Music with Ease > 19th Century German Opera (except Wagner) > Der Freischütz (Weber) - Synopsis
An Opera by Carl Maria von Weber
The first American performance of this opera, which is in three acts, was in English. The event took place in the Park Theatre, New York, March 2, 1825. This was only four years later than the production in Berlin. It was not heard here in German until a performance at the old Broadway Theatre. This occurred in 1856 under the direction of Carl Bergmann. London heard it, in English, July 23, 1824; in German, at the Kings Theatre, May 9, 1832; in Italian, as "Il Franco Arciero," at Covent Garden, March 16, 1825. For this performance Costa wrote recitatives to replace the dialogue. Berlioz did the same for the production at the Grand Opera, Paris, as "Le Franc Archer," June 7, 1841. "Freischütz" means "free-shooter" (or the marksman) -- some one who shoots with magic bullets.
CUNO, head ranger
MAX, a forester
KASPAR, a forester
KILIAN, a peasant
ZAMIEL, the wild huntsman
. Speaking Part
AGATHE, Cunos daughter
AENNCHEN (ANNETTE), her cousin
Time: Middle of 18th Century.
Act I. At the target range. Kilian, the peasant, has defeated Max, the forester, at a prize shooting, a Schützenfest, maybe. Max, of course, should have won. Being a forester, accustomed to the use of fire-arms, it is disgraceful for him to have been defeated by a mere peasant.
Kilian "rubs it in" by mocking him in song and the men and girls of the village join in the mocking chorus -- a clever bit of teasing in music and establishing at the very start the originality in melody, style, and character of the opera.
The hereditary forester, Cuno, is worried over the poor showing Max has made not only on that day, but for some time past. There is to be a "shoot" on the morrow before Prince Ottokar. In order to win the hand in marriage of Agathe, Cunos daughter, and the eventual succession as hereditary forester, Max must carry off the honours in the competition now so near at hand. He himself is in despair. Life will be worthless to him without Agathe. Yet he seems to have lost all his cunning as a shot.
It is now, when the others have gone, that another forester, Kaspar, a man of dark visage and of morose and forbidding character, approaches him. He hands him his gun, points to an eagle circling far on high, and tells him to fire at it. Max shoots. From its dizzy height the bird falls dead at his feet. It is a wonderful shot. Kaspar explains to him that he has shot with a "free," or charmed bullet; that such bullets always hit what the marksman wills them to; and that if Max will meet him in the Wolfs Glen at midnight, they will mould bullets with one of which, on the morrow, he easily can win Agathes hand and the hereditary office of forester. Max, to whom victory means all that is dear to him, consents.
Act II. Agathes room in the head rangers house. The girl has gloomy forebodings. Even her sprightly relative, Aennchen, is unable to cheer her up. At last Max, whom she has been awaiting, comes. Very soon, however, he says he is obliged to leave, because he has shot a deer in the Wolfs Glen and must go after it. In vain the girls warn him against the locality, which is said to be haunted.
The scene changes to the wolfs Glen, the haunt or Zamiel the wild huntsman (otherwise the devil) to whom Kaspar has sold himself, and to whom now he plans to turn over Max as a victim, in order to gain for himself a brief respite on earth, his time to Zamiel being up. The younger forester joins him in the Wolfs Glen and together they mould seven magic bullets, six of which go true to the mark. The seventh goes whither Zamiel wills it.
Act III. The first scene again plays in the foresters house. Agathe still is filled with forebodings. She is attired for the test shooting which also will make her Maxs bride, if he is successful. Faith dispels her gloom. The bridesmaids enter and wind the bridal garland.
The time arrives for the test shooting. But only the seventh bullet, the one which Zamiel speeds whither he wishes, remains to Max. His others he has used up on the hunt in order to show off before the Prince. Kaspar climbs a tree to watch the proceedings from a safe place of concealment. He expects Max to be Zamiels victim. Before the whole village and the Prince the test shot is to be made. The Prince points to a flying dove. At that moment Agathe appears accompanied by a Hermit, a holy man. She calls out to Max not to shoot, that she is the dove. But Max already has pulled the trigger. The shot resounds. Agathe falls -- but only in a swoon. It is Kaspar who tumbles from the tree and rolls, fatally wounded, on the turf. Zamiel has had no power over Max, for the young forester had not come to the Wolfs Glen of his own free will, but only after being tempted by Kaspar. Therefore Kaspar himself had to be the victim of the seventh bullet. Upon the Hermits intercession, Max who has confessed everything, is forgiven by Prince Ottokar, the test shot is abolished and a years probation substituted for it.
