University Musical Encyclopedia/Great Composers: A Series of Biographical Studies/Karl Maria von Weber

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The life of Karl Maria von Weber falls easily into two divisions—the first represented by the period in which, instigated partly by the extravagancies and vagaries of an unprincipled father, and partly by the inherited carelessness of disposition, the composer was living a nonchalant life in the easy-mannered courts of Southern Germany; the second, dating from his twenty-fifth year, being the time of the development of his individuality and of his genius.

His father, Franz Anton Weber, was originally in the army, from which he had retired wounded and entered the civil service. He knew nothing of finance and little of law, but his position enabled him to secure an appointment as financial councilor and district judge to the Elector of Cologne. He was a nobleman, and played the violin exquisitely, qualities which at that time sufficed to compensate for the neglect of his duties. When the Elector died, his successor had no fancy for this extraordinary judge and councilor, most of whose time was spent behind the scenes at the Opera House, and dismissed him with a small pension. In the course of years of struggle, now as impresario of a traveling operatic company, now fulfilling the duties of kapellmeister at various small courts, Franz Weber squandered away all that was left of the fortune of his wife, whom want and anxiety soon brought to her deathbed. In 1785, now being fifty years of age, he married a pretty and delicate girl of sixteen, who at Eutin, Germany, on December 18 of the next year gave birth to a weakly infant suffering from a disease of the hip which resulted in incurable lameness. This child was Karl Maria Weber, the future composer of "Euryanthe" and "Der Freischütz."

In common with a host of other musical children, both then and since, Weber suffered indirectly in consequence of the brilliant career of the boy Mozart. His father was determined to have a musical prodigy in the family, and as poor little Karl showed an aptitude which none of his brothers had possessed, he was doomed to singing-lessons and lessons on the piano almost before he could talk. His father resumed his wanderings at the head of an operatic troupe, taking his delicate wife and child with him. Injurious as it must have been to his health, it must be admitted that the mode of his early life proved of service to the boy in many ways. In the first place, his father was wise enough, although insisting strenuously on the paramount importance of music, not to neglect other branches of education; and moreover, while he acquired a certain self-reliance from this roving mode of life, early intimacy with the stage gave him a knowledge of theatrical effect of the greatest value to one destined to become a composer of dramatic music.

His mother died before he was twelve years old, and he was thus entirely given over to the influence of an unscrupulous father whose chief merit was that, in his way, he was fond of his son and gave him a thoroughly good musical education. At the same time this was largely neutralized by his forcing the boy to write music of all kinds at an age when his talents were still immature.

Still, more than one musician of influence was attracted by his exceptional abilities; among others he secured the patronage of Abbé Vogler, a Viennese composer—a musical charlatan, perhaps, but a man of keen insight. To his influence Weber owed his appointment, in his seventeenth year, as conductor of the opera at Breslau. The young enthusiast managed with great spirit to overcome the difficulties of his position, that of a lad in his teens set as director over the heads of men two or three times his age; but his strict discipline made him many enemies, whose malevolent tactics compelled him after two years to throw up his post. It was about this time (1807) that he wrote his first composition of importance, the two symphonies in C.

In his twenty-first year Weber was suddenly transferred from solitary insignificance into the midst of a brilliant and dissipated court. At the instance of one of his patrons he was made patron to the Duke Louis, brother of the King of Würtemburg. He was expected entirely to regulate the Duke's private affairs, and to act as a mediator between him and the King when necessary, which was often. His Majesty, whose temper was none of the sweetest, grew to hate this persistent secretary, who in his turn smarted upon the indignities heaped upon him by the King. On one occasion, as Weber was leaving the royal presence after a stormy interview in which the composer had been more than usually insulted, he perpetrated a practical joke which might have resulted in very serious consequences. Limping angrily through the anteroom adjoining the apartments where he left the King fuming, he was accosted by an ill-favored dame, who inquired where she could find the royal washerwoman. "There!" cried the exasperated Weber, pointing to the door of the King's private room. The old lady unsuspectingly entered, and was met with a violent torrent of abuse from the King, and it was with difficulty that she could stammer out an explanation of her intrusion. The King at once guessed who was responsible for the trick, and ordered Weber to be thrown into prison. The Duke's intercession procured his release, but the King's animosity was relentless in seeking an opportunity for revenge.

