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Music in the Nineteenth Century

CHAPTER 4 Nations, States, and Peoples

Romantic Opera in Germany (Mozart, Weber), France (Auber, Meyerbeer), and Russia (Glinka)

CHAPTER 4 Nations, States, and Peoples
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin



Up to now we have seen peasants on the operatic stage only as accessories. They represented their class, not their country. The elevation of Volkstümlichkeit to the status of a romantic ideal changed all that. It happened first, of course, in Germany, the land where das Volk was first “discovered.” And the first operas in which the new concept of das Volk showed up were the nineteenth-century descendants of the vernacular comic operas known as singspiels, “plays with singing.”

Up to now, comic opera, for us, has mainly meant opera buffa: the sung-through Italian genre that, starting out as modest intermezzi, conquered the music theaters of the world by the 1750s and (as we saw in chapter 1) had been exerting a strong influence on serious opera as well. In countries like France, Germany, and England, which had thriving spoken theaters, there was another route to comic opera. In these countries (but never in Italy) simple musical numbers—often based on “timbres” (the tunes of well-known folk or popular songs) and meant for the untrained voices of actors—were inserted into spoken comedies for added entertainment or sentimental value. The French name for the genre that resulted is the most revealing: comédies mêlées d'ariettes, “comedies mixed with little songs.”

It went without saying that only a character “simple” enough to sing a simple song could credibly sing one in the context of such a play, and so mixing little songs into comedies led to an enormous increase in rural settings. The most popular plots were ones in which (following a tradition going all the way back to the medieval “pastourelle”) honest peasant lovers won out over the machinations of wicked squires, or in which aristocrats (even kings) learned about virtue from the simple manners of country folk.

A vivid example is Le roi et le fermier (“The king and the farmer,” 1762), a comedy by the popular playwright Michel-Jean Sedaine (1719–97), with “morceaux de musique” (pieces of music) by Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729–1817), a talented noble amateur. A king, traveling incognito, intervenes to rescue a farmer girl who has been abducted by a villainous aristocrat. The king is charmed by the country singing, evidence of the singers’ purity of heart. But convention decreed that, once having identified himself, the king leave the stage before the final number, a lowly vaudeville, a strophic affair in which every character takes a turn, hardly befitting a king's dignity. (The term vaudeville had a very complicated history, extending from fifteenth-century comic songs that flourished in the “valley of Vire”—Vau de Vire—in northern France, all the way to the variety shows of the early twentieth century. In the eighteenth century it seems to have been a corruption of voix de ville, “city tunes,” even though it was applied to songs sung on stage by rustic characters.)

Le roi et le fermier was an adaptation from an English model, and the English theater bequeathed to the continent another kind of spectacle “mixed with music”: the “magic play,” in which, following a tradition that went back to the seventeenth-century Restoration stage, music was used to differentiate supernatural characters (fairies, sorcerers, and the like) from natural ones. Both varieties of musicalized theater, the peasant comedy or comédie mêlée d'ariettes (=Singspiel) and the magic play (=Zauberspiel), fed into the German stage, eventually producing a hybrid, called Zauberoper (“magic opera,” perhaps better translated as “fable” or “fairy-tale” opera), that flourished briefly as a craze in Vienna's suburban theaters.

The craze lasted from the 1780s into the early nineteenth century, and we have it to thank for Mozart's last operatic masterpiece, Die Zauberflöte (“The magic flute”), commissioned by its librettist Emanuel Schikaneder (1751–1812), a singing actor who ran one of those suburban theaters, the Theater auf der Wieden, where Mozart's singspiel was first performed on 30 September 1791, a couple of months before the composer's death.

It was in Die Zauberflöte, rather than in his small and insignificant output of lieder, that Mozart came into really fruitful contact with the volkstümlich style. It is only one of the many categories represented in the opera, a magnificent farrago or variety show encompassing just about every conceivable style from the most serious to the most farcical, from the most exotic to the most indigenous, and from the most archaic to the most up-to-date. The all-encompassing mixture (under the aegis of “Egyptian”—that is, Masonic—rites) was code for the universalist message of the Enlightenment.

