With his arrival in Dresden on 13 January Weber had the mandate to create a royal company for German-language opera, which hitherto had been provided by Joseph Seconda's private troupe while the court itself had maintained a first-class Italian company. At his disposal was an excellent orchestra, but the vocal resources were less promising, as the new German company had few trained soloists and no female choristers, the high choral parts having been assigned to boy sopranos and altos from the Kreuzschule. Accordingly, Weber's initial goal, which he outlined in an open letter to the residents of Dresden designed also to temper unrealistic expectations, was to build up a functional ensemble, to which star soloists would be added over time. Rehearsals began on 18 January for Méhul's Joseph, an opera chosen largely because it required no prima donna, and the first performance on 30 January was deemed a success by no less than the king himself.
However, Weber never fully realized his ambitions for the German opera (W. Becker, L1962). Although the chorus was reorganized to his satisfaction by September 1817, the numerous Gastspiele in 1817 failed to result in the speedy permanent engagement of star singers. Only with the acquisition of the coloratura soprano Caroline Willmann in 1820 and her replacement, the great dramatic soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, in 1823 was the company finally able to cast the leading soprano roles with distinction. Tenor roles posed even more of a problem, as the only tenor Weber considered adequate, Friedrich Gerstäcker, left for Kassel at Easter 1821 after only one year in Dresden. A disillusioned Weber met Vitzthum's cost-conscious successor Hans Heinrich von Könneritz on 24 January 1821 to discuss the possible dissolution of the German company.
Nor did Weber's repertory in Dresden develop exactly as he wished. The company's vocal limitations forced it at first to rely on relatively modest opéras comiques and Singspiele. Restrictions also arose because the German opera was not allowed to duplicate the repertory of the Italian opera. Thus a number of works that Weber had presented in German in Prague (La vestale, Fernand Cortez, Camilla, Le cantatrici villane, Così fan tutte, Le nozze de Figaro and La clemenza di Tito) were not available to him, and only over time was Weber able to wrest from the Italian company Joseph Weigl's Die Schweizerfamilie (1818), Peter Winter's Das unterbrochene Opferfest (1819) and Mozart's Don Giovanni (1821). Because of such constraints, one should therefore be cautious about reading too much ideological import into Weber's almost exclusively Franco-German repertory in Dresden.
Cultural politics were a further source for frustration during Weber's tenure in Dresden. Rightly or wrongly, Weber strongly believed that a pro-Italian faction, led by the Kapellmeister Francesco Morlacchi, was at work surreptitiously to undercut his authority and lower the status of the German opera in the eyes of the court and the public. Thus ensued a series of petty grievances and major crises that Weber blamed on the Italians. For instance, to his dismay he found upon his arrival in Dresden that his title was not ‘Kapellmeister’, to which he had agreed, but rather the less prestigious ‘Musikdirektor’, whereupon he threatened to leave for breach of contract. Vitzthum was able to mollify him, and the matter was officially resolved to Weber's satisfaction by 10 February 1817. A second crisis occurred in early 1818, when the court countermanded his efforts to reorganize the seating of the Italian opera orchestra for performances of La vestale and Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra that he conducted during Morlacchi's absence in Italy. Weber sparked a third crisis in early 1820 through his published comments about Meyerbeer's Emma di Resburgo, wherein he not only chastised his friend for having capitulated to Rossinian mannerisms but also questioned the ‘digestive capacity’ of Italian audiences that had made Rossini their principal operatic fare. Weber's comments provoked Morlacchi to go to Count Detlev von Einsiedel, the king's minister, to demand that Weber be offically reprimanded for his ‘insult’ to Italians, a move that Weber in turn perceived as a serious threat to artistic integrity and freedom of critical judgment (Allroggen, G1991). Only in spring 1822, by which time Weber had mitigated his own ambitions for the German opera, did he and Morlacchi finally come to an uneasy peace.
