A DESCRIPTION of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera, “Der Freischütz,” ought to begin with a study of the overture, since that marvellous composition has lived on and on in the concert-rooms of the world without loss of popularity for nearly a century, while the opera which it introduces has periodically come and gone according to popular whim or the artistic convictions or caprices of managers in all the countries which cultivate opera, except Germany. Why Germany forms an exception to the rule will find an explanation when the character of the opera and its history come under investigation. The overture, notwithstanding its extraordinary charm, is only an exalted example of the pot-pourri class of introductions (though in the classic sonata form), which composers were in the habit of writing when this opera came into existence, and which is still imitated in an ignoble way by composers of ephemeral operettas. It is constructed on a conventional model, and its thematic material is drawn from the music of the opera ; but, like the prelude to Wagner’s lyric comedy, “Die Meister-singer von Nürnberg,” it presents the contents of the play in the form of what many years after its composition came to be called a symphonic poem, and illustrates the ideal which was in Gluck’s mind when, in the preface to “Alceste,” he said, “I imagined that the overture ought to prepare the audience for the action of the piece, and serve as a kind of argument to it.” The atmosphere of the opera is that which pervades the sylvan life of Germany its actualities and its mysteries, the two elements having equal potency. Into the peacefulness of the woods the French horns (“Forest horns,” the Germans call them) usher us at once with the hymn which they sing after a few introductory measures.
But no sooner do we yield to the caress of this mood than there enters the supernatural element which invests the tragical portion of the story. Ominous drum beats under a dissonant tremolo of the strings and deep tones of the clarinets, a plangent declamatory phrase of the violoncellos tell us of the emotions of the hero when he feels himself deserted by Heaven ; the agitated principal subject of the main body of the overture (Molto vivace) proclaims his terror at the thought that he has fallen into the power of the Evil One, while the jubilant second theme gives voice to the happiness of the heroine and the triumph of love and virtue which is the outcome of the drama.
The first glimpse of the opera reveals an open space in a forest and in it an inn and a target-shooting range. Max, a young assistant to the Chief Forester of a Bohemian principality, is seated at a table with a mug of beer before him, his face and attitude the picture of despondency. Hard by, huntsmen and others are grouped around Kilian, a young peasant who fires the last shot in a contest of marksmanship as the scene is disclosed. He hits off the last remaining star on the target, and is noisily acclaimed as Schützenkonig (King of the Marksmen), and celebrated in a lusty song by the spectators, who decorate the victor, and forming a procession bearing the trophies of the match, march around the glade. As they pass Max they point their fingers and jeer at him. Kilian joins in the sport until Max’s fuming ill-humor can brook the humiliation no longer ; he leaps up, seizes the lapel of Kilian’s coat, and draws his hunting-knife. A deadly quarrel seems imminent, but is averted by the coming of Cuno, Chief Forester, and Caspar, who, like Max, is one of his assistants. To the reproaches of Cuno, who sees the mob surging around Max, Kilian explains that there was no ill-will in the mockery of him, the crowd only following an old custom which permitted the people to make sport of a contestant who failed to hit the target, and thus forfeited the right to make trial for the kingship. Cuno is amazed that a mere peasant should have defeated one of his foresters, and that one the affianced lover of his daughter, Agathe, and who, as his son-in-law, would inherit his office, provided he could prove his fitness for it by a trial shot on the wedding day. That day had been set for the morrow. How the custom of thus providing for the successorship originated, Cuno now relates in answer to the questions of one of the party. His great-grandfather, also bearer of the name Cuno, had been one of the rangers of the prince who ruled the dominion in his day. Once upon a time, in the course of a hunt, the dogs started a stag who bounded toward the party with a man tied to his back. It was thus that poachers were sometimes punished. The Prince’s pity was stirred, and he promised that whoever should shoot the stag without harming the man should receive the office of Chief Forester, to be hereditary in the family, and the tenancy of a hunting lodge near by. Cuno, moved more by pity than hope of reward, attempted the feat and succeeded. The Prince kept his promise, but on a suggestion that the old hunter may have used a charmed bullet, he made the hereditary succession contingent upon the success of a trial shot. Before telling the tale, Cuno had warned Max to have a care, for