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[Review] David J. Buch (2008) Magic flutes & enchanted forests: the supernatural in eighteenth-century musical theater

By Nicholas Till


The overriding project of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was, in Max Weber’s phrase, the ‘disenchantment of the world’ , submitting traditional understanding based on ignorance or superstition to the cold clear light of reason and scientific enquiry. The puzzle that this handsomely produced book presents us with, therefore, is why so many works of musical theatre produced in the eighteenth century had supernatural subjects. David J. Buch appends a list of such works produced between 1699 and 1791, which is in itself an impressive feat of painstaking scholarship. I attempted to count them as they appear across twenty-three pages, and estimate that the list details some eight hundred works of Italian, French, and German musical theatre. Clearly, interest in the supernatural flourished in the Age of Reason. That closing date—1791 rather than 1799—is a clue to one of the book’s purposes, which is to provide a context for the two most remarkable examples of eighteenth-century supernatural operas: Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte, the latter produced in 1791. Traditionally these two operas have been seen as being anticipatory of Romanticism, Don Giovanni in particular having been taken as a Romantic touchstone by writers such as E. T. A. Hoffman and Søren Kierkegaard. But given the astonishing proliferation of magical and supernatural works in eighteenth-century musical theatre (Buch lists sixty works based on the Don Juan legend in Italy alone, many of them ballets—although it is a little unclear from his listing whether he is referring to individual works, or multiple performances of what may sometimes be the same works), Buch is surely right to insist that Mozart’s supernatural operas must also be understood as part of an eighteenth-century theatrical tradition. This book represents a formidable exercise in archival research. Buch has tracked down hundreds of the works that he lists,

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Year: 2010
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