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ClassicsOnline Home » MOZART: Zauberflote (Die) (The Magic Flute) (Beecham) (1937-1938)
By Benjamin Ivry
"These singers, and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, come through with unprecedented clarity in this new transfer by the gifted sound engineer Mark Obert-Thorn. The new reissue looks likely to replace them in the hearts of Mozart fans, offering a direct and true-to-life sound that appears honest and unmanipulated... Its qualities are ineffable, and Naxos' increasingly compelling historical series offers a budget-priced occasion for relishing them once more."
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791): Die Zauberflote
A Singspiel in two acts (K620), to a libretto by Emanuel
This historic version of Die Zauberflote was originally made on
37 78rpm sides in November 1937 and February/March 1938. It was the opera's
first complete recording, issued by HMV as the fourth work in the Mozart Opera
Society series. Its three predecessors in that series - Le nozze di Figaro,
Cosi fan tutte and Don Giovanni - had all been made at the recently
founded Glyndebourne Festival and were conducted by Fritz Busch. Plans were
already afoot in the summer of 1937 to record Die Zauberflote with those
same forces when the project was abruptly cancelled. It was not until the
following November that John Christie, founder of Glyndebourne, realised why Sir
Thomas Beecham had been invited to record the opera with the Berlin
Philharmonic and several soloists from the Berlin Staatsoper instead.
Christie's fury at this change of plan abated when he eventually heard Beecham's
superb interpretation for himself, one which has remained a classic, and
against which newer versions are invariably compared.
The recording, made in the fine acoustic of Berlin's Beethovensaal, appears to have
been more difficult to complete than the artists expected. Beecham returned to Germany in the late winter of
1938 to continue what he had clearly hoped to finish three months earlier. Even
then, he had to leave again before a successful 'take' of the Queen's aria 'O
zittre nicht' (CD I track 5) could be made. It was finally recorded on 8th
March, conducted by Bruno Seidler-Winkler, but the performance is certainly
none the worse for his four minute contribution. No dialogue was included, and in
that respect it differs from many modern versions; but with the set already
running to nineteen 12" records, stored in four albums, to have added more
must have been considered far too weighty.
If it is Beecham's participation in the recording that makes it hors concours,
the contributions of the singers must certainly not be underestimated. It is
sometimes suggested that political considerations were a factor in the
selection of the cast and that some more celebrated or experienced singers might
otherwise have been chosen to take part. Even if this were so, it would have
been difficult to better the list of names that can here be heard at the peak
of their powers. Lemnitz is a melting Pamina, her shimmering soprano ideal in
its purity for the role. Roswaenge is heavier of voice than some of his fellow
Taminos, but he displays the elegant ability to combine power with gentleness
and gives a masterful performance. What a lovable birdcatcher is Gerhard Husch's
Papageno. He springs right out of the grooves to address us face to face - what
a way with words he has, what a friend he is! As Queen of the Night, Erna
Berger displays her brilliant coloratura to great advantage, even if her timbre
is more girlish than the wicked monarch deserves; but how good it is to hear
this testing music sung so purely and accurately.
Wilhelm Strienz sings with noble gravity and wisdom. George Bernard Shaw
said of him 'With this young singer we have found a Sarastro who is not only able
to convey the music of Mozart but he is also the divine in word'* And on the
strength of this recording Strienz was engaged to sing the role during Covent Garden's
At the heart of this venture, though, is Sir Thomas. It is his
interpretation that still makes this such an important operatic document; his
understanding of 'the Mozart style' and his inspiration to the singers
and orchestral players. Notwithstanding the contributions of all the other
musicians involved and the technical skill of HMV’s engineers, this recording
will always, and rightly, be remembered as ‘Beecham’s Zauberflote’.
* Quoted in The Record Collector March 1990
Die Zauberflote was first performed at the Theater auf der Wieden, Vienna on 30th September,
(including a summary of the omitted dialogue)
The Overture opens with a series of chords, to which three trombones add
ritual solemnity. The slow introduction is followed by a rapid fugal movement, opened
by the second violins. Its progress is interrupted by the threefold repetition
of three further solemn chords, before the development of the fugal material of
The scene is a rocky landscape. Tamino, in Japanese hunting dress, comes down
from a rock, carrying a bow, but no arrows. He is pursued by a serpent and
calls for help, as the serpent is about to seize him. Three Ladies, carrying
silver javelins, hurry in, as Tamino falls unconscious at their feet. They kill
the monster and vie in admiration for the young man before them. News of his
presence must be taken to their mistress, the Queen of the Night, and each in
turn expresses a desire to stay with Tamino, while the others go to the Queen.
