This volume demonstrates in a very inspiring as well as definitively convincing way that Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte is an enactment of the alchemical opus magnum, in the form of a chemical wedding. Towards the end of the 18th century, alchemy was still a prominent current within the Order of Freemasons of which Mozart and his librettists were members. The central part focuses on the opera’s alchemical structure, whereas the historical and mythological backgrounds are also dealt with extensively. The book comes with 3 CD’s offering a rendition of the integral opera, in contrast to the common practice of leaving out major parts of the libretto. The Magic Flute is a very fascinating journey of discovery, an initiation into Initiation. With complete original libretto and over 100 pictures. A splendid publication and very readable as well.
If you wish so, compare it with the German studies of R.Chr. Zimmermann, Das Weltbild des jungen Goethe, vol. 1 (1969, 2002), vol. 2 (1979), on the hermetic traditions of the 18th Century. Thus these 18th Century traditions of androgyny, again ‘seen’ and acknowledged today (in very different ways indeed), had its roots in alchemy and among others pietism (Boehme’s follower Oetinger) and flowed into Romanticism and so into several (sub)currents in the 19th Century. As Van den Berk shows, it’s all about being deeply enchanted (as if by the unseen and unheard) through the experience of the seen and the heard, and thereby – my words for it – experiencing the union of (all!) opposites. For diverse interpretations of this as well as Eastern traditions about this search within the Internet for “union of opposites”, “chemical wedding” or “chymische Hochzeit”, or “yin yang” and their equivalents and relatives. For a very related and comparable theme of study see also the summary of my dissertation about androgyny in Christianity, particularly within the works of Jacob Boehme, more about whom later in this review.
I add a few impressions and comments after having read and consumed this massive work (during which I listened to the the accompanying CD’s with a recording of the opera’s new and complete very lively and lovely performance according to the original libretto). Of course my comments will be very minor as my interest is “general history of spirituality” and as my knowledge of the subject of this book is only non-specialist. Nevertheless I have the general impression that Van den Berk is here the forerunner who cuts a path through the thick forest which would otherwise not be viable. For the specialist readers – specialists in so many diverse fields as: the history and theory of music, especially Mozart, than the history and meaning of alchemy, and of so-called secret societies in Western civilization with the goal of spiritual initiation, among them Freemasonry, and of many other fields such as the literature about the Zauberflöte and its meaning, the history of Vienna and the German speaking countries in the 18th Century, all these fields with their own histories and literature – he gives clues for the right interpretation, showing remarkable knowledge of the literature but not always extensively dealing with the resulting detailed discussions: although very detailed regarding the main points of discussion, regarding other points he is just giving the important data and showing their most probable interpretation in the newly discovered context of the ‘alchemical’ interpretation of the opera. Proving anew and definitely that the opera is an ‘alchemical’ one is what he does, which he is very sure about, and may be proud of.
The heart of this book for me – and I suppose it is the specialism of Van den Berk himself which he developed during this study – is the detailed and thorough illustration of the alchemical meaning of the opera. He does so by interpreting the diverse characters, symbols and processes, as well as the totality of them, as illustration of the ‘magnum opus’, the great work of the alchemists. And this within and from the lives and context not only from the makers of this opera, Mozart and his librettists, members of the ‘illuminate’ version of Freemasonry (that is the version which values personal illumination by spiritual transformation in the Rosicrucian tradition as they interpreted it, against the more ‘rationalistic’ version of Freemasonry which stressed the rationalistic way of enlightenment). But still more, and this is a really fascinating part of the study, from the history of mythology of which alchemy grew as one branch. So we learn among many other personalities and symbols from Black Isis-Hecate, from Horus-Orpheus, as well as from Pamina as salt, Tamino as sulphur, and Papageno-Papagena as mercury and hermaphrodite. And not less from the processes of transformation which all these undergo, resulting in the definitive ‘chemical’ wedding (the sacred marriage), through the phases of nigredo (blackening), albedo (whitening) and rubedo (reddening). Everything is shown in the most convincing details, from classical Greece and old Egypt to the Rosicrucian works of the 16th Century. From Isis and Osiris to Mozarts visit to Pompeji, and the history and meaning of the etchings which accompanied the publication of the opera. With detailed insights into Mozart’s membership of Freemasonry, his personal views about what it stood for, and the way this influenced his musical and theatrical creations. With the most insightful explanations of 92 very adequate illustrations. So this is indeed a monumental work.
