Hunting a New German Sound
Seven magic silver bullets. They were all the young man needed to win the shooting contest—and win the hand of the woman he loved. But the magic comes at a terrible cost. In a misty, dark forest, the demon who offered the silver bullets swoops in to claim his price: the young man’s eternal soul...
This spooky scene marks the high point of the opera, Der Freischütz (“The Marksman). And the opera itself marks the high point in the short life of its German composer, Carl Maria von Weber. Its 1821 success made Weber a national hero. Now it is his only well-known composition. Sadly, Weber’s was not a stable life that led to decade after decade of productive work. Instead, his story reads like years of bumpy trial-and-error training for this single moment in a Berlin opera house, when all that he had learned and valued came together. Within a few years, Weber was dead at 39 of tuberculosis—a disease quite treatable today. Suzuki later adapted the popular “Hunter’s Chorus” from Der Freischütz for violin.
Later composers didn’t count Weber a failure, though. In several operas—and in some innovative works for clarinet and for piano—Weber “hit” his musical mark (and without a demon’s help). He wanted to move past the Viennese Classical style of Mozart and Haydn to create art in the newer Romantic ideal. Feeling and expression, he believed, mattered more than musical form. Paintings and literature, he thought, could inspire music just as beautifully as structure and order.
But his success with Der Freischütz was double. The opera was not only Romantic but also distinctly German. Audiences found the folk tales, forests, magic, peasants and hunters delightfully familiar, unlike the usual French and Italian operas. Weber’s opera pointed the way for Richard Wagner, who would also draw on German mythology.
As child, Weber traveled constantly, and the habit stuck with him as adult. His family’s theater troupe moved from town to town, but his father still tried to give Carl a broad education and music lessons with whatever teacher might be near. As a young adult Weber held a series of jobs around Germany directing opera and music. His first operas flopped commercially, and his career suffered other failures, too—once even a brief imprisonment for his careless spending and debts. But his musical skills kept developing, as did his ideas about Romantic art, on which he wrote reviews and even program notes for his audience. By the time he led opera houses in Prague and Dresden, Weber was a piano virtuoso and a master of orchestration. A tall list of composers mention his influence: Chopin, Liszt, Berlioz, Wagner, and Mahler. Carl Maria von Weber, wrote Debussy, created his orchestra’s sound through “scrutiny of the soul of each instrument.”