Overture from Der Freischütz Excerpt - 6'10" in recording
Overture from Der Freischütz Excerpt - 6'10" in recording

The first excerpt in this series comes from the “Overture” from Der Freischütz. There is no masterful counterpoint and the “progression” itself is really just a long prolongation, but the effect is wonderful.

Low Level

Overture from Der Freischütz Excerpt - Low Level Analysis
Overture from Der Freischütz Excerpt - Low Level Analysis

At first glance it may be hard to see how this is simply a prolongation of the same chord interval of a third. Looking at the excerpt at a low, detailed, level is a good start. If we use the “label everything strategy and see what sticks,” we can quickly see that Weber seems to use the above labeled progression. However this analysis seems to present an odd progression and more importantly not functioning with any specific goal or direction. Removing the decorative secondary dominants, it would simply be i -- III -- v -- VII -- viiº -- i. This is where we begin to see that the actual movement in this progression, save for the last chord before the resolution, is all auxiliary to the main thing that is happening. But what is that thing?

Simplifying

Overture from Der Freischütz Excerpt - Simplified Outer Voices
Overture from Der Freischütz Excerpt - Simplified Outer Voices

We will do a couple of things to simplify this excerpt. First, we will first remove the octave transpositions. When we do this we can see that the bass line is more linear and that it mirrors the upper line.

The second thing we can do is boil the upper staff down to one or two lines. When I look for “important lines,” the first thing I look for are lines that make interesting or complete statements that have a noticeable shape. If we take the top note of every chord we get a line that is complete, of a noticeable shape (line), but not very interesting. If we take the second to top note of every chord, we get a similar line that almost matches the bass line verbatim. Beyond that there is not much exciting happening other than filling in chords. With all of that being said, we will just use the top note from each chord on the upper staff.

Lastly, to remove any other “extra” information, we’ll remove the time aspect so we can just focus on the pitches.

We can see that at every half note, we have an interval of a third between the bottom and top notes. But there are some other intervals in the bass that break this direct relationship. These incomplete neighbors simply act as non-chord tones that match the passing tones in the upper line. The relationship between the incomplete neighbor and the next note creates a feeling of moving forward as it is the same as the bass motion in a V - I chord progression. This is the fundamental base for this excerpt. The reason this is considered a prolongation as opposed to a progression is because we end on the same notes that we started on (but an octave higher) and the chords in between aren’t creating a functional progression. See if you can focus on this while listening to the excerpt with the full orchestra playing.

Other options

The more interesting thing to me is that, theoretically, Weber could have written any kind of non-chord tone here with similar effect. Why did he choose to use this non-chord tone arrangement in this situation? I believe it is because his other two options would be less exciting.

Overture from Der Freischütz Excerpt - Alternate 1
Overture from Der Freischütz Excerpt - Alternate 1

The first option Weber had, and probably what he started with when crafting these four bars, would have been simple passing tones. This works, and reinforces the relationship between the upper and lower voices, but it doesn’t have any motion forward. No excitement that even trivial counter point writing would have given to this excerpt. It’s “functional” but not much else.

Overture from Der Freischütz Excerpt - Alternate 2
Overture from Der Freischütz Excerpt - Alternate 2

The second option is marginally better. This alternative has the same benefit of the printed version in that the bass line is not completely linear. Can you see the problems? Academically, we have similar motion to octaves multiple times in a row which decreases the perceived independence of the voices. From an aural and more practical perspective, the leap in the bass will shift the focus on to the second, fourth, and sixth chords as they are the second notes of the mini V - I relationships the incomplete neighbors create. These notes, in addition, have an octave relationship with the upper voice making them sound more constant at unstressed harmonic and rhythmic times.