Der Freischütz and the forest of tears

Some time ago I gave a li’l presentation at Perth’s Knowledge Club on Carl Maria von Weber’s German Romantic (with a capital R) opera Der Freischütz.

Was it because of the character Samiel, the Black Huntsman? Or was it because of its groundbreaking inclusion of phantasmagoric special effects (Did I mention this is opera in the 1820s?  They crucified Weber for the special effects…)?  Or was it because of its folk horror tale of the supernatural and dreams?

Here’s an overview from a bunch of sources.  Now go drink a heartfelt sip of darkfelt Truth and sink into some Weber.

Timeline

Pre-1730                 The tale of a marksman making a deal with the devil for magic bullets is passed on by word of mouth in Bohemia, Germany.

1730                          Otto von Graben zum Stein publishes “Unterredungen von dem Reiche der Geister” (Conversations from the Realm of the Spirits), an anthology of common Bohemian folk horror stories.  It contains a version of the tale of the marksman.

1810                        August Apel and Friedrich Laun publish “Book of Ghosts”, an anthology of rare and forgotten ghost stories.  It contains a story now titled “Volkssage des Freischütz” (Folkstale of the Freeshooter).

1810                        Alexander von Dusch tells his friend, the composer Carl Maria von Weber (b.1786 – d.1826), about the tale.  Von Weber was Mozart’s cousin by marriage.  Von Weber had been taught by Michael Haydn, had composed his first opera by 14 and was conducting in Vienna before he was 18.

1816                        The king of Saxony, Friedrich Augustus, appoints von Weber as Musical Director of the Dresdener Opera.  Von Weber enlists Johann Friedrich Kind to write the libretto for an opera titled “Des Jägers Braut” (The Hunter’s Wife).

1817                        Kind finishes the libretto and von Weber begins musical composition.

1820                        Von Weber finalises the score, now titled “Der Freischütz”.

1821                        First performance is held on 18 June at the opening of the Berliner Schauspielhaus with von Weber conducting.  Critics are divided due to folk songs and use of special effects, but the opera is eventually deemed the first German national opera.

1989                        The musical “The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets” premieres in Hamburg, written by William Burroughs, directed by Robert Wilson and music by Tom Waits.  Burroughs departs from the original story as the marksman is a writer and his bride to be does not escape the final bullet, a reference to Burroughs’ murder of his own wife.

Cast of Characters

Kaspar First huntsman Bass-baritone
Max Second huntsman Tenor
Killian A villager Baritone or tenor
A Hermit A religious man of the forest Bass
Samiel The black huntsman Speaking part
Kuno Head forester Baritone
Agathe Kuno’s daughter Soprano
Ännchen Agathe’s cousin Soprano
Prince Ottokar Prince of Bohemia Baritone

Setting

Bohemian forest in the 17th century

Synopsis

Act 1

A celebration at a forest inn of Kilian’s win over Max in a shooting contest opens the opera.  Kuno reminds Max that if he fails again in the trial test shot in the Prince’s tournament at dawn, he’ll lose both his job and his bride-to-be, Agathe. Max bemoans his situation, so Kaspar feigns friendship and gets him to drink more. He gives Max his own gun and tells him to shoot an eagle which is way out of range. The bullet, according to Kaspar, is magical and it’ll ensure his win in the tournament. He asks Max to meet him at midnight in the Wolf’s Glen to get more magic bullets. Max agrees. Kaspar, who’s sold his soul to the devil Samiel and has now found someone to take his place, rejoices at his ploy and sings a gloating aria.

Act 2

Scene 1. Agathe’s room.

Ännchen is re-hanging a portrait that has fallen on Agathe. Agathe is worried and her cousin Ännchen tries to cheer her up. Agathe tells her about a warning given her that morning by the Hermit and sings the first of her two arias, consisting of a prayer, followed by a joyful melody already heard in the beginning Overture. She sees Max approaching. Max is agitated and worried and says he must hurry to get to the haunted Wolf’s Glen. Agathe begs Max to be careful. The trio of Max, Agathe and Ännchen sing in which the girls attempt to hold him back. Max rushes into the night.

Scene 2. The Wolf’s Glen

Spirits sing as an offstage chorus.  Phantasmagoria special effects are used.  Samiel, after being conjured by Kaspar, announces he will claim Kaspar the next day unless he brings a new victim. Kaspar promises to do so, with Max as his victim. Max is to receive seven bullets of which six will hit the desired mark but the seventh, Agathe, his love. For this Kaspar will have three year’s respite. Samiel vanishes and Max arrives. Seven bullets are cast in a crucible, with magic rites. By entrapping Max with the seven magic bullets, Kasper purchases three more years of life.  Max takes four bullets and Kaspar takes three.

Act 3

Scene 1. Agathe’s room.

Agathe sings her second aria about her faith in heaven. She had an ominous dream that she was a dove and Max shot her.  Ännchen dispels her mood with a recitative followed by a cheerful aria.  Ännchen and the bridesmaids try to cheer up Agathe. The portrait has fallen again and when Ännchen opens the box with the bridal wreath, she finds a funeral wreath. So Agathe wears instead the white roses given her by the Hermit earlier.

Scene 2. Prince Otokar’s camp in the forest.

After the hunting-chorus, the Prince orders Max to bring down a white dove perched on a tree before he will approve Max’s betrothal to Kuno’s daughter. Max has already wasted three of his four bullets.  Max fires but hits Agathe, who appears from behind the tree, and also wounds Kaspar who was in the tree to watch the scene. After all the commotion, Agathe revives. Samiel appears and claims Kaspar, whose body is thrown into the Wolf’s Glen. Max confesses to the magic bullets and the Prince passes sentence of banishment. The Hermit appears and urges the Prince for clemency, let Max marry Agathe and to discontinue the trial of the free shot, giving Max one year to redeem himself. The Prince agrees and the opera ends amid thanksgiving, with the joyful tune already heard in the overture and in Agathe’s Act II aria.

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