by Mark Dornford-May
In Tsonga tradition, lightning is caused by birds called the andlati. These birds, with their multicolored plumage, live in the high mountains. When a storm is brewing, they fly towards heaven and then dive out of the clouds towards earth, striking a tree, a house or a person causing death and fire in the middle of rain. The only way to prevent this bird from causing destruction is to find someone brave enough to climb into the mountains as the storm is breaking. Once they have climbed high enough they are to play on an enchanted flute. The sound of this flute will force the birds to spare the musician and his immediate community.
Hearing this story by accident, I couldn’t help wonder if Mozart had also come across it. The similarities are extraordinary. A “Magic Flute” player has to face lighting (fire) and rain (water) in order to save himself and his community. The frightening birds live like the “Queen of the Night” in the high mountains and appear in thunder and lightning; Mozart’s stage directions specify “thunder and lightning” for the Queen’s entrance. The Tsongan flute is carved from the bone of andlati bird during a storm; Mozart’s flute is also carved during a storm “when lighting flashed.” The only way to avert destruction in both tales is to through the music of a “flute.” The story may never have reached Mozart, but the similarities are fascinating none the less. Who knows? Maybe one of the greatest pieces of European opera had its roots and inspiration in a South African folk tale.
The “Magic Flute” fable owes part of its huge popularity to the unlikely combination of a fairytale with a passionate and all-encompassing tale of an individual’s faith and belief. As it thrillingly unfolds, it explores issues of isolation and inclusion, male and female, waste and cleansing, night and day, chaos and order, and perhaps most importantly: destruction and forgiveness. All these themes have heightened resonance in a South African setting.
Mozart’s The Magic Flute was premiered in September 1791, a matter of weeks before Mozart’s death at age 35. It stands as the overwhelming achievement of his life (quite a claim, given Mozart’s unfeasibly high output of masterpieces in every genre). It is, quite possibly, the finest musical drama ever written. Into it, Mozart poured his uncanny ability to capture the essence of humanity in music; to hold up a mirror to us all. You can’t know true joy without true pain, and Mozart expresses this uniquely well. The Magic Flute is a simple moralistic allegory about the journey towards self-knowledge, towards compassion, towards tolerance, towards enlightenment—a journey in which we are all engaged. It was created to be performed in a suburban theatre for “ordinary” people—not the aristocracy. It is a world-beating piece of music storytelling, and it has always belonged to Everyman.
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