This was not long in coming. Weber discovered that his father had for some time been misappropriating money which the Duke had intrusted to his secretary to pay off a mortgage on his estates. To shield his father, Weber took all the blame upon himself. After a mock trial at which the King presided, he was sentenced to exile; and so in February, 1810, father and son were ignominiously conducted to the frontier by the police. They took refuge at Mannheim, a city in which Weber could hope to devote himself entirely to his art.

The elder Weber lived for two years longer; and nothing does more credit to his son's disposition than the tender care with which he surrounded this father, who had been the cause of endless trials and troubles borne without a reproach. On hearing of his father's death, he wrote in his diary: "He fell asleep tranquilly, it is said. May God grant him above that peace which he had not below! It is beyond measure painful to me that I could do no more to procure his happiness. May God bless him for all the great love he bore me, which I did not deserve, and for the education he bestowed on me."

Weber's artistic career may be said to have begun on the day in 1810 when he settled in Mannheim. The example of his friend Meyerbeer—who, though not yet twenty, was already one of the first pianists of his day—stimulated him to higher flights in composition; and before the year was out he had produced his first pianoforte concerto, six sonatas for piano and violin, and several songs. In the same year, too, the idea of "Der Freischütz" had its birth. Weber happened, when in the company of a young poet friend, to come across a new book of "Gespenster Geschichten" (Ghost Stories) by Apel, one of the tales in which, entitled "Der Freischütz," so struck the fancy of both as an ideal subject for a romantic opera that they spent the greater part of the night in sketching out the plan of a libretto. Weber's friend was very anxious to undertake the writing of this, but press of work prevented him, and the task was set aside, as it proved, for ten years—a lucky accident, for the composition of the opera was thus deferred until Weber's powers had reached their fullest development.

For the next four years Weber was a wanderer. His activity was untiring. Concerts were given in all the principal towns of Germany, and at the same time he worked hard at composition, producing some of the most successful of his orchestral works. He visited Prague, Leipzig, Dresden, Berlin—where his first important attempt at opera, "Silvana," was performed with some success—Weimar, Gotha, Vienna, and eventually, in 1814 returned to Berlin.

At this time patriotic feeling ran very high among the Germans. Paris had fallen, the dreaded French invader was repulsed, and Napoleon exiled to Elba. Men would listen to no songs but those which told of war and the heroic deeds of German patriots. Among the vast number of such poems the finest were those given to the world by Theodor Körner under the title of "Lyre and Sword." Weber procured these, read and re-read them, and wedded the to music so appropriate and so inspiring that they became at once the national songs of the day, raising their composer's popularity to an unprecedented height.

The visit to Berlin was paid during a leave of absence from Weber's duties as conductor at the Prague opera, where he was endeavoring to overcome the prejudice of the public with regard to German, as opposed to Italian, opera. A taste vitiated by the music of a degenerate Italian school could not be expected at once to appreciate the beauties of this newer and higher form of the art; still it must have been a cruel disappointment to Weber that a faultless performance of Beethoven's "Fidelio," upon which he had spent infinite pains, should be received with complete coldness. "I brought out on the 26th," he wrote to a friend, "Beethoven's 'Fidelio,' which went splendidly. The music is indeed full of beautiful things, but they don’t understand it; it is enough to make one frantic. Punch and Judy would suit them better!"