should he fail in the trial shot on the morrow, his consent to the marriage between him and Agathe would be withdrawn. Max had suspected that his ill luck for a month past, during which time he had brought home not a single trophy of bird or beast, was due to some malign influence, the cause of which he was unable to fathom. He sings of the prowess and joys that once were his (Aria : “Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen”), but falls into a moody dread at the thought that Heaven has forsaken him and given him over to the powers of darkness. It is here that the sinister music, mentioned in the outline of the overture, enters the drama. It accompanies the appearance of Samiel (the Wild Huntsman, or Black Hunter, in short, the Devil), and we have thus in Von Weber’s opera a pre-Wagnerian example of the Leitmotif of the Wagnerian commentators. Caspar returns to the scene, which all the other personages have left to join in a dance, and finds his associate in the depths of despair. He plies Max with wine, and, affecting sympathy with him in his misfortunes, gradually insinuates that there is a means of insuring success on the morrow. Max remains sceptical until Caspar hands him his rifle and bids him shoot at an eagle flying overhead. The bird is plainly out of rifle range, a mere black dot against the twilight sky ; but Max, scarcely aiming, touches the trigger and an eagle of gigantic size comes hurtling through the air and falls at his feet. Max is convinced that there is a sure way to win his bride on the morrow. He asks Caspar if he has more bullets like the one just spent. No ; that was the hunter’s last ; but more might be obtained, provided the effort be made that very night. The moment was propitious. It was the second of three days in which the sun was in the constellation of the Archer; at midnight there would occur an eclipse of the moon. What a fortunate coincidence that all the omens should be fair at so momentous a juncture of Max’s affairs ! The fear of losing his bride overcomes Max’s scruples; he agrees to meet the tempter in the Wolf’s Glen, a spot of evil repute, at midnight, and at least witness the casting of more of the charmed bullets.
At the moment when Max’s shot brought down the eagle, a portrait of the original Cuno fell from the wall of the cottage occupied by his descendant; and when the second act begins, we see Aennchen, a cousin of Agathe’s, putting it back in its place. Aennchen is inclined to be playful and roguish, and serves as a pretty foil to the sentimental Agathe. She playfully scolds the nail which she is hammering into the wall again for so rudely dropping the old ranger to the floor, and seeks to dispel the melancholy which has obsessed her cousin by singing songs about the bad companionship of the blues and the humors of courtship. She succeeds, in a measure, and Agathe confesses that she had felt a premonition of danger ever since a pious Hermit, to whom she had gone for counsel in the course of the day, had warned her of the imminency of a calamity which he could not describe. The prediction seemed to have been fulfilled in the falling of the picture, which had slightly hurt her, but might easily have killed her. Aennchen urges her to go to bed, but she refuses, saying she shall not retire for sleep until Max has come. Agathe sings the scena which has clung to our concert-rooms as persistently as the overture. The slow portion of the aria (“Leise, leise, fromme Weise”), like the horn music at the beginning of the overture, has found its way into the Protestant hymn-books of England and America, and its Allegro furnishes forth the jubilant music of the instrumental introduction to the opera. Berlioz in his book “A Travers Chants” writes in a fine burst of enthusiasm of this scena: “It is impossible for any listener to fail to hear the sighs of the orchestra during the prayer of the virtuous maiden who awaits the coming of her affianced lover; or the strange hum in which the alert ear imagines it hears the rustling of the tree-tops. It even seems as if the darkness grew deeper and colder at that magical modulation to C major. What a sympathetic shudder comes over one at the cry : “Tis he ! ’tis he !’ No, no. It must be confessed, there is no other aria as beautiful as this. No master, whether German, Italian, or French, was ever able to delineate, as is done here in a single scene, holy prayer, melancholy, disquiet, pensiveness, the slumber of nature, the mysterious harmony of the starry skies, the torture of expectation, hope, uncertainty, joy, frenzy, delight, love delirious ! And what an orchestra to accompany these noble song melodies ! What inventiveness ! What ingenious discoveries ! What treasures of sudden inspiration ! These flutes in the depths ; this quartet of violins ; these passages in sixths between violas and ‘cellos; this crescendo bursting into refulgence at the close; these pauses during which the passions seem to be gathering themselves together in order to launch their forces anew with greater vehemence ! No, this piece has not its fellow ! Here is an art that is divine ! This is poetry; this is love itself !”
