The online opera guide to DER FREISCHÜTZ
Along with Wagner’s “Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” Freischütz is considered the German national opera par excellence. Von Weber shows himself to be a brilliant theater dramatist and creator of great melodies, and with this work he made a decisive contribution to the transfiguration of German Romanticism. Few operas have contributed as many melodies to the german song heritage as Freischütz. Weber’s greatest strength (and he had many) is his inspiration for melodies.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I (Max’ seduction)
♪ Act II (Spinning scene, Glen scene)
♪ Act III (Trial shot and finale)
Johann Friedrich Kind, based on the stories from Apel's Ghost Book.
Kuno, hereditary forester (baritone) - Agathe, his daughter (soprano) - Ännchen, a young relative (soprano) - Kaspar, a hunter's lad (baritone) - Max, a hunter's lad, Agathe's fiancé (tenor)
EMI with Rudolf Schock, Elisabeth Grümmer, Lisa Otto, Karl Christian Kohn conducted by Joseph Keilberth and the Choir of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra or DG with Peter Schreier, Gundula Janowitz, Edith Mathis, Theo Adam conducted by Carlos Kleiber and the Staatskapelle Dresden.
Roles and Synopsis
The stories of the ghost book
The libretto is based on the stories from the Ghost Book of Apel. Weber literally devoured the book and decided early on to use the collection of stories as material for an opera. He commissioned Johann Friedrich Kind, a writer and former classmate of Apel, to write a libretto.
An opera of the singspiel genre
The Freischütz belongs to the genre of the Singspiel. The German-language Singspiel dates back to the 18th century. It is further developed in the 19th century by the luminous triumvirate of the three key operas of the Singspiel. These are the three operas “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and the “Freischütz” by Carl Maria von Weber. The differentiation to the Italian opera is often drawn by the use of spoken dialogues of the Singspiel compared to the recitatives of the Italian opera, and the songlike of the Biedermeier. The Biedermeier is a cultural epoch of the German-speaking world (sometimes referred to as early Romanticism), whose characteristic feature is the retreat of culture into the private sphere (which is often disqualified as homely). Schubert is another representative of this epoch.
wolf’s glen scene: one of the greatest innovations in operatic history
The end of the second act takes a special position. The so-called Wolf’s Glen scene is a break from the traditional singspiel. It lasts 20 minutes and is kept without dialogues. At that time it was radically new and even today one is amazed how Weber has composed almost cinematic “special effects” (church bells, wind, thunderclaps, ghosts etc.) into this scene. Weber shows himself as a true musical dramatist and already hints at the further development to Wagner. The increasing effect from the first ball to the seventh has an enormous power of suggestion and still appeals to our senses spoiled by cinema in a wondrous way.
This scene is a great challenge and opportunity for every director and is theatrically-dramatically one of the great scenes in the history of opera.
The inspiration of the saxonian Switzerland
The beautiful landscape of Saxon Switzerland around Dresden inspired Weber and his librettist Kind to the scenes of Freischütz’. In a blog post, I have described his most important inspiration places of Dresden and surroundings in the travel blog, perhaps as inspiration for the next Dresden stay (click image for link)?
Leitmotifs and the Overture
Leitmotifs (or better: memory motifs) were not the invention of Richard Wagner or Carl Maria von Weber. Even before the Freischütz, commemorative motifs were used in operas. Weber, too, had already used this technique in previous operas, and in the Freischütz it was further enhanced.
Already in the overture we hear the most important motifs. In the overture section below you will find the corresponding musical examples. This overture bears the special circumstance that Weber consciously wrote it after the entire composition process. He called the musical development of the prelude “the Freischütz in nuce”. In fact, the action of the Freischütz can be reconstructed with the sequence of the memory motifs, or in other words: it is the opera’s “management summary” for the quick listener.
The influence on Wagner
Wagner himself spoke of the importance of the influence of the Freischütz on his work. Wagner expressly mentioned Fidelio and Freischütz as the foundations of German opera. He held Weber’s music in such high esteem that he was personally involved in the transfer of the mortal remains from London to Germany.
Weber’s active participation in the creationof the libretto and the importance he attached to directing and stage painting is evidence of Weber’s striving for a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). Not least the wolf’s glen scene made a deep impression on Wagner. For the first time in an opera, nature was no longer pure scenery. Morning moods, thunderstorm scenes and mysterious gorges affected the characters and the forest became a symbol of the romantic transfiguration that inspired Wagner years later to search for literary material for his operas in the sagas of the German Middle Ages.
The sensational success of the premiere
The premiere took place in 1821 in Berlin, four years after the work had begun. Weber was Kapellmeister of the Royal Saxon Opera and conducted the work. The tension before the premiere was great, Weber had stirred up the publicity drum in Berlin and raised expectations. It became a sensational success and Weber was granted his greatest moment in his career.
With the opera, von Weber hit a nerve of the time. After the Napoleonic Wars, an awakening of the German national consciousness was felt, and the theater management had symbolically placed the premiere on June 18, the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.
