About this Recording
8.570296 - WEBER, C.M. von: Overtures (New Zealand Symphony, Wit)
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Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826)


Weber spent much of his childhood with the peripatetic theatre-company directed by his father, Franz Anton Weber, uncle of Mozart’s wife Constanze, and, like his brother, at one time a member of the famous Mannheim orchestra. At the time of Carl Maria Weber’s birth his father was still in the service of the Bishop of Lübeck and during the course of an extended visit to Vienna had taken a second wife, an actress and singer, who became an important member of the theatre-company established in 1788. Weber’s musical gifts were fostered by his father, who saw in him the possibility of a second Mozart. Travel brought the chance of varied if inconsistent study, in Salzburg with Michael Haydn and elsewhere with musicians of lesser ability. Lessons with the Abbé Vogler led to a position as Kapellmeister in Breslau in 1804, brought to a premature end through the hostility of musicians long established in the city and through the accidental drinking of engraving acid, left by his father in a wine-bottle.

A brief and idyllic period in the service of Duke Eugen of Württemberg-Öls at Carlsruhe was followed by three years as secretary to Duke Ludwig of Württemberg, a younger brother of the reigning Duke. The financial dealings of Weber’s father, who had joined him there, led to imprisonment and expulsion, and a return to a career as an active musician, at first principally as a pianist, appearing in the major cities of Germany. A short stay in Berlin proved fruitful, before his appointment to the opera in Prague in 1813. In 1817 he was invited to Dresden, where it was hoped he would establish German opera, although the first performance of Der Freischütz was given in Berlin in 1821.

While the rival Italian opera in Dresden continued to cause Weber trouble, he was invited to write an opera for Vienna. Euryanthe, with a libretto by the blue-stocking authoress of Rosamunde, Helmina von Chézy, remembered now for Schubert’s incidental music, had a mixed reception.

In spite of deteriorating health, the result of tuberculosis, Weber accepted a commission from Covent Garden for an English opera, Oberon, which was first performed in London in April 1826 under the direction of the composer. Weber was a pioneer in the use of the conductor’s baton, and his first appearance with this potential weapon caused alarm among English musicians at his possibly aggressive intentions. The English weather could only further damage his health and he died in London on the eve of his intended departure for Germany.

Weber’s achievement was both considerable and influential. In German opera he had opened a new and rich vein that subsequent composers were to explore: as an orchestrator he demonstrated new possibilities, particularly in the handling of wind instruments: as a conductor and director of performances he instituted a number of reforms, as he had first attempted as an adolescent in Breslau. In style his music follows classical principles of clarity, with a particular lyrical facility shown both in his operas and his instrumental and vocal compositions.

Nothing remains of Weber’s first opera, Die Macht der Liebe und des Weins (The Power of Love and Wine), written in 1799 and never performed. Only fragments survive of Weber’s second opera, Das Waldmädchen (The Forest Maiden), staged in Freiberg in 1800, when Weber was fourteen. His third opera, Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn (Peter Schmoll and His Neighbours) [2] (recorded on Marco Polo 8.223592-93), had its first performance in Augsburg, possibly in March 1803. The librettist Joseph Türk based his text, much of its dialogue now lost, on a novel by Carl Gottlob Cramer. The rich old Peter Schmoll lives with his nineteen-year-old daughter Minette. She is in love with the young hero Carl, who turns out to be the son of Peter Schmoll’s long lost brother, separated from his family by the French revolution. Finally, various misundertandings are resolved and Minette and Carl are happily united. The Overture, effectively revised by the composer in 1807 under the title Grande Ouverture à plusieurs instruments and dedicated to Jérôme Bonaparte, uses melodies from the opera.

Weber’s incidental music for Schiller’s version of Gozzi’s Turandot [5] was written for Stuttgart in 1809. The story of the cold-hearted Chinese princess is well enough known from Puccini’s last opera. Weber’s overture, presumably based on his earlier Overtura Chinesa, now lost, makes use of a Chinese melody borrowed from Rousseau’s Dictionnaire de Musique, where it was wrongly transcribed from Jean Baptiste du Halde’s important and influential history of China. The pentatonic melody is given a curious twist by the intrusion of an alien note. The same theme appears in the second act March.

Of Rübezahl, a romantic two-act opera, written in and intended for Breslau in 1805, only three numbers survive, and Weber may never have actually set the whole libretto. He rewrote the overture as a dramatic concert piece, Der Beherrscher der Geister (The Ruler of Spirits) [4], in 1811. It demonstrates Weber’s now very considerable skill and met with his own satisfaction.

