THE unusually beautiful overture is an epitome of the work. It begins with an Adagio in C-major, of thirty-six bars, the horn taking the principal part and evidently describing the cheerful serenity of the forester’s life. At the twenty-fifth bar, the strings begin a low tremolo, which gradually forms a fine crescendo and diminuendo. The violin and violoncello move on in a wailing passage, rendered more expressive by three drum-notes heard at intervals. It seems as if Max’s increasing misery whilst under Caspar’s influence is depicted here, and now as the orchestra breaks out in a nervous and spirited movement (Molto vivace, in C-minor), we feel the wildness of his despair and the hopelessness of help from Heaven, by which he imagines himself forsaken. That the composer in-tended this is evident, for he has used the same theme in Max’s grand scena in Act I where the hero expresses all these feelings. The first five bars of this new movement are played in a subdued undertone by the violin and ‘cello, and are then taken up by the entire orchestra. At the twenty-fifth bar succeeds a passage which will be heard in the Incantation Scene at the casting of the sixth bullet. This seems to remind us of Caspar’s success, he having placed Max in the power of the evil spirit. The forty-first, forty-second, forty-third, and forty-fourth bars give us a phrase which not only occurs in the Incantation Scene, but which generally accompanies Caspar, haunting him like a memory of the demon he serves. This phrase will occur in his grand scena, both in the voice part and in the accompaniment, where he exults in obtaining a new victim for his master spirit by means of Max’s promise to accept his charmed bullets, In the overture it answers the double purpose of expressing Caspar’s as well as Samiel’s triumph over Max, and it is rendered still more effective by the next phrase played on the clarinet and evidently depicting Max’s terror at the awful visions. ‘We shall hear this again, for it is Max’s solo in the Incantation Scene. A still more beautiful melody is yet to come at the eighty-seventh bar, where, after gradual modulation to the key of E-flat, the clarinet breathes the exquisite air sung by Agathe in Act II, when she hears her lover coming. This is Agathe’s pure love that is to triumph over everything. This theme the affection of his beloved Agathe may be said to bring consolation to Max, and it greatly relieves the ear of the hearer from the long-continued gloom of the minor key. Again we hear the theme from the Incantation Scene (at bar 123), which is modulated into B-flatminor (at bar 145), when a tremolo begins and lasts for seven bars, modulating to D-sharp-minor, the ‘cello following the modulations on the dark and triumphant motive from Caspar’s scena, which, being thus partially heard, may be considered as the secret exultation of the magician. Immediately we again hear Agathe’s lovely air, the effect of which is heightened this time by the introduction of two notes from the bass after each phrase, which seem to suggest the fate that is preparing for her. A succession of chords leads to a plaintive passage on the wind, accompanied by a tremolo on the violin. This is succeeded by a return of the first theme of the second movement (Molto vivace), repeating Max’s feelings of terror and suspense. The concluding passage of Max’s scena in Act I is now introduced, succeeded by a tremolo of the strings, while the wailing passage that we heard before on the bassoons is still continued. The fateful, solemn notes of the drum are repeated. A gradually decreasing tremolo is modulated into G-major and rendered effective by long pauses, until at bar 243 there is a beautiful transition into C-major and the overture ends, as the opera itself will end, with Agathe’s melody mingled with gay passages. In summing up the instrumentation, which, after all, is very simple, we may notice the quartette of horns, the deep clarinet tones, the tremolo of the strings, the ‘cello cantilena, and the hollow drum-beats.
A contemporary of Weber’s aptly said : ” After you have once seen the whole volume to which this dream-born music is the index, then the conviction of the amazing power by which the imagery of sounds can raise and foster various emotions in the minds of attentive hearers becomes at once apparent.”
It was originally arranged that the curtain should rise on a forest scene with a hermit’s cell; at the back a turf-altar, with a cross or image, and covered with roses. The Hermit is praying before this altar, for he sees in a vision the evil powers planning to entrap Agathe and Max. Agathe enters, bringing him bread, fruit, and milk. The Hermit warns her of the impending danger and gives her his blessing and roses (which later she will wear for her bridal wreath). A duet between the Hermit and Agathe was to have closed this scene. Weber did not compose either the Hermit’s monologue or the duet, but began with the next scene, the village festival. From the explanation of this opening, the story is made clearer. Agathe is under the stronger influence of the spiritual powers ; the significance of the talismanic roses is appreciated ; and the appearance of the Hermit in the last act, which seems so abrupt, is accounted for.
