Weber’s Der Freischütz: the ultimate German opera

Quick, what image springs to mind if I ask you to think about the ultimate German opera? Winged helmets? Slayed dragons? Heavyset blonds with harnessed bosoms and pigtails?

German opera stereotype

Well, you’re wrong. Curiously, the quintessential German opera doesn’t tick any of those boxes. And it’s not by Wagner. It’s Carl Maria Von Weber’s Der Freischütz, premiered in 1821 – more than 10 years before Wagner completed his first opera.

National treasure

Der Freischütz was the last opera performed in Dresden’s Semper opera house during the Nazi regime – before the building was bombed to the ground. It was also the first opera staged in the makeshift theatre that the Dresdeners erected after the war. And when the opera house was properly rebuilt by the communist East-German regime, it opened with … that’s right.

So, Der Freischütz’s popularity bridges ideological divides. It’s considered a national treasure by all Germans from Aachen to Görlitz and from Flensburg to Oberstdorf. If they’re into opera, of course.

As creating a real German opera was one of his greatest ambitions, Weber would certainly be beaming with pride if he knew this. Or not?

Weber Freischütz

Historical context: dreaming of a national German culture

An obsession with creating national styles was commonplace in the 19th and well into the 20th century. But none took it so seriously as the Germans. In fact, it was essential to the birth of the concept of classical music and its Germanic canon.

If you feel the need to affirm your identity, you’re often not happy with who you are. That was as true in the early decades of the 19th century as it is today. In Weber’s time, the quilt of miniature states that made up the German territory had been trampled numerous times. Contrary to ‘real’ countries like Great Britain and Russia, they were nothing more than a series of hors d’oeuvres for the ravenous armies of Napoleon.

It’s therefore no wonder that there were some who began to dream of a grand unification in order to be taken seriously on the European stage.

That dream was particularly popular with the middle classes. The nobility found a lucrative occupation in reigning all these miniature states. It was understandably less enthusiastic about the idea.

It was therefore still too soon to begin the political unification of Germany. But what about a cultural one? First, prove that all German people share the same character. Then it’s easier to plead that they belong under the same flag.

Unsurprisingly, it was Wagner who would push this nationalist opera to its extreme. The best illustration is Lohengrin. Henry the Fowler, the 10th Century Saxon king sings stuff like:

“East and West, to all I say:
let every acre of German soil put forth troops of soldiers,
never again shall anyone abuse the German Empire!”

In a 10th-century context, that makes no sense. But for 19th-century audiences, the message couldn’t be clearer. And for post-mid-20th century audiences, it sounds downright menacing. Which is one of the reasons why Lohengrin won’t be crowned the ultimate German opera soon.

The story

The protagonists of Der Freischütz are also in the presence of royalty: the Bohemian Prince Ottokar. He’s not particularly wise, just pompous. More importantly, he doesn’t have anything to say about a German empire.

In fact, the word ‘German’ isn’t mentioned once in the entire libretto. The story is wholly free of politics and might as well take place in a Game of Thrones-like fictional universe. Except for a few mentions of the thirty-years war, which is recently over when the narrative begins.

Prince Ottokar visits a small Bohemian village to preside over a shooting contest in honor of his revered ancestor Ottokar II, also known as the Iron and Gold king. The stakes are high, because the winner becomes the new head forester and marries the daughter of the current forester.

Yes, that does sound like a potentially uncomfortable arrangement. But thanks to a happy and typically operatic coincidence, Max (the town’s best shooter) and Agathe (the head forester Kuno’s daughter) are already madly in love.

You can see why they’re made for each other, being equally boring personalities. Max is whiny, insecure and displays an unhealthy sense of entitlement. Agathe is a drama queen and a religious nut. But the premise of the opera is that we root for their eternal love. And so we do.

Weber Freischütz cast
The cast of Der Freischütz

Luckily, there are also a couple of exciting bad guys around: Kaspar, a war criminal, and Samiel, a servant of the devil who owns Kaspar’s soul. When Max hits an unlucky streak with his shooting, he seriously begins to doubt his chances at the contest. Kaspar helpfully steps in, persuading Max to use magic bullets that never miss their mark.

What Max doesn’t know, is that the seventh of these bullets belongs to Samiel who can aim it anywhere he wants. And what Samiel wants, is to kill Agathe. Why? Because he’s evil, that’s why. You know better than to ask for logic in an opera libretto.

