Dramatic Vocalise Database

Weber, Carl Maria von (1786–1826)

Der Freischütz (1821)

With the rise of a growing and increasingly powerful middle class after 1820, a new kind of opera came into being. It was designed to appeal to the relatively uncultured audiences who thronged the opera theaters in search of excitement and entertainment. Supernatural elements, including dramatic vocalization, borrowed from popular "paratheatrical" entertainments such as phantasmagoria shows, were soon included.

As early as 1810, soon after the publication of the Gespensterbuch [Book of Ghosts] by August Apel and Friedrich Laun, Carl Maria von Weber’s friend Alexander von Dusch told him about one of the short stories it contained. The first story in the Gespensterbuch, “Der Freischütz,” was based on a tale that Apel had come upon when he was a student, in a collection from 1730 called Unterredungen von der Reiche der Geister [Conversations from the Realm of Spirits]. This story appealed particularly to him and Laun, since it turned on the possibility of spirits assuming earthly form and controlling the elements or making pacts with humans. In the story, a character, in order to profit by good marksmanship, agrees to join in a series of diabolical rituals so as to obtain bullets that will go where he chooses, so-called “Freikugeln” [“free bullets”]. When Apel and Laun worked this story up as the first of their own collection, the central figure is described by the story’s title as “Der Freischütz” [“The Freeshooter”], the marksman who uses such ghostly “free bullets.”

Although initially interested in composing an opera based on this tale—Weber produced a sketch of a scenario and a few scenes—it was not until October 1816 that he revisited the idea. Weber turned to Friedrich Kind, a minor writer who formed part of his Dresden circle, to write the libretto. By 1 March 1817, the entire text was ready.

The composition of Der Freischütz occupied Weber for an unusually long time. He wrote the first sketch on 2 July 1817, and did not complete the score until 13 May 1820. His official activities—conducting and composing for court festivities in Dresden—and other previous commitments did not permit him to work uninterruptedly, and practically nothing was done on the opera in all of 1818.

At the beginning of May 1821, Weber went to Berlin, where he immediately began rehearsals of his opera. The first performance took place on 18 June 1821, with the composer conducting. The audience included E. T. A. Hoffmann, Heinrich Heine, and the young Felix Mendelssohn.

Although the libretto of Der Freischütz is attributed to Kind, Anthony Newcomb suggests that Weber may have been responsible for the creation of the “Wolf’s Glen” scene, the act 2 finale.1 Weber reports discussing the opera at length with Kind during the ten-day period in which the libretto was written.2 On 26 March 1821, Weber wrote to Hinrich Lichtenstein in Berlin:

One of the clearest indications of Weber’s personal involvement in the design of the “Wolf’s Glen” scene is a sheet of directions, written in his own hand, apparently as a guide to the upcoming performance in Dresden.4

The most striking and novel aspect of the “Wolf’s Glen” scene is the inclusion of an offstage chorus, providing one of the first true instances of dramatic vocalization.5 The beginning of the scene is prefaced in the score by the following description:

Weber’s music complements the above description by accompanying the stage action with unsettling tremolo violins and violas, doubled by clarinets, all in their lowest register. Somber trombone chords punctuate the beginning and end of the opening twelve-measure phrase. The cellos and basses enter in measure 2, followed by their chromatic descent to the leading tone (E#), before leaping down to the dominant (C#). The upper strings and clarinets share a similar descending chromatic contour.

Weber, Der Freischütz, act 2 finale, “Wolf’s Glen” scene, mm. 1–16

The action is as follows:

The first dissonant chord, a fully-diminished seventh chord in measure 4, coincides with a melodic leap of a tritone in the first violins. This pronounced leap, and more importantly, its intervallic content foretell of the diabolic events to come.

The overall effect of the orchestral opening is to produce a sinister and eerie mood. The introduction concludes with the entrance of the offstage “Unsichtbare Geister” [“Invisible Spirits”] intoning an incantatory chant (mm. 13–41). Weber indicates in the score: “Chor unsichtbarer Geister von verschiedenen Seiten” [“Choir of invisible spirits from different sides (of the stage)”].10

The bass voices chant every line of text (“Milch des Mondes,” etc.) entirely on the tonic note, each phrase punctuated by a unison outburst “Uhui! Uhui!” in the upper three voices. The moment the upper voices enter, the cellos and basses leap up a tritone (F#–C), once again reinforcing the diabolic nature of the events.

