January 22, 2017

Smart bullets & Existentialism: the prophecies of Der Freischütz

Here's a partial list of famous prophets:
  • Isaiah
  • Nostradamus
  • Carl Maria von Weber
    Carl Maria von Weber: prophet
Actually, as this post will demonstrate, Weber was WAY more accurate than that faker Nostradamus. The thing is, the composer of Der Freischütz was an unwitting prophet; he didn't know he was nailing future events in his opera.

Take those magic bullets on which the entire plot-line rests. Caspar (Bad Guy), hoping to trap Max (Good Guy) in a scheme to get a reprieve from the demon who owns his soul. The bait consists of "free bullets", magic chunks of lead that never miss their target, thanks to the demon's supernatural powers.

Fantasy, right? "As if", right? No such thing, right?


I dismissed "free bullets" as fiction up until the moment I was watching a rerun of CSI: Miami on cable the other night. (Don't judge - there was nothing else on any better.) The plot involved a murder victim killed by a bullet that followed a path around the corner of a building in its flight. 

Intrigued, I went to the Internet. Was this also fantasy, or could there be science behind this? We've all heard of smart bombs, but even a little projectile like a bullet? How smart could that be?

Pretty damn smart, it turns out. As this CNN article documents, "self-guided" bullets are a thing. On this and other websites, I read about ammunition embedded with microchips that can receive data to locate targets. I read about bullets that self-destruct if they miss their target, preventing "friendly fire". Bullets that can change their trajectory during flight. 

Remember how Keanu Reeves dodged bullets in The Matrix? Bad news, buddy - that move is SO 20th-century. Score one for Der Freischütz

But the other example of Weber's vision of the future is even cooler.

Consider Max. As an exemplar of a tenor protagonist, Max is ......... different. Simply put, he is by far the most MISERABLE, UNHAPPY, PATHETIC "hero" in some four centuries of opera history. Consider:
  • As the opera opens, he's lost a shooting contest he was favored to win. Didn't make a single shot.
  • The chorus of villagers mocks him - the women cackling in staccato giggles, the men shouting out "shade" (look it up in the Urban Dictionary
  • He makes bad decision after bad decision, chief among them listening to "Evil Yoda", a.k.a. Caspar
  • He lamely confesses all his screw-ups in the final scene, leading to banishment by the Prince.
  • It takes the intervention of The Hermit to save his bacon and be put on probation.
  • As the show closes, he's not out of trouble yet: he has to keep his nose clean for an entire year. If he can manage that (and little we've observed gives ME confidence on that score), then he can marry Agathe. 
Oof. Some hero. And Max is aware of how badly he's doing; he constantly expressess his misery. He pretty much wallows in it. This is what makes him different from your standard tenor. 
  • Don Jose? He's got a lot to be happy about UNTIL Act 3, when he devolves into a hot mess for the rest of Carmen.
  • Rodolfo? He's happy-go-lucky until his pathological jealousy ruins his love affair. And then, when Mimi dies, that's a bummer too, clearly.
  • Radames? Yes, he's convicted of treason and is buried alive, but prior to that everyone in Egypt thinks he's "da MAN". They have this whole big parade in his honor - camels, horses, the whole shebang. 
BUT MAX! The happiest his music ever sounds is in the opening lyrical section of his Act 1 aria "Durch die Waelder", and that's only because he's remember when he USED to be happy in the past!

But it's in the concluding animated section of the aria in which, once again, Weber uncannily predicts an important phenomenon that was still decades away from emerging into prominence.

Max isn't just unhappy; he's in a full-blown existential crisis. Look at what he's saying:

“Despair clutches, mockery torments me! O will no ray pierce through this night?
Does fate rule blind? Is there no God?I can no longer bear the misery, the fear that robs me of all hope.” That's not "sadness", that's despair; and it rings the bell in terms of the definition of Existential Despair.

Despair, in existentialism, is generally defined as a loss of hope. More specifically, it is a loss of hope in reaction to a breakdown in one or more of the defining qualities of one's self or identity. MAX, in his Act 1 aria, rings all the bells in terms of Existential despair. The “defining quality”, the “particular thing” in which he has “invested his being”, is being a good shooter; a skilled huntsman. With this skill taken away by Kaspar’s magic, Max’s identity is crumbling.

Here's the thing: Der Freischütz  premiered in 1821, when Existential thought had not yet been conceived. It wouldn't be until  decades later, in the writings of Kierkegaard, that the precepts of Existentialism would first appear, and not until the 1930's when it would be codified by Camus and others.

Yet, if unnamed, the basis for Existential thought is right there on the stage in 1821 in a classic crisis of the breakdown of Max's defining self-identity.


Hey Weber - got any inside dope on the Super Bowl? Private message me, okay?


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