AcT I. The opera opens with a village festival in front of an inn in the Bohemian forest. As the curtain rises, we hear a shot. In the foreground, sits Max (tenor), second huntsman, before a table on which stands a beer-jug; in the background is a target on a pole surrounded by a crowd of people. The target has just been splintered by Kilian (tenor), a rich peasant, who has won the prize for shooting. The people sing a masterly and genial chorus, Victoria ! Victoria ! with a gay accompaniment, followed by a lively March, after which Kilian sings his sprightly song, Schatz der Herr mich an. Exhibiting his ribbon and mark, he calls himself ” King of archers,” and taunts Max, the people supporting him, and their jeering laughter is skilfully expressed in the music.
Max is furious. He rises, places his gun against a tree, and drawing a knife attacks Kilian. The people rush forward to prevent harm, and Cuno (bass), head-forester to Prince Ottokar, Caspar (bass), first huntsman, and other huntsmen enter. Cuno is astonished that Kilian is exulting over Max. Max admits that he was defeated. Caspar tells him that he must call on the Great Hunter. Cuno chides Caspar, and reminds Max that he must shoot with certainty on the morrow, for if not he will have to leave his service and forfeit his daughter’s hand.
Kilian asks the origin of the trial-shot, and Cuno tells how his ancestor, also named Cuno, was made Head-Ranger to the Prince. The Prince, moved with pity at a certain poacher’s fate, promised that post and the manor-right to the Forest Lodge to anyone who would kill the flying stag to which the man was bound. Cuno fired, killing the stag and saving the poacher. His enemies tried to convince the Prince that it was done with a magic bullet. Here he eyes Caspar meaningly. Caspar (aside) calls on Samiel. Kilian says he has heard of magic bullets. Six hit the mark ; but the seventh belongs to the devil. Cuno’s descendants take the trial-shot, and, according to custom, the lucky marksman weds on the match-day.
In the following trio and chorus, O diese Sonne, Max laments his fate and fears the contest, for he is certain that he will lose Agathe ; Cuno tries to cheer him; and Caspar, in a curious phrase of semitones, congratulates him-self upon his magic bullets; while the chorus comments upon Max’s distress.
Cuno, seizing Max’s hand, entreats him to have courage and to trust in Heaven. The chorus of huntsmen and peasants sing of tomorrow’s sport, the merry horns, and of the bridegroom and the bride, Lasst lustig die Hôrner erschallen, in the effective accompaniment to which the horns are very noticeable. Cuno and his companions go.
Kilian begs Max to dance; but he refuses, and to the strains of a delicious waltz, in which the violins and oboes have the chief melody, the gay couples disperse.
Max, alone, begins his recitative, describing the uncertainty of his fate. In his aria, Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen, he describes how he was wont to wander through woods and meadows with unerring rifle, while Agathe always gave him a loving welcome ! Presently we hear the tremolo and the three beats of the drum already noticed in the overture; a gigantic figure appears, clad in dark green and fire-colour and gold, with a cock’s feather adorning the hat that nearly shades the whole of his blackish-yellow face. It is Samiel ; and as Max sees his shadow behind him, he gives a cry of despair. When Max asks if there still lives a God, Samiel, disquieted, steps into the bushes in the background and disappears.
Caspar enters with a maid-servant and sends the latter for wine. He invites Max to drink, and pours a powder into his cup, calling on Samiel, who thrusts his head through the bushes. He speaks to Samiel ; Max asks to whom he spoke. Caspar says to no one. Caspar invites him to drink and sings his Bacchanalian song of unhallowed mirth, Hier im ird’schen Fammerthal, in which, at the end of each verse, a curious and expressive instrumental phrase, which Berlioz calls ” a diabolical sneer,” is played on two piccolos in thirds.
To Caspar’s delight, Max drinks. Caspar sings his second verse. A distant clock strikes seven. Max would go. Caspar says of course he is going to Agathe, but he had better remain and have some help. He asks Max if he does not wish to have a lucky shot to-morrow ? Then, handing him a gun, he bids him fire at a distant eagle, in the devil’s name. Max fires ; a peal of laughter is heard and the eagle falls at Max’s feet. Caspar tells Max that this was a ‘ frei ‘ shot. Caspar arranges the eagle’s feathers in Max’s cap. Max asks for more of these charmed bullets. Caspar has no more, but Max shall have many if he will meet him at the Wolf’s Glen at midnight ! Max promises to do so; Samiel appears, nods, and vanishes; and Max leaves quickly.
Caspar breaks forth in a triumphant song, delighting in the possession of Max, calling on evil spirits for aid, and exulting that his victim is ” bound in the chains of hell,” Schweig, Schweig : Der Hôlle Netz hat dich umgarnt. By gradual modulations from a gloomy minor to a brilliant major key, the emotions of this demoniacal personage seem to increase. Weber never forgets the peculiar character that belongs to Caspar’s music, and here we again hear that mysterious phrase allotted to the piccolos in his Bacchanalian song. The curtain falls.
