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Carl Maria von Weber: Carl Maria von Weber, (b. Eutin, nr. Lubeck, 1 8 Nov 1 786; d. London, 5 June 1826)
Carl Maria von Weber, in full Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst, Freiherr (baron) von Weber, (born Nov. 18, 1786, Eutin, Holstein [Germany]—died June 5, 1826, London, Eng.), German composer and opera director during the transition from Classical to Romantic music, noted especially for his operas Der Freischütz (1821; The Freeshooter, or, more colloquially, The Magic Marksman), Euryanthe (1823), and Oberon (1826). Der Freischütz, the most immediately and widely popular German opera that had been written to date, established German Romantic opera.
Carl Maria von Weber was born into a musical and theatrical family. His father, Franz Anton, who seems to have wished upon the family the baronial von to which it had in fact no title, was a musician and soldier of fortune who had formed a small traveling theatre company. His mother, Genovefa, was a singer; his uncles, aunts, and brothers were to some degree involved in music and the stage. Carl Maria was a sickly child, having been born with a diseased hip that caused him to limp throughout his life. When he began to show signs of musical talent, his ambitious father set him to work under various teachers in towns visited by the family troupe in the hope that he might prove a Mozartean prodigy. Among these instructors was Michael Haydn, the younger brother of the composer Joseph Haydn. Under Haydn, Carl Maria von Weber wrote and published his Opus 1, Sechs Fughetten (1798).
The troupe paused briefly in Munich, where Carl Maria von Weber learned the art of lithography under its inventor, Aloys Senefelder. Moving on to Freiberg, the Webers planned to set up a lithographic works in order to propagate the young composer’s music. The scheme fell through; but meanwhile Carl Maria von Weber had composed his first opera, Das Waldmädchen (“The Forest Maiden”), which partially survives. Staged at Freiberg in 1800, it was a failure. On a return visit to Salzburg, Carl Maria von Weber completed his first wholly surviving opera, Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn, which also failed when it was produced in Augsburg in 1803. Carl Maria von Weber resumed his studies under the influential Abbé Vogler, through whom he was appointed musical director at Breslau (now Wrocław, Pol.) in 1804. After many difficulties, occasioned by the inexperience of a young director in putting through reforms, and a near-fatal accident in which he permanently impaired his voice when he swallowed some engraving acid, Carl Maria von Weber was forced to resign. He was rescued by an appointment as director of music to Duke Eugen of Württemberg, for whose private orchestra he wrote two symphonies. They are attractive, inventive works, but the symphony, with its dependence on established forms, was not the natural medium of a composer who sought to bring Romantic music to a freer form derived from literary, poetic, and pictorial ideas.
Carl Maria von Weber was next a secretary in the court of King Frederick I of Württemberg. Here he lived so carelessly and ran up so many debts that, after a brief imprisonment, he was banished. The principal fruits of these years (1807–10) were his Romantic opera Silvana (1810), songs, and piano pieces. Carl Maria von Weber and his father fled to Mannheim, where he was, in his own words, “born for the second time.” He made friends with an influential circle of artists, from whom he stood out as a talented pianist and guitarist; he was also remarkable for his theories on the Romantic movement. Moving on to Darmstadt, he met Vogler again, as well as the German opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. From this period came principally the Grand Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Opus 11, for piano, and the delightful one-act opera Abu Hassan (1811).
Disappointed in not winning a post in Darmstadt, Carl Maria von Weber traveled on to Munich, where his friendship with the clarinet virtuoso Heinrich Bärmann led to the writing of the Concertino, Opus 26, and two brilliant, inventive clarinet concerti. In all, he was to write six clarinet works for Bärmann, with whom he also toured. The clarinet remained, with the horn, one of the favourite instruments of a composer whose ear for new sounds and new combinations of instruments was to make him one of the greatest orchestrators in the history of music. Carl Maria von Weber was also one of music’s great piano virtuosos; his own music reflects something of the brilliance and melancholy and exhibitionist charm described by his contemporaries when he performed it. From 1809 to 1818 Carl Maria von Weber also wrote a considerable number of reviews, poems, and uncompromising, stringent music criticisms. All his work, music, and critical writings furthered the ideals of Romanticism as an art in which feeling took precedence over form and heart over head.
Appointed conductor of the opera at Prague in 1813, after a period in Berlin during which he caught the patriotic fervour of the day in some stirring choruses and songs, Carl Maria von Weber was at last able to put his theories into full practice. His choice of works showed his care for Romantic ideals, and his choice of artists showed his concern for a balanced ensemble, rather than a group of virtuosos. Furthermore, by publishing introductory articles to his performances, he saw to it that his audiences were carefully prepared. Obstacles again appeared: a stormy love affair left him disconsolate, and opposition to his reforms forced him to resign in 1816. His reputation by now, however, was such that he was able to secure an appointment as director of the German opera at Dresden, beginning in 1817. The same year he married one of his former singers, Caroline Brandt.