The text of this magic spell foreshadows the accidental murder of Agathe at the hands of her beloved Max. Tricked by his fellow gamekeeper Caspar, who is secretly under an outstanding obligation for his soul to the demonic Samiel, Max has come to the Wolf’s Glen to assist in the forging of seven magic bullets. Max feels a lack of confidence in his ability to win a shooting contest, the prize being marriage to Agathe. So he agrees to the use of the bullets, which will supposedly hit their mark, but are in fact destined for Agathe.

Following the casting of the fifth magic bullet, the offstage chorus sings once more.

Weber, Der Freischütz, act 2 finale, “Wolf’s Glen” scene, mm. 365–71

Once again the text is accompanied by the interval of a tritone (Ab–D). These are the only sections in the entire opera containing “invisible spirits” or offstage chorus and, as such, have particular interest and importance for this study.

The entire scene easily divides into a series of smaller segments. Each of these sub-units is further divided by sudden shifts in tempo and meter, and alternate between recitative, spoken melodrama, and lyrical arioso passages. The scene’s unexpected nature and unpredictable means offer a clear contrast to the regularity of much of the rest of the opera, thus further highlighting its unique aspects.

E. T. A. Hoffmann’s creative work and last illness did not permit him the time to produce the review of Der Freischütz that he had assured his friend Weber he would write. Weber wrote to his librettist Kind on 21 June 1821, “I am still anxious to hear what Hoffmann had to say.” 12 On 9 August 1821, Weber also wrote to Friederike Koch, “Hoffmann wanted to write about the Freischütz, but appears to have forgotten it. My friend Wollank could perhaps remind him of it, and also himself at the same time.” 13

Hoffmann’s long-supposed authorship of a famous series of reviews of the Berlin premiere of Der Freischütz was brought into question in 1957 by Wolfgang Kron.14 His evidence shows that Weber clearly did not think Hoffmann had written the reviews, and that whoever wrote them wrote as if he were a frequent reviewer for the Vossische Zeitung at the time, which Hoffmann was not. Since the evidence for Hoffmann’s authorship seems to be only a suggestion made forty years after the fact by Julius Benedict, a pupil of Weber, the case for his actually having written the reviews seems doubtful.

These reviews are critical not mainly of Weber’s music, which the reviewer calls the best since Mozart and Fidelio, but of the current theater’s fascination with demons, hellish horrors, and invocations of the devil. About the “Wolf’s Glen” scene he says that it is a great display piece for the scene designer and the Maschinisten. As a result, he says, there is too much distraction for the eye, and the ear can scarcely follow the “düsterwilden Musikstücken” [“wild and gloomy music”]. He says he cannot fathom the composer’s intentions in this scene: “a musical scene like this has never and nowhere been written.” His reaction to the music, then, is more puzzlement than rejection; it is the style of the staging that he objects to.

This sentiment echoes similar thoughts presented in an earlier letter from Goethe to Schiller on 23 December 1797:

Goethe was expressing his distaste of elements from popular entertainments being used in “true” theater. These entertainments, which Anthony Newcomb calls “paratheatrical,” “arose out of the intersection in the entrepreneurial market of burgeoning technology, fostered by science and the Industrial Revolution, and the insatiable appetite for diversion of the growing urban middle class.” 16

As Goethe remarks above, the tastes that went with this appetite were not always the most sophisticated. The most striking instances—balloon rides, Madame Tussaud’s wax gallery, the panorama, the phantasmagoria—were not considered high art. Nonetheless, they were popular and commercially lucrative; they fascinated the contemporary public and press; and their descendants survive in amusement parks and the movie industry. Newcomb proposes these phantasmagoria to be the source of many distinctive elements in Weber’s “Wolf’s Glen” scene.

Phantasmagoria were invented by the scientist-inventor Etienne-Gaspard Robertson (born E. G. Robert in Liège in 1763) and first presented to the public in Paris in March 1798. These shows used a refinement of the magic lantern (the ancestor of the modern slide projector), invented by Athanasius Kircher in the mid-seventeenth century. The refinement made ghosts appear, move about, and disappear in a darkened room before forty to sixty spectators. These shows served as an outlet for the need for mystery and the supernatural denied by enlightened rationality in the Napoleonic age.