AcT II. A hall-way in the Forest Lodge with two side entrances. Antlers and gloomy tapestry with hunting-scenes give it an antiquated appearance. In the centre, one entrance hung with curtains leads to a balcony, on one side a spinning-wheel, on the other a large table and upon it a flower-pot with white roses, a lighted lamp, and a white gown with a green ribbon. Agathe (soprano), Cuno’s daughter, in undress, taking a bandage from her head, and Aennchen (soprano), her relative, driving a nail in the wall for the portrait of the first Cuno, which has fallen.
They talk of this portrait in their duet, Schelm ! Halt fest ! Agathe is superstitious and sad about her lover, who still tarries, and Aennchen tries to cheer her and talks about her becoming a bride tomorrow. It is Aennchen who sings the chief air to which Agathe, still longing for Max, adds mournful notes. In a wonderful way does the music of this admired duet depict the contrasting characters of the two girls, Agathe, the tender and dreamy; and Aennchen, the happy, prattling, linnet-like maiden who knows nought of love.
The latter, growing even gayer, sings her lively arietta, beginning with an oboe solo, Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen, about the joy of having a lover. Agathe, having arranged her dress, joins in the last verse.
Agathe says she is sorrowful, because her visit to the Hermit was so depressing. Aennchen asks about it; she only knows he gave her those sanctified roses. Agathe says he predicted danger, and, indeed, the falling picture might have killed her. Aennchen suggests that they retire, but Agathe prefers to wait for Max. Aennchen goes out with the roses.
Agathe opens the curtains of the balcony and a starlit landscape is revealed. In her recitative, Xie nahte mir der Schlummer, and aria, Leise, leise, she meditates upon the beauty of the night and pours forth all the love of her gentle heart. The accompaniment, which paints a summer night, has at first the violas for its bass, beneath a harmony of violins in four parts, the violoncello coming in later to double the violas, while the double basses are omitted altogether. There is also in this song a beautiful example of low and long-held notes on the two flutes which give a dreamy feeling to the scene, and a passage describes the gentle whispering of the evening breeze among the trees. The horn sounds, and, as that instrument is associated in our minds with Max, we are not surprised that Agathe hears her lover coming. As his hat is adorned with feathers, she is sure that he is the victorious marksman, and expresses her joy in that lovely melody heard in the overture.
The country that we see beyond the balcony has grown dark. Max enters and is welcomed by Agathe. He throws his hat on the table, tells her of the eagle he killed, and asks why blood is on her forehead. Aennchen, coming in, tells Max that as Agathe was going to the balcony at seven o’clock to watch for him, the picture fell on her. “That was the hour I killed the eagle,” exclaims Max, aside, Then he tells them he must go to the Wolf’s Glen at midnight. Aennchen remembers the Black Huntsman; Agathe is desperately frightened.
The fearful exclamations of the maidens open the trio, Wie ? Was? Entsetzen ! and in a short solo, with a beautiful accompaniment, Max asks if they think the courage of-a forester should be shaken by the imaginary terrors of midnight, at the storms in the woods, or the scream of a night-bird ; yet as he speaks of these there is a suggestion in the music of the Incantation Scene soon to follow. The maidens try to dissuade him from going, and in a reprise of his solo he says the moon is now bright, but when it is obscured he must go. It darkens almost immediately, and, bidding them farewell, Max says that it is fate that calls him, and they all part.
The scene changes to the Wolf’s Glen, a terrible hollow, the greater part covered with black trees, surrounded by high mountains, from one of which a cascade falls. There is a full, wan moon. Two thunderstorms are drawing together from opposite directions, and crashing with lightning ; a dry and rotten tree shines with phosphoresence. On the other side, upon a knobbed bough, sits a large owl with fiery, wheel-like eyes ; on other trees, ravens and other wood birds.
Caspar, without hat or coat, with his hunter’s bag and hanger, is busy laying a circle with black stones, in the centre of which he places a skull, a crucible, and a bullet mould. A few paces in front, are the eagle’s wing and his materials for casting the bullets.
After a tremolo on the strings, deep clarinet notes, and the weird bassoons, the ghostly chorus of invisible demons predicts Agathe’s death. A bass voice sings the words, ” Milch des Mondes fiel auf’s Kraut,” and the chorus wails “Uhui.” A tremolo is heard in the orchestra with a high note on the piccolo here and there, like the scream of an owl. A distant clock strikes twelve. A transition of key to a lugubrious chord forte is heard, and Caspar invokes the master of evil by thrusting his hanger in the skull and turning it around three times, calling Samiel.
