Der Freischütz Overture
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, violins, violas, cellos, basses
notes by James Keays
Composed 1821. First performances: June 18, 1821, Schauspielhaus Berlin, Germany.
The name Carl Maria von Weber is often overlooked in the chronicle of 19th century German romanticism because he was classically trained and lived a life entirely within the span of Beethoven’s. Yet, despite a creative life which virtually mirrored that of an 18th century Kapellmeister, his temperament, expressiveness, and lyricism, along with an interest in elements of mysticism and the supernatural, mark him as one of the true founders of the Romantic Movement in music.
It was in the opera house that Weber was to make his most significant contributions. In 1817, when he set aside a career as a pianist and critic to become music director of the Dresden Staatskapelle, the opera public was hearing almost nothing other than mediocre Italian works. In an attempt to establish a respectable German tradition, Weber soon realized that there were very few operas which were truly German in spirit and none at all that embodies the tents of the youthful romantic movement of which he felt a part. During the next nine years, he was able to remedy the situation by writing three works – Der Freischütz, Euryanthe, and Oberon – that not only served to define German romanticism but helped to establish it as the musical force in Europe during the remainder of the century.
Der Freischütz was probably the most successful in establishing a German romantic opera style. It had everything that had been considered essential: folk material, mysticism, magic, distant (and forboding) places, danger, and a strong dose of the supernatural replete with Faustian overtones. The title translates as “The Free-Shooter”—a reference to the fact that the hero casts six bullets guaranteed to find their mark and a seventh that belongs to the devil. The premiere in Berlin on June 18, 1821, was such a success that the work immediately became popular throughout Europe. Probably no other German work in history was ever so quickly and widely accepted. It was to have a major influence on Wagner, and a century later, composers as diverse as Debussy, Stravinsky, and Hindemith acknowledged its importance.
The overture to Der Freischütz vividly depicts the two central elements in the opera: “the life of the hunter and the rule of demonic powers” (Weber’s words). The former is represented by the sound of the horn quartet, the latter by the low registers of the strings, clarinets, and bassoons. The slow introduction is a miniature tone poem that effectively establishes the mood for the entire opera. The allegro section that follows makes use of melodies from several of the more important arias. No other work of Weber better shows off his skill as an orchestrator, and perhaps no other opera overture better sets the stage for the drama to follow.