Weber's first year in Dresden was perhaps the most significant in his life. Though he had no close musical colleagues, he quickly cultivated friendships with various members of the theatre and with members of the ‘Dichter-Thee’ and Liederkreis, two groups of local poets who gathered socially to read their respective works aloud. The editor of the Abend-Zeitung, the theatre secretary Carl Gottfried Theodor Winkler (who used the pseudonym Theodor Hell), provided Weber with a forum for introductory essays of the kind that he had written in his last year in Prague. And in the playwright Friedrich Kind, the spiritus rector of the Liederkreis, Weber found a collaborator with whom he soon began to discuss plans for a new opera. By 21 February Kind had agreed to write a libretto after Johann August Apel's novella Der Freischütz, and thus began a project that resulted in Weber's most famous work. Throughout the year Weber also made plans for his impending marriage to Caroline Brandt, who was still in Prague finishing her contract. In June, Count Brühl attempted once again to recruit Weber for Berlin, but Brühl's plan was eventually vetoed by the King of Prussia. At the end of October, following a round of wedding festivities at court for which he composed an Italian cantata (j221), Weber returned to Prague, where he exchanged his own wedding vows with Caroline on 4 November. After a six-week honeymoon that took them to western Germany, they went to their new home in Dresden on 20 December 1817.
Weber's duties as Kapellmeister and the attendant crises that arose periodically caused his own projects frequently to be shelved while he worked on pieces for the court, such as a mass completed in early 1818 for the king's nameday (j224). In the summer of 1818 Weber and his wife rented rooms at Hosterwitz in the countryside nearby, in the hope that the quiet rural life would allow him to finish the composition to Kind's libretto, which had been provisionally accepted for Berlin, but he was obliged at this time to compose a cantata for the queen's nameday and several major works for the celebration of the 50th year of the reign of King Friedrich August. For the 50th wedding anniversary of the king and queen he completed a second mass in early 1819 (j251). The birth of a daughter on 22 December 1818 and Caroline's difficult recovery provided additional distractions. And shortly after Weber set to work again on the opera in March 1819 he was himself struck by a severe illness that left him incapacitated for nearly two months, during which time his infant daughter died. Convalescing in Hosterwitz in summer 1819 he was finally able to complete a number of pieces under contract to Schlesinger, to whom he sent on 26 August the piano variations op.55, the aria op.56 (written for Cherubini's Lodoïska), the Festgesänge op.53/57, the Jubel-Cantate (op.58), the Jubel-Ouvertüre (op.59), the four-hand piano pieces op.60, the Rondo brillante op.62, the Flute Trio op.63, the Polacca brillante op.72 and the songs of opp.66 and 71. During the summer he also composed one of his most celebrated solo piano pieces, Aufforderung zum Tanze, and began work on a fourth piano sonata.
In autumn 1819 Weber resumed the composition of Die Jägersbraut, as Kind's libretto was called at the time, and worked on it more or less continuously until he finished it on 13 May 1820. Shortly thereafter, at Brühl's recommendation, the title of the opera was changed to Der Freischütz. Upon completing the opera, Weber composed between May and July the incidental music for P.A. Wolff's play Preciosa, which was commissioned by Brühl for Berlin, and began at the same time to work on a comic libretto by Theodor Hell, Die drei Pintos, which he intended for the German opera in Dresden.
With the première of Der Freischütz postponed because of delays in the construction of the new Schauspielhaus in Berlin, Weber and Caroline embarked on a concert tour to northern Germany and Copenhagen in late July 1820. The tour took them to Halle, where the overtures to Der Freischütz and Preciosa were given their public début on 31 July. At both Halle and Göttingen Weber was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm with which he was received by the university students, who serenaded him with his own choral songs from Leyer und Schwerdt. Because of her delicate health, Weber left his expectant wife in Hamburg (where she nevertheless suffered a miscarriage after he departed) and continued on to Eutin, Plön and Kiel. On 24 September he arrived in Copenhagen, where he played at a court concert on 4 October and presented his own public concert on 8 October. After concerts in Lübeck and Hamburg he and Caroline returned to Dresden on 4 November.
In the first months of 1821 Weber continued to work on Die drei Pintos and discussed with Kind a new opera based on the Spanish epic El Cid. At Brühl's request, he also composed an additional piece for Der Freischütz, for whose long-delayed première Weber and his wife travelled to Berlin on 2 May. During the rehearsals for his opera, Weber attended the luxuriant production of Spontini's Olimpia (in E.T.A. Hoffmann's translation) at the royal opera house. On the morning of 18 June 1821 he completed the Concert-Stück in F minor for piano and orchestra, and that evening he conducted the first performance of Der Freischütz at the new Schauspielhaus. The work struck a responsive chord in the Berlin audience, which at one level embraced its theatricality and tuneful, folklike melodies (a fact driven home in Heine's well-known Reisebrief of 16 March 1822) and at another welcomed it as a potent symbol of German cultural resistance to the Franco-Italian style of the king's unpopular protégé, Spontini.