Now we hear the three drum notes which we noticed in the overture and in Max’s aria, Durch die Walder.
There are subterranean noises; a rock is riven; and in its cleft the Black Huntsman appears. A new move-ment (Agitato in C-minor begins. Samiel would know what Caspar desires. ” My term of life is nearly ended,” says Caspar. ” To-morrow,” answers Samiel. While Caspar is in treaty with the forest demon for three years more of life; by offering him Max as a fresh victim, and demanding the power of making magic bullets for Max, the tremolo of the basses and the detached notes on the other instruments evidently describe his agitation and alarm. His own motiv is on the first violins.
Samiel agrees, but demands the seventh bullet for himself. “Yes,” replies Caspar, “you may have it and with it kill the bride.”
“They are no longer in my power,” says Samiel, vanishing amid thunder and lightning.
Caspar rises and wipes his forehead. The hanger and the skull have disappeared, and in their place is a little hearth with glimmering coals, and a bundle of birch rods at its side.
As Caspar takes a deep drink from his flask, we hear that gloomy and mysterious passage played after his Bacchanalian song, but this time in still wilder discords, as if foretelling Caspar’s evil doom. He begins to make the fire, which smokes and blazes, the orchestra illustrating the flame and crackle of the twigs.
Horns now proclaim Max’s arrival. He appears on the rocks and begins his recitative, Ha ! Furchtbar gahnt, with the notes we heard from the clarinet in the overture.
The hooting owl and the mysterious shadows alarm him, and the orchestra gives a scornful laugh from the nether world, as if it were in league with the demons to gain him. As Caspar holds up to his view the eagle’s wing, the composer cleverly introduces a phrase from the laughing chorus that concluded Kilian’s song in Act I, as if to recall to Max’s mind the ridicule he suffered, and thereby to pre-vent him from running away. Max is terribly frightened ; he sings of the chill, the terrors, and the phantoms he sees, and tries to brave them. Caspar calls him to come down : he cannot, for now he sees the ghost of his mother warning him, which a weird figure on the flutes renders even more gruesome. Caspar, with a demoniacal laugh, calls on Samiel’s aid ; the phantom fades, and the wraith of Agathe comes to precipitate herself into the gulf. Max follows, descending into the hollow. The orchestra, which has been perfectly in sympathy with the weird scene, now works up the passages that ended his song of despair in Act I. An appropriate train of ideas is therefore kept up. Caspar begins to work, putting the various ingredients into the crucible, bowing three times and calling on Samiel for his blessing.
Very simple are the means by which Weber accompanies the enchantment of the bullets ; they are familiar to us from the beginning of the overture, simply chords from the stringed instruments ; but a very fanciful musical picture is now presented to us as the metal begins to bubble and hiss, giving a greenish white lustre. A cloud passes over the moon, and the whole region is dark, save for the flickering light from the fire, the glowing eyes of the owl, and the phosphorescent glimmer of the old tree. The orchestra describes this picture marvellously. Caspar casts a bullet, calling ” One ! ” Echo answers “One!” The moon is entirely eclipsed : night-birds and apparitions come into the circle, and hop and flap their wings around the fire, and flute, oboe, and clarinet represent their movements.
Caspar casts another, calling ” Two!” Echo answers ” Two ! ” A black boar rushes out of the thicket, snorting. Clarinets and bassoons take the theme, and the strings continue their weird tremolo.
Caspar pours out another, calling ” Three ! ” Again Echo answers, and a storm rushes through the woods, breaking the branches of the trees and scattering sparks of fire, while monstrous forms appear.
At “Four,” the tramp of horses is heard, and four wheels of fire move over the Glen.
At the casting of “Five,” we hear neighing, barking, the cracking of a whip, and discordant music. A skeleton stag and skeleton horsemen and hounds pass over the foggy air, the wild, nocturnal chase, while a chorus of spirits sings wild music, Durch Berg und Thal, to a most eccentric accompaniment.
At “Six” is heard the cry “Ah! woe!” and Echo answers “Ah! woe! ” A strange storm breaks with thunder, lightning, and hail ; meteors fall, the torrent foams and roars, the rocks are riven, will-o’-the-wisps dart about, and dark-blue flames issue from the earth. Here the orchestra plays presto the phrase that we referred to in the overture (bar 25 of the second movement).
