Mozart & Orientalism

by Ibn Warraq (November 2009)

Western art has, in the words of Roger Scruton, “continuously ventured into spiritual territory that has no place on the Christian map,” and has done so with generosity, tolerance, affection, and a noble vision of universal humanity. Literature and music, as much as painting and architecture, has acknowledged other civilizations and other peoples, and embraced them as equals, and sometimes treated them as superior souls from whom the West could learn. In her biography of Mozart as a dramatist, Brigid Brophy has a dazzling chapter on the Exotic in Eighteenth century art, reminding us of Western man’s ventures “to unpath’d waters, undreamed shores:” China, Turkey, Persia, Babylon, Egypt, Abyssinia, South America, India, even outer space.[1]

Brophy sings the virtues of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail [Il Seraglio] and Die Zauberflöte, and places them firmly within the Enlightenment’s cosmopolitanism and its educative program. “To admire and copy foreign countries inside Europe was scarcely less obligatory than to admire, collect and copy the exotic products of other continents.”[2] In Il Seraglio, when Pasha Selim is introduced, he is the “raw material of nobility, aristocratic and imposing, but uninstructed,” but “is allowed to develop a good deal more character than a mere exotic touch.” By the end, the Pasha becomes a new man, who “shews himself a nobler pagan than Belmonte’s father has been a Christian—for, by one of those dénouements of identity which are set off like catherine wheels by rococo plotmaking, Blemonte has turned out to be the son of an ancient enemy who used the Pasha ill. The moral purpose of the exotic vein is pointed when the ostensibly barbarian Pasha stigmatises Blemonte’s father as ‘dieser Barbar.'”[3]

Brophy continues, “This bloody and unjust man is, of course, a Christian of the deepest Catholic dye—a Spanish grandee [As his son, Belmonte, admits, being prepared to die without complaint in recompense of ‘das Unrecht’ done by his father to the Pasha (Act III, dialogue before No.21)]. Frederick the Great’s opera [Montezuma] had indicted the atrocities of the Spaniards against the Mexicans in order to shew that it was Christianity which was the ‘barbarie.’ [In Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie, Paul uses the same verbal paradox when, in the primitive bliss of Mauritius, he speaks of Europe as ‘ce pays barbare.’] Il Seraglio exposes a Spaniard’s vindictive treatment of a Turk, and shews that it is the Turk who is capable of learning the lesson of non-vengeance. The Pasha does not take the opportunity to avenge himself on the father through the son—because he disdains to follow the Christian barbarian’s example. ‘I hold your father in too much detestation,’ he tells Belmonte, ‘to be able to tread in his footsteps.’ Pedrillo’s narrative ballad has evoked the Crusades to the advantage not of Christian chivalry but of Selim’s historical precursor in nobility, Saladin.” Thus the Pasha frees Belmonte, for revenge would only damage the revenger’s moral nature, and Constanze, because neither force nor kindness on his part can alter the fact that she does not love him. The Pasha “reforms his government, to the extent of giving a brisk warning to his corrupt officer, Osmin….”[4]

Die Zauberflöte has the same emotional subject matter as Il Seraglio, namely, the testing of love against the fear of death. But the former also has familar themes of the Enlightenment: the triumph of light over dark, but seen through Masonry’s allegorical symbolism. As Brophy reminds us, “Mozart, at least when he was young, grieving and writing to his worried and conservative father, disliked Voltaire, but six years after Voltaire’s death, joined the Freemasons—who adulated Voltaire, practised the Enlightenment’s morality (including toleration) and were, for that reason, condemned (twice, during the eighteenth century) by papal bull. Catholicism declined to return Masonry’s compliment of toleration because Masonry, as a ‘universal’ system of morality, seemed to imply that the church was not necessary to morals and because Masonry insisted (from 1723 onwards) on extending the tolerance it offered its Christian members equally to Jews and Deists.”[5]