I add hastily that the book is a pleasure to read, because Van den Berk is a master in letting the reader make the discoveries together with him. Although possibly not every part is to any reader of the same interest, it is clear that one enriches oneself very much by following the author throughout the whole book. Particularly if one is also interested in the evidence which proofs the theses of the author. Van den Berk has a strong intuition and at the same time a thorough feeling for scientific and historical proof, and always lets the later support the former.
He even gives in the end an oversight of the literature of the last two centuries which touch the topic of the alchemical interpretation of the Zauberflöte.
He not only has cut a path through the thick forest but shown many views of very interesting and very important aspects of what we his readers experience as our surrounding, how different our interests and imaginations may be. And be sure the map he sketches does not contradict the innumerable hard facts for one moment! So I have to conclude that this work offers a lot to many people, not the least many suggestions for further studies in the field, and much inspiration for every reader, also those with a more personal interest in the various subjects, themes and topics related to Mozart’s Zauberflöte.
Before continuing with some more personal comments on topics which have fascinated me most of all, I add a technical information regarding the differences between the first Dutch version of the book (1994; I did not compare with the later Dutch editions of which according to bibliographical information at least the 3d edition of 1998 should have contained changes) and this translation into English in which the author has made some corrections and additions, although no very fundamental ones (or one must judge his rearrangement of the passages about Giesecke and Wieland of that order). For example he included the most recent literature. Let me add here what until now I forgot to say: how enormous the work must have been for Van den Berk to search for not only the actual literature about the subjects within these fields, but also the historical facts and literature by visiting libraries throughout Europe! What a splendid piece of research!
From the Dutch version – of which a 5th imprint has now been published! – he omits at least the following pieces:
1. A passage about the number 18 in connection with mercury as interpreted by the Dutch author Martin van Amerongen (Dutch version p. 71, English version pp. 83-86;
2. A passage about the role of moon and sun in matriarchal times according to hypotheses of Bachofen and Frazer (D pp. 146-7, E 176-7)
3. A passage about a (‘third’) scheme of 10 grades within the Rosicrucian lodges of Mozart’s time (D 197-8, E 229);
4. A passage about Monostatos as devil (D 215, E 251);
5. Some arguments of different character regarding the hypothesis of Volek about the relation of the opera La Clemenza di Tito with the opera Die Zauberflöte (D 366, E 492);
6. Some arguments about Mozart’s hypersensitive character (D 375-6, E 505-6);
7. A long passage about the esoteric themes of the opera Il Sogno di Scipione which Mozart composed at the age of 15 (D395-399, E 462);
8. A short appendix about the number three within Die Zauberflöte (D 421-423).
I notice these omissions for reasons of completeness; only the omissions 2 and 7 I really miss, 2 because the relation of this book’s themes with matriarchal times and/or culture and/or psychology might be more important than most people think or even think possible (although not without possible pitfalls to me it is meaningful to – try to – differentiate between patriarchal and matriarchal aspects or tendencies or traits within several contexts and at several levels), and 7 because the themes as such are interesting, be it that Mozart was very or even especially aware of them at that age or not.
Than now again for completeness also the small passage which is added in the English edition, compared with the original Dutch one: an interesting note about the origins of the word alchemy (E 186 note 62, D 153 and 159 note 63). Of course there are several small changes or corrections in the English edition, among them the data about the new literature. Among the changes are also several rearrangements of the material, but these do not influence the argument very much, they mostly regard a better composition of the materials.
As you will have noticed by reading this review, you have seen that writers of Dutch origin sometimes write English of a special kind. If this is also the case with the English of the translation, I therefore cannot tell you, because I have Dutch ears and a Dutch tongue too. But in general I have read the English translation, made by a very committed translator of Dutch origins, with much pleasure, and I am sure that – if any – there are very, very few passages which are not understandable at the first reading, which to me seems a great accomplishment. If others would experience this otherwise, the publisher could let a very good editor go through the book before a – to me very likely – second printing.
I wish this book in the hands of many, and thank the makers of it for their inspiration and knowledge, particularly the author himself through which all this value comes through us.
