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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Carl Maria von Weber

This music was written by a man who inspired many other composers; indeed one writer calls him the most influential composer of the 19th century. He wrote revolutionary operas, but his reputation was swamped by Wagner. He wrote wonderful songs, but Schubert's songs eventually became the model. And his instrumental music eventually gave way to Beethoven's as the dominant model for the future.

He's often called the first true Romantic, but his ideals were grounded very much in the past. In short, he's an enigma. Welcome to an overview of the life and work of Carl Maria von Weber.

Bardua: Carl Maria von Weber (1821)

Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber was born in Eutin, in what is now northern Germany, around 19 November 1786, the son of the composer and violinist Franz Anton Weber and his second wife, Genovefa Weber (née Brenner).

Weber's early life was dominated by his father, a man who had seemingly boundless energy and no small amount of sheer gall. He invented much of his own background to further his professional aspirations. Shortly after Weber's birth, he formed his own touring theatrical company made up largely of members of his own family - Genovefa Weber had a good soprano voice - and they travelled extensively through the young Weber's early years. The firsthand accounts of this time which have survived indicate that Weber as a child was rather frail; later sources tell us that he had a congenital hip disorder which caused him to limp.

When the boy was about ten, his father withdrew from the company and settled in central Germany. From this time - around 1796 - Franz Anton developed the idea of selling his boy to the world as a second Mozart (Mozart himself by this stage had been dead for five years). Thus the basic musical training Carl Maria had had up until this time now accelerated, with lessons in piano and figured bass with the local organist. Later that year the family moved to Salzburg and it was here that he had lessons in counterpoint with Michael Haydn.

Hornöck: Michael Haydn (c. 1805)

In 1798 Genovefa Weber died, after which for a couple of years father and son made their base in Munich. Franz Anton continued to tout his son as a prodigy in the mould of Mozart, and in Munich the boy's studies expanded to include singing, piano and composition. Weber started composing in earnest at this time, with works produced apparently including a Mass, piano sonatas, other piano works, chamber music and songs. Very little of this music is known today; it seems Weber himself destroyed most of his juvenilia in 1802. But a set of piano variations written when he was 13 was later published, giving an indication of the boy's progress by this stage. [listen]

Over the next few years, father and son travelled widely together, seeking opportunities to profit from the boy's talents. In Freiburg in 1800 he composed an opera called Das Waldmädchen (The Forest Maiden), which was performed, but only two fragments of the piece survive.

A two-act opera written shortly afterwards, though, survives complete. Peter Schmoll and his Neighbours was completed in 1802 and performed in Augsburg the following year. Peter Schmoll doesn't yet show the Weber we know from the mature operas, but it's still a remarkable achievement for a fifteen year old. This quartet comes from near the end of the work. [listen]

It was around the time Peter Schmoll was completed that Weber also composed his earliest-surviving songs. Weber's contribution to the lieder repertoire was substantial; Grove lists more than eighty songs. This song, Er an Sie, was eventually published in 1811 as part of his Op 15 but was written a few years earlier in 1808 when he was 21. [listen]

By the time he wrote that song, though, life had changed dramatically for Weber. In late 1803 and early 1804 he lived in Vienna, the first extended period he'd had away from his father. In Vienna he studied with the noted composer and organist Georg Joseph Vogler, who was to be a long-lasting influence on the young musician. Through Vogler, Weber gained access to the upper levels of Viennese artistic society and met some of the major musical names in Vienna at the time.

Georg Joseph Vogler (1790)

Vogler was probably the main person responsible for helping Weber - still only 17 - to secure the post of conductor at the theatre in Breslau in Silesia, now Wrocław in south western Poland. He stayed for two years, arriving (with his father again) with lofty ideals and high hopes and eventually encountering perhaps understandable resistance from his singers and orchestral musicians who resented being told what to do by one so young. He composed little during this period and left Breslau in mid-1806.

The next four years saw Weber spend time in two main centres. First he was based in Carlsruhe, employed by the Duke of Württemburg. Here he composed his two symphonies and a number of other works for the Duke's orchestra. Weber's symphonies seem to show him well aware of the legacy of his former teacher's famous brother, Joseph Haydn, while at the same time being influenced by the liberating approach to symphonic writing displayed in the works of Beethoven. Part of the first symphony was referred to at the start of this article; this is the finale of the second. [listen]

Weber then went from Carlsruhe to Stuttgart where he secured another court appointment. He spent two and a half years in Stuttgart as a sort of general secretary to Duke Ludwig Friedrich Alexander, a role which included teaching the Duke's children. During this time he made the acquaintance of the composer Franz Danzi, the Kapellmeister in Stuttgart, a friendship which kept him in touch with the musical world when his day-to-day life was decidedly pulling him in other directions.

