Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 4.djvu/421

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WEBER. — WEBER.

Morlacchi's absence, found time to give me daily lessons for a considerable period.' 1 Benedict goes on to relate how Weber played him Freischütz and Preciosa, works then unknown to the world, and what a fascinating effect both he and his compositions made on him ; but what impressed him even more was his ' rendering of Beethoven's sonatas, with a fire and precision and a thorough entering into the spirit of the com- poser, which would have given the mighty Ludwig the best proof of Weber's reverence and admiration for his genius.'

Benedict was fortunate enough to share the brightest and most triumphant bit of Weber's short life with him. After ' Preciosa ' had been played for the first time with Weber's music (March 14, 1821) at the Berlin opera-house, and very well received, the day drew near for the opening of the new theatre, in which 'Der Freischütz ' was to be the first opera performed. 2 Weber had been invited to rehearse and conduct the opera himself, and for this purpose arrived in Berlin May 4. Benedict followed two or three weeks later.

Spontini was at that time the ruling spirit in operatic matters at Berlin. The King was a great admirer of his music, and he had many adherents among the court and in society. In the rest of the world, however, opinions were mingled. During the war a strong feeling of nationality had developed in Germany, and there was a prejudice against foreigners, especially against foreigners hailing from Paris. Hence that a Franco-Italian should be installed, on terms of unusual liberality, in the chief musical post in the capital of the state which had done and suffered most in the War of Liberation, gave great umbrage. There is no question that Spontini, apart from his blunders, was made a scape-goat, and that the dislike of the people of Berlin was as much due to political and social as to musical reasons. At first, his merits as a com- poser received general acknowledgement. His operas, produced with the utmost care, and at a lavish expenditure, were not only performances of dazzling splendour, but of genuine artistic value, as even those prejudiced against him were obliged to admit. Germany had nothing to set against such grandiose works. Since Mozart's 'Zauberflöte' (1791) only one opera of the first rank Beethoven's 'Fidelio' (1805) had ap- peared there. On the other hand, the German stage had appropriated the best that was to be found in Italy and France, and apparently there was no likelihood of any change, or of anybody's coming to the front and eclipsing Spontini.

All at once Weber stepped on the scene with his new opera. We can quite understand how ardently the patriots of Berlin must have longed for a brilliant success, if only as a counterpoise to Spontini. Obviously, too, it was impossible to prevent a certain anxiety lest Weber was

1 'The Great Musicians.' edited by Francis Hueffer; 'Weber,' by Sir Julius Benedict, 61 (London, 1881).

2 It was not the first actual performance. That distinction fell to Goethe's ' Iphigenia' (May 26), succeeded for the next few days by one or two other plays.

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not man enough to sustain with honour this conflict with the foreigner. He was known as a gifted composer of songs and instrumental music, but his earlier operas had not been un- disputed successes, and for the last ten years he had done nothing at all in that line. On all these grounds the first performance of Der Freischütz was looked forward to with a widespread feeling of suspense and excitement.

Weber thus could not but feel that much was at stake, both for himself and for the cause of German art. As if to point the contrast still more forcibly between himself and Spon- tini, between native and foreign art, Spontini's ' Olympic,' entirely remodelled by the composer after its production in Paris, had been given for the first time in Berlin (May 14) only a month before Der Freischütz, with a success which, though not enduring, was enormous at the time. Weber's friends were full of dismay, fearing that Freischütz would not have a chance; Weber alone, as if with a true presentiment of the event, was always in good spirits. The rehearsals began on May 21, and the per- formance was fixed for June 18, a day hailed by Weber as of good omen, from its being that of the battle of Waterloo. So entirely was he free from anxiety, that he employed his scanty leisure in composing one of his finest instrumental works, the Concertstück in F minor, finishing it on the morning of the day on which Der Freischütz was produced. Benedict relates how he was sitting with Weber's wife when the com- poser came in and played them the piece just finished, making remarks as he went, and what an indelible impression it made on him. ' He was certainly one of the greatest pianists who ever lived,' he adds. 3

Weber's presentiment did not fail him. The 18th of June was as great a day of triumph as ever fell to the lot of a musician. The applause of a house filled to the very last seat was such as had never been heard before, in Germany at any rate. That this magnificent homage was no outcome of party-spirit was shown by the endur- ing nature of the success, and by the fact that it was the same wherever Der Freischütz was heard. In Berlin the 50th performance took place Dec. 28, 1822, the l00th, Dec. 26, 1826, the 300th, March 10, 1858, and the 500th, during the past year (1884). No sooner had it been produced in Berlin, than it was seized upon by nearly all the principal theatres in Ger- many. In Vienna it was given on Oct. 3, and, though to a certain extent mutilated and cur- tailed, was received with almost greater enthu- siasm than in Berlin. The feeling reached its height when Weber, on a visit to Vienna, con- ducted the performance in person, March 7, 1822. There is an entry in his diary Conducted the Freischutz for Schröder's benefit. Greater enthu- siasm there cannot be, and I tremble to think of the future, for it is scarcely possible to rise higher than this.4 To God alone the praise ! '

3 Benedict's ' Weber.' 65.

4 He had undertaken to write a new opera, ' Euryanthe,' for Vienna.