A fresh access of popularity came to him in Prague as a consequence of the performance of his great patriotic cantata, "Kampf und Sieg," in 1815; but Weber felt that he was justified in seeking for a position more worthy of his fame, ad in the course of the following year sent in his resignation as kapellmeister. By good fortune the corresponding post in the opera at Dresden fell vacant just at this time. The director of the Opera House was very anxious to establish German opera there in place of what had usually occupied the boards, and in Weber he found the very man to carry out such a plan. The King of Saxony, who owed his position entirely to Napoleon and was a declared ally of the French, cherished no kindly feelings toward his neighbors the Prussians, and was thoroughly opposed to this German operatic project. His objections were, however, overcome, and in 1816 Weber accepted the important post that was offered to him. In the next year he was married to Caroline Brandt, a famous singer, the modesty and innocence of whose character had acted as a charm in exorcising the effect of a previous regrettable entanglement of Weber's. The young couple, whose happiness seemed unclouded, took up their abode in Dresden, where they soon became universally popular.

It was in Dresden that Weber made the acquaintance of Johann Friedrich Kind, whose literary ability and intimate knowledge of the stage strongly recommended him to Weber as a collaborator. In casting about for an operatic subject, the composer came upon the forgotten sketch of "Der Freischütz." Kind was delighted with the story, and in two months delivered over to Weber a complete libretto, which elicited a ready response from the musician. From this time until the summer of 1820 the composition of this opera was Weber's chief thought.

Happy as his prospect at first appeared, Weber before long found himself assailed on all sides by covert attacks and slights. The source of these was the King's prime minister, who had taken a strong dislike to Weber and lost no opportunity of increasing the King's rancor against this upholder of German opera, this composer of such emphatically German songs as those from "Lyre and Sword." But, in face of the marked advance in completeness and brilliancy shown by the performances in the Opera House, the King was obliged to defer to public sentiment, and to confirm Weber's appointment for life. By this means, Caroline Weber was enabled to fulfill her husband's wish and leave the stage, to devote all her sweetness to the task of creating happiness in her home. Against this had to be set the fact that the influence of Weber's friends at court was waning, and that anonymous insults from his enemies and marked slights from the King were producing their effect upon the composer's delicate constitutions.

A distinguished pupil of Weber's gives an account of his first meeting with him about this time. "Ascending the by-no-means-easy staircase which led to his modest home on the third story of a house in the Alt-Markt, I found him," he says, "sitting at his desk occupied with the pianoforte arrangement of his 'Freischütz.' The dire disease which all too soon was to carry him off had made its mark on his noble features; told their sad tale; but in his mighty forehead, fringed by a few straggling locks, in the sweet expression of his mouth, in the very tone of his weak but melodious voice, there was a magic power which irresistibly attracted all who approached him."

At last arrived the memorable evening of the production of "Der Freischütz," and with it the climax of Weber's life. The day chosen, June 18, 1821, was the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. After the dress rehearsal on the preceding day many of Weber's friends were full of gloomy anticipations; for, though the singers and orchestra had been at their best, some of the most important accessories had been in anything but good working order. It was feared, moreover, that the music might prove to be over the heads of the audience. Weber was perhaps the only one who was confident and undisturbed. He knew the value of his work, and he judged rightly. At the performance everything went smoothly, and the result was a triumph so brilliant as to exceed his fondest hopes.

Two years later he achieved what appeared to be an even greater success with his opera "Euryanthe"; but it was not long before the venomous attacks of his enemies again began to harass him. Too generous to retaliate in kind, Weber, with his sensitive nature, suffered terribly under the injustice and rancor of which he was the mark—the more so as some of those whom he had most benefited, including the composer Spohr, were among the most bitter against him.

In the following year Weber was gratified by receiving from Charles Kemble, the lessee of Covent Garden Theater, an invitation to write the music for an opera, which should have an English libretto, to be produced at that house. The great popularity in England of "Der Freischütz" (which was given in three London theaters simultaneously) and the composer's strong personal sympathy with the English inclined him to accept the proposal. The remuneration offered him would be most acceptable, as nearly all his paltry salary and all the profits from his previous operas had been swallowed up by his honorable determination to discharge the debts his father had left behind him at his death.

