Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber (18 or 19 November 1786 – 5 June 1826) was a German composer, conductor, pianist, guitarist and critic, and was one of the first significant composers of the Romantic school.
Weber's operas Der Freischütz, Euryanthe and Oberon greatly influenced the development of the Romantische Oper (Romantic opera) in Germany. Der Freischütz came to be regarded as the first German "nationalist" opera, Euryanthe developed the Leitmotif technique to an unprecedented degree, while Oberon may have influenced Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream and, at the same time, revealed Weber's lifelong interest in the music of non-Western cultures. This interest was first manifested in Weber's incidental music for Schiller's translation of Gozzi's Turandot, for which he used a Chinese melody, making him the first Western composer to use an Asian tune that was not of the pseudo-Turkish kind popularized by Mozart and others.
A brilliant pianist himself, Weber composed four sonatas, two concertos and the Konzertstück in F minor (concert piece), which influenced composers such as Chopin, Liszt and Mendelssohn. The Konzertstück provided a new model for the one-movement concerto in several contrasting sections (such as Liszt's, who often played the work), and was acknowledged by Stravinsky as the model for his Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. Weber's shorter piano pieces, such as the Invitation to the Dance, were later orchestrated by Berlioz, while his Polacca Brillante was later set for piano and orchestra by Liszt.
Weber's compositions for clarinet, bassoon, and horn occupy an important place in the musical repertoire. His compositions for the clarinet, which include two concertos, a concertino, a quintet, a duo concertante, and variations on a theme from his opera Silvana, are regularly performed today. His Concertino for Horn and Orchestra requires the performer to simultaneously produce two notes by humming while playing—a technique known as "multiphonics". His bassoon concerto and the Andante e Rondo ungarese (a reworking of a piece originally for viola and orchestra) are also popular with bassoonists.
Weber's contribution to vocal and choral music is also significant. His body of Catholic religious music was highly popular in 19th-century Germany, and he composed one of the earliest song cycles, Die Temperamente beim Verluste der Geliebten ([Four] Temperaments on the Loss of a Lover). Weber was also notable as one of the first conductors to conduct without a piano or violin.
Weber's orchestration has also been highly praised and emulated by later generations of composers – Berlioz referred to him several times in his Treatise on Instrumentation while Debussy remarked that the sound of the Weber orchestra was obtained through the scrutiny of the soul of each instrument.
His operas influenced the work of later opera composers, especially in Germany, such as Marschner, Meyerbeer and Wagner, as well as several nationalist 19th-century composers such as Glinka. Homage has been paid to Weber by 20th-century composers such as Debussy, Stravinsky, Mahler (who completed Weber's unfinished comic opera Die drei Pintos and made revisions of Euryanthe and Oberon) and Hindemith (composer of the popular Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber).
Weber was born in Eutin, Bishopric of Lübeck, the eldest of the three children of Franz Anton von Weber and his second wife, Genovefa Weber, a Viennese singer. The "von" was an affectation; Franz Anton von Weber was not actually an aristocrat. Both his parents were Catholic and originally came from the far south of Germany. Franz Anton began his career as a military officer in the service of the Duchy of Holstein, and after being fired, went on to hold a number of musical directorships. In 1787 Franz Anton went on to Hamburg where he founded a theatrical company.
Franz Anton's half-brother, Fridolin, married Cäcilia Stamm and had four musical daughters, Josepha, Aloysia, Constanze and Sophie, all of whom became notable singers. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart attempted to woo Aloysia, composing several pieces for her. But after she rejected his advances, Mozart went on to marry Constanze.
A gifted violinist, Franz Anton had ambitions of turning Carl into a child prodigy like Franz's nephew-by-marriage, Mozart. Carl was born with a congenital hip disease and did not begin to walk until he was four. But by then, he was already a capable singer and pianist.
Weber's father gave him a comprehensive education, which was however interrupted by the family's constant moves. In 1796, Weber continued his musical education in Hildburghausen, where he was instructed by the oboist Johann Peter Heuschkel.
On 13 March 1798, Weber's mother died of tuberculosis. That same year, Weber went to Salzburg to study with Michael Haydn, the younger brother of Joseph Haydn, who agreed to teach Carl free of charge. Later that year, Weber traveled to Munich to study with the singer Johann Evangelist Wallishauser and organist Johann Nepomuk Kalcher.
1798 also saw the twelve-year-old Weber's first published work, six fughettas for piano, published in Leipzig. Other compositions of that period, among them a mass, and his first opera, Die Macht der Liebe und des Weins (The Power of Love and Wine), are lost; but a set of Variations for the Pianoforte was later lithographed by Weber himself, under the guidance of Alois Senefelder, the inventor of the process.
In 1800, the family moved to Freiberg in Saxony, where Weber, then 14 years old, wrote an opera called Das stumme Waldmädchen (The Silent Forest Maiden), which was produced at the Freiberg theatre. It was later performed in Vienna, Prague, and Saint Petersburg. The young Weber also began to publish articles as a music critic, for example in the Leipziger Neue Zeitung in 1801.