Approaching it now from the limited standpoint of the volkstümlich is hardly going to do it justice. But singling out this one strand from its rich tapestry will serve our present purpose. Not that the volkstümlich is in any way an inconspicuous component. On the contrary, it is associated with one of the opera's most memorable characters: Papageno, the Queen of the Night's birdcatcher, played in the original production (and partly improvised in the slapstick “Hans Wurst” or Punch-and-Judy tradition) by Schikaneder himself.

Papageno fulfills a traditional role for a peasant character in Die Zauberflöte—the Sancho Panza role, so to speak, serving the opera's hero Tamino, a Javanese prince on a noble quest, as wisecracking “vulgar” (i.e., folksy) sidekick, the way Sancho Panza served the knight errant Don Quixote in Cervantes's famous novel. But in his magic, half-man/half-bird aspect he also symbolizes, or begins to symbolize, the specifically romantic mystique of das Volk in a way that no previous operatic character had done.

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ex. 4-1a W. A. Mozart, Die Zauberflöte no. 2, Papageno's aria (“Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja”)

The birdcatcher enters in act I, dressed in his suit of feathers and playing his little pipe, singing as straightforward an imitation folk song as any eighteenth-century composer had ever put on paper (Ex. 4-1a). Although headed “Arie,” like all the solo numbers in the opera, it is just a strophic lied (compare Schubert's Heidenröslein in chapter 3) with an introduction and the most minimal ritornello imaginable—just the five notes of Papageno's panpipe plus a cadence. It is a sort of “Ur-musik,” as the Germans would say—a primeval music close to the state of nature. And of course his natural drives are what Papageno celebrates in song, particularly the drive to catch a “bird” and reproduce himself through her.

Just as Papageno's music seems close to the imagined origins of music, so Papageno's utterances often seem close to the origins of speech and language, as if embodying Herder's concept of the origin of human culture(s). Early in the action, Papageno is punished for boasting by having his mouth padlocked, so that he can only gesticulate and hum, “Mmmm-mmm-mmm.” Still, he manages to communicate in this way with Tamino. When the lock is removed, he announces that now he'll “chatter forth afresh,” but truly. Papageno gets to break through from primeval utterance (Ursprache) to language even more graphically at the other end of the opera, during the act II finale, when he is finally granted his heart's desire: a wife (Papagena), through whom he will raise his brood (i.e., a basic human “community”). The two confront one another and, as if reborn in happiness, say each other's names as if uttering their first words (Ex. 4-1b).

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ex. 4-1b W. A. Mozart, Die Zauberflöte Act II finale, Papageno/Papagena duet

In this gentle slapstick of foreplay and procreation, we are privileged to witness in metaphor the decisive moment, described by Herder, when humans became truly human, forming communities through language: “The human race in its childhood formed language for itself precisely as it is stammered by the immature,” Herder wrote; “it is the babbling vocabulary of the nursery.”’1 Or as Mozart and Schikaneder put it, “Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa.” Thus in Die Zauberflöte, the peasant characters begin to represent something beyond a single, simple social class. They begin their long career in art as symbol for the human race itself, differentiated by language into nations.


The decisive step that turned opera not into an attempted Enlightened mirror of all humanity at once, as in Die Zauberflöte, but rather a romantic mirror of a specified nation, was taken when whole casts were assembled from the peasant class—not just sidekicks and “comic relievers,” but heroes and heroines, villains, and all the rest. Once peasants—people of the soil—were not merely an element of contrast, they could begin to represent the soil itself, from which the nation drew its sustenance and what Herder called its Urwüchsigkeit, or “autochthony.” Their music, too, could provide something more than incidental or decorative trappings. It could become a stylistic bedrock for scenes of all types, including the most dramatic, even tragic ones.

The first opera to achieve the status of national emblem or mirror in the nineteenth century was Der Freischütz (1821), by Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826). The title, literally translated, means “The free marksman,” which conveys little to anyone unfamiliar with the German folk legend (Volkssage) on which it is based. For this reason, the opera is sometimes called The Magic Bullet in English. Its legendary source was first published in 1810 in a best-selling collection of ghost stories (Gespensterbuch) by Johann August Apel and Friedrich Laun.

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fig. 4-1 Carl Maria von Weber, engraving by C. A. Schwerdgeburth (1823) after a portrait by Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein.

