Carl Maria von Weber

(d. 5 June 1826)

Carl Maria von Weber was a 19th century composer, critic, pianist, and conductor. His compositions span many genres including songs, piano music, opera, and orchestral works. Towards the end of his life he became one of the leaders of German opera and influenced composers such as Mendelssohn, Wagner, Berlioz, and Liszt.

Weber was born in Eutin, Germany in 1786, though his exact birthdate is unknown; even he wasn’t sure, but it was between the 18th and 20th of November. He celebrated it on different dates throughout his life. He was born into a long line of musicians. His father was a stadtmusicus and Kapellmeister and his mother a singer. Weber’s family moved very frequently, mostly due to his father’s career leading a theatre troupe. Weber’s father’s goal was to train him to be a child prodigy, the next Mozart, and taught him to sing and play piano from the time he could talk. Interestingly enough though, Weber was unable to walk until the age of four. In general, Weber was quite weak and sickly as a child. Weber continued lessons, in 1796 with Johann Peter Heuschkel, a local organist, oboist, and composer. From Heuschel, Weber learned piano and thoroughbass.

There seem to be no distinct style periods in Weber’s music, just a path of continuous growth.

Weber’s father, who was not yet satisfied enough, encouraged Weber to compose and, in Salzburg in 1797, Michael Haydn gave him six lessons in counterpoint. Under his influence, Weber composed his first work, a set of Six Fughettas J1-6 (1798), which were published in Vienna. Around this time, Weber also studied singing with Giovanni Vaesi and piano and composition with Johann Nepomuk Kalcher. Early works influenced by these studies include a mass, Missa Solenne (c1799) and the opera, Die Macht de Liebe und des Weins (1798-9). The mass still survives but the opera has since been destroyed. He also wrote piano sonatas, some variations, string trios and songs. Many of these works are believed to have been destroyed by Weber himself in the early 1800s. Besides the mass, only a set of variations (op. 2, 1800) from this period survives.

In 1800, Weber’s family moved to Freiburg to start their own lithographic business. It was here that Weber set Das Waldmädchen (1800) to music. The work was produced, with success, when he was just 14 years old. Only two pieces from this opera are in existence today.  

Weber moved to Vienna to study with Vogler, without his father. Vogler offered Weber a method to explain the aesthetic reasons for certain compositional procedures, a topic which greatly concerned Weber. While in Vienna he came into contact with Salieri, Teyber, Gyrowetz, Hummel and Haydn.

Weber’s romantic opera, Der Freischütz had the tendency to overshadow his other compositions.

He also became the conductor of the opera at Breslau before reaching the age of 18. As conductor, Weber demanded better pay for the musicians and a higher level of discipline, in addition to changing the seating arrangement of the strings and choosing programmes that didn’t feature the most popular music. The orchestra and management rebelled and critics were negative about his changes to the seating and passion for fast tempos. After an incident, resulting in the accidental poisoning of Weber, he was bedridden for a time. The orchestral management took advantage of this absence and made changes to the structure and programme. Unhappy with the changes, Weber quit in 1806.

Weber eventually took up a post as private secretary to Duke Ludwig in Stuttgart, which ended very poorly. Weber and his father were in debt and engaged in a financial scheme. Weber was arrested during a rehearsal of his opera Sylvana (1808-10) and charged with embezzlement. The charges were later dropped, but they were banned for life from the city.

Distraught and embarrassed, Weber left for Mannheim where he began work on a new comic opera, Abu Hassan (1811). He then moved to Darmstadt to be near his former teacher, Vogler. While there, he finished Abu Hassan (1811) and experienced the reproduction of his opera, Sylvana, in Frankfurt. In 1811, Weber travelled throughout Europe and made many new friends and acquaintances. His father’s death in 1812 affected him deeply, and he was then without a home-base.

In 1812, Weber became the Kapellmeister at Prague, where he stayed until 1816. Though he composed no new operas during this time, he composed many very successful pieces for pianoforte. He also composed the cantata Kampf und Sieg (1815), which was premiered in Prague in 1815. After resigning from his post, he went to Dresden where he was appointed Kapellmeister at the German opera. There he attracted many rivals and critics. Much of the repertoire he conducted there was of the Italian opera genre.

Weber’s romantic opera, Der Freischütz (1817-21?), was well received and was produced in Berlin, Vienna, and then Dresden. This work has had the tendency to overshadow his other compositions. He also composed the gypsy drama, Preciosa (1820-1), which was premiered in 1821. This work was also premiered in Berlin due to the poor conditions in Dresden. His Concertstück in F minor (1821) was also very successful at this time and is considered one of his finest works for the piano. In 1823, Euryanthe (1822-3), was produced in Vienna. Though the work is one of his most inspired compositions, the libretto is full of absurdities, especially in the last act, which he revised nine times. Others have also tried to repair the librettos to some of his opera, without result.

Despite his success as a composer, his position at the orchestra was not improved and he was still despised. Weber’s final opera, Oberon (1825-6), literally killed him. He was desperate for the money and worked his hardest. But during the process he grew weaker and weaker. The opera features an English libretto and style, for which Weber learned English. The opera was written for the Covent Garden Theatre and was very successful.

Weber died peacefully in bed on June 5, 1826.

Weber remains a relatively misunderstood composer of the 19th century. His style developed from a love of Mozart, German Singspiel, and Italian opera, however, Weber was very opposed to Beethoven during certain times. There seem to be no distinct style periods in Weber’s music, just a path of continuous growth. He remains most widely known for his operas, especially Der Freischütz.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

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