Max comes at last, but he is preoccupied, and his words and acts do little to reassure Agathe. She wants to know what luck he had at the shooting-match, and he replies that he did not participate in the target-shooting, but had nevertheless been marvellously lucky, pointing to the eagle’s feather in his hat as proof. At the same moment he notices the blood upon his sweetheart’s hair, and her ex-planation of the falling of the portrait of her ancestor just as the clock struck seven greatly disturbs him. Agathe, too, lapses into gloomy brooding; she has fears for the morrow, and the thought of the monstrous eagle terrifies her. And now Max, scarcely come, announces that he must go; he had shot, he says, a stag deep in the woods near the Wolf’s Glen, indeed, and must bring it in lest the peasants steal it. In a trio Aennchen recalls the uncanny nature of the spot, Agathe warns against the sin of tempting Providence and begs him to stay; but Max protests his fearlessness and the call of duty, and hurries away to meet Caspar, at the appointed time in the appointed place. We see him again in the Wolf’s Glen, but Caspar is there before him. The glen lies deep in the mountains. A cascade tumbles down the side of a mighty crag on the one hand ; on the other sits a monstrous owl on the branch of a blasted tree, blinking evilly. A path leads steeply down to a great cave. The moon throws a lurid light on the scene and shows us Caspar in his shirt-sleeves preparing for his infernal work. He arranges black stones in a circle around a skull. His tools lie beside him: a ladle, bullet-mould, and eagle’s-wing fan. The high voices of an invisible chorus utter the cry of the owl, which the orchestra mixes with gruesome sounds, while bass voices monotonously chant :
Poisoned dew the moon hath shed, Spider’s web is dyed with red; Ere tomorrow’s sun hath died Death will wed another bride. Ere the moon her course has run Deeds of darkness will be done.’
On the last stroke of a distant bell which rings midnight, Caspar thrusts his hunting-knife into the skull, raises it on high, turns around three times, and summons his familiar :
By th’ enchanter’s skull, oh, hear, Samiel, Samiel, appear !
The demon answers in person, and the reason of Caspar’s temptation of Max is made plain. He has sold himself to the devil for the charmed bullets, the last of which had brought down the eagle, and the time for the delivery of his soul is to come on the morrow. He asks a respite on the promise to deliver another victim into the demon’s hands, his companion Max. What, asks the Black Huntsman, is the proffered victim’s desire? The magical bullets.
Sechse treffen, Sieben affen !
warns Samiel, and Caspar suggests that the seventh bullet be directed to the heart of the bride; her death would drive both lover and father to despair. But Samiel says that as yet he has no power over the maiden ; he will claim his victim on the morrow, Max or him who is already his bondsman. Caspar prepares for the moulding. The skull disappears, and in its place rises a small furnace in which fagots are aglow. Ghostly birds, perched on the trees round about in the unhallowed spot, fan the fire with their wings. Max appears on a crag on one side of the glen and gazes down. The sights and sounds below affright him ; but he summons up his courage and descends part way. Suddenly his steps are arrested by a vision of his dead mother, who appears on the opposite side of the gulch and raises her hand warningly. Caspar mutters a prayer for help to the fiend and bids Max look again. Now the figure is that of Agathe, who seems about to throw herself into the mountain torrent. The sight nerves him and he hurries down. The moon enters into an eclipse, and Caspar begins his infernal work after cautioning Max not to enter the circle nor utter a word, no matter what he sees or who comes to join them. Into the melting-pot Caspar now puts the ingredients of the charm : some lead, bits of broken glass from a church window, a bit of mercury, three bullets that have already hit their mark, the right eye of a lapwing, the left of a lynx ; then speaks the conjuration formula:
Thou who roamst at midnight hour, Samiel, Samiel, thy pow’r ! Spirit dread, be near this night And complete the mystic rite. By the shade of murderer’s dead, Do thou bless the charmed lead. Seven the number we revere; Samiel, Samiel, appear !
