Freischütz in Focus

Virtual foray through 200 years of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera

On 18 June 1821, »Der Freischütz« premiered in Berlin. Only a few months later, Carl Maria von Weber, then Kapellmeister and director of German Opera at Saxon’s Royal Theatre, conducted his masterpiece in Dresden. Since then, »Der Freischütz« has become integral to the repertoire of Dresden State Opera. With almost 1,500 performances, »Der Freischütz« is not only the most frequently performed opera in Dresden, but also a milestone in the history of Saxon State Opera.

Echoing the seven magic bullets cast by the young huntsman Max in the eerie Wolf’s Glen, we embark on a videographic journey over seven episodes, running until the anniversary of the work’s premiere on June 18th.

Episode 1: Weber everywhere

The composer Carl Maria von Weber greets us not just in Dresden’s Semperoper but also outside on the main square. These diverse portraits underline his huge significance for Dresden’s opera history. And thus Weber himself launches our anniversary series.

A Monument to the composer of »Der Freischütz«

»Forget the dreadful weather! This will be a wonderful occasion«. The words of Max Maria, the son of composer Carl Maria von Weber, in a message to Friedrich Wilhelm Jähns, a family friend and later editor of the first catalogue of Weber’s oeuvre, inviting him to attend the official unveiling of the monument on 11 October 1860. And so at 10 o’clock on a rainy Thursday morning, a procession set off from the Dresden Gewandhaus (near today’s Pirnaischer Platz). At the head of the group were the Royal Kapellmeisters Karl August Krebs and Julius Rietz as well as the Royal Concertmaster Franz Anton Schubert, followed by the members of the Royal Kapelle and the Court Theatre, the Gentlemen’s Singing Society, the musical society Tonkünstlerverein as well as other associations, all carefully enumerated in the Digest of the Royal Court Theatre for the year 1860. Their path led them to the public gardens behind the Court Theatre, running towards the Elbe, where in the presence of King Johann of Saxony, the ceremonial unveiling of the Weber statue was to take place. 

Some 15 years after the death of Carl Maria von Weber, voices began to grow louder that a monument should be erected to the composer.

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These appeals were initially linked to the idea of returning his body to Saxony. Weber had died in 1826 in London, after the premiere of his opera »Oberon«. In 1841, some newspaper reports criticised the undignified nature of the composer’s burial site in the British capital. The Saxon King of the time, Frederick Augustus II, arranged for his London envoy to investigate. Simultaneously, he ordered the establishment of a »Comité« in which, among others, representatives of Carl Maria von Weber’s surviving relatives and the general director of the Royal Kapelle and the Court Theatre, Wolf Adolph August von Lüttichau, were to discuss how to proceed. Since the envoy’s report from London did not in fact confirm the poor condition of the grave, the Saxon king decided in September 1841 that Weber’s mortal remains should remain in Great Britain and that a monument to him should be erected in Dresden. The proceeds of the 100th performance of »Der Freischütz« in Dresden on 24 August 1842 – amounting to about 700 thalers (around 26,000 euros today) – formed the initial capital to launch this venture.

Public discussion also attracted a number of private donors, among whom a new »Comité« was elected in 1844. This committee once again advocated that Carl Maria von Weber’s body be returned to Dresden and buried in the Catholic cemetery. One of the initiators was the Weber devotee, Richard Wagner, who since 1843 was employed as Kapellmeister at Dresden Court Theatre. Despite the public interest, the question of Weber’s final resting place was seen as a purely family matter; in the end, the king withdrew his objection and so the transfer and subsequent burial could take place in Dresden in the same year.

Weber’s deliberately plain tomb in the Catholic cemetery was designed by Ernst Rietschel, professor of sculpture at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. He collaborated with many important architects, above all Gottfried Semper, designing, for example, the figurative sculptures adorning the Dresden Court Theatre. His most famous work is probably the Goethe and Schiller Monument in Weimar, which was unveiled in 1857. And it was Rietschel who was finally commissioned by the Dresden Weber Committee to design a fitting monument to the composer. His vision turned Carl Maria von Weber into the epitome of a Romantic artist. By 1860, sufficient funds had been gathered through private donations and charitable concerts, including those of the Royal Kapelle, to turn the designs into reality. The cost of the bronze monument, including the granite base, came to about 21,000 Marks (around 150,000 euros today). The fact that over 80 percent of the cost of erecting the monument was paid for by private donations once again underlines the central importance that Carl Maria von Weber already had for Dresden at this early date. 