Don’t worry, there’s also a wise old hermit who shows up just in time to save the day. He manages to deflect the seventh bullet to Kaspar. Kaspar dies, Samiel devours his soul, Max repents, Agathe and Max marry. The end.

Classic German jolliness

So what makes Der Freischütz the ultimate German opera – if it’s not the story? It’s not the music either. When Max and Agathe sing their typical primo uomo and prima donna arias, it’s in the style of Italian opera. And just like Beethoven before him, Weber uses mélodrame – a mix of spoken dialog and instrumental music – which he borrows from the French Grand Opéra. It’s the structural device behind the famously spooky wolf’s glen scene, where Max and Kaspar descend in a narrow forest valley at midnight to forge the magic bullets.

Some see this atmosphere of supernatural forces hiding in dark forests as typically German – linking the magic bullets to a certain magic ring, for example. My feeling is that Tolkien would like a word about that, not to mention 27,000,000 Scandinavians.

Maybe Der Freischütz is at its most German when it’s in folk mode. When hunters are blowing, peasants are drinking, bridesmaids are giggling. Take this hunters’ chorus for instance:

Gemütliche moments like those are sprinkled throughout Der Freischütz. They’re necessary to make the bombast of the main characters palatable. And together with the supernatural hocus-pocus, they’re no doubt primarily responsible for the opera’s enduring popularity – with Germans and non-Germans alike.

Weber realized that, and didn’t like it one bit. In his next opera Euryanthe, which he officially labeled a “big romantic opera”, he decided to improve his operatic concept by weeding out the fun stuff. The reaction of the public was a resounding ‘meh’. Weber wrote:

“The expectations of the masses have been puffed up to such an absurd and impossible pitch by the wonderful success of Der Freischütz, that now, when I lay before them a simple serious work, which only aims at truth of expression, passion, and characteristic delineation, without any of the exciting elements of its predecessor, what can I expect? Be it as God will!”

Apparently, there’s a big difference between the German opera the bourgeois elite had in mind and the opera actual Germans liked.

Recommended recording

Unfortunately, it’s probably this beer-and-sausage Germanness that hurt Der Freischütz’s popularity in the second half of the 20th Century. Remember, when we were all way too sophisticated to enjoy simple stuff? And a bit suspicious about all things German, that too.

Luckily, those days are over. Der Freischütz has retaken its rightful place on our stages and in our record collections. Be sure to check out the version from René Jacobs and the Freiburger Barockorchester from 2022. I’m usually not a fan of opera recordings, but Jacobs’ way of treating them like radio plays diminishes the feeling that you’re missing out on two thirds of the operatic experience.

Weber Freischütz Jacobs

To achieve his goal, Jacobs takes a lot of liberties with the source material. Like adding sounds effects and modernizing the spoken lyrics. And he expands the role of Samiel. In Weber’s opera, this demonic creature has very little to say. In Jacobs’ version, he’s constantly adding his cynical commentary to the proceedings. Actor Max Urlacher does this so bone-chillingly well that I honestly can’t imagine listening to some pieces (like the wolf’s glen scene) anymore without his contribution.

Jacobs also restores the original concept of Der Freischütz by reinstating the opening scene that introduces the hermit – so the finale makes more sense. And by adding a choir – for which he borrows some music from a Schubert opera.

This might all be a bit much for you if you’re a purist. But I think it’s an appropriate presentation of an opera that’s a mish-mash of sometimes contradictory styles and ideas – just like the country it so perfectly embodies.

Inspector Morse: classical music’s uncommon ambassador

In my previous blog, I talked about how classical music was the model for many amazing film scores. But when classical music is itself the subject of tv or cinema, it’s often in a negative light. To indicate that a character is old-fashioned, stuffy, and possibly a psychopath.

Classical music fan
A typical fan of Bach’s Goldberg Variations

In short: the classical music lover on the small or big screen is seldomly someone with whom you’re supposed to sympathize. With one curious exception: Endeavour Morse.

Amiable snob

To be clear, inspector Morse is not a likeable guy – at least not in a traditional way. This late version of the British gentleman detective is from a humble background. But that doesn’t stop him from looking down on just about everyone around him. He’s exceptionally mean to his faithful subordinate, Sergeant Lewis, whom he scolds for his grammar, his lack of cultural capital, and occasionally even his wife.