Weber, a cousin of Mozart's wife, Constanze, was born into a distinguished family of musicians. His parents ran a traveling singspiel theater, so he grew up intimately familiar with the existing repertory of popular music-plays in German. Only when the family's tours were interrupted, whether by his mother's illnesses or by the Napoleonic Wars, did they stay in one place long enough for their son to get any regular schooling. One of his early teachers was Michael Haydn, Joseph's brother, under whose supervision the precocious composer produced his third singspiel (but first successful one), Peter Schmoll und seine Nachtbarn (Peter Schmoll and his Neighbors), first performed in March 1803, when the composer was all of sixteen. The story, a sentimental yarn about a family of refugees from the French Revolution and their fate in Germany, was a timely one.

In September 1803, Weber journeyed to Vienna to study with the aging Joseph Haydn, but the latter, increasingly enfeebled with what would probably be diagnosed today as Alzheimer's disease, declined to take on a new pupil. Instead, Weber spent a year as apprentice to Georg Joseph Vogler (1749–1814), known as Abbé (or Abt) Vogler because of his youthful position as court chaplain at Mannheim. Vogler was a rather eccentric composer (Mozart once called him “a faker pure and simple”),2 but a remarkable teacher whose theories of distant modulation and whose interest in all kinds of exotic musics stimulated Weber's composerly imagination.

Vogler's influence may be seen in his pupil's incidental music to Turandot, Prinzessin von China (“Turandot, the Princess of China,” 1809), a “theatrical fable” by the Venetian dramatist Carlo Gozzi (1720–1806) in Schiller's translation. All seven numbers are based on a purportedly authentic air chinois (Chinese song) Weber found in Rousseau's Dictionnaire de musique of 1768. (Rousseau's source was A Description of the Empire of China, published by the traveler Jean-Baptiste Du Halde in 1738; see Fig. 4-2.) Later, Gozzi's play became the basis for a famous opera by Giacomo Puccini; later still, the air chinois turned up in an orchestral work by Paul Hindemith called Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (!). The beginning of Weber's overture, one of the earliest European compositions to incorporate an Asian theme other than an Islamic (“Turkish”) one, is given in Ex. 4-2.

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ex. 4-2 Carl Maria von Weber, beginning of Overture to Turandot

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fig. 4-2 Chinese, Native American, Swiss, and Persian tunes as they appear in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Dictionnaire de musique (1768). The Air chinois at top left went into Weber's incidental music for Gozzi's Turandot (1809), thence into Paul Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis after Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (1943).

Exoticism or orientalism may seem a far cry from nationalism. In light of what nationalism has become, it is a far cry. But in their early phases, nationalism and exoticism were opposite sides of the same coin. They both reflected an interest, at least potentially benign, in human difference (ours from them, theirs from us). Weber's own predilections led him in many directions where settings and “local colors” were concerned. After the Turandot music he composed a one-act singspiel called Abu Hassan (on a subject drawn from the Arabian Nights), with a conventionally “eastern” coloration similar to the one in Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio. After Der Freischütz he began Die drei Pintos, an opera (never finished) with a Spanish setting; then came Euryanthe (1823), set in France in the age of chivalry; then Oberon (1826), set partly in “fairyland,” partly in Africa, and partly (again) in medieval France.

All of these settings can be called “typically romantic,” since romanticism, as we learned in chapter 1, was as much drawn to the long ago, the far away, and the never-never as it was to the celebration of self. And the self that romanticism celebrated (whether personal or collective) was in any case a “romanticized” (that is, idealized and often mythologized) sense of self. The idealization of the peasantry in romantic opera was actually the idealization of a nation's mythic origins, not the peasants as they actually were, or the conditions in which they actually lived (rarely matters to celebrate).

Most important of all: if Der Freischütz looms now as Weber's most important work because of its role in “inserting” opera, so to speak, into the history of nationalism, that is due entirely to its reception by the composer's contemporaries, and later by posterity. It is not necessarily an indication, let alone the result, of the composer's intentions. Critics never tire of pointing out that in its musical style and forms the opera owes as much or more to the international theatrical mainstream of its day (that is, to Italian and—say it softly!—even French models) than it does to the Volkslied movement.

