One of the things that I like most about my blog is that every once in a while it takes me down the paths I never thought of going, sending me on exciting musical journeys. I am very grateful to you, my readers, for reading and commenting on my blog, for you are the ones who empower me to do research, to grow and become more knowledgeable about music.
A couple of posts ago I was comparing and contrasting Gluck's Orphee et Eurydice (further referred to as OE) and Mozart's Magic Flute (further referred to as MF). It was not meant to be a deep analysis. I just mentioned a couple of similarities that I noticed in the music and the plots. Then one of you asked me a couple of follow-up questions about Mozart's originality and influences on his works, thus inspiring me to do some thorough research. So I picked up and studied some materials about Gluck and Mozart and found quite a bit of interesting information.
But first things first - a fine print disclaimer:
Mozart has been and will always be a genius composer of all times and for all nations.
In my opinion, his genius lies in the complex simplicity (an oxymoron, I know) of his music.
And now - back to music.
I have to state right here and now that borrowing and quoting were very common in the 18th century music world. You all probably know that Baroque composers paid each other to write arias for each other's operas. Nevertheless, the opera would still be considered to have been composed by the one who wrote most of it, which the contributor did not mind at all. Even much later, in the 19th century, way before he got famous, young Rossini, would compose an aria and sell it to a popular composer, so the latter could include it in his opera. The job was well paid and mostly beneficial for his financial situation.
Going back to Mozart, we do hear some of the OE's tunes in MF, but the most we can talk about here is borrowing some musical ideas, some music lines perhaps, but nothing bigger than that.
Plotwise, however, I guess, it would be safe to say that Mozart's MF was not original.
First of all, the very theme of a hero going to a fantasy world to rescue his beloved is very common in early opera history. Plus, composers just loved to base their operas on mythological plots. Baroque audiences were fascinated with far-away lands, luxurious palaces and temples, fancy costumes and sparkly jewels. Therefore, it should not be surprising that Mozart chose a bit of an exotic plot for his opera.
A while before he wrote the MF, Mozart happened to attend an opera composed by several composers ( and thus not claimed by anyone in particular), called Beneficent Dervish. He must have been really impressed by it, because his MF has exactly the same plot!
Both Dervish and MF feature princes as their protagonists and their jester side-kicks. In Dervish we meet Mandolino ( with a set of magic bells!!!) and Mandolina, who in MF become Papageno and Papagena.
Ironically, we might have never learned about the very existence of Beneficent Dervish, had Mozart not composed his opera on the same plot.
Someone once said that a copy can never be better than the original. In Mozart's case it turned out that it can.
As for the plot of OE versus MF, pay attention to the fact that both Orphee and Tamino, besides the tough journeys that they have undertaken, have to undergo the trial of silence. In their turn, both Eurydice and Pamina take it that their guys fell out of love and seek death as the best solution to the problem.
It's also interesting how the importance of music is emphasized in both operas. Orphee gets to conquer the Underworld inhabitants with his voice and lyre. Prince Tamino's magic flute first takes him to Pamina and later through his trials. Even Papageno's bells are magic and almost help him and Pamina escape from Sarastro's palace.
But let us be fair to Mozart and not accuse him of plagiarism!
Just think about how many composers before and after him used plots that had already been used for their operas. After all, before there was Gluck's OE, there was Monteverdi's L'Orfeo and after Gluck's OE there was Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld. Verdi composed his Otello after Rossini's and Rossini - his Armida after Gluck's. And believe me, I could keep going for hours. Apparently, once a composer felt like he had something new to say to people through his music, it did not really matter if the plot had been used before or not.
And what does the plot have to do with it anyway? The music is different, so it's a different opera, right?
So there, I guess I made my point. Mozart, did borrow musical ideas and plots from other composers, however, that does not make him a plagiarist and certainly does not take away from his music. There is enough originality and magic in that music to stay in human hearts both in the past and for years to come.