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‘A beautiful fusion of maths and music’: Marcus du Sautoy on The Magic Flute

The mathematician and broadcaster on the power of Mozart’s opera.

By Marcus du Sautoy (Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics)

18 April 2013 at 6.29pm | 1 Comment

The Magic Flute has always fascinated me. The last of Mozart’s operas was written just months before his death and has a very particular flavour. Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro are set in the world around us, full of humanity and realism (and the odd stone statue coming to life). The Magic Flute is much more abstract piece, less wedded to stories of people and verismo. It is full of strange symbolism and ideas that challenge the listener to unravel and decode.

It’s for this reason that I’m thrilled to be leading audiences in the Linbury Studio Theatre on an interactive performance lecture exploring the significance of the symbols that pepper the opera, their mathematical and philosophical roots and why Mozart might have been drawn to them. Just as Tamino and Pamina underwent trials to reach enlightenment, I shall be taking the audience on their own initiation into my mathematical perspective on The Magic Flute. Mathematics in my view is not a spectator sport, so the audience will be encouraged to join us on stage to explore the mathematical ideas bubbling beneath this beautiful opera. This is an interactive and immersive performance of the mathematics and music of Mozart where everyone in the Linbury will play a part in creating a piece of mathematical musical theatre.

One of the central themes - both of Freemasonry and The Magic Flute - is the movement from chaos to order. This is Mozart writing at a crucial moment in history, both politically and musically. The work had its premiere in Vienna in 1791, two years after the revolution that swept the streets of Paris. The trials that Tamino and Pamina will under go are representative of this transition of a society.

The opera starts in the realm of the Queen of the Night, a world of chaos and darkness. But Tamino’s journey brings us to Sarastro's kingdom where light and order reign. Mozart had been initiated into the Masons seven years before he wrote The Magic Flute and one can detect many parallels between Sarastro's society and the Masonic order that Mozart had joined. Mathematical ideas are central to the rituals of the masons and we can see Mozart playing with these ideas throughout the opera. The number three for example, crops up often: from the Queen of the Night’s three attendants to the three boys, and even in the key of much of the music – E flat major is a key with three flats.

But this also a statement of a musical revolution. Mozart is a few months from his death. In this opera he is laying out his vision for the music for the future. He is leaving behind the baroque coloratura of the music of the Queen of the Night and taking music into a new dimension.

One of the rituals of the masons calls on its order to become ‘lovers of the arts and the sciences.’ That is a sentiment I too am passionate to promote. I hope that the event at the Linbury will help audiences to see the beautiful fusion of mathematics and music that is at the heart of The Magic Flute. Just as Sarastro’s order can only continue to a new level through the union of Tamino and Pamina, man and woman, both the arts and the sciences need each other to make progress and break new ground.

Die Zauberflöte runs 12 September 2017 - 14 October 2017. Tickets are still available.

Marcus du Sautoy's show on music and mathematics was in the Linbury Studio Theatre 18 – 20 April 2013.

By Marcus du Sautoy (Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics)

18 April 2013 at 6.29pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged by David McVicar, Die Zauberflöte, maths, opera, Pi Day, Production, the magic flute

This article has 1 comment

  1. Ann responded on 21 April 2013 at 10:36am Reply

    It was an entertaining evening that gave a fascinating insight into the Magic Flute. Many thanks to Marcus and his team for their enthusiasm. More please!

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