In his doubt as to whether his impaired health would now stand the strain of the effort, he consulted his doctor, who told him that his only chance of five or six more years of life lay in absolute cessation from work and a long visit to the South. Failing this, a few months might be all that was left to him. Recognizing the terrible position in which his death would leave his wife and children were he not able to make some provision for them, he resolutely answered the doctor: "As God will. From what you say, I cannot hope to secure a future for my wife and family by dragging on a useless life for a few years. In England I may expect a return for my labors which will leave them in possession of means that I could not otherwise procure them; thus it is better I should accept the task." He bound the doctor to the strictest secrecy as to what had passed between them, and at once set to work to study the English language, and make himself master of the libretto of the new opera, the subject of which was "Oberon."

By the beginning of 1826 the opera was ready. In spite of the consuming pain of which he was perpetually the victim, Weber was able to create a work of great delicacy and beauty, under the music of which there seems to lie a vein of happiness that is almost incomprehensible. Notwithstanding his friends' remonstrances he was determined to go to London in time to superintend the rehearsals of the opera. His answer to those who would dissuade him was always the same: "It is all one! Whether I go or remain, in one year I am a dead man. But if I go, my children will have bread when their father dies; if I remain, they will starve."

This, his last triumph, was undisputed and complete. "Oberon" created at its first performance at Covent Garden, on April 12, 1826, an almost unprecedented effect. Weber, elated, though physically prostrated by excitement, wrote after the performance to his wife: "By God's grace and help I have to-night had such a perfect success as perhaps never before. It is quite impossible to describe the dazzling and touch effect of such a complete and cloudless triumph. God alone be praised for it!"

In two months from this time Weber was dead. Once the excitement of the "Oberon" performance had passed over, he was seized with a passionate yearning for home. "I am a shattered machine," he said to his friends; "would to God it could be held together till I might once more embrace my Lina and my boys!" Sustained by his purpose of securing provision for his dear ones, he still persisted in attempting to appear at public performances, and to give concerts, until this was imperatively forbidden by the doctors. Then, although he knew the desperate nature of his case, he became happier at the thought that he was free to leave England and might perhaps live long enough to see his wife again. His letters to her were full of a playful tenderness at the thought; everything was duly arranged, and the 6th of June had been fixed for his start on his homeward journey. On the morning of the 5th, when his servant entered his room, he found his master lying lifeless on the bed, his face tranquil and bearing no trace of pain.

When, eighteen years later, Weber's remains were transferred to Dresden, Richard Wagner, in pronouncing a eulogium upon his memory, struck the right chord in laying particular emphasis upon the greatness of Weber's genius as that of an essentially German composer; and upon the beauty of his character, in its simple manliness, its tenderness, and its generosity.


Weber's career, as pictured in his music, is the story of the gradual development of a beautiful and even noble character in the teeth of untoward circumstances. That he was a man of the strength and individuality of Beethoven cannot be maintained. He was too easily influenced by his surroundings, and the better part of his genius was of slow growth, so that the history of his earlier days is at best unsatisfactory. He had everything to contend against that was likely to injure a character of singular gentleness and pliability. Alone of the great composers he had the misfortune of aristocratic birth, a misfortune not accompanied in his case by affluence or even moderate wealth.

Courts and princes had done their best to ruin Weber, but to his lasting credit he came unhurt from the ordeal. After such trying experiences he began a new life. He was no longer a parasite, dancing attendance in the antechambers of royalty, but a musician, enthusiastic for his art and eager to perfect himself in all that could assist the development of his genius. He himself realized what an escape he had had. In his diary at the close of 1810 he wrote: "God has sent me many sorrows and disappointments, but he has also thrown me with good people, who have made life worth living. I can honestly say that within the last ten months I have become a better man."