As Tamino comes to his senses and wonders where he is, the Ladies go. The sound
of a pipe is heard.
Papageno, the bird-catcher, comes down the footpath, a curious figure, clad in
feathers. He carries a cage on his back, with various birds, and sings and plays
the panpipes. His song tells of his life as a bird-catcher, well known to
everyone, but wishing he could catch girls and then exchange some for sugar,
before settling on one as his companion. (In the following dialogue Tamino
answers Papageno's questions about his identity as the son of a prince and
Papageno himself boasts that he has killed the serpent and rescued Tamino. Such
a lie cannot be tolerated and the three Ladies return, bringing Papageno a
suitable reward, water instead of wine, a stone instead of sugar-bread and,
instead of figs, a golden padlock to close his mouth. The third Lady tells
Tamino that it was they who saved him and gives him a portrait of the great Queen's
daughter, Pamina; if the picture pleases him, he shall have fortune and
Tamino is bewitched by the portrait and falls in love with the girl there
portrayed. (The three Ladies return and tell him that the Queen has heard his
words and if he is as brave as he is handsome, her daughter will certainly be
saved from the wicked being who holds her captive. Tamino is horrified, but
thunder is heard as the Queen of the Night approaches.)  The mountains
part and a magnificent room is seen. The Queen is seated on a throne,
surrounded by glittering stars. She tells Tamino not to be afraid and goes on
to explain her grief at the loss of her daughter, captured by a wicked man;
Tamino shall set her free and be united with her. There is a roll of thunder,
as she disappears, and the scene is transformed again to what it was before.
(Tamino cannot believe what he has seen.)
Papageno can say nothing, since his mouth is padlocked, and Tamino cannot help
him. The three Ladies return, releasing Papageno. Now he can talk, but must
never lie again. The first Lady gives Tamino a magic flute, while Papageno is
given a set of bells, appointed as he now is to accompany Tamino on his quest.
They are told that three boys will appear to them to guide them on their way.
The Ladies withdraw, wishing the two farewell.
The scene changes to a magnificent Egyptian room in the palace of Sarastro. Monostatos and his slaves
bring Pamina in and he tells the slaves to chain her, before bidding them be
gone. She sinks unconscious on a sofa, while Papageno appears at the window,
unseen by the blackamoor Monostatos. When they see one another they are
terrified, each thinking the other the Devil, and they both run away. (Papageno
is the first to return and finds Pamina recovering her senses. He identifies
her from the picture he carries and tells her that Tamino has been charged with
her rescue. Suspicious at first, she urges patience when he explains his own
search for a companion, a Papagena.)  In a duet Pamina and Papageno
sing of the happiness of the union of two lovers.
The scene is transformed into a grove with three temples. In the centre is the Temple of Wisdom, with a colonnade
joining it to the two other temples, on the right the Temple of Reason and to the left the Temple of Nature. Three Boys, each with a
silver palm-leaf in his hand, lead Tamino in, telling him that this path will
lead to his goal. In reply to Tamino's questions, they can only urge him to be
steadfast, patient and silent.
 They leave him and he admires their wisdom. Taking courage, he
approaches the right-hand Temple, but a voice bids him back. The same answer comes when he
approaches the left-hand Temple, but at the Temple of Wisdom he is met by an old priest, the Speaker, who explains the
true nature of Sarastro, about whom Tamino has been deceived. He is told he
will find Pamina when the hand of friendship leads him into the place of
 Left alone, Tamino wonders when eternal night will vanish and his eyes
see the light. Hidden voices tell him soon, or never, for Pamina still lives.
Tamino is encouraged by this reassurance.  He plays his flute, and
animals of all kinds come out to listen, until he stops, when they run away. He
is amazed at the effect of the magic flute, yet Pamina still does not come. The
answering call of Papageno's pipes is heard.
 As Tamino goes out to find him, Papageno and Pamina come in, hurrying
to make good their escape. Papageno plays and Tamino's flute is heard in reply.
As they are about to find each other, Monostatos and his slaves enter, barring
their way and threatening chains and ropes. Papageno saves the situation by playing
his magic glockenspiel, which sets Monostatos and the slaves dancing. 
