“A more German composer than you has never lived.” Richard Wagner’s words, spoken at the graveside of Carl Maria von Weber in December 1844, have echoed down the centuries. Weber had died in London (1826), where he was buried, but Wagner led the campaign to have his remains brought back to Dresden, where Wagner had taken up Weber’s old post as Kapellmeister. Wagner’s advocacy of Der Freischütz helped cement Weber’s opera in Germany’s national cultural heritage, a work at the forefront of the Romantic movement which steered German opera into new terrain – albeit a direction which vindicated Wagner’s own views about where the art form should be heading. But where did Freischütz spring from and how did it influence the next generation of composers?

Carl Maria von Weber, 1821 © Caroline Bardua
Carl Maria von Weber, 1821
© Caroline Bardua

Der Freischütz is an operatic chiller, the tale of Max, a luckless huntsman who, having a dry spell with his rifle, enters into a pact with the devil so that he is able to cast magic bullets (Freikugeln) that will always hit their mark. This is crucial to the upcoming shooting contest in which Max must compete, where the hand of his sweetheart, Agathe, is the prize. 

Weber stumbled across the Gespensterbuch, ghost stories collected by Johann Apel and Friedrich Laun, in Heidelberg in 1810. Sinister tales of the supernatural were all the rage and the myth of the Black Huntsman was already part of popular legend, especially as retold by the Brothers Grimm. But Weber waited some years to set the tale. In the meantime, he worked as an operatic conductor, firstly in Prague (1813-16), then in Dresden as Kapellmeister at the Hoftheater, where he programmed operas by Luigi Cherubini, Étienne Méhul and Nicolas Dalayrac.

Characters of <i>Der Freischütz</i> © WikiCommons | Puppentheatersammlung Dresden
Characters of Der Freischütz
© WikiCommons | Puppentheatersammlung Dresden

Because of the spoken dialogue in Freischütz, Weber’s masterpiece can be seen as having emerged from the Singspiel tradition of Mozart’s Zauberflöte and Entführung aus dem Serail or even Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. Weber certainly admired Fidelio and often conducted it. 

But one could argue that the opéras comiques of the French Revolution had an even greater influence over his work. Listen to the sombre colours in Méhul’s orchestration of Uthal – which contains no violins – and it’s easy to detect the impact on Weber’s own writing in Freischütz


Starting work in July 1817, working to a libretto by Friedrich Kind, Weber spent nearly three years composing Freischütz, completing it on 13th May 1820. Incidentally, Der Freischütz was the third title; originally it was to be called Der Probeschuß (The Trial Shot) and then it was renamed Die Jägersbraut (The Hunter’s Bride). The premiere took place not in conservative Saxony but in the intellectual capital of German states, Berlin. Weber detested Italian opera and its vocal virtuosity, so it’s ironic that Gaspare Spontini was Friedrich Wilhelm III’s court composer in Berlin, testing the monarch’s patience with his demands for many rehearsals. Weber’s arrival was like a breath of fresh air.

Der Freischütz seized the imagination. This wasn’t music about kings or gods or heroes, but a tale – albeit a supernatural one – of simple village life. The peasants’ music such as the Hunters’ chorus and Bridesmaids’ chorus, strongly resembles German folk music. 

Weber’s orchestration is highly innovative. He described how there were two principal elements to his approach: “hunting life and the rule of demonic powers as personified by Samiel”. Hunting life was easily depicted by the use of horns but it’s Weber’s approach to the supernatural which is most striking. For example, Ännchen’s Romance “Einst träumte meiner sel'gen Base”, a mock ghost story, features a spectral obbligato viola. 


But it’s the Wolf’s Glen scene which stands out, probably – along with the Witches’ Sabbath in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique – the greatest horror scene of the Romantic period. The Wolf’s Glen comes at the end of Act 2. Most operas would finish the second act with a concertato for many cast members, but here it’s the orchestra driving the action as the evil Kaspar summons Samiel, the Black Hunter, for assistance in casting the seven magic bullets for Max. Weber uses speech mixed with melodrama to create a wild scene which depicts boars crashing through the bushes, rattling chains, cracking whips, the trample of horses’ hooves, stags fleeing hunters and a pack of baying hounds. Samiel appears to the sound of a diminished seventh – “the key chord of Romantic opera until Wagner’s Tristan chord”! It’s seriously scary stuff, even though Weber drops spoilers in his overture.  