Music inspector Morse
Chief Inspector Morse, looking down on you and everyone else.

Nevertheless, you can’t help rooting for the old grouch. Because of his sarcastic sense of humor and anti-establishment stance. And because he’s a dog that barks but never bites. There are even some surprisingly tender moments between him and Lewis.

Conservative taste

Through his refined tastes, Morse tries to distance himself from his unhappy childhood. He sculpted himself a persona out of poetry, museum visits, craft beers (long before those became fashionable) and – of course – classical music.

It’s no wonder that his preferences are on the conservative side. Lots of Mozart and Wagner. Scarcely something composed after 1900. The only time he stumbles into other musical worlds, he’s genuinely bewildered – like in the episode Cherubim & Seraphim, which is against the deafening backdrop of the rave scene. Hearing a familiar sample in one of the dance tracks, he shouts indignantly: “But that’s Allegri’s Miserere, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult!” – as if he’s made a crucial discovery in his investigation into the death of a young schoolgirl.

Spoiler alert!

Two episodes are inspired by a piece of classical music. In Masonic Mysteries, Morse is persecuted by a nemesis who taunts him with references to Mozart’s Magic Flute. But my favorite is Twilight of The Gods, where Morse investigates the shooting of a Welsh opera singer who’s famous for performing Brünnhilde in Wagner’s ring cycle.

The episode is littered with references to the famous opera tetralogy, including a subplot where it appears that the villain of the story murdered his son – just like Wotan killed Siegmund. There are also a lot of helicopters flying around, for no other reason I can think of but as a nod to the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now, set to the Ride of the Valkyries. There’s even a burning Walhalla at the end, even if it’s a scale model.

Reluctant popularizer

Naturally, the success of the Inspector Morse series led to a stream of soundtrack CDs that sold like hot cakes. One wonders what the character himself would have thought about these ‘greatest hits’ CD boxes for sale at supermarket checkouts. I imagine a conversation such as this one:

  • Morse: “Lewis, but this is the sort of music l like, only cut up into less-than-four-minute fragments. Look, that’s the immolation scene from Götterdämmerung, conducted by Furtwängler!”
  • Lewis: “Ay Sir, it’s from a television series me wife likes!”
  • Morse: “Well, she would, wouldn’t she? As Frank Lloyd Wright said, Lewis, television is chewing gum for the eyes.”

Nevertheless, it’s possible that Inspector Morse did more for the popularity of classical music than many well-meaning but predictably failing educational initiative.

For decades, classical music tried to get rid of its reputation of pretentiousness in order to appeal to the masses. And when the masses do fall for it, it’s because the greatest snob of all listens to it in his vintage Jaguar Mark 2. Go figure.

Inspector Morse theme music

Finally, you can’t write about Inspector Morse and music without mentioning one of the most lasting legacies of the series: the theme music by Barrington Pheloung. It cleverly starts with the violins rhythmically spelling out MORSE in, well, morse code.

It’s still the most popular TV soundtrack ever written – leaving behind works by Khachaturian, Rossini and Prokofiev. Something that the inspector himself would certainly have frowned upon.

Are these the best classical albums of 2020?

Probably not. But out of the ones I’ve heard, I’ve enjoyed these the most:

10. The Leipzig Circle, Vol 2. (London Bridge Trio)

The Leipzig Circle record sleeve

If I were making a list of silliest sentences in CD booklets, this one would take the top spot: “[the first movement of the featured Felix Mendelssohn trio] has both firmness and determination that immediately declare it to be a strong and masculine conception.”

Luckily, the performance is a lot better than the commentary. It demonstrates that Clara Schumann’s feminine conceptions didn’t stop her from writing music that was on a par with Mendelssohn’s. And that Robert Schumann surpassed them both. In imagination, not testosterone.

9. Miroir (Alexandre Collard, Jean Daufresne and Mathilde Nguyen)

Miroir record sleeve

If I were making a list of understatements in CD booklets, this one would take the top spot: “Rarely, in the history of music, have composers written for horn, saxhorn and piano.”

In fact, only one work on this album was originally written for that combination – after a special request from the performers. In any case, it sounds amazing. Moreover, this record brings to light some unfamiliar and underrated repertoire from Belgian and French composers from the 19th through 21st centuries.

