January 30, 2017

How Der Freischütz helped define community and culture in Germany

The nineteenth century was a time of European nationalism as borders and governments underwent massive change following the Napoleonic wars. German nationalism was a slow process for some seventy years, not counting the temporary split of East and West in the modern era.
Furniture of the Biedermeier period. Photo  © Geolina

Art played an important role in this process.

To become one unified German nation, it wasn't enough to encourage a sense of community among all the many disparate states and kingdoms of the region. It was also necessary to answer these simple questions:

What does it mean to be "German"? How should German culture be defined? How, culturally, are Germans different from Italians and Germans?

When Carl Maria von Weber created Der Freischütz, his aim was not merely an entertaining box-office hit, although he certainly achieved that in spectacular fashion. He was aware of the unification movement. He intended the opera to speak to his audiences on these larger issues. He also intended it, along with his other works, as a flat-out rejection of Italian opera. Although he led many performances of Rossini's works from the podium as conductor, Weber did not approve of the excesses of the florid bel canto vocal style or the librettos, which he considered frivolous. As is well-known, the path he carved out in Der Freischütz became a template for German Romantic opera for Wagner, Marschner and others.

Here are three examples of cultural messaging in Der Freischütz:

1) The pivot of the chorus in their treatment of Max.
The show opens with a scene dominated by the chorus of huntsmen and villagers. Max, the lead tenor role, is despondent following a miserable showing in a shooting competition in which he missed every target. The important aspect of this scene in terms of this post is the two-fold manner in which the chorus interacts with him.

At first, the villagers are inclined to give Max a hard time. Killian, the peasant who unexpectedly beat him, sings a smug ditty that we can loosely translate as "Nanny-nanny boo boo". Then the chorus joins him with a merciless and mocking tone. You knw how, in basketball, when a shooter misses the rim the crowd begins chanting "AIR BALL! AIR BALL!"? Yeah, that's the vibe here. The women cackle "hee hee hee" along with the orchestra while the men shout out insults:

But when Max takes the teasing badly, something significant happens. The crowd realizes that he's not just downcast, he's seriously grieving. As I pointed out in my previous post, he's actually in an Existential crisis, but no one thought in those terms in 1821. At any rate, both his marriage plans and career are at risk.

So they immediately pivot, coming together in an uplifting chorus of encouragement, urging Max to have faith:

Here's why that's a big deal - other, of course, than being gorgeous. Weber is subtly contrasting German history (disunity and division) with his vision of the future; namely, a close-knit community of like-minded people who become stronger when they stick together and pull for one another. The message was not ignored by his audiences.

2) Agatha: a very Biedermeier soprano
Frankly, when we try to explain the relative unpopularity of Der Freischütz outside of Germany, we have to assign Agatha some of the blame. And then we have to get over it!

Agatha's arias are lovely. I find them ravishing and exquisite. But for opera-lovers accustomed to the emotional roller-coaster of a typical Italian soprano aria, Agatha's solos can come off as curiously lacking in the passion and urgency of an Aida or a Tosca. Also, they lack the coloratura fireworks of Rossini and Donizetti. I can imagine casual opera fans thinking "SLOW AND BORING".

To better understand Agatha's affect, we again have to bear in mind Weber's extra-musical agenda of nationalism, now seen through the prism of a particular school of furniture design and home decor known as the Biedermeier period.

Following the trauma of the Napoleonic wars, Germanic people (among others) sought comfort; above all else they wanted to feel safe and secure. This led to a highly domestic ethos. Like you and I on a snow day, they wanted to stay home, keep their modest homes neat and tidy, and (in effect) watch old movies on TV (i.e. read Grimm's Fairy Tales), pop popcorn and wear their fuzzy slippers. Furniture of the Biedermeier era was of plain, functional, utilitarian design. Expensive antiques? No thanks - a simple table and chair were all that was desired. This, in part, accounts for the presentation of Agatha: she is the emblem of modest domesticity. And that word "modest" is very significant.

Besides emulating Biedermeier values, Weber intended Agatha to serve as a role model of German womanhood - the prototype of an ideal to hold up before young people. You'll have noticed, perhaps, that there is no love duet for Max and Agatha. Further, her arias express no sexual longing for Max - no sensual expression of being in his arms and so on.

"That", Weber is saying, "is fine for Italian or French women. But we Germans are made of finer stuff." A devout Catholic, Weber was adamant that his prima donna NOT be objectified sexually; NOT be made the woman valued only for her beauty as in so many Italian works. No love triangle here; no baritone lusting for Agatha; no kindling of "love at first sight". The focus of the opera is good vs. evil, not raging hormones.

So Agatha is deliberately virtuous, chaste, spiritual and modest, and these qualities are what come through in her music. She is the very model of a Biedermeier heroine. The problem? That "roller coaster" of fluctuations of extreme emotional states we find in Italian works is addictive. We get a visceral thrill from agony and ecstasy; we expect it in all operas; and there could be a let-down when it's missing.

My advice: rather than fretting about what Weber doesn't provide, listen for and savor the pleasures that are  present in Agatha's utterances.

3) That Huntsman's chorus
Long before Der Freischütz, Germans loved amateur choral societies, including their version of male glee clubs. They still do! So that celebrated number from Act 3 with its yodeling hunting horns and crisply rhythmic writing for tenors and basses hit home from two points of view. First, it's an ode to a big element of German life and culture, namely forestry and hunting, thus contributing to the definition of "being German". But also, it was a celebration of men's singing groups.

Community. Domesticity. Forestry. And singing. Four ways in which Carl Maria von Weber laid out a blueprint for the united German nation to come.


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