Franz Danzi (1817)

In 1808 and 1809 Weber composed a number of works for the theatre, most likely as a result of Danzi's influence. One of the best-known works from this period is his incidental music to Carlo Gozzi's play Turandot (in Friedrich Schiller's German translation). This contains one of the melodies by Weber which Paul Hindemith used as the basis for his Symphonic Metamorphoses in 1943. (An earlier post in this blog is devoted to this work.) Weber for his part took the main theme from Rousseau's 1768 music dictionary, where it was included as an anonymous but supposedly authentic Chinese melody. [listen]

The major work from the Stuttgart years, though, was another opera, Silvana, which was written to a revised version of the libretto to the lost Das Waldmädchen of 1800. It was completed in 1810 and first performed in September of that year in Frankfurt. [listen]

The end of Weber's time in Stuttgart, though, reveals a shameful episode in the composer's life. He (and his father) became involved in corrupt financial dealings involving the sale of exemptions from military service and they ended up being heavily in debt. In early February 1810 they were arrested, charged with corruption and embezzlement, and subjected to a criminal trial. This led to a further arrest and a civil trial. His creditors eventually petitioned for their release, after checking Weber had the assets to pay them back over time. The King ordered their release, coupled with lifelong banishment from Württemburg. On 26 February they were escorted to the border and headed to Mannheim, where they arrived the next day.

On the day Weber left Württemburg he started a diary, and it's from 26 February 1810, because of this diary, that we know much more about the remaining years of his life. It's clear he was shaken by his brush with the law in Stuttgart and he resolved to live his life on an altogether more elevated and responsible plane from here on.

In February 1810 Weber was 23 years old. In Mannheim he quickly resumed his musical contacts and, because he had no permanent position or income, began a life as a travelling virtuoso pianist and composer. The next two years saw him constantly on the road, and he composed works he would need to display his talents, not only as composer but also as a pianist. The C major piano concerto of 1810 was one of the works he wrote to meet this need. It's an extraordinary piece, looking back to Mozart on the one hand but looking forward to Beethoven and beyond on the other. The brilliance of the outer movements is counterbalanced with an exquisite central slow movement which, apart from the solo piano, uses only two horns, viola, two cellos and double bass, dispensing with the rest of the orchestra. [listen]

This period of newfound freelancing saw Weber also compose his six remarkable violin sonatas. The publisher who had commissioned them, Johann André, rejected them for publication on the basis that they were too difficult for the domestic market and too original. They were published by Simrock in 1811.

Johann André

The six sonatas are described as being "progressive sonatas, composed for and dedicated to amateur musicians". Other sources describe them as quirky, and they draw from a number of different national styles over the course of the six works. Polish, Spanish, Russian and Italian forms rub shoulders with more conventional structures and they are works which appeal to professionals just as much as the amateurs for which they were intended. [listen]

The year these sonatas were published, 1811, saw Weber create a number of important new works. Among them is the one-act opera Abu Hassan, based on the tales of The 1001 Nights. (It has a fabulous overture. listen) And while in Munich as part of an extended tour, Weber met the clarinettist Heinrich Baermann, an association which led to the creation of Weber's concertino for clarinet and orchestra and, more importantly, the two clarinet concertos, the first major works of this type to remain at the core of the repertoire since Mozart's concerto of 1791. [listen]

Heinrich Baermann

Weber's tours at this time included a recitals with Baermann and it was on this tour, while in Berlin, that he learned of the death of his father. The visit to Berlin allowed Weber to meet some of the leading artistic figures of the German-speaking world of the day and it's important to remember that, like Robert Schumann, he had a parallel career as a writer. He wrote journal articles and reviews throughout his professional life and was highly-respected in this field as much as for his playing or composing.

From 1813 to 1816 Weber had another permanent post as a theatre music director, this time at the famous Estates Theatre in Prague (the same theatre in which Mozart had premiered Don Giovanni). The company had been languishing and Weber was charged with revitalising it from within. In the three years he was there he conducted about 430 performances of 72 different works, a staggering achievement, but his time in Prague on the whole was not happy. He began at this time to exhibit the first signs of the tuberculosis which would eventually kill him, plus his personal life was particularly volatile. A scandalous relationship with a married actress was followed by a stormy, on-again off-again relationship with the singer Caroline Bandt (whom he married the following year).

He left Prague in 1817 to take up a new post in Dresden, with the specific commission to create a second, German-language opera company for the court, to run in tandem with the existing Italian-language company. It was a hugely busy time, and often intensely disappointing due to resistance from a number of quarters and the shortage of singers. But it was in Dresden in 1817 that Weber started work on the masterpiece for which he is most usually remembered: the opera Der Freischütz. It would occupy him for the next two years.