After Gottfried Semper’s first Court Theatre was destroyed by a devastating fire in 1869, the Weber monument was moved to its current site between the Zwinger’s Semper Gallery and the new opera house, also designed by Semper.

Elisabeth Telle

Das Weber Denkmal an seinem aktuellen Standort
The Weber Monument at its current location © Matthias Creutziger

Dresden Royal Opera 200 years ago

»Abgestaubt« series of articles from the Magazine »Semper!«

Magazine »Semper!«

To create something of true value!

Dresden’s opera before Carl Maria von Weber’s inauguration.

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Magazine »Semper!«

A job for life!

In September 1817, Carl Maria von Weber was appointed Royal Kapellmeister »for life«.

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Magazine »Semper!«

The path to our goal is manifold

Carl Maria von Weber’s enormous job of building up the newly founded institution of German Opera and collaboration with Francesco Morlacchi.

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Episode 2: Inspiring Freischütz – 1818

Our journey takes us to the world’s only museum dedicated to the composer Carl Maria von Weber. Here, in the local village of Hosterwitz, Weber found many ideas for his opera »Die Jägersbraut« (»The Hunter’s Bride«). At the request of the Berlin theatre director, Count von Brühl, the work was renamed »Der Freischütz« shortly before the premiere. 

Dresden and Pillnitz – the two poles of Weber’s work in Saxony

»Therefore, come and visit the Weber family in the friendly and beautiful setting of Dresden... At the end of June... I intend to move out to the country, nearby Pillnitz... Half of my opera, Die Jägersbraut, is already sketched out, and shall be launched onto the world this coming winter.«

When Carl Maria von Weber sent this invitation to his close friend and Berlin-resident Hinrich Lichtenstein on 14 May 1818, he had already been working as Royal Kapellmeister in Dresden for over a year. Together with his newly-wed wife Caroline, he lived on the south side of the Altmarkt, in House No. 9. Located in the heart of the city, this handsome building (A) near the Kreuzkirche reflected the social standing and reputation of a court conductor and opera director. At the same time, from here Weber could easily walk to his most important places of work, namely the Moretti Theatre (B) on the grounds of the so-called Italian Village, and the summer theatre »Auf dem Linkeschen Bade« (C), not far from the modern hospital Diakonissenkrankenhaus. However, the commute to another »venue«, where the presence of the court conductor was also requested, required a bit more effort: every summer, the royal family moved to Pillnitz Palace (D), about 13 km away, where they also wished to be entertained with a diverse programme of culture. 

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Weber used various means of transport to commute between Dresden and Pillnitz, for instance by coach and horses, by barge along the Elbe or by simply hopping on a ferry. Frequently, however, there was no way to avoid the tiring walk of about three hours each way. Weber’s detailed diary entries confirm the logistical efforts needed to meet his official obligations at the various locations. The solution to the problem was obvious: in addition to his city flat, a peaceful summer residence had to be found near Pillnitz. On 5 June 1818, Weber showed his wife Caroline what he had discovered, namely a winegrower’s house built in 1725, located in the Äpfelgasse (today’s Dresdner Str. 44) in the picturesque village of Hosterwitz. The very same evening he noted in his diary: »At 7 am set off on foot with Lina to Pillnitz…visited the domicile… made it back to Loschwitz village by 6 pm. Then some beer and bread…got back home by 9 pm via the river.«

Just a few weeks after this excursion, the couple moved into their new residence in Hosterwitz (E). As hoped, this change greatly eased Weber’s daily work. Delighted with the hugely diverse landscape, which featured idyllic mountains and forests, the composer wrote another euphoric letter to Hinrich Lichtenstein on 8 July 1818: »I am living in the beautiful countryside, where nature offers the peace and tranquility I need to live wholly for myself and to follow my impulses without being disturbed every moment by visits and enquiries... I hope to achieve something of significance here.«

Episode 3: A tradition begins – since 1822

Steeped in tradition, the Semperoper is revered throughout Germany and the world. Determined to safeguard its artistic heritage, Dresden State Opera runs its own documentary archive. But the past is also preserved in the music library.

Historical material from 200 years of »Der Freischütz«

Part I: 1822–1951 (1/15)

Episode 4: Post-war aesthetic – 1951

The Kupferstich-Kabinett in Dresden’s Royal Palace houses a collection of around 900 sketches by the stage designer Karl von Appen, who also created the scenery designs for the 1000th performance of »Der Freischütz« in 1951.