The work spread rapidly throughout Germany and its importance for the development of German opera was quickly recognized.
DER FREISCHÜTZ ACT I
The Great Overture
The overture to Freischütz has rightly become famous. It is a showpiece of German Romanticism. Von Weber presents many of the opera’s melodies and lets the ghostly wolf’s glen music pass by. Weber was a gifted kappellmeister and knew how to create atmosphere. The dark tone of the low strings and the low horns create a spooky mood, which is enhanced by mysterious timpani beats.
As described in the opening text, we hear from the prelude the action of the drama and important memory motifs of this opera:
The prelude begins with a threatening motif that announces the coming disaster:
The hunter motif introduces the listener to the carefree world of hunters in whose ambience the music takes place.
The major of the hunter motif turns into a minor and describes the danger of the demonic:
The following passage shows the love motif, the “antidote” to the demonic, back in E-flat major:
The next minutes describe the struggle of good against evil (love motif and demon motif). At the end, the love motive sounds in radiant C major: good has won.
Vorspiel – Kleiber
Synopsis: A shot’s fired. The farmer Kilian has won the shooting competition. The people cheer him on. Max is mocked by the villagers because he, the hunter, did not win the shooting competition.
Vittoria…schaut der Herr mich an als König – Kleiber / Leib
The legend oft the shooting trial
Synopsis: When it almost comes to a dispute, the heir forester comes to arbitrate. He is the father of Agathe, who ist the one Max wants to marry. But Kuno has one condition: Max has to pass the trial shot. It is a tradition commanded by the prince that candidates for the hereditary forestry must pass this test. Max is desperate, because for a few weeks now he has been out of luck shooting. He is afraid that a foreign force has power over him.
A beautiful piece in two voices with tenor and choir.
O lass Hoffnung dich beleben – Poell
Synopsis: The festival begins with the villagers dancing an exuberant waltz. But Max is desperate, the fear of failing in the trial shot and the fear that foreign powers have taken the upper hand seizes him.
O diese Sonne – Schreier/Kleiber
The great Lied „Durch die Wälder durch die Auen“
Synopsis: Max thinks of his successes and his former happiness.
The Singspiel was the genre of the people. Operas like the Freischütz are romantic pieces of the Biedermeier period, where fairy-tale material was popular. Thus the pieces of Freischütz are more songs than arias, in the sense that they are designed more simply and express more inner feeling than the often expressive drama of the aria. Let’s listen to “Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen”, one of the famous songs of this opera.
The aria is very diverse and consists of various passages: love, sadness and bitterness must be expressed credibly. It begins dramatically and after a short but beautiful transition by the clarinet the beautiful melody begins. A dark tremolo leads into the third dark and slow part, which again demands the dramatic qualities of the tenor.
First listen to Jonas Kaufmann in a beautifully arranged interpretation. Kaufmann is not only a master of the Puccini aria, but also a gifted song singer. Also in the dramatic parts he shines with his dark voice.
Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen (1) – Jonas Kaufmann
Richard Tauber masters both the high and low registers of this aria with a great richness of voice.
Durch die Wälder durch die Auen (2) – Tauber
Kaspar seduces Max to sell his soul
Synopsis: Kaspar, a hunter, is forcing Max to drink with him. Kaspar mocks Max.
Hier im irdischen Jammertal
Synopsis: Max wants to leave, but remains when Kaspar tells him that Kaspar can help him. He gives Max a rifle and lets him shoot a distant eagle. In fact, Max meets the bird and Kaspar claims that he shot with a “Freikugel”. Max knows that you sell your soul to the devil in exchange for the bullets. Max wants the bullets and Kaspar tells him that this night the bullets are available in the wolf’s glen. Kaspar triumphs, he has found a victim.
This aria by Kaspar is not a traditional masterpiece, but it needs a lot of vocal power, because large parts of the piece are written in fortissimo, the more the piece has to be made interesting in order not to sink into coarseness.
Schweig, schweig, damit dich niemand warnt – Terfel
DER FREISCHÜTZ ACT II
Synopsis: In the forester’s lodge the young women are at the spinning wheel. Agathe is waiting for Max. She is worried. When the picture of the ancestor Kuno falls down, she has a dark hunch.
Listen to the duet in the famous Keilberth recording.
Schelm, halt fest (Duett) – Grümmer / Otto
Synopsis: Ännchen tries to cheer Agathe up with a song.
Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen – Streich
The great romantic Lied „Leise, leise fromme Weise“
Synopsis: It’s night, Agathe can’t sleep. She prays in the moonlit night that Max may return soon.
Agathe begins a song that belongs to the greatest treasures that German Romanticism has produced. It is an intimate prayer in a moonlit night. It ends in the ecstatic music of the overture when Max finally comes home.