Weber’s employed Leifmotifs extensively. Nikolaus Harnoncourt wrote that “the overture is almost like a quarry, a great mine of blocklike material from which the veins of the music extend as far as the finale.”

But it wasn’t just in his music that Weber struck out in new directions. He was also involved in stage designs, lighting and prepared singers for roles by encouraging them to act out their parts as a script first. Weber was working towards what he described as “a self-sufficient work of art in which every feature and every contribution by the related arts are moulded together in a certain way and dissolve, to form a new world” – essentially the forerunner of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk.

Illustration of the Wolf's Glen of <i>Le Freischütz</i> at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris, December 1866 © WikiCommons | Bibliothèque nationale de France
Illustration of the Wolf's Glen of Le Freischütz at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris, December 1866
© WikiCommons | Bibliothèque nationale de France

Freischütz premiered on 18th June 1821 and the audience included the author (and fellow composer) E.T.A. Hoffmann, poet and critic Heinrich Heine and the 12-year old Felix Mendelssohn. Weber himself conducted, a figure “of small stature, with a shocking gait and a long face with no especially striking feature” according to Heine. Hoffmann, also a critic, was less than impressed with the libretto, likening it to the cheap, supernatural novels of the day. “If Kind’s contribution were to be buried with them,” he wrote, “posterity would have nothing to mourn; but the immortal breath of life which Weber has blown into the wonderful characters will certainly protect him from oblivion.” He cited Freischütz as “the most significant German opera since Mozart”. 

The Wolf’s Glen scene, in particular, was a huge success, according to Max Maria von Weber, the composer’s son and first biographer, drawing “thunderous applause”. Theodor Adorno praised the orchestration of the overture. “Low clarinets and pizzicato basses create a blacker blend of sound than Beethoven could ever have dared conceive.” Not everything was well received. Heine complained how he felt “stifled by violet silk” by the jolly little Bridesmaids’ chorus, although he acknowledged its popularity – “even the dogs were barking it on the streets”! By the end of 1822, Freischütz had played in 22 German theatres, and soon travelled to Russia and America as well as most European countries. 

 

Tchaikovsky was a fan, praising “the spontaneity of its inspiration” in a review of a Bolshoi production in 1873. He heavily criticised as “tasteless and silly” the insertion of a ballet added by Berlioz for a Paris staging, his own orchestration of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance. However, Berlioz was Weber’s greatest champion in France. He lavished praise on the opera in his Treatise on Instrumentation and composed recitatives (dialogue not being permitted on the Paris stage) and it’s impossible not to feel its influence on his Symphonie fantastique


But Freischütz had a huge influence on German opera composers in the years that followed its premiere. Weber’s pupil Heinrich Marschner seized on its supernatural elements in his Der Vampyr (1828) especially the marked similarity between Marschner’s Witches' Sabbath and Weber’s Wolf's Glen. Later in the same opera, Emmy's Legend of the Vampire prefigures Senta's aria about the tale of the Flying Dutchman in Wagner’s breakthrough work (1843); there’s even an identical description, "der bleiche Mann" (the pallid man), in both. Wagner had conducted Der Vampyr at Würzburg in 1833. Marschner’s Hans Heiling (1833) also owes Freischütz a debt, based on a folk legend, but also possessing supernatural elements.  


But it was Freischütz’ impact on Wagner which determined the direction of German Romantic opera. It defines the genre. The saintly Agathe is a blueprint for Wagner’s Elisabeth, Eva and Elsa; the malevolent Kaspar looks forward to Alberich and Hagen; nice-but-dim Max is an antecedent of Siegfried; the holy hermit who sets everything right at the end is a model for Gurnemanz. Most of all, Weber’s imaginative orchestration opened up a realm of possibilities to Wagner, a world of dragons, ghostly sailors and rainbow bridges. 

Wilhelm Furtwängler described Freischütz as “a great moment for mankind”. German opera would never be the same.