8. Debussy – Rameau (Vikingur Ólafsson)

Debussy - Rameau record sleeve

This one will feature on many ‘best of 2020’ lists. And if the Icelandic pianist releases another record in 2021, it will probably end up on that year’s lists as well. Because he’s as good as the hype that surrounds him.

This record would have ended up higher on my list if Ólafsson wouldn’t have made the misguided decision of combining Rameau with Debussy. Not because they make a bad couple. But because I don’t like Debussy’s piano music. Or the unacceptable way he wears a hat.

7. Anna Clyne: DANCE – Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto (Inbal Segev, London Philharmonic Orchestra & Marin Alsop)

Clyne-Elgar record sleeve

Now here’s someone who knows how to wear a hat:

Anna Clyne

No melodies moved me more last year than the sentimental, folk-influenced themes that form the basis of the four dances – excuse me, DANCES – by Anna Clyne.

The expressive style of cellist Inbal Segev serves them well. Although it steals too much of the spotlight from the orchestra. That’s especially true in the Elgar concerto. If you’re a fan of that work – and who isn’t? – the 2020 recording by Sheku Kanneh-Mason is probably a better choice.

6. Blessed Art Thou Among Women (PaTRAM Institute Singers)

Blessed Art Thou Among Women record sleeve

One of the greatest pleasures in life is listening to the sound of oktavists, the ultra-low bass singers that feature in Russian music. They’re abundantly present on this record, rumbling their way through four centuries of enchanting orthodox choral music.

If, God forbid, 2021 turns out to be another year in which we need extra comfort, this album is guaranteed to provide it. Just let the sounds of those amazing human didgeridoos gently vibrate your worries away.

5. Bohemian Tales (Augustin Hadelich)

Bohemian Tales record sleeve

Some stuff that you know, some stuff that you don’t. That remains the perfect mix for a classical concert or album. Often, the unfamiliar work that you dreaded makes more of an impression than the well-known piece that you came for.

That was certainly the case with this recording of Bohemian violin music. I was lured in by Dvořák and Janáček, but it was the Op. 17 by Josef Suk that blew me away – less ‘romantic’ than Dvořák, more ‘popular’ than Janáček and with a unique approach to musical form.

Intrigued, I decided to seek out more music by Suk, especially his orchestral works. And I quickly decided that it wasn’t worth another second of my time. But it could have been the beginning of an exciting journey of musical discovery, is what I’m saying.

4. Beethoven: Songs & Folksongs (Ian Bostridge, Antonio Pappano)

Beethoven songs and folksongs record sleeve

For obvious reasons, 2020 will not be remembered as ‘the year we celebrated the 250th birthday of Beethoven’. But it was an excellent year to explore Beethoven with a small b. Confined to my home, an album full of ‘domestic’ compositions was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Apart from the visionary An die ferne Geliebte cycle, the Beethoven songs are generally considered of little importance. And that’s even more true of his settings of Irish, British, Scottish and Welsh folk songs that he purely made – gasp! – for money. It’s to Bostridge’s credit that he applies his otherworldly talent to these supposedly mundane compositions – and reveals that they are anything but that.

3. Proving Up (Missy Mazzoli)

Proving Up record sleeve

2020 was also the year in which we witnessed how the American democracy nearly drove itself off a cliff.

There are a lot of reasons for what happened during the last four years. One of them is the destructive idea behind the American dream. Missy Mazzoli and her librettist Royce Vavrek turned that into a wonderful opera. And I’m not going to repeat what I already wrote about it.

2. Not Our First Goat Rodeo (Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile)

Not Our First Goat Rodeo record sleeve

Wait, is this a classical album?

Well, on the one hand, it’s labelled by the record company as such. It includes Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. And in what other category would you put a track like Not For Lack of Trying?

On the other hand, who cares? I don’t trust jazz or bluegrass fans enough to feel confident that they will include this record in their end-of-year lists. And this joyous display of musicianship and collaboration cannot get enough praise from every corner.

1. Adès Conducts Adès (Boston Symphony Orchestra)

Adès conducts Adès record sleeve

Of the contemporary composers on this list, Thomas Adès is probably the most ‘difficult’ one. And yet, if you listen to some connoisseurs, you’d think he’s one cowbell removed from becoming André Rieu.

That’s probably because Adès’ music packs an emotional punch that resonates with a lot of people. Which makes it suspect in the ears of some.