The contents of the ladle commence to hiss and burn with a greenish flame ; a cloud obscures the moon wholly, and the scene is lighted only by the fire under the melting-pot, the owl’s eyes, and the phosphorescent glow of the decaying oaks. As he casts the bullets, Caspar calls out their number, which the echoes repeat. Strange phenomena ac-company each moulding ; night-birds come flying from the dark woods and gather around the fire; a black boar crashes through the bushes and rushes through the glen ; a hurricane hurtles through the trees, breaking their tops and scattering the sparks from the furnace ; four fiery wheels roll by; the Wild Hunt dashes through the air ; thunder, lightning, and hail fill the air, flames dart from the earth, and meteors fall from the sky ; at the last the Black Hunter himself appears and grasps at Max’s hand; the forester crosses himself and falls to the earth, where Caspar already lies stretched out unconscious. Samiel disappears, and the tempest abates. Max raises himself convulsively and finds his companion still lying on the ground face downward.
At the beginning of the third act the wedding day has dawned. It finds Agathe kneeling in prayer robed for the wedding. She sings a cavatina (“Und ob die Wolken sie verhülle “) which proclaims her trust in Providence. Aennchen twits her for having wept; but “bride’s tears and morning rain neither does for long remain.” Agathe has been tortured by a dream, and Aennchen volunteers to interpret it. The bride had dreamt that she had been transformed into a white dove and was flying from tree to tree when Max discharged his gun at her. She fell stricken, but immediately afterward was her own proper self again and saw a monstrous black bird of prey wallowing in its blood. Aennchen explains all as reflexes of the incidents of the previous night the work on the white bridal dress, the terrible black feather on Max’s hat ; and merrily tells a ghostly tale of a nocturnal visitor to her sainted aunt which turned out to be the watch-dog. Enter the bridesmaids with their song.
Nearly three generations of Germans have sung this song; it has accompanied them literally from the cradle to the grave. When Ludwig Geyer, Richard Wagner’s stepfather, lay dying, the lad, then seven years old, was told to play the little piece in a room adjoining the sick chamber. The dying man had been concerned about the future of his stepson. He listened. “What if he should have talent for music?” Long years after the mother told this story, and the son, when he became famous as a composer, repeated it in one of his autobiographical writings, and told with what awe his childish eyes had looked on the composer as he passed by the door on the way to and from the theatre.
Evil omens pursue Agathe even on her bridal morn. The bridesmaids are still singing to her when Aennchen brings a box which she thinks contains’ the bridal wreath. All fall back in dismay when out comes a funeral wreath of black. Even Aennchen’s high spirits are checked for a moment; but she finds an explanation. Old Cuno has tumbled from the wall a second time ; but she herself assumes the blame : the nail was rusty and she not an adept with the hammer. The action now hastens to its close. Prince Ottokar, with his retainers, is present at the festival at which Max is to justify Cuno’s choice of him as a son-in-law. The choice meets with the Prince’s approval. The moment approaches for the trial shot, and Max stands looking at the last of his charmed bullets, which seems to weigh with ominous heaviness in his hand. He had taken four of the seven and Caspar three. Of the four he had spent three in unnecessary shots ; but he hopes that Caspar has kept his. Of course Caspar has done nothing of the kind. It is suggested that Max shoot at once, not awaiting the arrival of his betrothed, lest the sight of her make him nervous. The Prince points to a white dove as the mark, and Max lifts his gun. At the moment Agathe rushes forward, crying, “Do not shoot; I am the dove !” The bird flies toward a tree which Caspar, impatient for the coming of his purposed victim, had climbed. Max follows it with his gun and pulls the trigger. Agathe and Caspar both fall to the ground. The holy man of the woods raises Agathe, who is unhurt; but Caspar dies with curses for everything upon his lips. The devil has cared for his own and claimed his forfeit. Ottokar orders his corpse thrown amongst the carrion in the Wolf’s Glen and turns to Max for an explanation. He confesses his wrong and is ordered out of the Prince’s dominion; but on the intercession of Cuno, Agathe, and the Hermit the sentence is commuted to a year of probation, at the end of which time he shall marry his love. But the traditional trial shot is abolished.