Newcomb’s hypothesis is that Weber tried to reproduce the effects of phantasmagoria shows, and that he knew these effects well by the time he began to consider the possibility of a Freischütz opera in 1810. Weber most likely understood the rising popularity of the new paratheatrical entertainments and saw the utilization of this new technology as a way to please the public.

In his article, Newcomb describes several reports of phantasmagoria in early nineteenth-century German cultural journals. He notes, “A report of the Leipzig St. Michael’s Fair of December 1805 remarks that the ‘Geistererscheinungen’ [‘ghostly appearances’] announced on the first day failed to take place because the entrepreneur, together with the evening’s receipts, disappeared permanently ‘in front of the angry public.’” 17 Newcomb also mentions an article regarding a summer fair in Munich, where the correspondent describes the occurrence of certain “transformations,” which were probably produced by Robertson’s methods.18

Newcomb proposes that the possibilities suggested by the phantasmagoria—not only for “ghostly appearances” but also for movement and quick transformation— inspired Weber to stage the traditional scene from the folk tale in a new way. Weber’s music reinforced the scene’s visual imagery and rapid temporal shifts.

Weber may also have had in mind events occurring in opéra comique libretti and productions of 1790–1820. Weber, as Director of the Opera, first in Prague (1813–17) and then in Dresden, filled his repertoire with works by Luigi Cherubini (1760–1842), Etienne-Nicolas Méhul (1763–1817), Nicolas-Marie Dalayrac (1753–1809), and other French composers. Weber turned from Singspiel as his model to the French opéra comique—for example, those works of Cherubini whose plots drew from real life and seized the imagination. Cherubini’s orchestral mastery was to depict natural scenes, or dramatic disasters such as fires, avalanches, and storms, in a manner that delighted a generation inspired by Rousseau’s appeal to Nature as a force in men’s lives. In addition, Der Freischütz surpassed its Singspiel basis since the orchestra is given a greater role, something Weber had admired in Cherubini and Méhul.

Weber never again tried anything as closely derived from popular shows as the “Wolf’s Glen” scene. Although Euryanthe (1823) has its ghost, it does not have real phantasmagoric scenes with quick successions of ghosts and supernatural happenings appearing in the midst of the stage by trick effects of lighting. However, phantasmagoric elements exist in numerous other nineteenth-century opera scenes. The appearance of a phantom ship was already a well-known phantasmagoric effect in productions of The Flying Dutchman in London melodramas in the 1820s, two decades before Richard Wagner’s opera of the same name. Gounod’s early opera La Nonne sanglante (1854) included a specifically phantasmagoric scene.19 The act 3 finale from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (1831)—the evocation (and ballet) of the ghosts of nuns in the graveyard of an abandoned convent—is a clear reference to Robertson’s phantasmagoric shows often held in the abandoned Couvent des Capucines.

It is not the influence of phantasmagoria shows in Weber’s “Wolf’s Glen” scene that is the principal focus of this dissertation. It is the one additional element: the offstage choir of “Invisible Spirits.” Of the other above-mentioned selections from operas containing phantasmagorical elements, none includes an offstage chorus, whether with text or wordless. Even Weber’s pupil Heinrich Marschner (1795–1861), quick to seize on the idea of the horrifying as a dramatic subject in his opera Der Vampyr (1827), failed to produce anything as novel as the offstage chorus in the “Wolf’s Glen” scene. The conceptual possibilities for staging opened up by Robertson’s popular entertainments and the connotations and resonances that they brought to theater inspired Weber in a truly unique manner.

The “Wolf’s Glen” scene serves as a prototype of dramatic vocalization. Even though the chorus is hidden, it still sings recognizable syllables during the episodes of vocalization. This text identifies the voices as “human” and not something else entirely otherworldly. It would not be Marschner, Weber’s pupil, who would inherit the dramatic vocalise tradition, nor Meyerbeer or Wagner, but instead Hector Berlioz.

After the premiere of Der Freischütz in Berlin, it was performed in Leipzig, Vienna, Munich, Mannheim, and a number of other Austro-German cities. In Strasbourg, a German troupe performed it in 1822. London saw it in turn on 23 July 1824. A Paris production seemed destined.

François-Henri-Joseph Castil-Blaze—music critic of the Parisian journal Débats since 1820 (under the pseudonym “XXX”) and grand arranger of pastiches containing German and Italian operatic selections—had been invited in 1821 by Jacques-Alexandre- Bernard Law, marquis de Lauriston, to translate into French a dozen foreign operas. Since he was unable to obtain access to the Paris Opéra, Castil-Blaze decided to produce his translations at the Odéon. There on 6 May 1824, he produced Rossini’s Le Barbier de Séville, followed on 4 August by La Pie voleuse, after La Gazza ladra.