It is also probably true that Weber was originally attracted to the story of Der Freischütz more for its ghostliness than for its local color. Horror stories and other manifestations of “black romanticism” were very much in vogue at the time. It was the age, after all, of Mary Shelley's immortal Frankenstein (1818). A few years after Der Freischütz, Heinrich August Marschner (1795–1861), a younger contemporary of Weber's who was widely regarded as his heir, scored a big hit with a “grosse romantische Oper” called Der Vampyr (1828), a title that needs no translation, with a plot (loosely based on Byron) that needs no description.

One may even concede that the circumstances of the opera's first production—the inaugural musical offering at the newly rebuilt national theater in Berlin, the Prussian capital—were, at least at the outset, more powerful than the composer's intentions or even the work's specific contents in creating its aura as an event in the life of the nation. National significance, like historical significance and even artistic significance, is a two-way street. It is the product of an interaction between an object (the work) and its consumers (reception), and arises in the course of a performance history.

That said, however, it is entirely appropriate to quote an encomium addressed to Der Freischütz in 1909, as it approached its centenary, by the American music critic Henry Krehbiel (1854–1923), who was himself of German extraction and presumably knew whereof he wrote. “There never was an opera,” Krehbiel enthused, “and there is no likelihood that there ever will be one, so intimately bound up with the loves, feelings, sentiments, emotions, superstitions, social customs, and racial characteristics of a people.”3 The reference to race is dated, but Krehbiel speaks truly on behalf of the composer's countrymen. At a time when Germans were yearning for symbols around which they could construct a sentiment of Einheit, of their unity and singularity as a people, Weber provided one, and it was accepted with joy.

The “two-way street” worked in an especially graphic way where Der Freischütz was concerned. By 1824, an English writer touring Germany, struck by the way its “beautiful national melodies” were “sung in Germany, by all classes, down to the peasant, the hunter and the laborer,” concluded from this that Weber, lacking the ability to invent his own tunes, had filled his opera with folk songs. In fact Weber borrowed nothing, not even the bridal chorus expressly subtitled “Volkslied” (Ex. 4-3). Yet by 1824, according to the English writer's testimony, the song (and many others from the opera) had become a Volkslied. It had entered the popular oral tradition. Sung by actual hunters and peasants who did not know the opera, it had gained acceptance not just as a volkstümliches Lied, a “song in folk style,” but as an actual folk song.

None of this can be said for Der Vampyr, or for Weber's other operas. It was the nation, not Weber, who made his ghost-story opera a national opera. Its significance for German nationalists of a later time rested on that prior acceptance by the nation at large. It was then that the opera picked up its freight of ideology. Wagner, living in Paris in 1841, took the opportunity presented by the French premiere of Der Freischütz at the Grand Opéra to send this chauvinistic dispatch to the newspapers back home, in which Weber's name is never even mentioned, as if the opera were the collective issue of the German Volk:

Chapter 4 Nations, States, and PeoplesChapter 4 Nations, States, and Peoples

ex. 4-3 Carl Maria von Weber, Der Freischütz no. 14, “Volkslied”

O my magnificent German fatherland, how must I love thee, how must I gush over thee, if for no other reason than that Der Freischütz rose from thy soil! How must I love the German folk that loves Der Freischütz, that even now believes in the wonders of artless legend, that even now, in manhood, feels the same sweet mysterious thrills that made its heart beat fast in youth! Ah, thou adorable German daydream! Thou nature-rapture, bliss in forests, gloaming, stars, moon, village clock-chimes striking seven! How happy he who understands thee, who can believe, feel, dream, delight with thee! How happy I am to be a German!4

“Das deutsche Volk,” extolled by Wagner, is Papageno writ large, a whole nation of Mr. Naturals—or of Maxes, to name the wholesome, handsome, gullible hero of Weber's opera. Like many legends from many countries, the plot is a basic yarn of good and evil involving a Faust-like pact with the devil:

Max, the tenor title character, a hunter and forest ranger, is gulled by Caspar, another forester and a sinister bass, into going with him to the “Black Huntsman” Samiel's abode in the Wolf's Glen, the very depths of the forest, there to secure his diabolical aid. The next day Max, who has been suffering a slump, must face a test of marksmanship on which his whole future depends. If he wins the match he will succeed Cuno, the chief ranger to the local prince, and marry Cuno's daughter Agathe, whom he loves (and who loves him).