In regard to Weber's position as a master, certain things seem to be clear. It is to be feared that he and his works are traveling fast in the direction of that honorable oblivion in which so many of the builders of modern music are shrouded. Even now he is greater by reason of his influence on the men who followed him than in his own actual achievement. A great name in musical history he must always be. His influence has been too far-reaching for him ever to miss the respectful homage of the student, but on the changing fashion of musical taste his hold is already but slight. In our own country he is known to-day chiefly by the "Freischütz" and "Oberon" overtures and a few grand arias for coloratura. In Germany the strong national color of "Der Frieschütz" endears it to the popular heart, and the taste for male-voice choral singing preserves some of Weber's part-songs. But with these exceptions his position in his native land is very much the same as it is with us. It was inevitable that this should be so. For all the great work he did, for all his influence upon subsequent composers, Weber's music has not the qualities that make for immortality. Imagination, picturesqueness, charm—these he has, but not that force, moral, emotional, and intellectual, which animates the music of his great contemporary Beethoven, and through it speaks as plainly to us as it did to our forefathers, perhaps more plainly to us than it ever did to them.

What Weber has to say he says delightfully; it is his misfortune that what he has to say is for an age but not for all time. While Beethoven writes in music the emotions that are the common lot of man, Weber represents a passing phase, an attitude of mind sincere enough in itself but of necessity evanescent. That phase passes, another arises, and the poet speaks to deaf ears. Weber is primarily the musician of the romantic movement. He represents in music what his German contemporaries Tieck, Hölty and their coterie represent in poetry. It is not to be thought that romance had not touched music before; indeed music is in itself so essentially romantic that it seems absurd to tie the phrase down to a special period of musical history. The romantic movement, however, aimed definitely at certain things that were already the common property of art and literature, but has only appeared in music as it were by accident. It was a revolt against the tyranny of man and his emotions. It demanded a larger stage and an ampler air. Human passions were not to be the only subject for artistic treatment. Heaven and hell, nature and her mighty forces, the forests with their fauns and dryads, the ocean with its Nereids and Tritons, the demons of earth and air—all these were pressed into the service of art. The magical glory of landscape, the wonders of the setting sun, the horror of tempests, the glory of the dawn—all these the romantic movement taught men to regard not as merely the accessories of a scene in which man was the predominant figure, but as objects intrinsically worthy of artistic treatment.

Of the musical side of this movement Weber is the leading figure. His genius found its truest expression not in abstract music, though even here his work was valuable in the enlargement of the boundaries of classical form, but in opera. His early operas are comparatively unimportant; it was in "Der Freischütz" that his genius burst into full flower. The subject, carefully chosen by himself, lent itself well to romantic treatment. The mighty forest in the recesses of which the action passes is as it were the protagonist of the drama. Its solemn shadows lie over every page of the work. The opening notes of the overture breathe forth its mysterious charm. The voice of nature had never sounded like this in music before. In Beethoven's Pastoral symphony we have rather the emotion of man in contemplating nature. Weber gives us nature independent of any human interest.

More typical still of the romantic movement is Weber's handling of the supernatural element of the story. Demons and spirits were common enough in opera before his day, but their picturesque possibilities had scarcely been realized. Weber's incantation in the Wolf's Glen was something absolutely new to music; the conception of the scene is a proof of his imaginative audacity; its execution immortalizes his genius. There is another element in "Der Freischütz" that is scarcely less important than its opening of the treasure-house of romance, and that is its national flavor. Weber has been called the founder of national opera by reason of the decidedly German color of much of the music of "Der Freischütz." So in a sense he is, but he is almost more important as the inventor of the use of local color in music. Before his day opera had been a very cosmopolitan entertainment. Wherever the scene was laid the characters expressed themselves in much the same terms, and composers cared but little to give a distinctive flavor to their different works. Mozart cared so little about local color that though the action of "Don Giovanni" passes at Seville there is not a suspicion of Spanish coloring in the score, and the Don actually accompanies himself on so characteristically Italian an instrument as the mandolin, instead of the national instrument of Spain, the guitar. In "Le Nozze de Figaro" it is true that there is a fandango, but there Mozart's experiments in nationalizing his music seem to have ended. Weber was the first composer to give realism to the scenes he was illustrating by infusing local color into his music. By so doing he has influenced the later developments of music perhaps even more profoundly than by his more definitely romantic tendencies.

