Multidisciplinarity. A long and, to some, unfamiliar term. In this essay I will explain what I understand it to mean, and how I have applied it in my research on Mozart’s Magic Flute, which has been under way for nearly 50 years.
I need to begin by turning back to the 1960s, when I was privileged to study at Syracuse University with the faculty of the Department of Fine Arts in the College of Liberal Arts there. This department’s approach was in fact the reason I chose Syracuse as the place for my graduate studies after completing a Bachelor of Music degree. I was seeking a way to explore not only the history of music but also other arts and a broader cultural history, and the Fine Arts Department’s program provided the opportunity to do so. During the time it took to complete two higher degrees, my commitment to their approach was confirmed. That my doctorate is in The Humanities, rather than Musicology, is testimony to that commitment.
What I saw as unique to this graduate experience was the inclusion of study of the history of other arts besides music. Although music history was the core of the program for me, I chose doctoral coursework in philosophy, literature, and visual arts to build an understanding of about two centuries of European culture. In my view, this breadth formed a necessary groundwork for understanding the work of the composers of that time frame.
As it turned out, much more time, and more disciplines than art, philosophy, and literature, would be required for me to gain a more complete understanding of The Magic Flute. But the concept from my graduate years was, I believe, correct: this final opera of Mozart, like all major complex works of any art, engage diverse resources. Creators of such works live in place and time; their connections to the world at large inform them, consciously or unconsciously, as they construct their music, painting, sculpture, poem, novel, play, building, or landscape. When we observers of the work of art are removed by several centuries, or more, we necessarily are at a disadvantage for not having the knowledge of the immediate culture in which the work was created. In some cases, such as The Magic Flute, the creators tap connections that have since been obscured, or lost, or judged irrelevant by subsequent generations. The myth of the strictly intuitive creative process has also abetted the obfuscation of cultural connections. If we today wish to have a clearer focus, a more nearly representative experience of the work as in its creator’s time, we are destined to observe not just the objective elements it presents on the surface but the aspects of it that bespeak the culture of that time.
So, what is multidisciplinarity after all?
A short answer is that it is research and teaching that reaches through and outside of one’s own discipline. When one seeks to understand the influence of one or more areas of study on a specific work of art, one engages in a multidisciplinary, or interdisciplinary, way. (I use the two terms interchangeably.)
A longer answer, and more specific to my work around The Magic Flute, is to point to the impact of the political situation in Europe and more narrowly in Vienna in the several years leading up to Mozart’s writing this opera; to recognize the importance of Mozart’s own relationships with the scientists, in particular, in his introducing allusions to mining, metallurgy, numerical symbolism, and alchemy in the opera—indeed, in the music itself; to understand how the overt and covert religious history of the Austrian Empire affected the creation of this opera; and to realize the role of didacticism in the opera, along with the historical threads which brought this educational tradition into play. In my research I have attempted to show the relevance of these complex disciplines in order to more closely understand why Mozart and his librettists would have created a work that displays so many unusual features, which have led so many to see the opera as disjunct, changed in mid-process, and confused. The music alone answers some of this (for instance, that there is in fact no compositional break in the opera’s continuity—it is intentional, deliberate, and whole); but much more, the libretto, including stage directions, contains a great many more clues that the music doesn’t answer. Only by tracing those clues to new areas of study can the opera’s direction, or full impact, be approached.
The Magic Flute is only one example of a work which bears examination via several disciplines. The history of music (and all arts, really) in all times has more than a few other examples. For instance, the relevance of the Golden Section is all but ignored in the music of Schubert, although it shouldn’t be; it informs a number of his compositions, including well-known Lieder. Numbers, both symbolic and as systems, are highly significant in works by many 20th-century composers, as if the age-old Pythagorean models had somehow been rediscovered. Interrelationships between visual artists and composers, and architects and composers, have left us with signal compositions, in the Medieval and Renaissance eras and in the 20th century. Perhaps it would be simpler to say that from the earliest times composers have recognized in many realms of life certain principles or ideas that provide useful suggestions and models for writing music. Exploring these connections, particularly in relation to the time and place of a specific work of art, is the meat of multidisciplinary research and teaching.
I cannot conclude without acknowledging the huge influence of one of my professors and mentors at Syracuse University, Dr. William Fleming. It was his example that launched my own approach to Mozart’s final opera, however well that has succeeded. His own approach, evidenced in his inspiringly rich text, Arts and Ideas, showed me one path on which to conduct multidisciplinary research; I have, of course, invented a somewhat different track to tackle The Magic Flute. William Fleming was treating a much larger subject than I, virtually the span of major civilizations from the Greeks to the present. But his comments about the need to see the relatedness of an art work with its environment still resonate truly:
"A work of art that does not communicate meaning is stillborn. Art, then, is a two-way process involving both creator and re-creator. The intensity of the observer’s activity, to be sure, may be less than that of the artist, but the experience nevertheless consists of the dynamic activity of responding when the viewer, reader, and listener conjure up corresponding sets of perceptions, images, and impressions on their own. To play his part in the creative act, the re- creator must learn the visual, verbal, and auditory vocabularies that make communication possible and that make the finer nuances of sight and sound distinguishable. Imagination and knowledge must be summoned up to supply the frame of reference and the aura that once surrounded the work of art in its original context. Hence it is necessary to know, for instance, the period and style, the social and religious circumstances, the type of patronage and social position of the artist."
William Fleming, Arts and Ideas (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1968) viii.
With these thoughts I commend the reader to diversified adventure and inquiry, which I hope will be stimulated and even in part satisfied by the essays and features in this website.