In the Wolf's Glen Caspar, coached by Samiel, forges the seven magic infallible bullets that he and Max will use on the morrow. What Caspar does not tell Max is that the seventh bullet goes not where the marksman directs it, but wherever Samiel may wish. When the Prince lets fly a white dove and Max aims the seventh bullet at it, Agathe (who has had a prophetic dream) cries out that she is the dove. Too late: the gun is fired, and she falls—but only in a faint. It is Caspar, the evil tempter, whom Samiel has killed with the seventh bullet. Max confesses his misdeed, is forgiven, granted the position he sought, and wins Agathe's hand.

Perhaps needless to say, the original folk legend had ended in a bloodbath. The happy ending, in which the benevolent prince intervenes the way a deus ex machina (a god lowered in a machine) might have done in an ancient opera seria, was a concession to the requirements of the comic opera genre, as contemporary audiences knew perfectly well. But despite its many conventional aspects, the opera did contain some real novelties, and it was these that enabled audiences to point to Der Freischütz as something new under the sun—something new and theirs.

One is the Overture, which has quite deservedly become a concert staple. Even so, its frequent detachment from the opera is somewhat ironic, because one of its chief claims to historical fame is its close integration with the drama that follows it. With a single conspicuous exception, all its themes are taken from vocal numbers inside the opera. This is something we have seen previously only in the overture to Don Giovanni, and there only in the slow introduction, where the opera's dénouement is foreshadowed.

Probably prompted by Beethoven's Coriolan and Egmont overtures, neither of which actually precedes an opera, Weber made the Freischütz Overture an instrumental précis of the whole drama to follow. Foreshadowed in advance of Weber only by a few French composers, by the second half of the nineteenth century such a procedure would be standard, even de rigueur. And as it became so, it became routinized in the form of the casual medley or “potpourri” overture—literally a mixed bag (even more literally, a “rotten pot”) of themes. Weber still observed the formalities of “sonata-allegro” form, and like Beethoven drew dramatic meaning from them. Leaving the slow introduction aside for the moment and beginning with the molto vivace, we can trace both the first theme in C minor and the transitional clarinet melody, marked con molto passione, to Max's first aria, in which he feels an inexplicable foreboding as Samiel steals across the stage behind him (Ex. 4-4a). The full-blown “second theme” at m. 123 comes from Agathe's aria in act II, in which, by contrast, she expresses her joyful hopes for the future (Ex. 4-4b). The stormy bridge material (mm. 53–86) is drawn from the horror music in the forging scene at the Wolf's Glen.

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ex. 4-4a Carl Maria von Weber, Der Freischütz no. 3, Allegro con fuoco

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ex. 4-4b Carl Maria von Weber, Der Freischütz no. 8, Vivace con fuoco, mm. 2–11

It will surely not pass unnoticed by anyone hearing it that the overture's “recapitulation” recapitulates not only the themes but also the C-minor/C-major trajectory associated with Beethoven's Kampf und Sieg (battle-and-victory) scenarios. Indeed Weber dramatizes things even more emphatically than Beethoven ever did by detaching the C-major recap of the second theme from the rest and preceding it with a snatch of dark “forest music” from the slow introduction followed by a fanfare—in short, turning it into a “Victory Symphony,” as Beethoven put it in the Egmont Overture. Agathe's optimism, voiced cautiously (in E♭) in the exposition, is now proclaimed from the rooftops, telegraphing the joyous resolution of the drama. (And while we are on the subject, it is time to reveal that calling Beethoven's minor-major progressions the Kampf und Sieg scenario was already a slightly ironic allusion-in-advance to Weber, who actually wrote an oratorio with that title in the fateful year 1815, to commemorate Wellington's victory over Napoleon at Waterloo.) This pointed reference in the Freischütz Overture to Beethoven's rhetoric of contrasts has many counterparts in the opera, where time and again dark and light are strikingly juxtaposed. The most famous instance is the beginning of act III, which opens on Agathe's sunlit room after the midnight horrors at the Wolf's Glen at the end of act II. She sings a paean to the sun's warmth in harmonious duet with a solo cello. This scene was repeatedly cited by later composers and critics (and not only German ones) as a model of how all the elements in opera—poetry, music, scene-painting lighting—can interact to intensify a single impression.5 It was a major stimulus on the theory and practice of composers (most notably Wagner) who saw in opera a “union of all the arts.”

