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Reviewed by:
  • Magic Flutes and Enchanted Forests: The Supernatural in Eighteenth-Century Musical Theater
  • Amber Youellg
David J. Buch, Magic Flutes and Enchanted Forests: The Supernatural in Eighteenth-Century Musical Theater (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). Pp. xxvii, 450. $50.00.

In the historiography of classical music, the idea of a linear progression from Baroque artifice, spectacle, and decadence to Classical rationalism, naturalism, and "enlightenment" has been difficult to dislodge, encoded as it is in the canon of works that many scholars study. Yet an obvious paradox emerges from the fact that the most quintessentially classical composer, Mozart, often dabbled in the realms of magic, irrationality, and the supernatural—most famously in his operas Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte. This seeming paradox is at the heart of Buch's book, Magic Flutes and Enchanted Forests: The Supernatural in Eighteenth-Century Musical Theater, a long-overdue exploration of the "marvelous" in opera, a favorite topic of discussion among eighteenth-century operatic aestheticians. Buch's contention is that, as the line between the natural and the supernatural became increasingly clear through the propagation of Enlightenment thought, the depiction of the supernatural in composition for the theater became increasingly marked and specific, yielding a kind of topic of the "marvelous" that consisted of specific compositional devices. At the same time, Buch describes the flowering of a specific type of magical musical theater in the second half of the eighteenth century, one associated more with folk traditions and less with the aristocratic mythologies of the past; in fact, this new theatrical tradition worked directly against the ancienrégime ideology of the older "marvelous."

Buch's monograph is an impressive compendium of largely unknown musical literature from French, German, and Italian theater, ranging from opera seria and tragédie lyrique to the largely neglected genres of melodrama and puppet play. Whereas music in the seventeenth century was viewed as inherently magical and therefore the depiction of magic was undifferentiated, composers in the eighteenth century developed a consistent compositional language of the "marvelous" across genre and geography. Some of the elements of this language include minor modes and diminished harmonies, distinctive instrumental timbres (e.g., trombones for underworld scenes), special key areas (E-flat is identified as a "terror" key), accompanied recitative, octave-and-unison writing, rapid scalar or syncopated alla zoppa passages, extreme coloratura, and other exaggerated forms of expression. Buch's exploration is largely literary and music-analytical, but he occasionally ventures [End Page 551] into aesthetics, finding an important link between the increasingly marked depiction of the supernatural in music—especially the "terrible"—and the development of the conception of the sublime, which would become the dominant aesthetic in early-nineteenth-century music. Buch also comments briefly on the social function of supernatural theater as a forum for critique and commentary.

The book's chapters are organized by genre and geography. After an introduction exploring sources of the marvelous in opera, such as classical mythology, fairy tales, and medieval and Renaissance literature, Buch dedicates chapters to French serious opera, French comic opera, opera seria, opera buffa, and German musical theater, ending with a detailed exploration of the marvelous in the operas of Mozart. Each chapter consists of a loosely chronological survey of works, detailing plots and compositional devices, each structured to show a transition from an unmarked to a marked treatment of the marvelous. Major figures like Rameau, Gluck, Handel, and Schikaneder receive extended individual treatment. Though musical examples are infrequent, the reader will require some knowledge of musical analysis. Buch's organization will be helpful for scholars dedicated to specific geographical regions or genres, but it is ultimately repetitive—it may have been more effective to organize material by plot rather than genre and region, to show how composers across Europe treated the stories of Armide, Orpheus, and Cinderella in similar fashions.

Buch's last chapter on Mozart will be of greatest interest to the majority of readers, and it contains his most compelling arguments, for example, his convincing claims regarding Die Zauberflöte:

Many of the basic elements in Die Zauberflöte are clearly present in previous supernatural operas, ballets, comedies and pantomimes. These works situate Die Zauberflöte...


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pp. 551-553
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