Then, the “l’entrepreneur des demolitions dramatiques,” as he was called by the editor of La Pandore, decided to mount Le Freyschütz [sic].20 In the Journal de Paris from 11 October 1824, an ironic note addressed Castil-Blaze:

Robin des Bois ou les trios balles, presented on 7 December 1824, was, according to Castil-Blaze, “except for the character of the hermit that the censor had removed, a literal and complete translation of the German work.” 22 Nothing could be more inaccurate. The interpretation of the artists was deplorable; the mise en scène was worse. The first act was met with laughter; the infernal scene of the second act was burlesque. However, the overture was acclaimed and the chorus of hunters in the third act was encored.23

In his column in Débats on 1 December 1824, after giving an announcement of the first performance of Robin des Bois, Castil-Blaze informed his readers that the score would be published on the first of the following February, with subscriptions available 5 December.24 This announcement and the subsequent performances at the Odéon provoked between the publisher Schlesinger, owner of the rights to the piano reduction of Der Freischütz, and Castil-Blaze a polemic that was prolonged until the arrival in Paris of Weber himself in February 1826. Weber had sold his piano reduction to Schlesinger but had reserved the rights to the orchestral score, since according to the practice of the time he could sell copies to the theaters.25

Schlesinger protested against Castil-Blaze’s arrangements, for example against the interpolation, of a “joli duo d’Euryante [sic],” added so that Max (rechristened “Tony” for Robin des Bois) would at one point find happiness. Castil-Blaze later claimed to have conformed to the English version, in the translation by “Livius,” previously performed in London.26 However, Livius, who was in Paris in December 1824, issued a flat denial of these claims. Débats failed to publish Schlesinger’s protests.

In the wake of the immediate success of Robin des Bois, Castil-Blaze was encouraged to participate in the “mutilations” of other works of Weber. For example, La Forêt de Sénart, in three acts after Partie de chasse de Henri IV, given at the Odéon on 14 January 1826, included the storm from Beethoven’s Pastorale symphony, a section of the finale from Weber’s Euryanthe, an aria and a fragment from the finale of Der Freischütz, and diverse selections from Rossini, Meyerbeer, Pacini, Mozart, and Castil-Blaze himself.

Weber was infuriated and made his feelings known in two letters addressed to his “arranger” on 15 December 1826 and 4 January 1827. In the latter Weber writes:

The January edition of Le Corsaire published Weber’s two letters, which were followed on 1 February by a third written by Schlesinger, sympathetic to Weber’s perspective.

Meanwhile, Castil-Blaze inserted in the issue of 25 January a reply to Weber where he gave rather weak reasons for his conduct. He claimed that the Germans, like the Belgians, the English, the Dutch, etc., steal French opéras-comiques. As for Robin des Bois, he wrote that he:

Weber arrived in Paris on 25 February and spent five days there before embarking for Calais. Among the many visits he made to artists and friends, he carefully avoided meeting Castil-Blaze, and took care not to enter the Odéon.

Composer Hector Berlioz (1803–69) wrote an entry in his memoirs regarding the production of Robin des Bois, Weber’s arrival in Paris, and his negative assessment of Castil-Blaze’s transcription:

Berlioz continues:

Berlioz’s judgments reflect his agreement with Weber’s views at a time when support of them would produce beneficial results for his own works using similar means and methods. In addition, Berlioz’s claim to have known Der Freischütz “by heart” should not be underestimated, since examples from the opera figure prominently in his later Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration (1844).

(Nauman 2009, 17–35)



"Wolf's Glen" scene (opening)

"Wolf's Glen" scene (complete)

"Wolf's Glen" scene (complete)

Chor und Orchester des Opernhauses Zürich
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor

Recorded at the Opernhaus Zürich, Feb. 1999


1 Anthony Newcomb, “New Light(s) on Weber’s Wolf’s Glen Scene,” in Opera and the Enlightenment, eds. Thomas Bauman and Marita Petzoldt McClymonds (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 70.

2 See Weber’s diary entries of 20 February through 1 March 1817; quoted in Georg Schünemann, Der Freischütz: Nachbildung der Eigenschrift (Berlin: A. Frisch, 1943), 18.

