René Jacobs

René Jacobs: The Wolf’s Glen whisperer

Period performance guru René Jacobs has gently blown the cobwebs off the Romantic opera »Der Freischütz«, returning it to an ideal state that never existed in that form.

Outside, nighttime: a solitary car drives along a country road leading through a forest. Then it suddenly turns off on to a bumpy woodland track. Inside the car there is a man at the steering wheel with a child sitting next to him. »Come on, let’s catch ourselves a hare, then we’ll have something tasty to eat!« – »No, Papa, I’m afraid here, and you’re no huntsman – you haven’t even got a gun!« – »Just you wait! We both like roast hare, don’t we?«

Scraps of cloud and a pale crescent moon overhead. Inside the car, silence reigns. The boy pulls a timorous face. The driver turns the headlamps back on and catches a hare in the full beam. He starts the engine and tries to run the hare over: once, twice, three times. The boy’s eyes are wide with fear. Every time the hare gets away. »Bad luck,« the man mumbles. »No hare for dinner after all.« And he puts the car in reverse.

»Der Freischütz« live

on 4 May 2022 at the Elbphilharmonie Grand Hall

The forest: a motif of the Romantic movement

This childhood scene with his father the would-be poacher is the first thing René Jacobs thinks of when you ask him what the forest means to him, this central motif of German Romanticism. After all, the forest and a forester’s house are the only locations in Carl Maria von Weber’s Romantic opera »Der Freischütz«. Jacobs has made a thorough study of the work and a variety of source material, and last year he recorded it together with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in what he calls a version for radio. And in May he is bringing it to the Elbphilharmonie in a concert version. We can imagine the scene with the three failed attempts to run the hare over as the conductor’s private imaginary lead-in to »Der Freischütz«. Even moreso: as his own personal Wolf’s Glen.

»Wolf’s Glen. The very sound of the German original, ›Wolfsschlucht‹, is redolent of darkness and danger.«

Der Freischütz, 2. Akt: Geisterheer in der Wolfsschlucht. Bühnenbildentwurf, Weimar 1822
Ghost Army in the Wolf’s Gorge: Stage design for »Der Freischütz«, Act 2 (Weimar 1822) © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Weimar

Carl Maria von Weber’s »Der Freischütz«

Wolf’s Glen. The very sound of the German original, »Wolfsschlucht«, is redolent of darkness and danger. This is the eerie realm of the wild huntsman. There is no light greenery here, no birdsong; instead of spicy air only the scent of decay. This is where Kaspar, who has sold his soul to the evil Samiel, casts the magic bullets with which the good-natured huntsman Max hopes to overcome his recent bad luck with the musket: if he misses the target again tomorrow, he can abandon all hope of marrying the forester’s daughter Agathe. However, in addition to the six bullets guaranteed to hit their target there is a seventh belonging to the Evil One, who can guide it as he pleases.

»The work that brought the composer and the librettist together caused them to fall out again.«

In the end, the ominous story takes a turn for the better, which certainly increased its popularity with audiences. Weber’s »Freischütz« with its libretto by Friedrich Kind was first performed in Berlin in 1821 with the composer conducting: it became an international success, and remains so to this day. However, the work that brought the composer and the librettist together caused them to fall out again. Weber didn’t set the libretto one-to-one: his wife, the singer Caroline Brandt, persuaded him to make changes that failed to convince him, and enraged Kind. The librettist complained that Weber and his wife had turned the text into a statue with no head.

Johann Friedrich Kind
Johann Friedrich Kind: Litography by M. Knädig © Klaus Günzel: Die deutschen Romantiker (Artemis)

René Jacobs: restorer and surgeon

Belgian musician René Jacobs is known for his skill at blowing the dust off operas: with his devoted restoration of operas either forgotten or hitherto the victim of somewhat boring interpretations, he has brought much light into present-day music theatre. He has now turned his attention to Weber’s »Freischütz« with the passion of an art restorer and the courage of a plastic surgeon. Jacobs has not just stuck the head – or rather, one possible head – on the statue. He has also given this head facial features made of material taken from the torso. And while he was at it, he also gave it a cool hairdo using someone else’s hair. All of it in the spirit of our times, and as he sees fit.

A discovery

The argument between Kind and Weber was triggered by the figure of the hermit, who pops up in the opera’s last act like a deus ex machina. »I always found that inappropriate, sort of Baroque,« says Jacobs, who for a long time couldn’t see the appeal of »Der Freischütz«. But then he found out that in Kind’s original libretto the hermit appears at the beginning of the opera, straight after the overture. He is visited in his lonely forest dwelling by Agathe, who brings him fruit and milk as usual. And the dialogue between them rhymes, i.e. Kind intended it to be set to music. Frau Weber seems to have been a kind of early 19th century Yoko Ono, and she drove a wedge between Kind und Weber, commanding her husband in a letter to »Get rid of those scenes!«.