Though there are a dozen different points of view from which Weber’s opera “Der Freischütz” is of fascinating interest, it is almost impossible for any one except a German to understand fully what the opera means now to the people from whose loins the composer sprung, and quite impossible to realize what it meant to them at the time of its production. “Der Freischütz” is spoken of in all the handbooks as a “national” opera. There are others to which the term might correctly and appropriately be applied German, French, Italian, Bohemian, Hungarian, Russian; but there never was an opera, and there is no likelihood that there ever will be one, so intimately bound up with the loves, feelings, sentiments, emotions, superstitions, social customs, and racial characteristics of a people as this is with the loves, feelings, sentiments, emotions, superstitions, social customs, and racial characteristics of the Germans. In all its elements as well as in its history it is inextricably intertwined with the fibres of German nationality. It could not have been written at another time than it was ; it could not have been written by any other composer living at that time; it could not have been conceived by any artist not saturated with Germanism. It is possible to argue one’s self into a belief of these things, but only the German can feel them. Yet there is no investigator of comparative mythology and religion who ought not to go to the story of the opera to find an illustration of one of the pervasive laws of his science ; there is no folklorist who ought not to be drawn to its subject; no student of politics and sociology who cannot find valuable teachings in its history ; no critic who can afford to ignore its significance in connection with the evolution of musical styles and schools ; no biographer who can fail to observe the kinship which the opera establishes between the first operatic romanticist and him who brought the romantic movement to its culmination ; that is, between Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner. It is even a fair subject for the study of the scientific psychologist, for, though the story of the opera is generally supposed to be a fanciful structure reared on a legendary foundation, it was a veritable happening which gave it currency a century ago and brought it to the notice of the composer; and this happening may have an explanation in some of the psychical phenomena to which modern science is again directing attention, such as hypnotism, animal magnetism, and the like.
I am here not at all fanciful. Some thirty years ago I came across a pamphlet published by Dr. J. G. Th. Grasse, a Saxon Court Councillor, in which he traced the origin of the story at the base of “Der Freischütz” to a confession made in open court in a Bohemian town in 1710. Grasse found the story in a book entitled “Monathliche Unterredungen aus dem Reich der Geister,” published in Leipsic in 1730, the author of which stated that he had drawn the following: statement of facts from judicial records : In 1710 in a town in Bohemia, George Schmid, a clerk, eighteen years old, who was a passionate lover of target-shooting, was persuaded by a hunter to join in an enterprise for moulding charmed bullets on July 30, the same being St. Abdon’s Day. The hunter promised to aid the young man in casting sixty-three bullets, of which sixty were to hit in-fallibly and three to miss just as certainly. The two men provided themselves with coals, moulds, etc., and betook themselves at nightfall to a cross-roads. There the hunter drew a circle with his knife and placed mysterious characters, the meaning of which his companion did not know, around the edge. This done, he told the clerk to step within the ring, take off his clothing, and make denial of God and the Holy Trinity. The bullets, said the hunter, must all be cast between eleven o’clock and midnight, or the clerk would fall into the clutches of the devil. At eleven o’clock the dead coals began to glow of their own accord, and the two men began the moulding, although all manner of ghostly apparitions tried to hinder them. At last there came a horseman in black, who demanded the bullets which had been cast. The hunter refused to yield them up, and in revenge the horseman threw something into the fire which sent out so noisome an odor that the two venturesome men fell half dead within the circle. The hunter escaped, and, as it turned out subsequently, betook himself to the Salzkammergut, near Salzburg; but the clerk was found lying at the cross-roads and carried into town. There he made a complete confession in court, and because he had had intercourse with the Evil One, doubtless, was condemned to be burned to death. In consideration of his youth, however, the sentence was commuted to imprisonment at hard labor for six years.
