Music with Ease > 19th Century German Opera (except Wagner) > Der Freischütz (Weber)
An Opera by Carl Maria Von Weber
The libretto, prepared by the composers friend, the poet Kind, is based on a popular tradition, familiar to German huntsmen, that whoever would seek the aid of the Demon-hunter may have in exchange for his soul seven magic bullets certain to hit the desired mark. If, within a given time, the huntsman so favoured fails to allure another within the Demons power, his life becomes forfeit. If, on the other hand, he procures a fresh victim his life is extended, while the newcomer is furnished with a supply of the magic shot. And so on.
In the opera some Bohemian hunters assemble to fire at a mark. The rewards of the victor, according to ancient custom, are the situation of chief forester and the hand of a beautiful village girl. Agatha is the favoured damsel, and Max her lover. At the first attempt Max misses the mark and is in despair. A Rival, Caspar, has possessed himself of the magic balls, but the time-limit of their virtue has expired; and instead of hitting Max, the innocent lover, as the Demon had promised, the shot rebounds and pierces the heart of Caspar. Justice triumphs, and Max and Agatha celebrate their nuptials.
The music of "Der Freischütz" (The Marksman) is an admirable blending of Webers brilliancy with the beautiful simplicity of the German folk-song. Indeed, its inspiration is drawn so directly from the Volkslied, that many critics denounced Weber as a plagiarist! Time has shown the stupidly of such charges. "Der Freischütz" is "German to the core, and every page bears the impress of German inspiration, but the glamour of Webers genius transmuted the rough material he employed into a fabric of the richest art." It is needless to speak in detail of this masterpiece-of the romantic passage for the horns at the opening of the Overture, which strikes the keynote of the opera; of the beautiful "Waldmusik"; of the poetic opening of the second Act, that fascinating duet between Agatha and Aennchen; of the brilliant and lively polacca that follows; of the inimitable "Softly Sighs" by which it is succeeded; of the dramatic trio; of the sombre grandeur of the incantation scene; of Agathas tender prayer; of the brisk hunting choruses; of the sensational climax. "Der Freischütz" is certainly the most perfect German opera that exists. It is not, of course, superior to "Don Giovanni." But that is less a German than a universal opera; whereas this, the most important of all Webers works, is essentially of Germany, by its subject, by the personages introduced, and by the general character of the music.
Weber had been occupied on it for years, and the 18th of June 1821 had been fixed for the first performance, at the Royal Theatre, Berlin. The doors were to be opened at six, but as early as four a vast crowd was besieging the entrances. The University students mustered in great force; and among the celebrities were Heine and young Mendelssohn, who "shouted aloud and applauded with enthusiasm." Punctually at seven, the composer limped to the conductors seat. Sir Julius Benedict, pupil and friend of Weber, who was present on the occasion, says:
Weber, though conducting with a very small bâton, and seemingly only indicating the change of time or the lights and shades of his noble composition, had nevertheless the most perfect control over the band. The effect of his scoring, the contrast between the calm of the introduction and the gloom and awe of the unearthly element which interrupt it, the fire of the allegro, the charm of that heavenly melody, which once heard can never be forgotten, the irresistible climax at the end, found worthy interpreters in the Berlin orchestra; and to the breathless silence which prevailed during the performance a storm of applause, such as I never heard before, nor shall hear again, followed. In vain were the repeated bows of the hero of the evening and his endeavours to go on with the next piece. At last, though reluctantly, he yielded, and a second performance of the whole overture, if possible, even better than the first, enhanced the impression.
From the close of the repeated Overture to the end of the opera the attention of the great audience was riveted, and when the curtain fell the applause was overwhelming. No one would leave till the composer had appeared on the stage to receive congratulations, which he did in every form, including bouquets, crowns, and laudatory verses. Webers entry in his diary that evening is interesting:
First representation of "Der Freischütz" received with incredible enthusiasm. The overture and the popular songs redemanded; out of seventeen pieces fourteen applauded beyond measure. Everything for the best; I was recalled, and went forward to salute the public, accompanied by Frau Seidler and Fräulein Eunike, not being able to find the others. Verses and crowns fell at my feet. Soli Deo Gloria!
No great opera, in fact, ever obtained a more complete and immediate triumph. To be sure, some of the critics croaked (as they always do), and even Spohr failed to see the reason for all the furore. The romantic poet Tieck thought it the most unmusical din he had ever heard on the stage. But the people liked it, and it was given fifty times in eighteen months. In a few years it had captured all the capitals of Europe. In London it became so popular that a gentleman advertising for a servant expressly stipulated that applicants should not be able to whistle its airs!