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Why You Shouldnt Miss "Der Freischütz", Germany's First Romantic Opera

Why You Shouldnt Miss "Der Freischütz", Germany's First Romantic Opera

by LIN Jen-pin, BONART CEO

Three-minute Outline of Der Freischütz 


Basic information

Composer: Carl Maria VON WEBER (1786-1826)

Librettist: Johann Friedrich KIND (1768-1843)

Based on the first story from the first volume of the collection of ghost stories Gespensterbuch (1810) by Johann August APEL (1771-1816)

First performance: June 18, 1821, at the Schauspielhaus Berlin


Germany's First Romantic Opera

Soon after two major German operas—MOZART's "The Magic Flute" (1791) and BEETHOVEN's "Fidelio" (1814)—Dresden court composer Carl Maria VON WEBER spent three years meticulously writing his own, "Der Freischütz", which he completed in 1820.


Within the year after its premiere on June 18, 1821, at the Schauspielhaus Berlin, it was performed over 50 times in such major cities as Vienna, Dresden, Leipzig, Hamburg, Munich, Prague, Riga, and Copenhagen, receiving much acclaim. In 1824 and 1825, performances were held in London, Paris, and the US, making it VON WEBER's most important opera and the most iconic and unparalleled work of the early Romantic period.


Era-defining and Beyond

The overture for "Der Freischütz", well-known and often played independently as a concert piece, exhibits two main features:


First: the pure beauty of the simple middle C

When the curtain for the opera rises, the overture resounds with a simple C long note as if to announce the long-awaited advent of the Romantic era. The overture and BEETHOVEN's Symphony are both in C Major and seemingly era-defining. 

The opera's huge success brought German opera to the major venues of Europe, symbolizing German opera's overtake of Italian and gain on French, and how it had finally come to stand on its own and hold its head high in the world. The premiere, coincidentally on the sixth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, pushed German opera fearlessly into the ranks of the long-dominant Italian bel canto and French grand opera. 


Second: VON WEBER, true origin of the leitmotiv

The word "Leitmotiv" was first used by German musicologist Friedrich Wilhelm JAEHNS (1809-1888) in describing VON WEBER's method of composition. Having written a catalogue raisonné of VON WEBER's work, JAEHNS was the most important researcher of the former's music. He claimed that VON WEBER's character motivation and plot hints are what add so much to his art. Moreover, he referred that the composer was the true architect of the Leitmotiv. WAGNER, an avid lover of VON WEBER's work, brilliantly developed the Leitmotiv based on the foundation laid by VON WEBER and subsequently proposed the idea of the gesamtkunstwerk (a piece of art that incorporates many kinds of art), which spurred German opera to its zenith.


Music experts unanimously agree that the success of "Der Freischütz" lies in the fact that it is the most developed Singspiel piece and history's first Romantic opera in German, so its importance and iconic standing are self-evident.


Everything about it is just that pure and beautiful.


Did I mention earlier that VON WEBER and MOZART were related by marriage?


Besides holding the admirable position of Dresden court composer, VON WEBER was the uncle of MOZART's wife, Constanze WEBER.


Seven Magic Bullets, One Devil Curse

Where will that final devil-driven bullet go? Who’s going to die?

Der Freischütz”, is an opera in three acts based on the centuries-old German story of magic bullets that never miss their mark.

Beginning with the overture, VON WEBER uses the absolutely transparent C-major drone to bring us step-by-step into a German collection of suspenseful ghost stories with a supernatural aura, Gespensterbuch. Here, he uses the French horn in four parts to symbolize the life of the main character, a hunter, and a folk-music style in sketching the setting: a simple Bohemian village.


The minor-key Leitmotiv for Samiel (whose part is spoken), the devil, includes a mysterious tremolo to produce a tense sense of the unknown. The clarinet gracefully accompanies Max and Agathe’s love. After a series of setbacks experienced by the protagonists, the music again reverts to a sunny C major to symbolize that evil will not prevail. I believe that people of today will deeply experience that feeling just as the audiences of VON WEBER’s day did. The structure of the overture is so complete with a rich theme and tight connection to the plot, and it is often played on its own as a concert piece.


Battle of the Dramatic and Lyric Sopranos

The opera is not just a story about competing hunters; aside from the seven male protagonists, there are two sopranos: Agathe, the dramatic soprano, and Ännchen, the lyric soprano, each of whom has brilliant arias that make the opera even greater.

The resplendent duet “Schelm, halt’ fest!…” between Agathe and Ännchen in Act II immediately makes apparent the difference between the two sopranos. Agathe’s recitative and aria “Wie nahte mir der Schlummer…Leise, leise, fromme Weise…,” which is dramatic and sees changes in timbre, and her deeply emotional aria “Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle” in Act III are extremely beautiful parts that stand out in the entire opera. Ännchen, Agathe’s younger cousin, has two arias: The first, “Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen,” which comes in the middle of Act II to amuse Agathe, is the most famous, as the lyric, coloratura soprano jumps around the musical register with ease amidst the tempo of a Polish dance. The romantic, dramatic recitative and showy aria “Einst träumte meiner sel'gen Base” in Act III is sung in a tone of earnest as she tells a story of “horror”—that you surprisingly cannot help but laugh at! To hear it is to love it.


Outstanding Phenomenal Orchestration Echoes the Stage and Story

VON WEBER chose major and minor keys to respectively represent the good and evil characters. Whether it be the major keys to represent the goodness of the two sopranos or the minor keys to represent the evil of Kaspar (baritone) and Samiel, the plot and keys chosen are brilliantly linked. In the darkest place in the opera, Wolfsschlucht, where the magic bullets are cast, C minor gives the sense of a stormy evil realm, and the different timbres of the orchestra’s instruments enrich the scene with a diverse display: Whether it be the spirits on stage, the unknown monster, the thunder and lightning, or the horror of the demonic fire from the dark world, you can clearly feel the dramatic atmosphere. That is precisely why this piece is the undisputedly most iconic German Romantic opera.


Do you believe in the devil?

Would you sell your soul and sacrifice the one you love for magic bullets that never miss their mark?

For that story-lover in you, this is the darkest ghost story in fantasy literature ever.

For that melody-lover in you, this piece has the most beautiful, sentiment-filled melodies in German opera.

In 2023, Weiwuying and the Tiroler Landestheater und Symphonieorchester in Innsbruck, Austria, are coproducing Der Freischütz. You definitely won’t want to miss it.

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