Many people are familiar with music from "Der Freischütz" without being aware that it is from that opera. Several melodies from it have been adapted as hymn tunes, and are often sung in church. In Act I, are Kilians song and the chorus in which the men and women, young and old, rally Max upon his bad luck. There is an expressive trio for Max, Kaspar, and Cuno, with chorus "O diese Sonne!" (O fateful morrow.) There is a short waltz. Maxs solo, "Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen" (Through the forest and oer the meadows) is a melody of great beauty, and this also can be said of his other solo in the same scene: "Jetzt ist wohl ihr Fenster offen" (Now mayhap her window opens) while the scene comes to a close with gloomy, despairing accents, as Zamiel, unseen of course by Max, hovers, a threatening shadow, in the background. There follows Kaspars drinking song, forced in its hilariousness and ending in grotesque laughter, Kaspar being the familiar of Zamiel, the wild huntsman. His air (Triumph! Triumph! Vengeance will succeed") is wholly in keeping with his sinister character.
Act II opens with a delightful duet for Agathe and Aennchen and a charmingly coquettish little air for the latter (Comes a comely youth a-wooing). Then comes Agathes principal scene. She opens the window and, as the moonlight floods the room, intones the prayer so simple, so exquisite, so expressive: "Leise, leise, fromme Wiese" (Softly sighing, day is dying). This is followed, after a recitative,
by a rapturous, descending passage leading into an ecstatic melody: "Alle meine Pulse schlagen" (All my pulses now are beating) as she sees her lover approaching.
The music of the Wolfs Glen scene long has been considered the most expressive rendering of the gruesome that is to be found in a musical score. The stage apparatus that goes with it is such that it makes the young sit up and take notice, while their elders, because of its naïveté, are entertained. The ghost of Maxs mother appears to him and strives to warn him away. Cadaverous, spooky-looking animals crawl out from caves in the rocks and spit flames and sparks. Wagner got more than one hint from the scene. But in the crucible of his genius the glen became the lofty Valkyr rock, and the backdrop with the wild hunt the superb "Ride of the Valkyries," while other details are transfigured in that sublime episode, "The Magic Fire Scene."
After a brief introduction, with suggestions of the hunting chorus later in the action, the third act opens with Agathes lovely cavatina, "And though a cloud the sun obscure." There are a couple of solos for Aennchen, and then comes the enchanting chorus of bridesmaids. This is the piece which Richard Wagner, then seven years old, was playing in a room, adjoining which his stepfather, Ludwig Geyer, lay in his last illness. Geyer had shown much interest in the boy and in what might become of him. As he listened to him playing the bridesmaids chorus from "Der Freischütz" he turned to his wife, Wagners mother, and said: "What if he should have a talent for music?"
In the next scene are the spirited hunting chorus and the brilliant finale, in which recurs the jubilant melody from Agathes second act scene.
The overture to "Der Freischütz" is the first in which an operatic composer unreservedly has made use of melodies from the opera itself. Beethoven, in the third "Leonore" overture, utilizes the theme of Florestans air and the trumpet call. Weber has used not merely thematic material but complete melodies. Following the beautiful passage for horns at the beginning of the overture (a passage which, like Agathes prayer, has been taken up into the Protestant hymnal) is the music of Maxs outcry when, in the opera, he senses rather than sees the passage of Zamiel across the stage, after which comes the somber music of Maxs air: "Hatt denn her Himmel mich verlassen?" (Am I then by heaven forsaken?). This leads up to the music of Agathes outburst of joy when she sees her lover approaching; and this is given complete.
The structure of this overture is much like that of the overture to "Tannhäuser" by Richard Wagner. There also is a resemblance in contour between the music of Agathes jubilation and that of Tannhäusers hymn to Venus. Wagner worshipped Weber. Without a suggestion of plagiarism, the contour of Wagners melodic idiom is that of Webers. The resemblance to Weber in the general structure of the finales to the first acts of "Tannhäuser" and "Lohengrin" is obvious. Even in some of the leading motives of the Wagner music-dramas, the student will find the melodic contour of Weber still persisting. What could be more in the spirit of Weber than the ringing Parsifal motive, one of the last things from the pen of Richard Wagner?
Indeed the importance of Weber in the logical development of music and specifically of opera, lies in the fact that he is the founder of the romantic school in music; -- a school of which Wagner is the culmination. Weber is as truly the forerunner of Wagner as Haydn is of Mozart, and Mozart of Beethoven. From the "Freischütz" Wagner derived his early predilection for legendary subjects, as witness the "Flying Dutchman," "Tannhäuser," and "Lohengrin," from which it was but a step to the mythological subject of the "Ring" dramas.
"Der Freischütz" is heard far too rarely in this country. But Webers importance as the founder of the romantic school and as the inspired forerunner of Wagner long has been recognized. Without this recognition there would be missing an important link in the evolution of music and, specifically, of opera.