Experimental Dresden recording

A glance in the archives of public broadcaster Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk shows that »Der Freischütz« tops the list of popular radio productions made in Dresden. The earliest complete recording of Weber’s opera was made under the baton of Generalmusikdirektor Karl Elmendorff. The recording date speaks for itself: On 1 June 1944, three months before Dresden State Opera was forced to close its doors under the pressures of war, the national broadcaster Reichsrundfunk made a complete recording in the Semperoper of a staged performance of »Der Freischütz« (albeit without any spoken dialogue). Thanks to this radio production, those of us born after the destruction of Dresden’s opera house, designed by architect Gottfried Semper, can still experience its unique acoustics.

A later anniversary recording from 1951 and conducted by Generalmusikdirektor Rudolf Kempe is interesting for another reason:

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Dresden’s local radio station brought the Staatskapelle, the opera house’s roster of soloists and the State Opera Chorus into the so-called »Stone Hall« of Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, a space which had been converted into the city’s main broadcasting hall. For Hans Hendrik Wehding, the production’s music director and recording supervisor, this room offered better acoustics and greater flexibility than the constantly booked-out auditorium of the city’s playhouse. In addition, located directly beside the headquarters of the radio station, it was possible to test the novel technique of pseudo-stereophony, intended to give the recording a stereophonic perspective by employing several microphones and loudspeakers. The opera »Der Freischütz«, with its famous scene at the Wolf’s Glen and the extensive spoken dialogue, was the ideal candidate for Dresden’s first laboratory experiments in the spatial localisation of voice and orchestra.

The conductor and musical advisor to Dresden local radio, Hermann Scherchen, had encouraged this development when, in 1949, he asked the sound engineer of Dresden’s Funkhaus, Gerhard Steinke, to »intensively explore the technique of stereophony so as to increase sonic transparency and thus the artistic impact.« In the end, the radio tapes owe their later career and preservation to such arguments: transferred to Berlin’s Radio Research Centre as important reference recordings, they continue to be stored there as »experimental Dresden recordings«.

Stapel von sechs in orangefarbenen Karton verpackten Tonbändern der »Freischütz«-Aufnahme von 1951
Original tapes of the 1951 recording of »Der Freischütz« © MDR, Marco Prosch

Gerhard Steinke, now ninety-four years old, can still clearly remember the technical challenges of those early Dresden opera productions:
»As a young sound engineer at Dresden radio, I had the opportunity to produce the first post-war opera recordings with the Staatskapelle. The former entry hall of the national Museum of Hygiene served as our recording space. This room, which was used as a broadcasting centre for radio recordings as well as for public events, was called the ‘Stone Hall’ due to its particular shape and design, which resulted in it being highly resonant. For this reason, we placed the orchestra in front of the stage for the recordings, closed the stage curtain and covered up the remaining rows of seats. For our opera productions, we considered setting up an additional hanging microphone four metres above the conductor’s rostrum to complement the high standing microphone. In order to realise the ideas of the chief sound engineer, Gerhard Probst, I decided to cut a hole in the concrete ceiling for the microphone cable.

Schwarz-weiß-Aufnahme von Gerhard Steinke am Mischpult, 1951
Gerhard Steinke at his mixing desk in 1951 © G. Steinke

However, as we didn’t have any drilling machines back then to cut through stone, the hole had to be chiselled by hand. In the process, a large area of plaster about six metres wide peeled off the ceiling and crashed onto the floor of the hall. This rather annoyed the director of the Museum of Hygiene and caused considerable embarrassment to the local radio bosses. Nonetheless, the chief engineer’s somewhat disguised delight at having the microphone in the right place was far greater than the inconvenience caused – especially since Rudolf Kempe was more than willing to arrange the various instrument groups of the orchestra as well as the singers to best exploit the additional hanging microphone. The entire recording apparatus such as microphones, monitoring speakers and magnetic tape recorders was from the early 1940s and had belonged to the Reichsrundfunk. The tape machines themselves were located far away from the recording room in a special wing of the Museum of Hygiene which housed the local radio station. There, the technical assistants would start the machines rolling when ordered to do so by telephone from the control room or by Rudolf Kempe himself.«

Steffen Lieberwirth

Episode 5: Legendary sound – 1973

From 22 January to 8 February 1973, a complete recording of the »Der Freischütz« was made in Dresden’s Lukaskirche under the baton of Carlos Kleiber. The two horn players Peter Damm and Harald Heim talk about the Staatskapelle’s extraordinarily demanding work with the conductor and why this is still considered a benchmark recording.