Brophy argues that “Masonry’s central allegory, the triumph of light over dark, is shared with the very metaphor of the Enlightenment, with everyday speech (which says ‘I see’ in the sense of ‘I understand’) and with the cult of Osiris (the sun) and Isis (the moon, which can illuminate even the night). In pursuit of the allegory, a first-degree initiant into Masonry is blindfolded and presented as ‘a poor Candidate in a state of darkness’….The candidates in the opera undergo the Masonic darkness by being at various times, velied, subjected to ordeal-by-darkness and aware of spiritual darkness (Tamino’s ‘everlasting night’); their spiritual enlightenment at the initiation coincides with Sarastro’s victory, in which ‘the sun’s rays expel night.'”[6]

Sarastro is clearly an allusion to Zoroaster, and Brophy wonders if the librettists—Mozart himself may have had a hand in writing the libretto—acquired their knowledge of Zoroaster from Lucian, the Voltaire of the ancient world, who took the Cynic Menippos as a hero of his romance. “Menippos says that when he had made up his mind to visit the Underworld he decided ‘to go to Babylon and ask a favour of one of the Magi, the disciples and successors of Zoroaster (tinoõ twn magwn twn Zwroastrou maqhtwn kai diadocwn).‘”[7] 

One modern biographer of Mozart, Maynard Solomon, thinks that “Mozart’s attraction to a Zoroastrian orientalism is in the tradition of the Masonic lodges and reading societies, which were hotbeds of interest in the exotic, the oriental, and the miraculous.”[8] Solomon is also convinced that Mozart’s attachment to Freemasonry was deep. “There was a powerful appeal in Freemasonry’s idealism, its undogmatic approach to religion, its teachings on self-development and spiritual uplift. It surely exercised a powerful ideological pull upon Mozart that stemmed from its humanitarian and enlightened aspirations, its ideals of equality, liberty, tolerance, and fraternity, and its vision of salvation through love and reason….Freemasonry…touched his religious yearnings through its fusion of contemporary enlightened teachings with ancient traditions, and through its polytheistic eclecticism, which combined Christian, classical, and exotic religions into a heady blend—witness the opening lines of Mozart’s cantata, K.619, with its undogmatic acceptance of every deity:

You who revere the

Creator of the boundless universe,

call him Jehova or God,

call him Fu, or Brahma.

Hark! Hark to the words

of the Almighty’s trumpet call!

Ringing out through earth, moon, sun,

its sound is everlasting.”[9]

Freemasonry clearly answered to many of Mozart’s longings: attraction to mystery and illumination, search for knowledge and quest for beauty, fantasy and brotherhood. The Masons believed in the possibility of social transformation “and the return of humanity from a state of innocence and grace.” As Solomon concludes his chapter on Mozart’s deep commitment to Freemasonry: “A young composer’s fascination with The Arabian Nights, with Fénelon’s rationalist utopian novel, Les Aventures de Télémaque, and with every variety of literary and musical orientalism converge in the Masonic Temple, creating in its consecrated premises a miniature simulacrum of a fantastic illuminated city, casting an anticipatory beam of light from a desired future into a shadowed present. We are left without certainty, but perhaps with some room for mystery and the miraculous.”

The Arabian Nights, Brahma, Zoroaster, Turkish Pasha: where did Mozart imbibe his Orientalism?  The European version of The Arabian Nights was a translation into French begun in 1704 by French Orientalist Antoine Galland [1646-1715]n 1771 Anquetil-Duperron [1731-1805] published his Zend Avesta (3 vols.), containing collections from the sacred writings of the Zoroastrians, a life of Zoroaster, and fragments of works ascribed to Zoroaster; Barthélemy d’Herbelot‘s Bibliothèque Orientale, ou Dictionnaire universal …des Peuples de l’Orient [Paris, 1697], completed after d’Herbelot’s death in 1695, contained an entry on Brahma Johann (Hans) Schiltberger [13811440Ottoman Empire under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent[11] Given the importance of the figure of Isis and Osiris in the symbolism of Freemasonry and, as Brophy argues, for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, it seems possible that Anquetil-Duperron and Kleuker remain the major source for both Freemasonry and Mozart’s knowledge of Zoroaster. Lucian would surely have been too cynical for Mozart, who would have been offended by Lucian’s anti-religious satire in the same way that Mozart disliked Voltaire.