Dresden was a city more backward than most in Germany, and it had a flourishing rival Italian opera. As the prophet of a German national opera, Carl Maria von Weber was faced with even greater difficulties. Happily married, he applied himself energetically to his work, assuming full control over all aspects of the operatic production. No detail escaped him: he supervised repertory, recruitment, casting, scenery, lighting, and production, as well as the orchestra and the singers, taking care to see that every performer fully understood the words and plot of each opera. These tasks left him little time for writing operas himself, however, especially in view of the inexorable advance of his tuberculosis. He nevertheless produced several works during this period, including the last of his four piano sonatas, many songs and shorter piano solos, such as the famous Invitation to the Dance (1819), and the Konzertstück, Opus 79 (1821), for piano and orchestra.
It was also in Dresden that Carl Maria von Weber began to work on Der Freischütz, which was an immediate success when it was performed in Berlin in 1821. The story, deriving from folklore, concerns a man who has sold his soul to the Devil for some magic bullets that will enable him to win a marksmanship contest and with it the hand of the lady he loves. The opera presented, for the first time, things familiar to every German: the simple village life, with its rough humour and sentimental affections, and the surrounding forest, with its smiling appearance concealing supernatural horror. Above all, the characters, from the cheerful huntsmen and village girls to the simple, valiant hero and the prince who rules over them, were all—with the tuneful, sensational music—a mirror in which every German could find his reflection. In Der Freischütz Carl Maria von Weber not only helped liberate German opera from French and Italian influences, but, in his novel orchestrations and in his choice of a subject matter containing strong supernatural elements, he laid the foundations of one of the principal forms of 19th-century opera. Der Freischütz made Carl Maria von Weber a national hero.
His next opera, Euryanthe was a more ambitious work and a larger achievement, anticipating Richard Wagner as his piano music does Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt. It nevertheless foundered on its clumsy, though not intolerable, libretto. When Covent Garden in London commissioned a new opera, Carl Maria von Weber took on the task of learning English and working with a librettist, James Robinson Planché, by correspondence. His motive was to earn enough money to support his family after his death, which he knew to be not far off. In form, Oberon was little to his taste, having too many spoken scenes and elaborate stage devices for a composer who had always worked for the unification of the theatrical arts in opera. But into it he poured some of his most exquisite music, and he traveled to London for the premiere in 1826. Barely able to walk, he was sustained by the kindness of his host, Sir George Smart, and by the longing to get home again to his family. Oberon was a success and Carl Maria von Weber was feted, but his health was declining fast. Shortly before he was due to start the journey back to Germany, he was found dead in his room.
If the major impetus given to the establishing of the Romantic movement in music can be credited to one particular composer, that man was Carl Maria (Friedrich Ernst) von Weber. He brought his genius to the musical scene at the time most propitious for its fulfilment, and though his life was to be cut tragically short he was to influence the whole course of music: his operas paved the way for Wagner, while his piano music led just as surely to the subsequent stylistic developments of Chopin, Liszt and Schumann. It is necessary perhaps to sketch in the background to the Romantic movement before looking at Carl Maria von Weber's life or attempting an evaluation of his music. As opposed to the Classical ideals of order, balance and perfection within acknowledged limits of form and expression, Romantic art reaches out beyond the immediate time and occasion, giving a new emphasis to freedom, movement and passion. Romantic composers and writers sought to break the bounds of their actual experience of the world about them, to recapture the spirit of the past and anticipate the spirit of the future. In their work they tried to create a world of fantasy that was inevitably remote from the real one, achieving this, in the words of Walter Pater, by 'the addition of strangeness to beauty'. In this process the personality of the composer tended to become merged with his works, which often reflected his personal joys and sufferings, as in the symphonies of Berlioz and Tchaikovsky which bear the titles of the Fanlaslique and the Pathetique, sometimes even his longing for some unattainable ideal. This led in turn to the rise of 'programme music' which broke with the traditions of the past by linking itself to poetic, descriptive or even, as in the Richard Strauss tone poems Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, narrative subject matter. On a more mundane level, the movement was a response to the changing relationship between the composer and his audience. In the 18th century the system of aristocratic patronage had restricted composers to writing for small, homogeneous, highly cultivated audiences, but with the rise of the middle classes in the early part of the 19th century there was a large, diversified and mainly uninformed new public. Reaching this mass of people who flocked for entertainment to public concerts and festivals was the challenge thrown down to the composer, a challenge made all the more difficult because composers also began at this time to look to posterity, to a time when some ideal audience would understand them as their contemporaries might fail to do. And here lay a paradox: at the very time that composers grew more inward-looking in their works they needed to attract the paying customer to the opera house and the concert hall. Composers therefore began to cultivate, sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously, colourful personalities, with such extreme cases as Liszt and Paganini carrying this to outrageous lengths which make the pop stars of today seem shy violets by comparison.