In Weber's other works for the stage his romantic tendencies are no less plainly exhibited. The incidental music he wrote in 1821 for "Preciosa" is a wonderful picture of Spanish gypsy life, while his overture to Schiller's "Turandot" is a curious attempt to convey a suggestion of Chinese coloring. "Euryanthe" and "Oberon," Weber's two last operas, both suffer from poor librettos, which have prevented them from retaining the place in popular affection to which their noble music entitles them. In "Euryanthe" he worked on a wider canvas than in "Der Freischütz." "Euryanthe" has none of the popular elements which counted for so much in the earlier opera. It is a tale of court and chivalry, of passion and intrigue, full of pomp and splendor, and painted with wide sweeps of the brush. Weber's music is perhaps the finest thing he ever did. It has less freshness and charm than "Der Freischütz," but it is far loftier and more ambitious in style, and there is hardly a touch of weakness in it from beginning to end. The influence of "Euryanthe" on later composers has been scarcely less far-reaching than that of "Der Freischütz." Wagner in his early days drew much on Weber; the idea of the "Tannhäuser" finale, with its contrast between one woman's voice and a chorus of men, was probably suggested by "Euryanthe," and the scene between Ortrud and Telramund in "Lohengrin" owes much to the music of Eglantine and Lysiart.

Planché cast his "Oberon" libretto into the form which was then popular in England, and it is rather a play with incidental music than a real opera. This is now much against its popularity, but it has recently been revived in Germany with a revised libretto, and perhaps in this form it may win more permanent success. It certainly is not Weber's fault that it has dropped out of the repertory. His music, though written when the hand of death was upon him, shows no failure in power. The fairy scenes in particular are exquisitely delicate and charming. Weber practically invented fairies in music, and no one—not even Mendelssohn, who copied him most faithfully—has ever treated them so sympathetically. The oriental scenes are admirable also. They must have appealed specially to Weber, who loved to introduce exotic as well as coloring into his music, and here used several Arabian and Turkish melodies with capital effect. But "Oberon" is throughout a bewildering succession of lovely scenes, sometimes not very closely connected, but always entrancing in themselves. It shows the range of Weber's genius perhaps more than any other of his works, and particularly his marvelous power of transmuting into music the sights and sounds of nature.

Weber's writings for the pianoforte are valuable historically for their enlargement of the boundaries of form and for the importance they assign to technique, though in the latter respect they but faintly foreshadow the astounding developments of modern times. The "Concertstück" marks an interesting stage in the history of programme music. It differs no less widely in form from all earlier concertos than in its illustration of a definite programme, confided by the composer to his pupil Benedict, without which it would be incomprehensible. It is thus something quite distinct from the mood-pictures, such as Beethoven's orchestral works often are, in which the "programme" is, as a rule, entirely subservient to the musical form.

Weber's independent works for orchestra—his two symphonies and numerous concertos for various instruments—are not permanently valuable, but in the development of the science of orchestration his work can hardly be overrated. His extraordinary feeling for orchestral color was closely allied to the general romantic tendency of his genius. Not merely did he grasp the innate possibilities of each instrument and its special powers of suggestion, but he used certain instruments and groups of instruments throughout his operas to indicate certain phases of feeling in a way with which we are now familiar in the works of Wagner, but which was then something absolutely new to music. How large a part his mastery of orchestration played in his wonderful pictures of nature it is scarcely necessary to point out. With Weber the coloring was as integral a part of the picture as the design itself. It is possible that opinion may be divided upon the intrinsic value of his works, but it is unquestionable that he left opera something entirely different—in aim as much as in form—from what he found it.