The earth seems to shake; bells seem to ring in the tempest ; Caspar writhes and screams, ” Samiel ! Samiel ! Help ! Seven ! ” Caspar is thrown upon the ground ; Max, also tossed about by the storm, springs from the circle, and grasps the branch of the dead trees, screaming “Samiel ! ”
At this moment the storm quiets, and, in the place of the dead tree, the Black Huntsman stands holding Max’s hand. In a terrible voice Samiel says : ” I am here !”
A distant clock strikes one; there is sudden silence ; Samiel vanishes; Caspar lies with his face to the ground ; Max laughs convulsively ; and to dark and mysterious tremolo chords the curtain falls.
AcT III.After a short entr’acte, the curtain rises upon a little glade in the forest bathed in sunlight. Strains of hunting-music are heard from time to time. Two of Prince Ottokar’s huntsmen are talking. They say there was evidently a disturbance in the Wolf’s Glen last night. Max enters with Caspar. They bid him good day and good luck, and exeunt. Max begs Caspar for more bullets, he has already used three, and has but one left. Caspar, who has also used two, now shoots his remaining one at a fox, and runs away. Max now has the seventh, and that is the devil’s.
The scene changes to Agathe’s room. On a little household altar stands her flower-pot with the white roses, on which the sunshine, coming through the window, falls. Agathe, dressed as a bride, is praying before the altar. She rises and steps forward, and in a cavatina, Und ob die Wolke sie verhulle with ‘cello solo, sings of her trust in Heaven although the hour is dark.
Aennchen enters. She questions Agathe upon her sadness. Agathe is frightened for Max, and also because she had a curious dream last night during the storm. She thought she was a dove, and, when a huntsmen aimed at her, a large bird of prey fell. Aennchen tries to explain this dream.
Agathe is too sad to be comforted, whereupon Aennchen sings an amusing romance, Einst traumte meiner sel’gen Base, describing her aunt’s awful dream of a monster that proved to be their old dog. The viola solo in this has a charming effect, the melody is very quaint and beautiful, and, when the apparition is described, we again have Weber’s favourite tremolo and dismal notes. Then in a lively Allegro, Trübe Augen, Liebchen, she says she hates to see a bride’s face sad, and reminds Agathe that the priest is awaiting her, and the altar lit with tapers, and now the bridesmaids are approaching.
They enter with a wreath and gifts for Agathe, singing Wir winden dir den Fungfernkranz. Aennchen presents Agathe with a box, an heirloom. Before she opens it, Agathe asks to hear her bridal song again. To her horror, the box contains a funeral garland. Aennchen is alarmed by the omen, and, taking the roses from the vase, makes them hastily into a wreath with which she crowns Agathe; then they sing their chorus in a subdued voice, and all go out.
The scene changes to a romantic place in the forest where a hunter’s tent is pitched. Prince Ottokar (tenor), a Prince of Bohemia, is within at a table, feasting with lords and courtiers; on the other side are the huntsmen and game-beaters ; behind them, stags, wild boars, and venison piled up. Outside are Cuno and, near him, Max leaning on his rifle; on the opposite side, Caspar behind a tree, laughing. The huntsmen fill their cups and sing, Was gleicht wohl auf Erden dem Jager vergnügen, extolling the pleasures of the chase.
Ottokar says to Cuno that he approves of his intended son-in-law, although he seems scarcely hardy enough for a huntsman. However, another shot like the three he has made this morning and he is safe. Looking about, he sees a dove and tells Max to shoot at it.
Max aims. Immediately Agathe’s voice calls : ” Do not fire : I am that dove ! ” and she appears with her bridesmaids. The Hermit is also seen on a hill chasing away the dove, which flies into the tree where Caspar is lurking. Max fires into the tree and strikes Caspar. The dove flies off and the chorus sings Schaut O Schaut (” He has killed his bride “).
Agathe dazed, as if awakening, asks ” Where am I ? ” The people give thanks that she lives, and point to the dying Caspar, who says the holy Hermit was beside Agathe all the time, and has saved her.
The three drum-beats are heard, and Samiel appears, visible only to Caspar, who dies cursing. All are shocked. He was ever a wicked man ; he called on the evil spirit ! Ottokar bids the huntsmen carry his body to the Wolf’s Glen, and, turning to Max, asks an explanation. Max tells of the charmed bullets, whereupon Ottokar banishes him from his land, and refuses to grant him Agathe’s hand ; but the Hermit enters and entreats for him in a lovely little solo. ” Heaven speaks through thee,” says Ottokar, and pardons Max. Max’s solo expressing gratitude is repeated by Agathe, and then worked into a chorus, and Agathe’s exquisite air, heard in the overture and in Act I, again breaks forth ” like the first violet that blooms after the gloomy reign of winter.” All, kneeling, sing a simple and effective chorus of gratitude to heaven.