Carl Maria von Weber, however, arriving at the dawn of the new movement, restricted his romanticism to his music, apart from the fact that he was to die, like Verdi's Violetta and Puccini's Mimi, from consumption in almost operatic circumstances. His family was in fact of more humble background than the spurious 'von' Weber suggests, but they were certainly musical: his father was Kapellmeister to the Prince Bishop of Lubeck in the small town of Eutin, while his mother was a singer of talent and experience. Soon after the composer's birth his father became director of a travelling theatre company, so his childhood was spent on tour, which meant that his education, musical and otherwise, was more than somewhat hit-and-miss. His father was determined from the start that his son should be an infant prodigy like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and so Carl Maria, who was afflicted with a congenital disease of the hip, learnt to sing and play the piano at the age of four while he was still unable to walk properly. He was fortunately able to study with Michael Haydn, brother of the famous symphonist, in Salzburg for a time, and it was there that the eleven-year-old Carl Maria von Weber's first compositions were published. Soon afterwards he began his career as a concert pianist, while in 1800 he saw his first opera produced in Freiberg, a romantic-comic work called Das Waldmadchen which was subsequently given in Vienna but all copies of which finally disappeared apart from two fragments. (It is possible the young composer destroyed them himself, for he once declared that 'puppies and first operas should be drowned.') Between 1801, when he was still only fifteen, and 1 8 1 6, he held posts as Kapellmeister at Breslau, an ambiguous musical secretaryship in Stuttgart and as director of the Prague Opera. During this period, however, he also made successful concert tours and found the time to compose the bulk of his orchestral work - the two symphonies, two concertos each for the piano and the clarinet, a bassoon concerto and a horn concertino - as well as a variety of songs and the operas Silvana and A bu Hassan. Then in 1 8 1 7 he took up the position he was to hold for the remaining years of life, the directorship of the Dresden Court Opera. These were hectic years, during which he put in an incredible amount of work preparing and conducting operas, giving concerts, visiting many European capitals as a now celebrated composer and writing the operatic masterpieces for which, above all, his name endures - and all this despite gradually failing health.
A close look at Carl Maria von Weber's symphonies and concertos makes it clear that traditional sonata form had no great appeal for him. He appreciated that other composers had found it provided an inner drama of its own in the development of contrasted themes and its exploration of key relationships. It was a form, however, which he neither mastered nor apparently wished to master. In his symphonies, and in the orchestral parts of his concertos, the use of instrumental colour to create mood and atmosphere was more his concern, while he sought to give the soloist an almost vocal expressiveness, both aims suggesting the born operatic composer. In the bassoon concerto he even presented the soloist as a dramatic character. The piano concertos, which reveal his love of virtuosity for its own sake, involve a high degree of ornamentation which was so strongly to influence Chopin. His desire to break with traditional form was made clear in 1821 when he decided to give the name Konzertst'uck to what was to have been his third piano concerto, even providing it with a 'programme' to emphasise its dramatic as opposed to purely formal nature. His four piano sonatas may similarly be regarded as dramatic statements of feeling. It is a pity that performers and public alike are hidebound in their attitude towards these works, for by neglecting them, the concertos above all, we are deprived of music which not only exerts an immediate appeal but gives deeper satisfaction the better we come to know it.
The earliest of Carl Maria von Weber's stage works to have survived is Abu Hassan, composed when he was twenty-four, a one-act Singspiel in the tradition of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail. The music is delightfully light-hearted, as befits the comic Arabian Nights tale, yet it melts into moments of tenderness which indicate something of the direction the composer was later to take. He found himself finally with Der Freisch'utz, premiered in Berlin on the 18th June 1821 with the composer conducting. It was an immediate triumph, resulting in no less than thirty productions in other German cities by the end of the following year. For audiences everywhere it exemplified every characteristic of German romanticism, its humble human characters, presented against a vivid background of wild and mysterious nature, each an agent of supernatural forces of good or evil. Carl Maria von Weber gave a distinctively national character to the melodies of the many memorable arias and choruses, whilen even more revolutionary was his use of harmony and orchestral colour to achieve dramatic expression. The scene of the Wolf's Glen brought something entirely new to opera with the eerie atmosphere Carl Maria von Weber created in his music for the casting of the magic bullets. Der Freisch'utz represents a turning-point in German opera, but it also constitutes a masterpiece in its own right, setting a standard the composer was not to reach again in the five years remaining to him.
For his next opera, Euryanthe (1823), Carl Maria von Weber unwisely chose a libretto so chaotic that his music, though both powerful and inventive, was unable to save the day. The influence it had on later composers, however, is immense, Carl Maria von Weber's flexible handling of recitative, arioso and aria providing a model without which Wagner could not have reached the heights he did in Lohengrin, to mention only one example. The same fate overtook his last completed opera, Oberon, composed to an English libretto for Covent Garden, where it was first performed on the 12th April 1826 under Carl Maria von Weber's direction. Again there is a profusion of very beautiful music, but the opera almost defies stage production. (Like Euryanthe, however, it can be enjoyed on gramophone records.) Less than two months after the premiere Carl Maria von Weber died in his London lodgings. His coffin remained in a grave at Moorfields Chapel for eighteen years until matters were arranged for its return to Germany. When the ship carrying it docked at Hamburg other vessels from all parts of the world dipped their colours in tribute, and the Funeral March from Ludwig van Beethoven's Eroica Symphony was played as the coffin was transferred to a small boat for its journey to Dresden. The body of the father of German romantic opera was finally buried in the city he had made his home, the graveside speech appropriately delivered by his great successor, Richard Wagner.
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