's is an essential and groundbreaking study that hopefully will be further challenged and examined in the future.

After an introduction in which Buch surveys the literary, theatrical and musical precedents and sources of magic and the "marvelous" from the Middle Ages to the end of the 17th century, he organises chapters by language and genres from the late 17th century through to 1791.

Chapters are devoted to France's Academie Royale de Musique (including the tragedie en musique, ballet-heroique and tragedie-lyrique); French opera-comique; Italian serious genres (including opera seria and dramma per musica); Italian comic genres (intermezzo, commedia per musica, opera buffa); and German musical theatre (Singspiel, Komodie).

Minor composers receive less detail than major composers such as Lully, Gluck, Rameau, Vivaldi and Haydn, and Buch generally examines all the works of major composers that include supernatural elements. The last chapter, "The supernatural in the operas of Mozart", contains a few remarks about his early operas as well as Thamos and Idomeneo, but concentrates mainly on Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflote.

Buch separates the extensive source material for the first five chapters into numerous subheadings in an effort to divide up the various types of musical theatre. These subheadings use diverse methodologies for organising the types of operas: chronologically ("Dramma per musica, 1700-1749"), by location ("Brunswick and Hamburg") or by composer. While the subheadings discuss the stated subject, they can sometimes prove confusing with overlapping topics and misleading titles, and the arbitrary use of regular or italic fonts for these headings epitomises the inconsistencies in their content.

With less than a page between some of the subheadings, it appears that the author is trying to make a logical progression of ideas, which in many cases amounts to long lists of pieces with a short description of each magical scene and/or character. Given the numerous examples of various types of musical theatre, one wonders whether the monograph should have been organised more as a reference book with tables, entries and charts, rather than as a narrative with long descriptive passages of the libretti and/or the music of various composers.

There are also a number of inconsistencies throughout Buch's entire monograph concerning the musical examples and the use of foreign languages. In general, most of the discussion of the score is descriptive, ie, "running scales, bursts of short gestures in the bass", so lack of musical knowledge would not limit a reader's understanding. For those who would want to consult a score (including the musical examples given in the text), bar numbers for reference would have been helpful and the analysis should have been written on the score example. Another error of omission is the lack of translations for the majority of 18th-century foreign-language quotations and titles of operas.

With its extensive lists of compositions for musical theatre, and occasional summaries of uses and musical characteristics of magic, Buch's monograph reveals the importance of this neglected genre. In doing so, he has given us the initial step to subsequent research and further analysis of these operas will undoubtedly show them to be valuable sources in understanding 18th-century magic and musical theatre.

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

By David J. Buch, University of Chicago Press 480pp, £34.50, ISBN 9780226078090, Published 20 January 2009

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