3 Ernst Rudorff, ed. Briefe von Carl Maria von Weber an Hinrich Lichtenstein (Braunschweig: G. Westerman, 1900), 100; quoted in Anthony Newcomb, “New Light(s),” 70.

4 Anthony Newcomb, “New Light(s),” 77–78.

5 Although there is no score indication providing a specific location for the chorus, common practice has placed it offstage.

6 Carl Maria von Weber, Der Freischütz (New York: Dover, 1977), 118.

7 Translated by Avril Bardoni, liner notes to Der Freischütz, by Carl Maria von Weber, London 417 119-2, 84.

8 Carl Maria von Weber, Der Freischütz, 118.

9 Unless indicated otherwise, all translations are by the author.

10 See the following discussion of similar score indications in the “Chasse royale et orage” from Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens and act 2 of Vincent d’Indy’s Fervaal.

11 Carl Maria von Weber, Der Freischütz, 118–21.

12 Friedrich Schnapp, “Sources and Suppositive Reviews,” in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Musical Writings: Kreisleriana, The Poet and the Composer, Music Criticism, ed. David Charlton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 453.

13 Ibid.

14 Reviews published in Vossische Zeitung on 21 June 1821; 26 and 28 June 1821; 7 July 1821; 13 November 1821; 25 December 1821. Wolfgang Kron, Die angeblichen Freischütze-Kritiken E. T. A. Hoffmanns (Munich: Hueber, 1957); cited in Anthony Newcomb, “New Light(s),” 86 n. 43.

15 Anthony Newcomb, “New Light(s),” 79.

16 Ibid., 61.

17 “Pfarrer Walther’s Bericht von seiner Reise zur Messe nach Frankfurt a. M. im Mai 1805,” Journal des Luxus und der Mode 20 (1805): 807; quoted in Anthony Newcomb, “New Light(s),” 67.

18 Journal des Luxus und der Mode 25 (1810): 495; cited in Anthony Newcomb, “New Light(s),” 67.

19 Act 2 is made up of a drinking chorus and a subsequent phantasmagoric appearance to the protagonist Rodolphe. The showpiece of this scene is the Intermède fantastique (no. 9), with a choir in the wings singing “Hou! Hou!” and “Illou!” Unfortunately, a copy of the score is currently unavailable for perusal.

20 Jacques-Gabriel Prod’homme, “‘Robin des Bois’ et ‘Le Freyschütz’ à Paris (1824– 1926),” Le Menstrel 43 (22 October 1926): 438.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid., 439: “Sauf le personage de l’ermite que la censure avait fait disparaître, une traduction littérale et complète de l’ouvrage allemand.”

23 For a full review by an anonymous critic from Moniteur universel, see Ibid., 439 n. 3.

24 Jacques-Gabriel Prod’homme, “‘Robin des Bois’ et ‘Le Freyschütz,’” 440.

25 Ibid.: “C’est ainsi que Mannheim l’avait acquise pour 24 ducats, moins de 300 francs!” [“Thus Mannheim had acquired it for 24 ducats, less than 300 francs!”]

26 In 1824, after being appointed musical director of the English Opera House (Lyceum), William Hawes staged an English translation and adaptation of Weber’s Der Freischütz with musical interpolations of his own. The translator, “Livius,” possibly W. McGregor Logan, and Hawes combined to form a sort of English Castil-Blaze. This Freischütz was hardly more faithful to the original than Robin des Bois. Hawes had removed the finale, interpolating ballades for soprano and tenor, and the result was so favorably received that Hawes then exercised his talents on Mozart, Salieri, Marschner, and others.

27 Jacques-Gabriel Prod’homme, “‘Robin des Bois’ et ‘Le Freyschütz,’” 449.

28 Ibid.

29 After a successful career in Italy, and then later in Paris, Giulio Marco Bordogni (1789–1856) retired in 1833 and taught singing. He published a singing method and several collections of vocal exercises, i.e., vocalise-études, including Trentasei vocalizzi per la voce di soprano o tenore: composti nel gusto moderno (Napoli: B. Girard, 1850).

30 Hector Berlioz, Memoirs of Hector Berlioz from 1803 to 1865, Comprising His Travels in Germany, Italy, Russia, and England, trans. Rachel and Eleanor Holmes; annotated, and the translations revised, by Ernest Newman (1932; repr., New York: Dover, 1966), 58–59.

31 Ibid., 61.