Weber’s next stage work was the romantic opera Silvana [7] (recorded on Marco Polo 8.223844-45), staged in Frankfurt am Main in 1810. An unusual feature of the work is the initial silence of Silvana herself. Count Rudolph, out hunting in the forest, comes across the mute Silvana and takes her back to the castle of Count Adelhart, to whose daughter Mechthilde he is betrothed, although she loves another. Matters are finally resolved when a former servant reveals that Silvana is the daughter of Count Adelhart, a revelation that allows her at last to speak. Derived in part from Das Waldmädchen, Weber’s Singspiel is introduced by an overture that uses themes from the work.

The Singspiel Abu Hassan [9] is based, at second hand, on an episode in The Arabian Nights. It had its first performance in Munich in 1811. Abu Hassan, cup-bearer to the Caliph, and his wife Fatime, are being pressed for debt by Omar, a moneylender, who has designs also on Fatime. The couple plan to extract money from the Caliph by each claiming the other is dead, thus eliciting money from the Caliph and his wife. The Caliph promises a reward for an answer to the mystery, and Abu Hassan, hearing this, awakes from the dead. Omar, who has been shut in a cupboard by Fatime, is punished by the Caliph for his activities, and the cupboard, with Omar inside, is taken off to prison. As in Mozart’s Turkish opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, (The Abduction from the Seraglio), there is a place in the score for what was then known as ‘Turkish music’, chiefly percussion. The overture provides a lively introduction to the comedy.

Weber’s Jubel-Ouvertüre [8], written in 1818, was intended to form part of a concert in Dresden to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the King’s accession to the throne. It includes a setting of Heil dir im Siegerkranz, familiar as the British national anthem, in a version borrowed from his cantata Kampf und Sieg (Struggle and Victory), composed after Waterloo.

Incidental music for Pius Alexander Wolff’s play Preciosa [6] was composed in 1820, with later additions. It was first performed in Berlin in 1821. Based on La Gitanilla, one of the Novelas exemplares of Cervantes, it tells the story of a supposed gypsy girl whose noble lover abandons his own family to be with her, discovering, finally, that she herself, abducted as a child, is the daughter of aristocratic parents. The subject allows Weber the chance to suggest the exotic music of Spain and his score won success with audiences.

Der Freischütz (The Marksman) [10] is a work that retains an assured place in operatic repertoire, seminal in its inclusion of leading elements of German romanticism, the forest, the huntsman, the Devil and magic. It was first staged in Berlin 1821. The young forester Max must win a shooting contest if he is to gain the hand of Agathe. He is induced by Caspar to have resort to Samiel, the Black Huntsman, and the powers of evil. Max agrees to meet Caspar at midnight in the Wolf’s Glen to seek diabolical help, while the latter seeks to escape from Samiel’s power by offering Max as a substitute for himself. In a ghostly scene magic bullets are cast, six of which will surely hit their intended mark, while the seventh will go where Samiel wills. At the contest Max has used his magic bullets to good effect, but Prince Ottakar proposes that he shoot with his seventh bullet a white dove that has settled on a bough. Agathe, who has entered, cries out. The hermit touches the bough and the bird flies to another tree. Max shoots and Agathe falls down fainting, while Caspar, who had hidden in the tree, is killed, visited in death by a vision of Samiel. Max confesses what has happened and is put on probation for a year, after which he may, if he acquits himself well, marry Agathe. The overture contains full statements of thematic material from the opera. In its opening it suggests the forest, the world of the huntsman and forester, while the main part of the overture is a sonata-form conflict between themes associated with Max and with Agathe.

Die drei Pintos (The Three Pintos) (recorded on Naxos 8.6600142-43) had to wait for its completion by Mahler. Weber’s next opera was Euryanthe [1], first staged in Vienna in 1823. The involved libretto, derived from a thirteenth-century romance, tells of a husband driven to test his wife’s fidelity. Adolar, Euryanthe’s husband, wagers on his wife’s constancy with the ill-disposed knight Lysiart. Matters are complicated by the jealousy of Euryanthe’s friend Eglantine, secretly in love with Adolar, and by the restless ghost of Emma, Adolar’s dead sister. Lysiart and Eglantine are eventually thwarted in their evil designs, and Euryanthe is reunited with Adolar in final happiness, ending a tale that combines improbability with complexity. The Overture makes use of two of Adolar’s themes, includes ghost music and provides a fugal treatment of the first of Adolar’s themes.

Weber’s final opera, Oberon [3], with an English libretto by Planché after Wieland, has its narrative origin in a chanson de geste, embroidered by Wieland, who knew his Shakespeare. The work opens with Oberon asleep, separated, as Puck tells us, from Titania, with whom he has quarrelled, to be reconciled only if they can find a constant couple, a search that ends in the proved fidelity of Huon of Bordeaux, who, with the aid of a magic horn provided by Oberon, survives a multitude of adventures in the Middle East, to be united once more with his beloved Reiza. Oberon’s horn-call starts the well-known Overture, and remains a significant motif throughout a work hampered by its plot and, as Weber saw, by its mixture of singing and speaking rôles.

Keith Anderson

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