Overture to “Der Freischütz”
The overture to “Der Freischütz” is the prelude to a romantic opera. In the last thirty years there have been some thrilling first performances, but I would exchange most of the premieres I have attended for that oneto have sat in with the young generation, and the poets and patriots who stirred to the new music, hearing in it, with sudden, incredulous joy, the things they had despaired of ever hearing, though they had held them sacred and inviolate in themselves. For the overture to “Der Freischütz,” to the German audiences of 1821,1 was a song of deliverance from a black-shadowed past, and the emblem of a new day.
1 There were performances of the overture before the opera saw the stage. The first of these took place at Copenhagen, Oct. 8, 1820, when Weber was touring North Germany and Denmark. The first performance of the opera was at Berlin, June 18, 1821.
There is no need here to go into historical detail, save to remark that the composition of “Der Frei-schütz” was synchronous in Germany with the throwing off a foreign yoke and a resulting new national consciousness in, art. And I remember the saying of someone, whose name I have forgotten, that he did not care who made a nation’s laws if he could make its songs. Armies had won Germany her freedom, statesmen were plotting and planning the empire that was to crumble in the evil days of “balance of power.” Armies, statesmen and Empire have vanished. What remains of that day of youth and dawn is immortally sung by Weber and artists of his age.
The other day I came across Wagner’s reference in his autobiography to the indelible impression this mu-sic made upon him when, as a boy, he refused to study but would sit at the piano and bang away at the “Freischütz” overture; when his stepfather, slowly. dying, heard the problematic Richard thumping a ditty in the next room, and turned to his wife, saying, “Is it possible that he has musical talent?” when, later on, the ghosts of Weber and Beethoven appeared in a dream to the composer-to-be and urged him on. And Wagner speaks of the sensation of mystery and suspense he experienced when he heard the opening C of this overture, intoned softly by the strings. That C was to inspire other, composers than Wagner. It struck from German operatic art the shackles of a foreign culture. It liberated her lyric theater from the domination of the Italian stylea thing which even such giants as Mozart and Beethoven had been unable to do. It admitted nature, which hitherto had been kept at a respectful distance, to the opera house. And it created a whole school of music drama in Weber’s train.
The opera is based on a folk-tale of the Black For-est. It tells of the deliverance of the young hunter, Max, from the snares of Satan and the bullets which destroy not only men’s bodies but souls. He is saved by the love and faith of Agatha, his betrothed. The jubilant conclusion of the overture connotes the victory of young love, the confusion of the Fiend, and rejoicing of the people.
The overture begins with that C which so impressed Wagner’s imagination, and a short phrase which branches from it, singularly evocative of the fragrance of the forest. The horn quartet plays a solemn chorale, symbol of faith and prayer. And now a shadow falls over the orchestra, with the tremolo of the strings, pluckings of the basses, and a prophesying ‘cellopremonition of evil. This is the introduction. The main body of the overture opens with agitation and storm. A passage which excited the admiration of Hector Berlioz, the French composer, is as thrilling today as it was to him in the Twenties: It comes with the wild outcry of the horns, three’ times repeated, and the clarinet that wails over the vibrating strings. In the opera this phrase is sung by Maxas, at midnight, he stares down in terror at the devilish incantations in the Wolf’s Glen. In the overture the effect, without the words, without the scene, is even more appealing to the imagination. “0 Weber!” cries Berlioz, in his “Treatise on Instrumentation,” apostrophizing this evocation of “distance, echo… twilight sound.” He says elsewhere that this theme moves him “incomparably more than all the rest. It strikes home to the heart, and for me at least, this virginal song, which seems to breathe skyward a timid reproach, while a somber harmony shudders and threatens, is one of the most novel, poetic and beautiful contrasts that modern art has produced in mu-sic.” Soon after, as if in response to the clarinet, an exultant air is played softly by the strings. Then more tumult. Then, for the last time, the shadow again creeping over the orchestra. But this is not to be. There is a pause, and a shout of triumphemergence forever from the darkness into the day, into the sunand the apotheosis, with the chivalric flourishes, so characteristic of Weber, of the triumphal song.
This “Freischütz” overture, which flung open the doors to so much that was new in music, is prophetic of the whole art of modern instrumentation. In Weber’s orchestra, as never before, each instrument has its individuality, is inhabited by a special demon who does the master’s bidding. The tone-tints are combined with as much variety as a painter’s colors are combined on his palette. Even Beethoven, a greater composer than Weber, and one who wrought great changes in the orchestra, had not, Weber’s modern sense of tone-color and instinct for the picturesque. Here in the “Freischiuitz” overture is nature-painting, vivid, instantaneousnot a conventionalized canvas, not a design in black and white, but a tone-picture of the forest itself, the tossing trees, the song of the wind, the mystery of the night. True, the demons inhabiting this orchestra are tamer today than they were in Weber’s time. We are not terrified by them. His music is actually very simple and for that reason the more appropriate to the naive folk-tale. But it is epochal. We cannot overestimate the genius of it, or sufficiently venerate its purity and freshness of inspiration. Here, indeed, is the fountain that Ponce de Leon sought. 0 Weber! your genius, your youth, your vision of the dawn!