Now I will continue with some questions which remain to me unsolved, or the more intriguing, even after reading this fascinating and more or less (presented as) definitive book. I divided them into two, but it seems better to take them together. Perhaps they should even be reformulated afterwards. For if my questions and remarks touch real ‘problems’ and thus may include real and valuable hints, I assume a discussion with the author about his views on the function of symbols, about the possibility of the recognition of patterns in them and of systematizing them, or a further elaboration of these themes would be fruitful. For example: what could be the value of alchemical symbols for a future we don’t know yet? What does the richness of (forgotten or still actual?) alchemy tell us about our culture, about other cultures in which similar symbols play such a fundamental role, and about the possibilities for future cultures? What has alchemy to tell us about ourselves – and perhaps about all and everything ad infinitum? Or if not the latter, why so much detail spent on other subjects than the foremost ones in this book?! To me it seems the author has to say more than he wishes to be blunt about – or am I wrong? And if I am not wrong, why chose the author for this ‘method’ that is to say for this ‘way of exposition’? I really suppose it’s not only the historical thesis which he puts forward, but should we be without any direct information about this? Or does he mean just that: that it would not be the information but only that to which it hints – be it exactly through or be it apart from information itself (see below)?
A first question I have, boils down to: if spiritual enlightenment or personal illumination is something which does not per se require all the information, or even the smallest part of it, encompassed in this book, or in the traditions of alchemy and Freemasonry which it describes – apart from the adherers of these particular traditions -: why all this information? This is not meant as some form of criticism, because the book is first of all a book of study and well worth reading and studying as such. But nevertheless! This question, I assume, is my deep interest and not only mine. Particularly for those whose interest is also – or in the first place – the possibility or meaning or realization of the strived after illumination itself, by way of it (the opera) or by other ways.
(Of course some would say that for illumination no striving after it is necessary or even useful, because illumination realizes itself without any striving for it by us – i.e. forcing and closing; longing would be OK insofar as it does not close anything -, apart from our living from moment to moment including our strivings as well as our detachment of them, of all sorts; this view encompasses the refutation of any pre-judgment about which is the legitimate future form of illumination.
Again: the beginning of another answer could be that as the symbols of one tradition – for example alchemy or music or opera – can be the vehicle for some realization of illumination, it could also be the symbols of other traditions, apart from how popular or unpopular they might be.
Again: the beginning of still another answer could be that this book is a plea for alchemy an/or Freemasonry or for important aspects of them among which illumination, but this is not explicitly stated by the author. Perhaps it is a plea for illumination per se – that is: in whichever (undisclosed) form (for example ‘indirectly’) – nevertheless? We would have to ask the author. And see also my further remarks.)
A second remark. Of course this very rich book offers opportunities for discussions about lots of themes, most of which I have to leave here unnoticed. Think of the possible value of the traditions of alchemy and Freemasonry in our times, not just historically. Think for example of the role of secrecy within spiritual traditions and to the role of women in society, as well as the relation of both to political power; and even the relation of the ideas and symbols of these traditions to the deep philosophical suppositions of Western culture (see my Dutch book ‘Voorbij het patriarchaat’ – or ‘Beyond patriarchy’), for example with regard to the implicit views of social hierarchy within them as illustrated by their linguistical hierarchy (Claude Lévi-Strauss). But I have to acknowledge that these are not themes Van den Berk himself has the opportunity to deal with in this already very lengthy book.
Think also about many other themes, historical, musicological and other ones. To my opinion the richness of this book cannot be underestimated very much! Although the author is very well aware of many themes – in which cases he notices them and deals with them carefully (being aware of the pitfalls of prejudice about many subjects) and in interesting ways, or leaves them to later treatment by specialists (probably also sometimes avoiding disagreement among them now), but not after having made his own suggestions and the main arguments for them – there are also aspects which he does not give very much attention. I mean the path of illumination itself.
To me it is very clear that the author has absolutely succeeded in proving his historical thesis – that that Mozart’s opera ‘Die Zauberflöte’ is an enactment of the alchemical opus magnum, in the form of a chemical wedding – including the use of his strong intuition for the meaning and use of symbols and mythology as well as of his very sound methodology in working out his arguments. There may be discussions about details, but the main point is made unmistakably and with great demonstrative power.