The Orientalists and their indefatigable intellectual curiosity, scholarship, and translations had incalculable consequences for the development of art, philosophy and politics in Europe, an influence passionately chronicled by Raymond Schwab in The Oriental Renaissance. Orientalists changed forever the intellectual and spiritual landscape of Europe, and allowed artists, writers, and composers to enter imaginatively and sympathetically into civilizations hitherto unfamiliar to Westerners, to accord the Orient dignity and respect, and to people European works with Orientals, seen as equals. It was in this intellectual and spiritual milieu that Mozart created some of his most sublime music. Perhaps Die Zauberflöte, Il Seraglio, and cantata K.619 can be seen as reflections in art of Orientalist research.



[1] Brigid Brophy. Mozart The Dramatist. New York: Da Capo Press, 1988, pp.211-212: “Having drawn on all the world, the taste for the exotic spilled over from the decorative arts into literature, drama and opera-in all of which it might also serve the propaganda purposes of reason. China (Horace Walpole’s Letter from Xo Ho To His Friend Lien Chi At Pekin): Turkey (whose exoticism spiced Gluck’s opera Die Pilger von Mekka as well as Mozart’s own Zaide, where Mozart’s Pasha Selim keeps his seraglio, where Don Giovanni has been in pursuit of his quest, and where Candide ends his and decides to cultivate his garden): Persia (Montesquieu’s Lettres PersanesDie Zauberflöte]): Babylon (Voltaire’s La Princesse de Babylone): Egypt (L’Oca del Cairo [Mozart’s unfinished opera buffa]; Thamos, König in Ägypten [ play by Baron von Gebler for which Mozart wrote incidental music]; Handel’s opera on the theme of Caesar and Cleopatra; Tiepolo’s pictures of the meeting between Antony and Cleopatra and of the banquet at which Cleopatra dissolved a pearl and gave it to Antony to drink; Sethos, [French novel by abbé Jean Terrasson] which provided a gloze on the dissolved pearl; and Die Zauberflöte itself): South America (where Frederick the Great set his opera [Montezuma], and where Voltaire has Candide find El Dorado): Abyssinia (the original title of Rasselas being the The Prince of Abissinia, A Tale): India (Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s La Chaumière Indienne): the Indies (it scarcely matters whether East or West, any more than it matters whether the hero of Die Zauberflöte is a Japanese or, as it is said he appears in some editions, a Javanese, prince): the civilisation of the Red Indians (who provided Voltaire with a hero [the Huron in L’Ingénu]): Mauritius (or, as it then was, under French colonisation, the île de France, which Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, who had spent some years there himself, made the paradisal setting of Paul et Virginie): even outer space (Voltaire’s Micromégas)….”

[2] Ibid.,p.214

[3] Ibid.,p.226

[4] Ibid.,p.229.The passages in square brackets are Brophy’s own footnotes.

[5] W.A.Mozart. Die ZauberflöteDie Entführung aus dem Serail . Introduction by Brigid Brophy. New York:Universe Books, 1971, p.100.

[6] Ibid.,p.15.

[7] Brigid Brophy. Mozart The Dramatist. New York: Da Capo Press, 1988, p.187.

[8] Maynard Solomon. Mozart. A Life. New York:Harper Perennial, 1996, p.344.

[9] Solomon, op.cit.,pp.330-331.

[10] Ibid.,p.335.

[11] James Darmesteter, Introduction to Sacred Books of the East, The Zend-Avesta, Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1880, pp.xvii-xviii.

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