During that time life was not smooth for Weber. His position at Dresden demanded he compose occasional works for the court, and from these court commissions came two Mass settings and other vocal works. In 1819 he became seriously ill, and at the same time his infant daughter died. While recovering from his illness he composed a large number of works under contract to the publisher Schlesinger: piano works, choral works, orchestral works, chamber music. It's staggering what he was able to do considering his weakened state. The summer of 1819 led to the composition of probably his most famous piano work, Invitation to the Dance. [listen]

Weber managed to complete Der Freischütz in May 1820. A hectic series of concert tours - partially in tandem with his wife - took up the rest of 1820, with the premiere of the new opera set for June 1821 in the new theatre in Berlin.

Set design for the Wolf's Glen scene in Der Freischütz (Weimar, 1822)

The new opera was a triumph. It resonated with the Berlin audience on two levels. Firstly, its gripping theatrical situations and memorable melodies made it easily accessible, and secondly, its thorough-going German text, story and literary basis made it a potent symbol of an ascendant Germanic culture in the face of the Italian theatrical styles which were widely popular, even in Germany.

Set design for the Act 3 finale of Der Freischütz (Berlin 1821)

Der Freischütz is sometimes called the first Romantic opera, but this is an over-simplification; many of its ideas look back to the Enlightenment. But there is of course much in the story - the supernatural element, especially - which is "romantic" in the Gothic sense. And there can be no doubt that Der Freischütz influenced generations of composers, and not just German ones, who saw in it much to inspire a way forward in opera. [listen]

Der Freischütz was staged by all the major German theatres within the next couple of years. It became the flagship work for a resurgent spirit in German opera and made Weber an international celebrity. But 1821, the year of the premiere, saw Weber's life take unpleasant turns as well. His illness became markedly worse, so much so that only a month after the first performance of Der Freischütz he made his will, and he was still only 35. He had several periods during the latter half of 1821 when he was completely bedridden.

Offers of work came in from all over Europe but Weber already sensed his energies and time were limited. He refused most invitations to compose and perform, and many offers of high-paying positions. By 1822 he also realised that the popularity of Der Freischütz was a two-edged sword: anything he wrote now would have to live up to that opera's success.

His energies went into composing a new opera, Euryanthe, to a text by Helmina von Chézy. The more he worked on it though - well into 1823 - the more he realised what a deficient libretto it was. Changes were made and despite his misgivings - and distractions from many quarters - Euryanthe was completed in August 1823.

Weber conducted the premiere of the opera in Vienna in October 1823. On his return to to Dresden he tried to portray the performances as triumphs but the press reports indicate that the Viennese were puzzled by the piece, if not downright hostile. This reaction attended the work in other cities, which was a huge disappointment to the composer. [listen]

Weber was demoralised after the failure of Euryanthe and composed almost nothing for the next year or more. His time - when he was well enough - was taken up with conducting, another skill for which he was highly praised. Weber was in fact one of the first people to make a regular practice of conducting in the way we would think of it today: standing in front of an orchestra and using a baton, rather than leading from the keyboard or the violin.

Weber conducting

The final chapter of Weber's life stemmed from the success of Der Freischütz, this time in London. The work had been an incredible success in the English capital in 1824 and this resulted in an offer to compose a new opera for Covent Garden. Weber realised his time was short so he accepted the lucrative offer in order to provide some financial security for his family when he died. But the commission to compose Oberon for London had its challenges, not the least of which was the fact that the libretto was in English. Ever the thorough professional, Weber, even in his precarious state of health, started learning English and made rapid progress. By January 1825 he was able to correspond with his London contacts in their own language.

Weber left Dresden in February 1826 and, travelling via Paris, arrived in London in early March. In the six weeks between arriving in London and the premiere of Oberon he managed to not only compose the overture and complete the third act, but he also wrote out the piano score, conducted four oratorio concerts and an orchestral concert, took part in two benefit concerts and played at a number of salons. It would have been exhausting for a man who was fit and well; for a man dying of tuberculosis it beggars belief.

Mezzo Lucia Elizabeth Vestris as Fatima in Oberon (1826)

Oberon was a huge success at its premiere, after which Weber took part in several more concerts before deciding to leave London on 6 June. But this he did not live to do; two nights before his scheduled departure he died, finally succumbing to his tuberculosis. He was 39.

His funeral took place at the Catholic chapel of St Mary Moorfields, with Mozart's Requiem being sung at the service. It was there he was buried, until 1844, when his remains were transferred to their final resting place in Dresden. [listen]

Weber's grave marker in Dresden

The Grove article on Weber, which was the major source for this article, begins by describing him as "a prototypical 19th century musician-critic [who] sought through his works, words and efforts as a performer and conductor to promote art and shape emerging middle-class audiences to its appreciation". It goes on to describe Weber as an enormous influence on later composers, on later musical forms and on later uses of instruments.

The irony is that despite his influence on others, so much of Weber's own music languishes, unknown. There's a lot of wonderful stuff to explore.

Schimon: Carl Maria von Weber (1825)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October, 2014.

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