In the legend of the Wild Huntsman, who under the name of Samiel purchases the souls of men with his magic bullets, the folklorist and student of the evolution of religions sees one of many evidences of ancient mythology perverted to bring it into the service of Christianity. Originally the Wild Hunts-man was Odin (or Wotan). The missionaries to the Germans, finding it difficult to root out belief in the ancient deities, gave their attributes to saints in a few cases, but for the greater part transformed them into creatures of evil. It was thus that Frau Holle (or Holda) became a wicked Venus, as we shall see in the next chapter. The little spotted beetle which English and American children call ladybug or lady-bird (that is, the bug or bird of our Lady), the Germans Marienkaferchen, and the French La bête du bon Dieu, was sacred to Holda; and though the name of the Virgin Mary was bestowed upon it in the long ago, it still remains a love oracle, as the little ones know who bid it
Fly to the East, And fly to the West, And fly to the one that I love best !
It was the noise of Wotan’s hunting train which the ancient Germans heard when the storms of winter howled and whistled through the deep woods of the Northland ; but in time it came to be the noise of the Wild Hunt. In Thuringia the rout headed by Frau Holda and the Wild Huntsman issues in the Yuletide from the cave in the Horselberg, which is the scene of Tannhauser’s adventure with Venus in Wagner’s opera, and Holda is the mother of many of the uncanny creatures which strike terror to the souls of the unlucky huntsmen who chance to espy them.
From the story drawn from the records of the Bohemian law court, it is plain that to make a compact with the Wild Huntsman was a much more gruesome and ceremonious proceeding than that which took place between Faust and the Evil One in the operas of Gounod and Boito. In both these instances a scratch of the pen sufficed, and the de-liberations which preceded the agreement were conducted in a decorous and businesslike manner. But to invoke Samiel and obtain his gifts was a body, mind, and nerve-racking business. In some particulars the details differed a little from those testified to by the Bohemian clerk. In the first place, the Devil’s customer had to repair to a cross-roads of a Friday between midnight and one o’clock when the moon was in an eclipse and the sun in Sagittarius. If in such a place and at such a time he drew a circle around himself with his hunting-spear and called “Samiel !” three times, that worthy would appear, and a bargain might be driven with him for his wares, which consisted of seven magical bullets (” free bullets,” they were called), which were then cast under the eye of the Evil One and received his “blessing.” The course of six of them rested with the “free shooter,” but the seventh belonged to Samiel, who might direct it wheresoever he wished. The price of these bullets was the soul of the man who moulded them, at the end of three years ; but it was the privilege of the bondsman to purchase a respite before the expiration of the period by delivering another soul into the clutches of the demon.
Weber used all these details in his opera, and added to them the fantastic terrors of the Wild Hunt and the Wolf’s Glen. Of this favored abode of the Evil One, Wagner gave a vivid description in an essay on “Der Freischütz” which he wrote for the Gazette musicale in May, 1841, when the opera was pre-paring, under the hand of Berlioz, for representation at the Grand Opéra in Paris. Wagner’s purpose in writing the essay was to acquaint the Parisians with the contents and spirit of the piece, make them understand its naïve Teutonism, and also to save it from the maltreatment and mutilation which he knew it would have to suffer if it were to be made to conform to the conventions of the Académie. He wanted to preserve the spoken dialogue and keep out the regulation ballet, for the sake of which he had to make changes in his “Tannhauser” twenty years later. He failed in both efforts, and afterward wrote an account of the performance for a German newspaper, which is one of the best specimens of the feuilleton style which his sojourn in Paris provoked. There was no need of telling his countrymen what the Wolf’s Glen was, for it had been the most familiar of all scenes in the lyric theatres of Germany for a score of years, but for the Parisians he pictured the place in which Weber’s hero meets Samiel very graphically indeed:
“In the heart of the Bohemian Forest, old as the world, lies the Wolf’s Glen. Its legend lingered till the Thirty Years’ War, which destroyed the last traces of German grandeur; but. now, like many another boding memory, it has died out from the folk. Even at that time most men only knew the gulch by hearsay. They would relate how some gamekeeper, straying on indeterminable paths through wild, untrodden thickets, scarce knowing how, had come to the brink of the Wolf’s Gulch. Returning, he had told of gruesome sights he had there seen, at which the hearer crossed himself and prayed the saints to shield him from ever wandering to that region. Even on his approach the keeper had heard an eerie sound; though the wind was still, a muffled moaning filled the branches of the ancient pines, which bowed their dark heads to and fro unbidden. Arrived at the verge, he had looked down into an abyss whose depths his eye could never plumb. Jagged reefs of rock stood high in shape of human limbs and terribly distorted faces. Beside them heaps of pitch-black stones in form of giant toads and lizards ; they moved and crept and rolled in heavy ragged masses ; but under them the ground could no more be distinguished. From thence foul vapors rose incessantly and spread a pestilential stench around. Here and there they would divide and range themselves in ranks that took the form of human beings with faces all convulsed. Upon a rotting tree-trunk in the midst of all these horrors sat an enormous owl, torpid in its daytime roost; behind it a frowning cavern, guarded by two monsters direly blent of snake and toad and lizard. These, with all the other seeming life the chasm harbored, lay in deathlike slumber, and any movement visible was that of one plunged in deep dreams ; so that the forester had dismal fears of what this odious crew might wake into at midnight.