The aria demands the soprano: crystal clear tones in the first part and lyrical but powerful lines in the second part. A slow introduction tunes us in to the mood of the full moon night. Agathe longs for Max. With a warm voice animated by love Agathe sings the beautiful cantilena “Leise, leise” (Softly, softly, pure song”)”. The singer has to turn this song into a prayer with the confidence but also the restraint a prayer requires. It must be sung in perfect legato.
In the second part the tone becomes more urgent. Horns announce the arrival of Max. The piece changes into an agitato: a recitative phase is introduced with “he is it”. The aria ends with the triumphant theme.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s interpretation is of an overwhelming intensity and yet intimacy.
Wie nahte mir der Schlummer … Leise, leise, fromme Weise – Schwarzkopf
Elisabeth Grümmer had a warm, intimate voice. So the Agathe was one of her parade roles. Accordingly her interpretation is touching and soulful, beautiful.
Wie nahte mir der Schlummer … Leise, leise, fromme Weise – Grümmer
The third recording is one of the great voices of the twenties. Anita Rethberg was the outstanding singer along with Rosa Ponselle. The recording of this aria is one of the greatest sound documents of this singer.
Wie nahte mir der Schlummer … Leise, leise, fromme Weise – Rethberg
Synopsis: Finally Max comes home. But instead of the trophy he has the dead eagle in his hand. He claims to have to leave once more to get a stag he shot in the Wolf Glen. Agathe tries to hold him back, but Max leaves the house.
A beautiful trio unfolds
Wie? Was? Entsetzen! – Grümmer / Streich / Hopf
The famous Wolf Glene scene and von Webers „Special effects“
Synopsis: Kaspar is about to draw a circle it with stones. Invisible spirits sing the praises of the coming sacrificial offering. Kaspar calls Samiel, the devil. He wants to give him Max as booty to prolong his own life. He wants to cast the bullets for Max, whose seventh belongs to evil. Max appears and helps to cast the balls in a demonic ceremony. With each bullet the storm gets bigger until Samiel appears at the seventh bullet and the spook suddenly has an end.
See the scene in a film adaptation from the sixties.
Wolfschluchtszene – Frick / Kozub
DER FREISCHÜTZ ACT III
Entracte – Kleiber
The wedding day begins with the prayerful song of the Agathe
Synopsis: It’s the morning of the wedding day. Agathe is decorated as a bride. She has had a nightmare and she expresses her trust in God.
Accompanied by a solo cello, this aria exudes the solemn atmosphere of the dawning wedding day. The second part is prayerful. She sings about her trust in God who is protecting her. Von Weber was a believing man, so he composed this passage intimately and it must be sung with an almost childlike expression. The piece ends with the beautiful mood of the first part.
In this aria you hear Gundula Janowitz. Her voice was wonderfully clear, almost completely without vibrato. This characteristic makes the prayerfulness of this aria seem supernatural beautiful. A flawless purity characterizes this interpretation.
Und ob die Wolke verhülle – Janowitz
A second version with the beautiful Schwarzkopf pianissimo.
Und ob die Wolke verhülle – Schwarzkopf
Synopsis: Ännchen tries to scare away the tormenting thoughts of her nightmare.
Ännchen is a typical soubrette role, a light soprano with a comedic role. This aria is a coloratura aria sung in a lively version by Lisa Otto from the Keilberth recording.
Trübe Augen – Otto
Synopsis: The bridesmaids come with the bridal wreath. To everyone’s horror there is no wreath in the basket, but a skull.
The young women sing a round dance that has found its way into the folk song.
Wir winden Dir den Jungfernkranz – Kleiber
Von Weber‘s never ending inspirational flow of melodies: the famous Jägerchor
Synopsis: Prince Ottokar and Kuno sit at a table in a romantic landscape listening to the choir of the huntsmen.
From few operas so many melodies have gone into the folk song as from the Freischütz. Weber’s greatest strength (and he had many) is his inspiration for melodies.
Was gleicht wohl auf Erden (Jägerchor) – Kleiber
Synopsis: In the presence of the prince it is time for a trial shot. Max is supposed to shoot at a white dove. As takes aim, Agathe appears shouting, Max shoots and misses the dove. Kaspar and Agathe fall to the ground. Everyone thinks Max shot his bride. But Kaspar was killed. He curses the sky and Samiel dying. The prince has Kaspar’s body thrown into the wolf’s glen. Max confesses his sin. A hermit asks for Max’s forgiveness and Max is granted a trial year after which he may marry Agathe. The piece ends with a final chorus.
See and hear the finale in the filmed version of the Hamburg Opera. (1:40:35).
Finale (ab: 1:40:35) – Kozub / Saunders / Sotin / Mathis / Krause
EMI with Rudolf Schock, Elisabeth Grümmer, Lisa Otto, Karl Christian Kohn conducted by Joseph Keilberth and the Choir of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
DG with Peter Schreier, Gundula Janowitz, Edith Mathis, Theo Adam conducted by Carlos Kleiber and the Staatskapelle Dresden.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to DER FREISCHÜTZ, by Carl Maria von Weber.