We have been holding the slow introduction to the Freischütz Overture in reserve because it contains the one important musical passage without a direct counterpart in the body of the opera: the “aria” for four concertante French horns (Waldhörner—“forest horns”!—in German), or to be more precise, for two pairs of horns, one in C, the other in F, that alternately call to one another and croon together over a bed of murmuring strings (Ex. 4-5). It seems a normal enough way to set the scene for an opera about hunters (and one that had plenty of eighteenth-century precedents), but as sheer sound it was an unprecedented and electrifying effect that forever changed the nature of orchestral horn writing.

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ex. 4-5 Carl Maria von Weber, Der Freischütz Overture, mm. 9–36

Until then horn parts had hardly differed from trumpet parts except in range. Now the horn became for German composers the Naturlaut—“nature sound”—par excellence, instantly evoking the whole panoply of romantic nature mysticism. After Weber, a quartet became the normal orchestral horn complement everywhere, not just in Germany. But what made Weber's horns sound particularly “German,” hence (to recall Krehbiel) “intimately bound up with the loves, feelings, etc., of a people,” was the close harmony, equivalent in range and “voicing” to the style of the Männerchor, the men's-chorus idiom that instantly evoked nationalistic singing societies with their patriotic hymns and “Rheinlieder.” Weber's horn quartet, in other words, effectively mediated between the human (vocal) and ghostly (forest) domains, giving the first real taste of what Paul Bekker (1882–1937), a historian of orchestration, called “the orchestra of romantic illusion.”6

As soon as the horns have finished (m. 25), the strings begin an eerie unmeasured tremolo, a device that has been traced back as far as Niccolò Piccinni in 1781, but not yet a commonplace in 1821. It makes all the more explicit the supernatural connotations of the forest-horn music; and in the very next measure harmonic color joins orchestral color to transport us to the world of the baleful nature spirits on whom Max and Caspar will be calling: the tremolo veers into a rootless diminished-seventh chord that is held out for four measures before returning to the harmony whence it sprang. It is a magnificent amplification, so to speak, of the sublime opening of Schubert's C-major Quintet (Ex. 3-8c).

Eeriness is compounded by the use of the clarinets in their lowest register, and the thudding notes of the timpani, marked “solo” (albeit supported by the double basses, pizzicato, for greater pitch definition). We definitely get the feeling that not only the cello melody beginning at m. 27, but also the harmony and the orchestral timbres will be returning later with dramatic significance—or, in other words, that these atomic musical particles (a single chord, a timpani stroke) have become “motivic.”

The significant return comes, of course, in the act II finale, the midnight forging scene known as “The Wolf's Glen” (Fig. 4-3). The whole scene is a series of ghastly apparitions or Geistererscheinungen that (as the music historian Anthony Newcomb was first to demonstrate in detail) reproduces the effects of a phantasmagoria, an exhibition of optical illusions produced by a “magic lantern” or light projector.7 Phantasmagorias were a popular form of mass entertainment in the early nineteenth century, invented by a French engineer named Étienne-Gaspard Robert (or Robertson) and first shown to the public in Paris in 1798.

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fig. 4-3 Scene from Der Freischütz, lithograph by Adam and Holstein after Johann Heinrich Ramberg (1763-1840).

Some phantasmagorias, like Robertson's own, were frankly presented as light shows, or demonstrations of an ingenious scientific apparatus. Others were billed by charlatans as supernatural events in which “actual” specters were raised: the prophet Samuel (cf. Samiel!), originally raised by the Witch of Endor at the behest of King Saul; a witches’ sabbath; a “nonne sanglante” (nun with bleeding stigmata); a “danse macabre” (dance of death), and the like. Weber was only the first of many composers who took a cue from the phantasmagoria shows: in later chapters we will observe a Witches’ Sabbath orchestrally evoked by Hector Berlioz (1830), and an orchestral Danse macabre conjured up by Camille Saint-Saëns (1874).

