The Freeshooter

Der Freischutz or The Freeshooter is a romantic opera in two acts with words by Friedrich Kind and music by Carl Maria von Weber.

It was first produced in Berlin June 18, 1821.

Characters

  • Prince Ottokar
  • Cuno, the head ranger
  • Max and Caspar, two young foresters serving under Cuno
  • Kilian, a rich peasant
  • A hermit
  • Zamiel, the fiend huntsman
  • Agathe, Cuno’s daughter
  • Anna, Agathe’s cousin
  • Chorus of hunters, peasants, bridesmaids and invisible spirits

The scene is laid in Bohemia, shortly after the Seven Year’s War. The story of the opera is founded on a tradition among the German followers of Nimrod, that whoever chooses to seek the aid of Zamiel, the demon huntsman, might be selling his soul to him, receive seven magic bullets which would hit the desired mark with unerring accuracy. If he succeeded in gaining another victim for Zamiel, his own time of life would be extended but if he failed in this, his life was forfeited.

When the story opens, Cuno, the head ranger to Ottokar, a Bohemian Prince, has promised his daughter Agathe to Max, one of his subordinates, on condition that he win in an approaching contest of marksmanship.

Caspar, a second forester who has made the fatal bargain with the fiend, causes Max, who always has been a skilled marksman, to shoot poorly at a preliminary trial. Jeered at by his companions and hopeless of winning his adored Agathe, the lover is in despair and believes himself deserted by heaven.

Caspar has a double motive in wishing Max’s downfall. He must bring a new victim to the fiend and, furthermore, his is in love with Agathe, whom he hopes to win.

To tempt his rival, he gives him his rifle and bids him fire at an eagle soaring so far above them that it is but a speck in the sky.

To the youth’s astonishment, the huge bird falls dead at his feet, while demon laughter echoes about him. Caspar plucks a feather and puts it in Max’s cap, telling him to think of Agathe’s delight in his prowess.

Max, however, recoils when he learns the nature of the bullet, but Caspar pictures to him the sorrow of the maiden if he (Max) fails to win her and, with consummate hypocrisy, tries to convince him that it is his duty to take advantage of every means within his power.

Finally Max promises to meet Caspar in the Wolf’s Glen at midnight to secure a new supply of bullets. The exultant Caspar believes that he has not only accomplished the downfall of Max but has gained for himself respite from the fiend.

The second act opens in Cuno’s house, where Agathe and Anna, her lively cousin, are found, the former lamenting the fall of an ancestral portrait from the wall, which she fears to be an evil omen.

Only a few hours earlier, she has met a peasant in the wood who has warned her of some danger and has given her a magic rose wreath with which to ward it off. Max comes but he, too, is filled with forebodings and his heart almost stops beating when he learns that the portrait feel just at 7 o’clock, the time he shot the eagle. At a late hour, Max goes to keep his tryst in the Wolf’s Glen, though implored by the maidens to remain with them.

Before his arrival, Caspar has bargained with the Demon and has bought the young hunter’s destruction, in return for which he, himself, may be three years more of life.

Six of the bullets shall do Max’s bidding but the seventh shall kill his bride.

When Max approaches, the chorus of invisible spirits is heard no more. Zamiel vanishes to the sound of low thunder and, as Caspar blows the fire which rises out of the ground, the birds of night flutter weirdly about his head.

Suddenly Max discerns on an opposite rock his mother’s wraith, raising a ghostly hand in warning. Fearing that he may yet lose his victim, Caspar calls on Zamiel for help and, in place of his mother’s form is seen that of Agathe, who appears distracted and is about to throw herself down the cascade.

This silent argument settles the matter with Max and he hastens to assist Caspar in melting over the fire in a crucible a weird decoction out of which the bullets are to be formed. At the casting of the seventh, a frightful storm throws Max to the ground and Zamiel seizes his hand.

The last act opens like its predecessor in Cuno’s house, where Agathe is dressing for her wedding. She still is distraught and tells Anna of a dream in which she fancied herself a white dove and was fired at by her lover. As the dove fell she was herself again and a great bird of prey lay dying at her feet.

Her cousin attempts to divert her thoughts and is assisted in this by the arrival of the bridesmaids. But all this is undone when the newcomers open the box which is to contain the bride’s garland, and find that by mistake a funeral wreath has been sent.

Sadly Agathe bethinks her of the peasant’s consecrated roses and, wearing them, she goes away with her attendants to the Prince’s camp, where the shooting contest is to be held and where Max is to win her.

Only the seventh bullet remains to Max, for three of the Caspar has beguiled from him and three others he has used in the morning.

The Prince, who has witnessed his three marvelous feats of marksmanship, bids him to be of good cheer and confidence and, pointing out a white dove, gives him the signal to fire. The shot goes wild and Caspar and Agathe both sink to the ground. The girl, however, is unhurt.