“But still more horrible than what he saw, was what he heard. A storm that stirred nothing, and whose gusts he himself could not feel, howled over the glen, paused suddenly, as if listening to itself, and then broke out again with added fury. Atrocious cries thronged from the pit; then a flock of count-less birds of prey ascended from its bowels, spread like a pitch-black pall across the gulf, and fell back again into night. The screeches sounded to the huntsman like the groans of souls condemned, and tore his heart with anguish never felt before. Never had he heard such cries, compared to which the croak of ravens was as the song of nightingales. And now again deep silence; all motion ceased; only in the depths there seemed a sluggish writhing, and the owl flapped its wings as though in a dream. The most undaunted huntsman, the best acquainted with the wood’s nocturnal terrors, fled like a timid roe in speechless agony, and, heedless where his footsteps bore him, ran breathless to the nearest hut, the nearest cabin, to meet some human soul to whom to tell his horrible adventure, yet ne’er could find words in which to frame it.”
So much for the folklore and mythology of “Der Freischütz,” the element which makes it not only a national but also the chiefest of romantic operas. We are grown careless in our use of musical terms, or else it would not be necessary to devote words to an explanation of what is meant by romantic in this case. We hear a great deal about romanticism as contradistinguished from classicism, but it is seldom that we have the line of demarcation between the two tendencies or schools drawn for us. Classical composers, I am inclined to think, are composers of the first rank who have developed music to its highest perfection on its formal side in obedience to long and widely accepted laws, preferring aesthetic beauty over emotional content, or, at any rate, refusing to sacrifice form to characteristic expression. Romantic composers would then be those who have sought their ideals in other directions and striven to give them expression irrespective of the restrictions and limitations of form composers who, in short, prefer content to manner. In the sense of these definitions, Weber’s opera is a classic work, for in it the old forms which Wagner’s influence destroyed are preserved. Never the less, “Der Freischütz” is romantic in a very particular sense, and it is in this romanticism that its political significance to which I have referred lies. It is romantic in subject and the source of its inspiration. This source is the same to which the creators of the romantic school of literature went for its subjects the fantastical stories of chivalry and knighthood, of which the principal elements were the marvellous and supernatural. The literary romanticists did a great deal to encourage patriotism among the Germans in the beginning of the nineteenth century by disclosing to the German people the wealth of their legendary lore and the beauty of their folk-songs. The circumstances which established the artistic kinship between Von Weber and Wagner, to which I have alluded, was a direct fruit of this patriotism. In 1813 Von Weber went to Prague to organize a German opera. A part of the following summer he spent in Berlin. Prussia was leading Europe in the effort to throw off the yoke of Bonaparte, and the youths of the Prussian capital, especially the students, were drunken with the wine of Körner’s “Lyre and Sword.” While returning to Prague Von Weber stopped for a while at the castle Gräfen-Tonna, where he composed some of Körner’s poems, among them “Lützow’s wilde Jagd” and the “Schwertlied.” These songs were soon in everybody’s mouth and acted like sparks flung into the powder-magazine of national feeling. Naturally they reacted upon the composer himself, and under their influence and the spirit which they did so much to foster Weber’s Germanism developed from an emotion into a religion. He worked with redoubled zeal in behalf of German opera at Prague, and when he was called to be Court Music Director in Dresden in 1817, he entered upon his duties as if consecrated to a holy task. He had found the conditions more favorable to German opera in the Bohemian capital than in the Saxon. In Prague he had sloth and indifference to overcome; in Dresden the obstacles were hatred of Prussia, the tastes of a court and people long accustomed to Italian traditions, and the intrigues of his colleagues in the Italian opera and the church. What I wrote some eighteen years ago of Weber’s labors in Dresden may serve again to make plain how the militant Germanism of the composer achieved its great triumph.