Weber obeyed his wife, and didn’t compose any music for the text passages in question. Some performances pay lip service to the Kind original by including the verses in spoken form. Jacobs has now tipped the odds in his favour and recalled the tradition of parody in music. In a musical context, »parody« means transforming existing material from one composition into another part of the same work, or of another work. In a note on his »Freischütz« recording, Jacobs writes that he »recycled« eight bars here and twelve bars there – »creatively but discreetly« – from the overture, as well as parts of the hermit’s aria in the last act. In addition, he borrowed material for a new duet sung by Agathe and the hermit from another passage in Act One.

Der Freischütz: Ouverture

Schubert put to new use

Jacobs used a particularly daring trick to patch up another weak point in the opera: the over-long monologue of chief forester Kuno after the opening chorus, where he explains the history of the trial shot to the huntsmen. Here again, Caroline Brandt wielded her censor’s axe and persuaded Weber not to have Kuno sing his explanation in verse as written by Kind. With a satisfied and sly smile, Jacobs says: »For this text I had the good fortune to come across a drinking song from Schubert’s singspiel ›Des Teufels Luftschloss‹, music which was a perfect fit. A true gift from Schubert to me. I love Schubert’s music, but he took a rather dim view of Weber and ›Der Freischütz‹. He was wrong. I see it as a little private joke that this aria is now being sung to music by Schubert.«

Speech and silence

»Jacobs was one of the pioneers of the Belgian and Dutch period-performance movement of the 1960s and 70s.«

Jacobs attributes »Der Freischütz« to the singspiel genre: he sees the work as a continuation of Mozart’s »Entführung aus dem Serail« or »Zauberflöte«, or Beethoven’s »Leonore«, which he performed at the Elbphilharmonie in autumn 2020 in a pared-down version without a chorus, owing to coronavirus. A singspiel includes a lot of recitatives and spoken texts, and these, too, Jacobs has edited and modernised freely and with a good conscience in »Der Freischütz«. In the process, a fine role for an actor emerged: with Jacobs’s help and on his own initiative, Max Urlacher has elaborated the largely silent presence of the demon Samiel into a thoroughly malicious character. In this case, Jacobs went back to the source that also served as inspiration for Friedrich Kind’s libretto: Johann August Apel’s »Gespensterbuch« (Book of Ghosts) of 1810.

Der Freischütz. (Johann August Apel: Gespensterbuch)
Der Freischütz (Johann August Apel: Gespensterbuch, 1811. Drawing by Schnorr von Carolsfeld) © Göschen, Leipzig

Courage tried and tested

Jacobs probably found the courage to make such wide-ranging modifications to a composer’s work in his extensive experience as a singer of Baroque and Early Baroque repertoire, where many aspects of the performance are left up to the interpreter’s personal taste, from the continuo to the ornaments.

In artistic terms, Jacobs was one of the pioneers of the Belgian and Dutch period-performance movement of the 1960s and 70s, from which many great names emerged, e.g. the Kuijken brothers, Ton Koopman, Philippe Herreweghe, Jos van Immerseel and Gustav Leonhardt. It goes without saying that the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra adheres to the sound of Weber’s time in »Der Freischütz«. Jacobs is particularly happy with the use of the horns, which illustrate the hunting world prominently in the opera: »After just a few bars of the overture, they sound like nature itself,« he enthuses. »These are natural horns, after all.« In many other respects as well, he came to love Weber’s score and instrumentation once he started taking a creative look at it.

»Der Freischütz« at the Elbphilharmonie

Everything was planned well in advance for 2021, to mark the 200th anniversary of the first performance. But coronavirus thwarted these plans. Now Jacobs’s retelling is at least coming to the Elbphilharmonie in time for the 200th anniversary of the Hamburg premiere: this was given in February 1822, and was followed by seven more performances. After all, as a local Hamburg reviewer commented at the time, »Freyschütz is still the piece du jour, and seems to find even greater favour with the public at every repeat performance«.

Fortunately, the encounter between the family car and the hare in the Belgian forest didn’t have any traumatic consequences for René Jacobs. It certainly didn’t spoil his fondness for a tasty roast hare, which he enjoys to this day.


Text: Tom R. Schulz

This is an article from the Elbphilharmonie Magazine (issue 02/2022), which is published three times per year.

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