Overlooked Operas: Weber's Der Freischütz

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Recently, I was asked by a caller to the Saturday Operavore radio program to name operas I think deserve revival, especially in the United States. It should not surprise you that I have such a list and there are quite a few names on it. There are at least two ways to compile such a list. One is to come up with names of works I like but have not seen lately. Another is to think of works by composers I like but have not heard. Then, there are certain works that are important in the history and development of opera that should be seen and heard by anyone interested in the art form.

Der Freischütz (1821), by Carl Maria von Weber, belongs on all of these lists. Even though important German-language operas came before it, including Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (1791) and Beethoven’s Fidelio (1805), this work is really the one that set German opera on its own course, influencing all that followed—especially Richard Wagner.

The Metropolitan Opera has done only 30 performances of Der Freischütz since 1884. The last one was in 1972.

Last January, after walking in Wagner’s footsteps in Dresden and Leipzig, I stopped in Berlin for a night to see Der Freischütz in the city where it had its premiere. The performance was by the Staatsoper unter den Linden, the great old company that resides in the eastern part of the city but is in exile at the Schiller Theater in the west while its historic theater is being restored. Berlin was the perfect place to see Der Freischütz because the literary and cultural underpinnings of the opera are second nature to the audience. It is like seeing Pagliacci in Naples or Die Fledermaus in Vienna.

My belief that Der Freischütz has been unjustly ignored outside of the German-speaking world was reinforced when I had a conversation with a board member of a major opera company. General managers often ask board members to underwrite productions, and this gentleman was asked by the head of the company to name a work he considered worth supporting. His response was Der Freischutz, which apparently was met with puzzlement and not much enthusiasm by the general manager. How unfortunate.

Carl Maria von Weber was born in 1786 in Holstein, far northern Germany, and died in 1826 in London when he was too sick to make the trip home to Dresden. His short life perfectly spanned the era from 18th century Classicism in the vein of Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven and Schubert to the Romanticism of later Beethoven and Schubert as well as Chopin, Schumann, Berlioz and, eventually, Wagner. This was also the era when Italian bel canto composers such as Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini, whose last work was the largely Romantic Guillaume Tell, created Italian-language (and the occasional French) operas that were audience favorites. There was no one writing operas that had popular or spiritual appeal to German speakers.

Der Freischütz, often referred to in English as "The Magic Marksman," draws from German Romanticism’s use of the supernatural as a threatening presence, especially when it emanates from the forests found at the edge of villages. Weber introduced hunter’s horns and adroitly used various instruments in the orchestra to depict these natural and supernatural phenomena, and the chorus is deployed to spooky effect as the sounds of scary spirits. Weber used other instruments, such as the clarinet, to express the emotions and frustrations of young, sentimental love. I think that Rossini would not have taken the musical and dramatic risks he did in Guillaume Tell had Der Freischütz not existed.

A Show-Biz Family

Weber was part of a family of singers (including his mother) and show people of one kind or another. His father always sought ways to make this troupe more appealing to audiences. The most famous example was adding the von to the family name to suggest a link to royalty or nobility that absolutely did not exist. Their lives were a bit rough-and-tumble but also gave young Carl Maria an intimate knowledge of life on and behind the scenes of a stage.

He showed musical prowess early on and his family attempted to capitalize on that by making him something of a novelty item as they journeyed through Germany and Austria. In effect, he would be presented as a Mozart-type prodigy. He was encouraged to write an opera, or a singspiel (a German-language entertainment in words and music that extended back a century and whose most accomplished exemplars were Die Zauberflöte and Fidelio). By the way, his cousin Kostanze Weber became Mozart’s wife.

Weber's first opera, composed in 1800 when he was 14, was Die Waldmädchen (The Forest Maiden), parts of which survive. It was, history tells us, not a success. In 1803 came Peter Schmoll und siene Nachbarn (Peter Schmoll and his Neighbors), which apparently was better received.

The picaresque adolescence of Carl Maria von Weber, with too many twists and turns to recount here, brings to mind what the story of Candide might have been if that gullible young man had been a musician. Despite the family’s peregrinations and somewhat Bohemian lifestyle, Weber's father made sure he received a broad education that included literature and art. He had several music teachers. He met composers, including Meyerbeer, and musicians of all types. He met royal personages who might have been in charge of a small fief or a larger realm. He came into the employ of one of them but ran up such massive debts that, after being imprisoned, he and his father fled one night.

One person he met who merits special mention was Heinrich Bärmann, a clarinet virtuoso with whom Weber felt a strong musical connection and for whom he was motivated to compose six important works, including two concertos that are part of every clarinetist’s repertoire. He and Bärmann performed and toured together and, alongside this fine musician, Weber came to experience audiences and performing in newer, more mature ways.

He paid constant attention to aesthetics of all kinds. As Berlioz and Wagner would later do, Weber had a propensity for writing criticism and essays that are fascinating for those who care about art but did not necessarily ingratiate these composers to colleagues and to powerful people who might provide financial support.  In his mid to late 20s Weber did have important positions conducting opera in Berlin and Prague, although his free-thinking ways came to alienate the powers-that-were.

In Berlin he developed a strong sense of his German identity, represented by an attraction to nature and a certain kind of emotional simplicity that was seen as a virtue. Painters and poets did not sing the praises of German superiority, as Wagner would later be seen to do, but rather as saying that Germans had qualities that set them apart from other peoples such as the British, French and Italians. Austria then was the seat of a large empire whose principal language was German, while the many lands, duchies and citadels that became Germany around 1870 were often at odds with one another. An artistic movement, which came to be called Romanticism, was driven in part by the ambitions of artists of all kinds to create a vision of a Germany unified not only by language but shared values.

In Berlin and Prague, Weber took more control of opera productions, whether of his own works (he had not yet created his masterpieces) or, more often, those of other composers. He liked to publish essays about the operas in question, believing that it helped prepare audiences for what they would see and hear. He also believed in casting singers who would make a balanced ensemble, rather than surrounding one or two stars with performers with limited gifts. He believed that opera productions should have a visual component that did not have to be lavish but which served as another element—along with music-making, acting and engagement with the text—in the story-telling that is opera.

Supernatural Thriller

Weber wound up in Dresden in 1817, newly married. The city had an Italian-language opera house where works by the bel canto composers were in favor. Weber was asked to head a German-language opera house that was expected to rival the Italian one. His study of aesthetics, of German folk tales and his interest in the supernatural were brought to bear on Der Freischütz and, to a lesser extent, his final works, Euryanthe and Oberon. Der Freischütz with a libretto by Friedrich Kind, was his masterpiece. It may be the first German opera to be free of Italian and French influences. Audiences responded to themes and language that was familiar to them.

The notion of including the supernatural was not new. Mozart did it in Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte and many later composers did so as well, none more so than Wagner. Hector Berlioz clearly felt its influence in composing the Symphonie Fantastique

When you watch the opera, think also about how this opera foreshadows much of what followed. Mythology lends itself to music-drama, as German composers such as Wagner and Strauss revealed. Enjoy this complete performance of Der Freischütz: