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Title page of the vocal score of the first London production. London, [1824]. Artist of vignette unknown.

Carl Maria von WEBER: Der Freischütz

June 2021

First performed 18 June 1821 at the Schauspielhaus, Berlin

First performed in London as Der Freischutz; Or, The Seventh Bullet, 22 July 1824 at the Theatre Royal, English Opera House, Strand.
First performed in Paris as Robin des Bois, 7 December 1824 at the Théâtre de l’Odéon.

Writing in the first edition of George Grove’s A Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the music historian Phillip Spitta described 18 June 1821 as being ‘as great a day of triumph as ever fell to the lot of a musician’. The fortunate musician was the 35-year-old Carl Maria von Weber, Kapellmeister at the Saxon court in Dresden, whose opera Der Freischütz had the honour of being the first to be staged at the new Schauspielhaus in Berlin. In choosing the opera [some two years earlier], Count Brühl, Intendant at the Königliche Schauspiele and an ardent supporter of German opera, had taken a risk. Although Weber was acknowledged to be a gifted composer with five operas to his name, three were compositions from his childhood and the most recent, the comic one-act Singspiel Abu Hassan, not only dated from ten years earlier, but was also of a very different character. Given that none had been an unalloyed success, the question remained: was he capable of producing the masterpiece now expected?

As soon as Weber entered the pit on 18 June and the music began, any worries were laid to rest. The overture, as he noted in his diary, was encored and although the response to the first act was more measured, the second and third drew increasing applause. By the end of the evening he could write in his diary that “Der Freischütz was received with the most incredible enthusiasm. Overture and Volkslied encored, of seventeen numbers fourteen uproariously applauded …  everything went excellently … [and] I was called out …”.  It was the same at the second performance three days later when, as he wrote to his librettist Friedrich Kind, the audience was no less enthusiastic: “The second representation of yesterday went off with the same éclat as did the first, and the enthusiasm was equally as great; for the third, tomorrow, there is not a single ticket left on hand. Nobody can call to mind an Opera  so well worth the seeing … You cannot believe with what an interest the whole glides on, and how excellently all sing and play their parts.”  Thereafter the opera spread across Europe like wildfire, and by the end of 1822 at least 30 productions are recorded; in Berlin it was heard for the one hundredth time on Boxing Day 1826.

Carl Maria von Weber was born on 18 November 1786 in the North German town of Eutin where his father was Kapellmeister to the Prince Bishop of Lübeck. Within six months, however, the family had moved to Hamburg where his father established an itinerant theatrical troupe. The young Weber thus spent his earliest years immersed in the sounds and sights of the stage as the Weber Theatre Company moved from town to town; it should come as little surprise to learn that between the ages of twelve and sixteen and with some adult assistance he completed three operas. The first, Die Macht der Liebe und des Weins (1798), was never performed and is no longer extant. It was followed by Das Waldmädchen, described as a ‘Romantic-comic opera’, which was performed in Freiberg in November 1800, with further productions in Chemnitz, Prague, St Petersburg and Vienna. The last of these early operas, Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn, was completed in 1802 and first staged in Augsburg the following year.

It was not until 1810, by when he was working as Secretary to Duke Ludwig of Württemberg, that Weber completed a re-working of Das Waldmädchen, now described as a ‘Romantic opera’ and entitled Silvana. But while the score retains much of the music from Das Waldmädchen, it also contains glimpses of the future. Thus the mixture of rustic simplicity and coloratura vocal writing, the historical setting in a German forest, and the inclusion of a competition or tournament are to be found in both operas, while other respects – notably the masterly orchestration and handling of romantic harmony – prefigure Der Freischütz. Although it failed to hold a place in the repertoire, Silvana was the first opera by Weber to achieve success.

Writing to his friend Johann Gänsbacher in 1811, Weber confided that he was ‘waiting in agony for a good libretto’ and that he didn’t ‘feel right’ unless he had ‘got an opera in hand’, and it was doubtless for this reason that, after the premiere that year of a one-act Singspiel Abu Hassan, a further ten years would elapse before his next opera was ready for performance shows, there is little to suggest that his next work, Der Freischütz, would prove to be a turning point in the history of German opera. Written after his appointment as Kappelmeister at the Royal Saxon Court in Dresden in 1817. Its title, ‘The Free-Shooter’, refers to the central European legend of a marksman who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for magic bullets, all but one of which will go wherever he wishes; control of the last would remain with the devil. Weber’s librettist, the Dresden dramatist Friedrich Kiel, introduced several new details, placing the action in the context of a shooting competition at the time of the Thirty Years War. The prize is the hand of Agathe, the head forester’s daughter, and in his determination to win, the young forester Max agrees to enter a pact with the devil. While six of the magic bullets will be under his control, the seventh will remain the devil’s.

With the first notes of the overture one enters a magical, twilight world, with pairs of horns supported by a lilting string accompaniment. But all too soon the reassuring C major harmony gives way to the harmonic uncertainty of the diminished 7th chord and then the dark hues of C minor as the music of the overture foreshadows the drama of the complete work. Both here and throughout the opera one is constantly reminded of Weber’s rich harmonic palette and mastery of orchestral colour: both are key elements in romantic opera and feature prominently in the so-called ‘Wolf’s Glen’ (or ‘Incantation’) scene when the magic bullets are cast. Lastly, the inclusion of numbers such as a Huntsmen’s chorus or a Peasants’ March introduce local colour and stress the opera’s nationalist, German character.

Der Freischütz in England (premiered 22 July 1824)

By 1823 only one country – England – had stubbornly remained impervious to Der Freischüz and when the idea of staging it in London was first mooted, it received little support. A first-hand account of the early discussions has been left by Henry Phillips, a member of the original cast and then a young man of 22. Some 40 years later in his Musical and Personal Recollections during Half a Century, (London, 1864), he wrote

Mr. William Hawes … proposed the production of an opera which had made a great sensation in Germany, viz., ‘Der Freyschütz.’ … a morning was … appointed to hear the work at the pianoforte. A number of judges … assembled on the occasion when great doubts were expressed with reference to its success. Some thought it in parts too hideous; others that the music was wild and extravagant, and would never suit the English taste [my italics] … Two only … thought otherwise … Mr. Hawes and Mr. Arnold. The former was loud in his praise of the music; the latter resolved to try the experiment … a translation was … made, the orchestra parts … got ready, and a band rehearsal … rapidly arranged. This done, it was decided to produce the opera, whatever its result might be.

Hawes’ and Arnold’s confidence in the opera was amply rewarded. The opera’s reputation had preceded it and ensured a full house. While there were various minor mishaps in the Incantation (i.e. Wolf’s Glen) scene, they merely added to the entertainment on the stage. Phillips recalled that

The house on that eventful night was thronged with Germans; the overture encored, the curtain rose, and all proceeded quietly and well, till it came to my drinking song.  Young and enthusiastic, I cared for nothing; so carrying out my intention, I danced and sang with the desperation of a man on the very verge of destruction.  At the termination of my song I got gloriously hissed, but there were a few demands for an encore, which being insisted on I sang it again, amid a storm of ” noes ” and ” bravoes.”  Mr. Arnold ran about tearing his hair, and exclaiming, ” That young rascal has ruined the opera!”  At its termination I received a storm of hisses, which resembled a shower of skyrockets at Vauxhall.  The opera again proceeded pretty smoothly until it came to the incantation scene.  Fresh misfortunes now broke out :  it being the first night the owl’s wings were stiff, and one only flapped when it screamed, so the owl got hissed.  The next mishap arose from the skeleton horses and dogs, which stuck fast in the middle of the stage, and so they got hissed  ; The red fire was held too near the nose of Zamiel, and set him coughing, so he got hissed.  This dreadful scene over, the rest of the opera proceeded, and terminated without opposition, or, indeed, any positive signs of disapproval or success : the summing up was, that Phillips, the owl, the horses, dogs, and Zamiel got well hissed. [sic]

Three days after the premiere on 24 July 1824 The Examiner published a warm review which concluded ‘The piece … cannot fail to have a run; indeed, independent of theatrical merit, the musical distinction and merits of Weber must prove sufficiently attractive’. What went unsaid was the fact that what English and German audiences experienced in the theatre was rather different. One of the objections to the opera’s production in England was that ‘the music was wild and extravagant and would never suit the English taste’, in consequence of which a number of changes were introduced. Several of the longer numbers were subjected to substantial cuts – none more so than the finale to Act 3 – while no fewer than six additional ones were added. Among these was the ballad ‘Love, Good Night’, ‘Introduced … by Mr. Braham…The Music founded on an original German melody; Arranged and in part Composed by Willm. Hawes’. While such interpolations allowed singers to introduce their favourite melodies, they also enabled Hawes to claim copyright and earn royalties!

The success of the English Opera House production led to the appearance of another seven versions before the year was out. These ranged from lavish productions at Covent Garden (14 October) and Drury Lane (10 November) to the satirical He fries it, or, the seventh charming pancake! at the Royal Coburg Theatre.

Publishers also jumped on to the musical band wagon, issuing innumerable arrangements of the most popular numbers for performance at home and for some months the country was in the grip of a ‘Weber mania’.

A few of the very numerous arrangements of Der Freischütz published in 1824 & 1825

It was at this time that Charles Kemble, manager at Covent Garden, had the idea of commissioning an opera from Weber and inviting him to London to direct it. The outcome was Oberon, premiered on 12 April 1826, whose reception was as triumphant as that of Der Freischϋtz had been in Berlin. While in London Weber agreed to conduct five of the Oratorio concerts and at the first of these, which included the first act of Der Freischütz, he was greeted with such enthusiasm that the start was delayed by fifteen minutes. Among the people he met was Hawes, who, he wrote to his wife, took him to ‘a theatre which I had not yet seen … where the Freyschütz was first given’.

Performances under the Direction of the Composer himself

Weber had been a sick man when he arrived in London. He died from tuberculosis at the home of his host, Sir George Smart, on 5 June 1826 and his funeral was held on 21 June, his forty-first birthday, at the Roman Catholic chapel at Moorfields.  A later composer and Kapellmeister from Dresden, Richard Wagner, arranged for the repatriation of his body in 1844.

Peter Horton
© Museum of Music History 2021