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Composed: 1791

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 21, 1924, with Walter Henry Rothwell conducting.

About this Piece

The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) was a collaboration between Mozart and his friend and Masonic lodge brother, the singer-actor-writer-promoter-manager-theater owner (and patron saint of all show-business hyphenates) Emanuel Schikaneder. In 1791, Mozart composed a good deal of music for use in Schikaneder’s Freihaustheater in Vienna, culminating with the music for Schikaneder’s singspiel allegory about love and sacred rites. The Magic Flute is a curious blend of the sublime and the silly, incorporating oblique references to rituals of the Masons. It was a considerable success and might have been the start of a whole new career for Mozart, had he not taken ill and died in the middle of its run.

Its overture is a fugal sonata movement of the sort that Mozart had composed for the finale of his “Jupiter” Symphony three years earlier. The impressive chords that open the overture (and return between the exposition and the development) are taken from Act I of the opera, where they signify the solemnity of the sacred temple. The tugging impulsiveness of the fugue subject (which is not taken from the opera) is caused by displaced accents: Mozart marks the downbeats soft and the upbeats loud, which is just the opposite of what players in his day would do as a matter of course.

Excerpted as concert music, the overture is unique in being Mozart’s only purely instrumental work that uses trombones. In the opera, the trombones convey grandeur and dignity in the temple scenes. They do much the same thing in the overture, but also lend an impressive weight to the orchestration in the fast sections—the closest the symphonic Mozart comes to a modern “brass section.”

—Howard Posner