To achieve the musical equivalent of a light show implies a musical analogy with visual imagery. The operative correspondence or common denominator—the tertium quid (third element), to put it in terms of logic—is color, which in music means effects of “chromatic” harmony (from chroma, color in Greek) and effects of timbre (“tone color”). The Wolf's Glen scene in Der Freischütz, more than any previous musical conception, abounds in such effects; and what is more, it links them in a way already noted in the Overture, where a chromatic harmony (the diminished seventh chord) is expressed through a rare timbre (unmeasured string tremolo).

That very effect is the chief connecting tissue in the Wolf's Glen, which otherwise consists of an explosive succession of brief, blindingly colored and contrasted episodes. The scene opens in the key of F♯ minor, as distant from the key of the Overture as a key can be. As soon as the “chorus of invisible spirits” intones its “Uhui! Uhui,” however, the tonic chord is replaced with the very same diminished-seventh (C–E♭–F♯–A) tremolo that we have seen strategically prolonged in the overture. It, too, functions as a tertium quid, bearing the same intervallic relationship to C minor as to F♯ minor: as spelled in parentheses above, the first two notes are the root and third of the former and the remaining ones are the root and third of the latter, identifying it as C minor's “tritone complement.” The whole scene will be an oscillation between these two tritonally related keys: Weber was no doubt recalling the tritone's medieval nickname of diabolus in musica, part of musicological folklore to this day. But it is the mediator of the progression, the diminished seventh chord, redolent as it is of the Dungeon Scene from Beethoven's Fidelio (Ex. 1-1a), that is the scene's really characteristic harmony. It sounds whenever the devil Samiel is invoked (becoming, in effect, his identifying motive), and is sustained for as many as eight measures at a stretch.

The scene takes shape through an ever-accelerating progression of images. It begins with another miracle of media coordination to set beside the scene in Agathe's room, but at the opposite extreme, with every component conspiring to project gloom. The orchestration—once again combining low-or “chalumeau”-register clarinets and tremolando strings, to which a soft trombone choir and faint glowering bassoons are added—reinforces the murk onstage. When the unseen spirits wail and the harmony turns dissonant, the stage direction, in which an intermittently visible full moon “throws a lurid light over all,” is matched by a pair of piccolos in octaves, adding their sinister glint to the unison woodwind choir. This music, “coloristic” to an unprecedented degree, continued to reverberate in the work of opera composers, and eventually “symphony composers” as well, for the rest of the century.

The vocal writing effectively mediates between song and “melodrama,” or accompanied speech. The voice of Samiel is never set to music; it remains an unintegrated alien presence throughout the scene. Max's first terrified outcry is preceded by an uncanny horn blast first heard in the Overture (m. 93). The first phantasmic vision is that of Max's mother in her grave; next comes Agathe, appearing to Max alone as a hallucination. When she seems about to plunge to her death in a waterfall, the orchestra sounds another reprise from the Overture (rushing strings at m. 249).

Then the actual bullet-casting begins. Each of the seven bullets, counted off by Caspar and eerily echoed by an offstage voice, is accompanied, exactly as in a light show, by a fleeting hallucination, the orchestra assuming the role of magic lantern, projecting bizarre orchestral colors in dazzlingly quick succession to parallel the flashing stage lights.

  • At the shout of “One!” night birds with glowing eyes come flying out of the trees and flap their wings. Measured trills in the strings accompany glinting diminished seventh chords (the Samiel-harmony!) in the winds.

  • At “Two!” a black boar comes crashing through the bushes and darts across the stage. A rumbling of the bass instruments over a diminished fourth is accompanied by the tremolando strings: the rumble's low notes are harmonized by the Samiel chord.

  • At “Three!” a hurricane bends the tops of the forest trees. The music is clearly adapted from the Storm (fourth movement) in Beethoven's “Pastoral” Symphony.

  • At “Four!” an invisible coach, of which only the supporting fiery wheels can be seen, rattles across the stage to precipitate triplets reminiscent of Schubert's Erlkönig.

  • At “Five!” the “Wild Hunt,” a ghostly mirage replete with horses and dogs, appears in midair. The phantasmic hunters egg their hounds on to the sounding brass of the orchestral horns.

  • At “Six!” volcanic eruptions break out, accompanied by a reprise of the whole madly squalling thematic transition from the Overture (m. 61 ff), but this time veering off into tonal regions (F♯ minor, A♭ minor) never even broached in the Overture's development section.