The holy roses have saved her but the bullet flying past her has buried itself in Caspar’s heart instead.

When they have borne the body away, Max confesses that his three shots of the morning were of malign origin. The indignant sovereign pronounces upon him sentence of banishment but moved by the pleas of Agathe and Cuno, he leaves the matter to the decision of a hermit, who justly proposes that in view of his past uprightness he be granted a year of trial and, if he passes it successfully, that Agathe then shall become his bride.

“Der Freishcutz” is epoch making in that it was the opera which completed the establishing of the romantic school, and which gave Germany a distinctly national opera. All Germany rose to acclaim the merit and charm of the work, delighted with its freshness and with the note of romance and mystery which echoed through its music.

There is displayed in it that fine imaginative power which Weber possessed in high degree. The great scenes are treated with a dramatic understanding and sympathy not before equaled.

The music of the Incantation scene is of a weirdness and daring musical power until then unknown and throughout the score may be noticed unmistakable evidence of the leit-motif used later with notable effect by Weber’s great successor, admirer and, in a certain measure, disciple, Wagner.

The overture is a masterpiece of its kind, and is known and admired the world over. Without doubt Weber intended in this to give the audience a clue to the nature of the opera which followed, for again in the course of the opera we hear the same themes used for the solos.

The overture opens with a rather slow movement; the horn assumes the role of solo description, and speaks of cheerfulness, calmness, and serenity, such as we later find to be typical of the forester’s life.

Soon however, we feel there is a dissatisfaction, an unrest, and the strings begin a soft tremolo which grows in strength and suggests passion, and then gradually, softly, dies away.

Now the violin and ‘cello take up the discourse, and plaintively tell us of troubles which are about the beset our hero, and the solo instruments in a more spirited movement depict the rage, the madness of his despair, plaintively wail of hopelessness, and at last the entire orchestra takes up the theme.

It is this theme that is heard in the first act in Max’s solo. A serious, contemplative passage follows, which terminates in victorious music, and we feel some one has overcome, and at the same time sorrowfully, that one has been overcome, for the music does not speak as it does later of glorious triumph; in it there is faltering, and it is only might conquering for the nonce.

Then comes an indescribable haunting passage as though one were being pursued by an evil spirit, and we hear it again when Caspar is successful in securing Max’s promise to use the charmed bullets.

Relief from these rather tense passages comes in the form of a beautiful air, one which occurs in the second act, when Agathe hears her lover coming, and involuntarily the audience relaxes with the change from the gloom of the minor key to that of the major, and feels as the composer intended, that the pure love of Agathe is to triumph over all evil.

But again, as though to remind us that trouble is ever present and difficulties always to be overcome, the orchestra takes up the gloomy theme, again in a minor key, that of B flat, but soon modulates into D sharp minor, and now the ‘cello seems to pursue the soft tremolo of the violin with sure and triumphant modulation, exulting again over Caspar’s victory, but only for a moment, and then pure sweet tones of Agathe’s love song are heard and bid all doubt and terror flee, love will conquer; and we are not disturbed even by the return of the passage telling of Max’s fear and feelings of suspense.

For the closing movement there seems to be a discussion among the instruments, a soft tremolo among the strings, a wailing among the winds, a solemn warning from the drums, and then a transition of keys and the melody of the heroine with sprightly, even brilliantly gay passages worked in, brings the overture to an end, and prophesies the end of the sorrows of the hero and heroine and the beginning of their life of love and joy.

Another beautiful solo given to the tenor is that of “Jetzt is wohl ihr Fenster offen” (“Now, methinks beside her lattice”). Other remarkable passages are:

  • Caspar’s demoniac aria “Triumph! Die Rache gelingt” (“revenge, my triumph is nigh!”)
  • Anna’s merry “Kommt ein schlanker Bursch” (“Let a gallant youth”), which tells of the joy of possessing a gallant lover, in the last verse of which Agathe joins
  • The heroine’s beautiful recitative and aria “Leise, leise” (“Softly sighing”), in which she meditates upon the loveliness of the night scene she views from her balcony and whose beauty calls from her an expression, in melody, of her great love. The accompaniment for this is especially charming, picturing a summer star-lit night, the whispering of the breezes among the trees, and lending a dreamy hazy color to the voice of the maiden.

“Der Freischutz” after a successful season in Berlin, was produced in Paris as “Robin des Bois,” with libretto by Castile Blaze, and with a number of changes which seem not to have bettered it, for Berlioz later wrote new recitatives, Pacini accurately translated it into French, and as “Le Franc Archer” at the Royal Academy of Paris, it won greater praise.

England changed its title to “The Seventh Bullet,” inserted ballads to please her audiences, and it was heard in English at the Opera House of London, and later in Italian as “Il Franco ariero” at Covent Garden. Thus it has always been and will in probability remain a universally popular opera.