Yet you only need to listen to the second movement of his piano concerto to realize that this guy is something special. There are echoes from many traditions, but the language is unique. And underneath is a musical progression that you don’t need to fully understand to be overwhelmed by it. That’s something that only comes around, well, every 250 years or so.

Did I just imply that Adès is the new Beethoven? Must be the champagne talking. All I wanted to say is: some things that came out of 2020, are worth remembering. Happy New Year!

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Dive into my selection of favorite albums from 2021

Review: Proving Up by Missy Mazzoli

Many years ago, I shared a house with a friend who’s a fan of Richard Wagner. As proof of his devotion, he owned a box of all the Meister‘s recordings. The thing took up half a shelf in a CD cabinet that had to be shared by four music enthusiasts. As I recall, none of those music dramas was ever played.

And they never would be. With each move, that friend takes his Wagner box off the shelf and brings it to its new home. Never opening it ­­– as if it’s the urn with his grandmother’s ashes.

Richard Wagner CD box
And only slighly more jolly.

Opera recordings: why bother?

Of course, my friend is by no means an exception. Nor is this phenomenon limited to Wagner CDs. We think complete opera recordings are essential to our collection, but how often do we really play them?

After all, we didn’t need Wagner to know that opera is a gesamtkunstwerk – an indivisible union of music, stage design and acting. That means only listening to the recording is missing out on 66.66 % of the fun.

So usually I’m not bouncing with enthusiasm whenever a new opera recording hits the shelves. But recently, I was proven wrong. By Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up.

Missy Mazzoli's proving up

Short and clear

With 80 minutes for the whole thing, Proving Up is shorter than the first act of Parsifal. And that’s the first thing I like about this opera: its brevity. Is that shallow of me? So be it. I really wouldn’t know where to fit in multiple listening sessions of five-hour dramas. So it’s nice to be able to hear a full story unfold while doing the laundry or riding the train.

The second amazing thing about this recording is its sound quality. That sets it apart from another contemporary opera recording that I highly anticipated: Prisoner of the State by David Lang. Being a Lang fan, I loved the music. But the awful live recording was a big disappointment. Live opera recordings are the worst: the sound of slamming doors and creaking floorboards that ruin your listening experience and remind you of the visual spectacle you’re missing out on.

Ghost story

Missy Mazzoli writes contemporary music of the accessible variety. But don’t count on skipping the recitatives and going straight to the arias and choruses. Proving Up is the real-deal through-composed opera stuff, where the music is not allowed to follow its own logic but must align on its course with the text and the action.

The action, remember, that you can’t see. So why didn’t I miss it while listening to this recording? I think it’s because of how Mazzoli’s music strikes the right balance between painting a general mood, so it sounds like a pleasing whole, and differentiating the consecutive events, so you don’t fall asleep.

Proving Up is a ghost story set in the age of the American pioneers. Everything revolves around the Zender family desperate to ‘prove up’: acquire the ownership of the land they’re living on. Just like Copland before her, Missy Mazzoli conjures the plains of the Midwest by using lots of open, wide-spaced chords. The many augmented and diminished intervals express the hardships of the characters and/or the horror that threatens their existence.

Against that solid background, every one of the characters gets a distinctive voice that borrows from a different musical style. My favorite one is the somewhat naive son Miles who sounds like he’d rather be in a Broadway musical. He serenates the pigs and his horse, and the moment when he passionately sings the line “What a beautiful day for a window delivery.” is without a doubt the funniest and most heartbreaking thing I’ve heard in a long time – at least in a contemporary opera.

Miles comes to his untimely end when he meets the sodbuster – a ghost who condemns him in a wonderful scene that reminded me of the parts with the ghost of Il Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Just like in Don Giovanni, the closing scene that follows it feels like a bit of an anticlimax. That’s despite its beautiful music, this time dominated by the figure of the family’s mother who fittingly sings like the quintessential dramatic opera diva. The most clairvoyant figure in the piece, she mourns the passing of her children, and of the American dream.

Even better than the real thing?

It’s the succession of vivid, musically distinct scenes that kept me hooked to this recording. If I never missed the action, it’s because I had no trouble imagining it. I’m now so pleased with Proving Up’s staging in my head that I have almost no desire to see the real thing. Even though it does look wonderful:

Want to picture your own version of Proving Up? Check it out on CD, Spotify or Apple Music.

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