Nevertheless there has been creeping in a feeling within me, a feeling that this book indeed explains where Die Zauberflöte is about, and indeed where illumination within alchemy and Freemasonry is about, but that nowhere in this book the path of illumination itself and as such is dealt with. This is not of course to say that the book is not complete in any sense (although I missed a hint at which piece of actual or historical literature would give us readers a good insight in and overview of the traditions and goals of alchemy in particular as well as of Freemasonry; the value of these traditions is now left in the dark, in a way …). It’s just my remark at a particular point which interests me.
To me the experience or realization of illumination – I can refer to illumination in the works of Jacob Boehme which have well influenced the authors which according to Van den Berk also inspired Mozart, particularly the famous Oetinger of whom a book was found in Mozarts library with a very interesting part about music! And I can also refer to illumination in the Buddhist tradition – is important as well as the path from and to it. To me an important aspect of the path is the attitude of non-dualism, or detachment (not precluding engagement). And while I experience the book of Van den Berk as ‘scientifically’ impressive, why does not deal he with the core itself of his subjects – namely the path from and to illumination – that intensively? Of course it is very likely that he does this indirectly so why not also directly? This touches the earlier noticed role of secrecy in regard to the spiritual path but nevertheless, it is not dealt with in the book.
As I noted above: to illumination all the information is no prerequisite, so why is this book to me very impressive and at the same time lacking something about which I would have preferred to read at least somewhat more? I suspect the author again was aware of that aspect because he ends his book by a note about himself on the way from nature via reason to wisdom (referring to the three temples within the opera). I could translate this remark into a question: if wisdom is more than the right balance between nature and reason, what is this ‘more’?! But let me first acknowledge some other characteristic of this book which has impressed me very much: the author everywhere adds to his conclusions the way he has found them, and this is very inspiring. It tells us we ourselves could also find what we seek, if using our means in the right way. So the book itself is a splendid illustration of going one way, be it only that of detailed ‘scientific’ mythological and historical research (including important aspects of human psychology).
Could science be one of the ways of the path of illumination? If that is what Van den Berk – in a splendid way – illustrates, my second remark is partly met. This would – a side remark – even include the compatibility of science and religion in a certain way, in the sense that a scientific work can deeply inspire as well as in the sense that science and religion not always have to contradict each other by definition (because only if one gives one’s definitions of both absolute characteristics science and religion are incompatible). Or would it be possible to say for the author a bit more about the path of illumination itself as well – I mean: about walking the path? To me it is not very well understandable the author does not so explicitly, because if according to the makers and this author the opera in question is an initiation into initiation one would like to be informed about the walking of this path for any listener and reader as well. About what it is, to which it leads and how this is done. It’s the tone which makes the music – but the music makes us dance from, to, as and about what?! And what would all this information be without the experience which it describes and intends?!
I add another point, which for me touches the core. To me illumination in the Western tradition of alchemy has everything to do with the so called union of the opposites of which the union of the opposite sexes is the most important example, also called ‘androgyny’ which is an important topic from classical to modern times (see my book on androgyny in Christianity, particularly in the works of Jacob Boehme). As this includes the relation of sexuality and spirituality – the role of the union of the sexes at all levels, even as symbol of spiritual illumination! – it would be important not to forego this tradition and its implications, particularly when the subject is central to it, and the Zauberflöte surely is. For example: how is the relation in the opera between sexuality at lower and at higher levels and how has it come through in the course of the reception of the opera?! This is again a core theme Van den Berk’s book puts on the scene of our attention, and although he himself does not elaborate upon it very much, it is very important as well and will hopefully be seen by many readers. The relation of sexuality and spirituality is of great importance to the history of the West, not only through the churches, through theology and mysticism, and not only through alternative traditions like Gnosticism and alchemy in which it flourished abundantly, but also in the philosophical presuppositions of Western culture as such. It is not by chance that the theme of the Zauberflöte is a core theme. Whereas it is a great merit of this book of Van den Berk to have proved this with regard to the roots of the Zauberflöte in alchemy and Freemasonry, it would be a great accomplishment if the much broader implications of it – I repeat: a core theme of Western culture – from now on would be elaborated upon more fully.
Again: that Van den Berk with his book touches upon such a fundamental theme to our Western culture and spirituality, and so makes possible a more thorough study of the latter, to me is a great advantage and a great merit. It makes even comparisons and discussions with other cultures more near and better possible. Not a small value.