(Carl Maria von Weber, 1821)
Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz premiered in Berlin in 1821, and with its mixture of folk and supernatural elements proved a great success. At the start of the opera, the forester Max has missed all his shots in a competition; if he fails again the next day, he will not be able to marry his beloved Agathe. Another forester, Caspar, offers Max magic bullets that will always hit their mark; Caspar, however, has sold his soul to the devil, and by drawing Max into the dark arts plans to sacrifice the unsuspecting fellow to the devil in his stead.
The excerpt above comes from the famous Wolf’s Glen scene at the end of Act II, in which Max and Caspar cast seven magic bullets. Each bullet catalyzes a supernatural manifestation, the fifth being a “wild hunt,” as the folk myth of a ghostly train of hunters was known. Weber’s music for the wild hunt features horn calls that leap a tritone, or diminished fifth – the devil’s interval. Because hunting horns resonated only at the pitches of the harmonic series, however, their signal calls employed the intervals of an octave, fifth and major third. To obtain the tritone leap Ab to D, Weber called for horns in two different keys (E and Bb), each having one of the pitches in its natural overtone series. The result is, seemingly, a hunting horn with a supernatural overtone series. As Carolyn Abbate writes, Weber’s music “implies an imaginary horn,” allowing us “to hear the single horn that is not of this world.”
Video: Der Freischütz, produced by Achim Freyer at the Württembergische Staatsoper in 1981 (DVD Kultur, 2004)