Wolfgang & Friends: By a curious coincidence, a companion piece to Mozart's "Magic Flute" is reaching the record stores in the same week that "Die Zauberflote" closes out the opera season at Wolf Trap.
Listen to the first recording of the multiple-composer "Der Stein der Weisen oder Die Zauberinsel" ("The Philosopher's Stone or The Magic Island") for a few minutes and you can't help thinking about Mozart's offbeat masterpiece--which suddenly sounds less like an isolated phenomenon. Recently, some musicological detective work has identified parts of "Der Stein der Weisen's" Act 2 as Mozart's music. One such number is a cute duet in which the soprano (under a magic spell) cannot speak a word and instead makes noises like a cat. But the Mozart connection is much more pervasive than that.
Mozart is only one of five composers who contributed to "Der Stein der Weisen," according to an old manuscript that came to light a few years ago. One of the other four composers is also familiar to Mozart fans: Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto of "The Magic Flute," produced it and sang the role of Papageno in the first production. Until now, the other three composers have been known only to specialists, and they have been identified primarily as performers, not composers. All are associated with the first performances of "The Magic Flute": conductor J.B. Henneberg, tenor Benedikt Schach (the first Tamino) and bass F.X. Gerl (the first Sarastro). All were capable composers--not able to match the grace, depth and complexity of Mozart at his best, but able to produce pleasant tunes for the 18th-century Viennese equivalent of a Broadway show. Apparently, Schikaneder was in a hurry to get it finished and hired a team of composers to speed up the work, parceling out the jobs like a home builder hiring subcontractors, as one critic remarked. The style is smoothly coordinated and could be accepted as the work of a single artist. The show was a success, with frequent revivals for more than a dozen years.
Like "The Magic Flute," "Der Stein der Weisen" is a Singspiel, a light musical theater piece with spoken dialogue, ancestor of 19th-century operetta.
Many of the characters are similar, but the most striking similarity to "The Magic Flute" is in the music, even in passages not composed by Mozart. The vocal styles and ranges, harmonizations and orchestrations, melodic profiles and cadences and forms of coloratura are full of family resemblances too close to be coincidental. Nadir's music sounds strikingly like Tamino's; Lubano has tunes that resemble Papageno's, though this music was composed, in "Der Stein der Weisen," not by Mozart but by the singers. These similarities are discussed in some detail by conductor Martin Pearlman in the libretto of the premiere recording (Telarc 80508, two CDs) and illustrated with recorded examples in a bonus CD packaged with the recording.
The first reaction, when you hear how much one opera resembles the other, is to assume that "Der Stein der Weisen" is a quickie imitation dashed off to take advantage of the instant and enormous popularity of "The Magic Flute." But that assumption won't work. "Der Stein der Weisen" was composed and produced a year before. What the comparison shows most clearly is how well Mozart collaborated with his fellow musicians.
Most people will begin listening to "Der Stein der Weisen" because they are interested in Mozart. Many are likely to find themselves enjoying the music and even the story (which is often absurd but never dull) without considering who composed what. If there are many shows like this gathering dust in an archive somewhere, it may be time for someone to launch a recorded series of "Schikaneder's Greatest Hits."
New Name: The organization known as the Paul Hill Chorale since its establishment in 1967 will open its 1999-2000 season under a new title: the Master Chorale of Washington. The chorus has been under the direction of Donald McCullough since founder Paul Hill's retirement for health reasons in 1996. Hill, stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), participated in the search for his successor and welcomed McCullough's appointment. At the time of his retirement, Hill told The Washington Post that the group's "name will stay for a short while and then it will probably change. . . . Some folks want to keep the name forever; others want to change it. Personally, I agree with the latter group."
Contract: What chamber ensemble has been seen by more people than any other during the last few years? Probably I Salonisti, the piano-and-strings quintet that played in the movie "Titanic." Its carefully researched music was one of the most authentic elements in that film. The group, which plays classical as well as popular music, has signed an exclusive contract with Sony. Its first CD under that contract will include arrangements of soundtrack music from "Titanic," "The Godfather," "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Zorba the Greek," "Casablanca" and other films.