  • At its height, at the count of “Seven!” Samiel himself appears; Caspar and Max fall in a dead faint; the full orchestra, rolling timpani predominating, negotiates an unprecedented juxtaposition of the keys of C minor and F♯ minor, with a single reiterated diminished seventh chord the sole intermediary.

Though Weber's “Wolf's Glen” looms in retrospect as a watershed of musical romanticism, and though the idea seems paradoxical given the subject matter, many German artists at the time suspected it of excessive “realism.” That is because it gave its imaginative or (in the language of the time) “fantastic” contents a visually explicit representation. In so doing it contradicted Beethoven's precept, in describing the “Pastoral” Symphony, that music should aim at mehr Ausdruck der Empfindung als Mahlerey, “more the expression of feeling than painting.” What Weber had accomplished, with unprecedented success, was frankly painting, and some of his contemporaries were offended by it.

By implication, they included E. T. A. Hoffmann himself the foremost German theorist of musical romanticism. In an essay on theatrical direction published in 1818, he had warned that:

Nothing is more ridiculous than to bring the spectator to the point where he, without needing to contribute anything from his own imagination, actually believes in the painted palaces, tress, and rocks…. First and foremost one must take care to avoid anything unseemly; then one must rely on a deep understanding of the genuinely fantastic, which will work upon and free up the fantasy of the spectator. The stage set should not itself, as an independent striking image, attract the eye of the spectator. Rather the spectator should come to feel, as the action progresses and without being aware of it, the effect of the stage set in which the action takes place.8

This is exactly the kind of argument that people advanced, in the early days of mass-produced and widely available television, on behalf of radio: it enlisted the listener's imagination (“the mind's eye”) rather than dulled imagination with explicit imagery. Then, as before (and as always), there was a covert social component to the criticism. It came out almost explicitly in a letter from Zelter to Goethe after the Freischütz premiere. After praising the music, he mocked the staging of the Wolf's Glen scene, replete with “clouds of dust and smoke,” and added that “children and women are crazy about it.”9

Newcomb argues convincingly that the scene's obvious debt to the phantasmagoria shows—a street and fairground entertainment, not a “high art”—was the aspect that evoked the criticism, and that it concealed social snobbery: aristocratic scorn for the “peasant” tastes of street and fairground spectators. It was only after the opera's canonization as mirror or mystical embodiment of German nationhood that such criticism was silenced. But that was the point, exactly. It took precisely such a “lowering” of taste to give the work such an elevated status. Thanks to it, “peasantry,” as figurative proxy for the nation, was not only represented in the work but actually incorporated into it. Whether described as a debasement of aristocracy or as an elevation of peasantry, a truly national art, like the idea of nation itself, gave differing social classes a common ground, and a common bond.


(1) Johann Gottfried Herder, Essay on the Origin of Language, trans. Alexander Gode (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 135.

(2) Wolfgang to Leopold Mozart, 18 December 1777; quoted in Margaret Grave, “Vogler, Georg Joseph,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. XXVI (2nd ed., New York: Grove, 2001), p. 865.

(3) Henry Edward Krehbiel, A Book of Operas (Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Publishing, 1917), p. 207.

(4) Richard Wagner's Prose Works, trans. W. Ashton Ellis, Vol. VII (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1898), p. 183.

(5) See Alexander Serov, letter to Vladimir Stasov, 18 August 1843, in A. A. Gozenpud and V. A. Obram, eds., “A. N. Serov. Pis'ma k V. V. i D. V. Stasovïm,” Muzïkal'noye nasledstvo, Vol. I (Moscow: Muzgiz, 1962), p. 234.

(6) Paul Bekker, The Story of the Orchestra (New York: Norton, 1936), Chap. 5.

(7) See Anthony Newcomb, “New Light(s) on Weber's Wolf's Glen Scene,” in Opera and the Enlightenment, eds. T. Bauman and M. P. McClymonds (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 61–88.

(8) Quoted in Newcomb, “New Light(s),” pp. 72–73.

(9) Quoted in Newcomb, “New Light(s),” p. 74.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Nations, States, and Peoples." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 Nations, States, and Peoples. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 31 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Nations, States, and Peoples." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 31 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-004.xml