In 1801, the family returned to Salzburg, where Weber resumed his studies with Michael Haydn. He later continued studying in Vienna with Georg Joseph Vogler, known as Abbé Vogler, founder of three important music schools (in Mannheim, Stockholm, and Darmstadt); another famous pupil of Vogler was Giacomo Meyerbeer, who became a close friend of Weber.
In 1803, Weber's opera, Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn (Peter Schmoll and his Neighbors) was produced in Augsburg, and gave Weber his first success as a popular composer.
Vogler, impressed by his pupil's talent, recommended him to the post of Director at the Breslau Opera in 1804. Weber sought to reform the Opera by pensioning off older singers, expanding the orchestra, and tackling a more challenging repertoire. His attempts at reform were met with strong resistance from the musicians and the Breslau public.
He left his post in Breslau in a fit of frustration and from 1807 to 1810, Weber served as private secretary to Duke Ludwig, brother of King Frederick I of Württemberg. Weber's time in Württemberg was plagued with troubles. He fell deeply into debt and had an ill-fated affair with Margarethe Lang, a singer at the opera. Furthermore, Weber's father Franz Anton misappropriated a vast quantity of Duke Ludwig's money. Franz Anton and Carl were charged with embezzlement and arrested on 9 February 1810. Carl was in the middle of a rehearsal for his opera Silvana when he was arrested and thrown in prison by order of the king. Though no one doubted Carl's innocence, King Frederick I had grown tired of the composer's pranks. After a summary trial, Carl and his father were banished from Württemberg. Nevertheless, Carl remained prolific as a composer during this period, writing a quantity of religious music, mainly for the Catholic mass. This however earned him the hostility of reformers working for the re-establishment of traditional chant in liturgy.
In 1810, Weber visited several cities throughout Germany; 1811 was a pivotal year in his career when he met and worked with the Munich court clarinetist Heinrich Baermann and composed the Concertino in E♭ Major, Op. 26, J. 109, and the two concerti J. 114 and J. 118 for him; from December 1811 through March 1812, Weber went on tour with Baermann playing the clarinet works, and it was some of the final concerts on this tour that changed public, critical and royal opinions of Weber's work, and helped him to mount a successful performance of Silvana in Berlin later that year; from 1813 to 1816 he was director of the Opera in Prague; from 1816 to 1817 he worked in Berlin, and from 1817 onwards he was director of the prestigious Opera in Dresden, working hard to establish a German opera, in reaction to the Italian opera which had dominated the European music scene since the 18th century. On 4 November 1817, he married Caroline Brandt, a singer who created the title role of Silvana. In 1819, he wrote perhaps his most famous piano piece, Invitation to the Dance.
The successful premiere of Der Freischütz on 18 June 1821 in Berlin led to performances all over Europe. On the very morning of the premiere, Weber finished his Konzertstück in F minor for Piano and Orchestra, and he premiered it a week later.
In 1823, Weber composed the opera Euryanthe to a mediocre libretto, but containing much rich music, the overture of which in particular anticipates Richard Wagner. In 1824, Weber received an invitation from The Royal Opera, London, to compose and produce Oberon, based on Christoph Martin Wieland's poem of the same name. Weber accepted the invitation, and in 1826 he travelled to England, to finish the work and conduct the premiere on 12 April.
Weber was already suffering from tuberculosis when he visited London. He conducted the premiere and twelve sold-out performances of Oberon in London during April and in May, and despite his rapidly worsening health, he continued to fulfill commitments for private concerts and benefits. He died during the night of 4/5 June 1826 at the home of his good friend Sir George Smart where he was staying while in London. Weber was 39 years old. He was initially buried in London, but 18 years later his remains were transferred to the family burial plot in the Old Catholic Cemetery (Alten Katholischen Friedhof) in west Dresden. The simple gravestone was designed by Gottfried Semper and lies against the northern boundary wall. The eulogy at the reburial, which took place only a few days after the death of Weber's son, was performed by Richard Wagner.
His unfinished opera Die drei Pintos (The Three Pintos) was originally given by Weber's widow to Giacomo Meyerbeer for completion; it was eventually completed by Gustav Mahler, who conducted the first performance in this form in Leipzig on 20 January 1888.
Weber's piano music all but disappeared from the repertoire. One possible reason for this is that Weber had very large hands and delighted in writing music that suited them. There are several recordings of the major works for the solo piano, including complete recordings of the piano sonatas and the shorter piano pieces, and there are recordings of the individual sonatas by Claudio Arrau (1st sonata), Alfred Cortot and Emil Gilels (2nd sonata), Sviatoslav Richter (3rd sonata) and Leon Fleisher (4th sonata). The Invitation to the Dance, although better known in Berlioz's orchestration (as part of the ballet music for a Paris production of Der Freischütz), has long been played and recorded by pianists (e.g., Benno Moiseiwitsch [in Carl Tausig's arrangement]). Invitation to the Dance also served as the thematic basis for Benny Goodman's swing theme song for the radio program Let's Dance.
Der Freischütz – Overture
Skidmore College Orchestra; courtesy of Musopen
Concerto for Bassoon in F Major, 1st movement (piano transcription)
Kat Walsh (bassoon) and Amy Crane (piano)
Grand Duo Concertant for clarinet and piano
1. Allegro con fuoco
2. Andante con moto
Performed by William McColl (clarinet) and Joeseph Levine (piano)