Pamina and Papageno understand the world would be a better place, if every honest
man had bells like this. The sound of a march is heard and they realise that
Sarastro is at hand.
 Sarastro enters with his followers, to the sound of a welcoming chorus.
 Pamina falls at his feet, but he bids her rise and assures her that
he knows her heart and the love she feels. She must not return to her mother,
for a man must guide her heart.  Monostatos appears, dragging Tamino
in. Pamina sees in Tamino her true love, and he is amazed to see her.
Monostatos tries to part them and explains to Sarastro how Papageno had tried
to abduct Pamina but had been foiled by his own cleverness. Sarastro, however,
orders his punishment for lying rather than any reward. The chorus applaud his
just decision, while Sarastro orders the priests to take Tamino and Papageno to
the temple of trial, to be purified, and with heads covered they are led in 
The chorus of initiates praises virtue and righteousness, which will make the
earth a heavenly kingdom.
The scene is now a palm-grove. Sarastro and the other priests enter in solemn
procession. (Sarastro announces the importance of the occasion, as Tamino seeks
enlightenment. In reply to the priests' ritual questions, he assures them that
Tamino is virtuous, discreet and beneficent and that Pamina has been chosen as his
partner, to be taken away from her mother, who has tried to destroy the Temple
The scene is punctuated by the ritual chords of the initiates. Tamino is a
prince and, more important, a man. if he perish in the ordeals he must undergo,
then he will join the gods Isis and Osiris before they do. Now the priests must
teach Tamino and his companion the wisdom and power of the gods.)  He
sings a prayer to Isis and Osiris, beseeching the spirit of wisdom for the
The scene changes to the forecourt of the Temple. It is night and thunder is heard.
Tamino and Papageno are led in by two priests, who uncover their heads, before
leaving them. Tamino urges Papageno to be brave. Two priests appear and
question the two, demanding that they keep silent in what follows.  They
warn them against women's tricks, the first duty of their band, for many wise
men have been deceived by women and ill rewarded. (The priests go out and Papageno
calls for light. while Tamino bids him be patient.)
The three Ladies appear, telling Tamino and Papageno that they will never
escape. Tamino tries to prevent Papageno from speaking to them. They tell them,
however, that the Queen is at hand in the Temple and that the priests are wicked:
whoever joins them will go to Hell Papageno believes them, but Tamino warns him
to pay no attention. The three prepare to leave, indignant at Tamino's silence
and the relative silence of his companion. There is a cry from within the Temple, that the place has been
profaned by the presence of these women. At the sound of thunder and lightning,
Papageno falls to the ground in terror. (Tamino is led away by one of the two
priests, who now enter, while Papageno is led away by the other, complaining of
all the hardship he must undergo to see his Papagena.)
The scene changes to a garden. Pamina is sleeping in the moonlight, and
Monostatos creeps in, intent on stealing a kiss, at the least. He sings of the need
for love for all whatever their colour he too has a heart and has every
intention of stealing a kiss. (As he approaches, there is a roll of thunder and
the Queen of the Night appears, bidding him back. Pamina wakes and greets her
mother, falling into her arms, She tells her how the young man sent to rescue
her has joined the initiates. The Queen gives Pamina a dagger, sharpened in
order to kill Sarastro, whose death she must accomplish and bring her mother
the orb of the sun that he wears.)  She sings of the vengeance of Hell
that is in her heart. If Pamina does not kill Sarastro, she will, she vows, be
(In a clap of thunder the Queen vanishes, leaving Pamina holding the
dagger Monostatos offers his help, in return for her favour. At this moment
Sarastro appears, sending Monostatos away, to aid the Queen in her evil
designs. Pamina pleads for mercy towards her mother, whose fate, Sarastro tells
her, she will see.)  He sings of the absence of revenge in these
sacred precincts, where love and friendship reign.
The scene changes to a hall into which Tamino and Papageno are led by
two priests, to be left again in a silence that Papageno can never keep,
although Tamino hushes his every attempt at conversation.
(He remarks on the lack of refreshment, at which an old woman suddenly
appears, carrying a large beaker of water. For me?, he asks. Yes, my angel, she
tells him. He questions the old woman, discovering her age, eighteen, the age
of her lover, ten years older, and his name, Papageno. Thunder sounds and the
old woman hurries away, before Papageno can discover her name.)
The three Boys now return, hovering in the air in a carriage decked with roses.
