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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

W.H Auden’s Metalogue to The Magic Flute 1956

Relax, Maestro, put your baton down;

Only the fogiest of the old will frown

If you the trials of the Prince prorogue

To let Sarastro speak this Metalogue,

A form acceptable to us, although

Unclassed by Aristotle or Boileau.

No modern audience finds it incorrect,

For interruption is what we expect

Since that new god, the Paid Announcer, rose,

Who with his quasi-Ossianic prose

Cuts in upon the lovers, halts the band,

To name a sponsor or to praise a brand.

Not that I have a product to describe

That you could wear or cook with or imbibe;

You cannot hoard or waste a work of art;

I come to praise but not to sell Mozart,

Who came into this world of war and woe

At Salzburg just two centuries ago,

When kings were many and machines were few

And open atheism something new.

(It makes a servantless New Yorker sore

To think sheer Genius had to stand before

A mere Archbishop with uncovered head;

But Mozart never had to make his bed.)

The history of Music as of Man

Will not go cancrizans, and no ear can

Recall what, when the Archduke Francis reigned,

Was heard by ear whose treasure-hoard contained

A Flute already but as yet no Ring;

Each age has its own mode of listening.

We know the Mozart of our fathers’ time

Was gay, rococo, sweet, but not sublime

A Viennese Italian; that is changed

Since music critics learned to feel “estranged”;

Now it’s the Germans he is classed amongst,

A Geist whose music was composed from Angst,

At International Festivals enjoys

An equal status with the Twelve-Tone Boys;

He awes the lovely and the very rich,

And even those Divertimenti which

He wrote to play while bottles were uncorked,

Milord chewed noisily, Milady talked,

Are heard in solemn silence, score on knees,

Like quartets of the deafest of the B‘s.

What next? One can no more imagine how,

In concert halls two hundred years from now,

When the mozartian sound-waves move the air,

The cognoscenti will be moved, then dare

Predict how high orchestral pitch will go,

How many tones will constitute a row,

The tempo at which regimented feet

Will march about the Moon, the form of Suite

For Piano in a Post-Atomic Age,

Prepared by some contemporary Cage.

An opera composer may be vexed

By later umbrage taken at his text:

Even Macaulay‘s schoolboy knows today

What Robert Graves or Margaret Mead would say

About the status of the sexes in this play,

Writ in that era of barbaric dark

‘Twixt Modern Mom and Bronze-Age Matriarch.

Where now the Roman Fathers and their creed?

“Ah where,” sighs Mr. Mitty, “where indeed?”

And glances sideways at his vital spouse

Whose rigid jaw-line and contracted brows

Express her scorn and utter detestation

For Roman views of Female Education.

In Nineteen-Fifty-Six we find the Queen

A highly-paid and most efficient Dean

(Who, as we all know, really runs the College),

Sarastro, tolerated for his knowledge,

Teaching the History of Ancient Myth

At Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Bennington, or Smith;

Pamina may a Time researcher be

To let Pamino take his Ph.D.,

Acquiring manly wisdom as he wishes

While changing diapers and doing dishes;

Sweet Papagena, when she’s time to spare,

Listens to Mozart operas on the air,

Though Papageno, we are sad to feel,

Prefers the juke-box to the glockenspiel,

And how is – what was easy in the past –

A democratic villain to be cast?

Monostatos must make his bad impression

Without a race, religion, or profession.

A work that lasts two hundred years is tough,

And operas, God knows, must stand enough:

What greatness made, small vanities abuse.

What must they not endure? The Diva whose

Fioriture and climactic note

The silly old composer never wrote,

Conductor X, that over-rated bore

Who alters tempi and who cuts the score,

Director Y who with ingenious wit

Places his wretched singers in the pit

While dancers mime their roles, Z the Designer

Who sets the whole thing on an ocean liner,

The girls in shorts, the men in yachting caps;

Yet Genius triumphs over all mishaps,

Survives a greater obstacle than these,

Translation into foreign Operese

(English sopranos are condemned to languish

Because our tenors have to hide their anguish);

It soothes the Frank, it stimulates the Greek:

Genius surpasses all things, even Chic.

We who know nothing – which is just as well –

About the future, can, at least, foretell,

Whether they live in air-borne nylon cubes,

Practise group-marriage or are fed through tubes,

That crowds two centuries from now will press

(Absurd their hair, ridiculous their dress)

And pay in currencies, however weird,

To hear Sarastro booming through his beard,

Sharp connoisseurs approve if it is clean

The F in alt of the Nocturnal Queen,

Some uncouth creature from the Bronx amaze

Park Avenue by knowing all the K‘s.

How seemly, then, to celebrate the birth

Of one who did no harm to our poor earth,

Created masterpieces by the dozen,

Indulged in toilet-humor with his cousin,

And had a pauper’s funeral in the rain,

The like of which we shall not see again:

How comely, also, to forgive; we should,

As Mozart, were he living, surely would,

Remember kindly Salieri‘s shade,

Accused of murder and his works unplayed,

Nor, while we praise the dead, should we forget,

We have Stravinsky – bless him! – with us yet.

Basta! Maestro, make your minions play!

In all hearts, as in our finale, may

Love be crowned, assume their rightful sway.



The poem was composed in commemoration of the Mozart Bicentenary in 1956 to be spoken by the singer playing the role of Sarastro.

A recording made in 1960 of Auden reading the work himself can be heard here:

The image below is a coloured copperplate engraving by Joseph and Peter Schaffer made in 1793. The collection is the earliest surviving depiction of sets for Mozart’s Magic Flute, most likely depicting a production which took place in Brno in 1793. The scene being depicted is the triumphal arrival of Sarastro on a chariot being pulled by several lions towards the end of Act 1.

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