The Italian régime was maintained in Dresden through the efforts of the conductor of the Italian opera, Morlacchi; the concert master, Poledro; the church composer, Schubert, and Count von Einsiedel, Cabinet Minister. The efforts of these men placed innumerable obstacles in Weber’s path, and their influence heaped humiliations upon him. Confidence alone in the ultimate success of his efforts to regenerate the lyric drama sustained him in his trials. Against the merely sensuous charm of suave melody and lovely singing he opposed truthfulness of feeling and conscientious endeavor for the attainment of a perfect ensemble. Here his powers of organization, trained by his experiences in Prague, his perfect knowledge of the stage, imbibed with his mother’s milk, and his unquenchable zeal, gave him amazing puissance. Thoroughness was his watch-word. He put aside the old custom of conducting while seated at the pianoforte, and appeared before his players with a baton. He was an inspiration, not a figurehead. His mind and his emotions dominated theirs, and were published in the performance. He raised the standard of the chorus, stimulated the actors, inspected the stage furnishings and costumes, and stamped harmony of feeling, harmony of understanding, and harmony of effort upon the first work undertaken a performance of Méhul’s “Joseph in Egypt.” Nor did he confine his educational efforts to the people of the theatre. He continued in Dresden the plan first put into practice by him in Prague of printing articles about new operas in the newspapers to stimulate public appreciation of their characteristics and beauties. For a while the work of organization checked his creative energies, but when his duties touching new music for court or church functions gave him the opportunity, he wrote with undiminished energy.
In 1810 Apel’s “Gespensterbuch” had fallen into his hands and he had marked the story of “Der Freischütz” for treatment. His mind reverted to it again in the spring of 1817. Friedrich Kind agreed to write the book, and placed it complete in his hands on March 1, nine days after he had under-taken the commission. Weber’s enthusiasm was great, but circumstances prevented him from devoting much time to the composition of the opera. He wrote the first of its music in July, 1817, but did not complete it till May 13, 1820. It was in his mind during all this period, however, and would doubtless have been finished much earlier had he received an order to write an opera from the Saxon court. In this expectation he was disappointed, and the honor of having encouraged the production of the most national opera ever written went to Berlin, where the patriotism which had been warmed by Weber’s setting of Korner’s songs was still ablaze, and where Count Bruhl’s plans were discussing to bring him to the Prussian capital as Capellmeister. The opera was given on June 18, 1821, under circumstances that produced intense excitement in the minds of Weber’s friends. The sympathies of the musical areopagus of Berlin were not with Weber or his work neither before nor after the first performance; but Weber spoke to the popular heart, and its quick, responsive throb lifted him at once to the crest of the wave which soon deluged all Germany. The overture had to be repeated to still the applause that followed its first performance, and when the curtain fell on the las scene, a new chapter in German art had been opened.1
1 As I write it is nearly eighty-five years since “Der Freischutz” was first heard in New York. The place was the Park Theatre and the date March 2, 1825. The opera was only four years old at the time, and, in conformity with the custom of the period, the representation, which was in English, no doubt was a very different affair from that to which the public has become accustomed since. But it is interesting to know that there is at least one opera in the Metropolitan list which antedates the first Italian performance ever given in America. Even at that early day the scene in the Wolf’s Glen created a sensation. The world over “Der Freischutz” is looked upon as peculiarly the property of the Germans, but a German performance of it was not heard in New York till 1856, when the opera was brought out under the direction of Carl Bergmann, at the old Broadway Theatre. Opera Guide – Der FreischutzOpera PotpourriDer Freischutz @ Wikipedia