One of them has the magic flute and the other the glockenspiel. They welcome
Tamino and Papageno again to Sarastro's kingdom and return to them their
instruments A table laden with food appears and they are told to eat' Tamino must
have courage and Papageno had better keep quiet' when they appear a third time
the two will have their due reward. (Papageno starts eating, while Tamino plays
his magic flute. Pamina, who has heard the sound of the flute, joins them, but
Tamino will not speak to her, obeying the command of Sarastro.) 
Thinking herself rejected, she is distraught and thinks death the only course
(Pamina leaves them and Papageno points out how good he is at keeping
silent, as he drinks a toast to Sarastro's cook. The threefold chords are
heard, a signal for them to go, but Papageno is reluctant to leave the table.
Tamino leaves him, until, in response to his challenge, the lions of Sarastro
appear, danger averted, as Tamino returns, playing his flute. The sacred chords
sound again and eventually Papageno can be induced to leave the food.)
 Within the Temple the priests and Sarastro are assembled and sing in praise of Isis and
Osiris and of the enlightenment that will soon be Tamino's. (Tamino is led in
and told by Sarastro that his behaviour has been manly and calm. Pamina is
brought in, seeking her Tamino, who must now bid her a last farewell. She makes
towards him, but he tells her to keep back.)  To the fears of
Pamina, Tamino must now undergo his ordeals, but Sarastro and Tamino are
resigned to the will of the gods. The lovers feel the bitterness of parting.
(They go, as Papageno rushes in, afraid that Tamino will leave him.
There is a clap of thunder and a voice tells him to draw back, as he approaches
the door where Tamino has gone. Lost, he wonders if he will starve to death and
the priest who now comes in has little sympathy, since Papageno can never be
one of the initiates. Yet all the latter wants is a glass of wine, and immediately
wine appears, to his delight, but was that really what he wanted?) 
He plays his glockenspiel and realises that what he really wants is a girl or a
little wife, then he would enjoy eating and drinking and be truly happy. (As he
finishes his song, the old woman hobbles in and he is eventually induced to
offer his hand, at which she is transformed into young Papagena, his female
counterpart. A priest enters and takes her by the hand, since Papageno is not
worthy of her, an intrusion into his family affairs that Papageno resents.)
 The three boys appear for the third time. Now morning has come and the
sun travels his golden course: the wise man will soon triumph and the earth will
be a heavenly kingdom. Pamina, however, needs their comfort and they move
aside, as she rushes in, with a dagger in her hand, her true bridegroom. She intends
to die, abandoned, it seems, by her beloved Tamino, the result of her mother's
curse. She is about to stab herself, but is restrained by the Boys, who assure her
of Tamino's love and promise to lead her to him.
 The scene again changes, now to reveal two mountains, one with a
waterfall and the other spitting fire. Two men in black armour lead Tamino in, barefooted,
and from their helmets flames burn. The armed men tell of purification through
fire, water, earth and air, set free from fear of death and dedicated to the mysteries
of Isis. Tamino has no fear of
death, but pauses, as he hears the voice of Pamina now she can go with him. The
armed men allow him to speak to her and he is happy to go with her, hand in
hand, for she too can be an initiate.  The lovers are delighted to
be united both in love and in any ordeal to come.  He plays his
flute, as they undergo the ordeal of fire. Once they have passed through, they
seek help in passing through the water, to end their ordeal unscathed, welcomed
by the priests whose voices are heard proclaiming victory.
 Papageno, in the garden where he had been left, forlornly plays his
pipe, his Papagena now lost to him. All he can do is hang himself from the
nearest tree and this he sets about, saved at the last minute by the three Boys,
who urge him to be wise.  He is reminded of his glockenspiel, which
he plays, as the Boys lead in Papagena.  The two greet each other
hesitantly at first but soon agree on their plans for many children, boys and
girls, little Papagenas and Papagenos.
 Into the Temple forecourt creeps Monostatos, with the Queen of the Night and the three
Ladies bearing torches. Monostatos expects Pamina as a reward for his
treachery, but they are interrupted by the sound of thunder and rushing water.
The elements unite against them and their power is destroyed.
 Thunder, lightning and a mighty wind are followed by bright sunshine.
Sarastro is seen, with Tamino and Pamina now robed as initiates, by their side
the priests and the three Boys. Sarastro sings of the victory of the sun over
the night and the priests greet the initiates, offering thanks to Isis and
Osiris, as beauty and wisdom finally triumph and all ends in light and
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