Carlos Kleiber and the Dresden Staatskapelle

Interview with Dieter Uhrig, former Managing Director

At the beginning of 1973 Carlos Kleiber was invited to conduct the Staatskapelle for a new complete recording of »Der Freischütz«. This ambitious project was not only his first meeting with the orchestra but also his first ever recording session. The chosen venue was Dresden’s St. Luke’s Church (Lukaskirche), which had been badly damaged in the Second World War and converted into a recording studio from 1964 to 1972. The list of soloists included such illustrious names as Peter Schreier (Max), Theo Adam (Kaspar), Gundula Janowitz (Agathe) and Edith Mathis (Ännchen). They were joined by the Leipzig Radio Choir and various actors needed to recite the dialogue under the instruction of Dresden stage director Joachim Herz.

The Dresden Staatskapelle has been recording with internationally renowned conductors for almost 100 years. Dieter Uhrig, as orchestra director from 1969 to 1987, you were responsible for negotiating the contracts for recordings made when the orchestra was off duty, so to speak, as well as dealing with the performing artists. What memories do you have of your first encounter with the conductor Carlos Kleiber?
Hans Hirsch from Deutsche Grammophon was responsible for bringing Carlos Kleiber to Dresden for this recording. Previously, there had been no contact between Kleiber and me or the Staatskapelle. From other orchestras I had heard of his thorny reputation; but, of course, he was the rising star at the time.

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Our first personal meeting was actually in the studio right before the orchestra rehearsals. After introducing him to the orchestra and watching him rehearse for a while, I got the impression that he was a little insecure. He felt under constant pressure as the offspring of another very famous conductor, Erich Kleiber: the son was measured against the father’s achievements. But I really admired how he dealt with that, how under such pressure he was able to produce music exactly as he envisioned it.

Even then, the Staatskapelle had a long history of performing this particular opera. Some people have even claimed that it’s part of the orchestra’s DNA. So how did the musicians react to Kleiber and his unusual interpretative proposals?
The Dresdeners thought they could continue to play the piece as Weber himself had conceived it. For Carlos Kleiber, however, it was important to convince the orchestra of his own ideas regarding »Der Freischütz«. He knew the piece and the original Berlin score extremely well, developing his interpretation from this deep understanding. In the end, the orchestra welcomed his input.

How can we imagine the process of making a complete recording of an opera? What was different about this recording? 
Kleiber demanded an unusually long rehearsal period. Normally, we would rehearse for a maximum of one week, but the recording of »Der Freischütz« took two and a half weeks, from 22 January to 8 February 1973. There was a very tight schedule of orchestra rehearsals and separate vocal run-throughs before everything came together. Kleiber always worked intensively during these rehearsals; there really was no time-wasting. He also spent a lot of time listening to and comparing the recordings. Nevertheless, the cooperation between the West German label Grammophon Gesellschaft and the East German VEB Deutsche Schallplatten was certainly profitable for both sides. Generally, VEB Deutsche Schallplatten paid for the orchestra, chorus and soloists from the GDR as well as the on-site equipment. The fees for the international soloists and the conductor were usually footed by the West German label. This financially beneficial arrangement produced some outstanding artistic results. I am glad that this recording could be realised and also that Carlos Kleiber returned to Dresden to work with the Staatskapelle on a second occasion, namely in the early 1980s to record Wagner’s »Tristan und Isolde«. As a conductor, he really was one of a kind.

Episode 6: Opening premiere – 1985

The singers claim to have been completely unaffected by all the excitement surrounding the opening of the rebuilt Semperoper. Baritone Olaf Bär tells us with pride – and a twinkle in his eye – that he was the first soloist to grace the stage of the resurrected building.

Historical material from 200 years of »Der Freischütz«

Part II: 1961–2015 (1/15)


Semper Stream

Streaming of »Der Freischütz«

From 18 to 20 June 2021 on

Streaming of the Unitel recording of the Dresden premiere of Axel Köhler’s staging from 2015. The production features Michael König, Georg Zeppenfeld, Albert Dohmen, Sara Jakubiak, among others. The Staatskapelle Dresden is conducted by Christian Thielemann.

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