The operas of Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber (1786-1826) are the cornerstone of the German romantic opera, and he is often heralded as the father of musical romanticism.
The son of an itinerant musical family, Carl Maria von Weber was born on Dec. 18, 1786, near Lübeck, where his father was a town musician and his mother a singer. The family was distantly connected with Constanze Weber Mozart's family. There was no justification for the claim of nobility or the use of the "von." Weber spent his early years in nearly constant travel. His father, an unscrupulous eccentric, attempted to turn him into a prodigy, but young Weber was unable to live up to these expectations.
In 1796 the family settled temporarily in Salzburg, where Weber entered the school for choristers directed by Michael Haydn. Two years later Weber's mother died, and his father resumed his itinerant existence, carrying his son first to Vienna and then to Munich, where the boy again formally studied music. In 1800 he composed his first opera, Die Macht von Liebe (The Power of Love), a piano sonata, some variations for piano, and several songs, all highly amateurish.
In 1801 Weber and his father returned to Salzburg, where Weber resumed his study with Michael Haydn. Beginning in 1804 Weber studied off and on over the next few years with Georg Vogler.
During this time the handsome young Weber managed to survive on his wits, charm, and ability to manipulate people and circumstances. He was involved in various court imbroglios and intrigues through his own culpability, to say nothing of his father's notoriously disreputable behavior. The turning point in Weber's career seems to have taken place when he was arrested and eventually banished from Stuttgart as a result of an unsavory scandal concerning a possible charge of bribery in connection with the court. Although proved innocent of this charge, he was shaken enough, it seems, to settle down and become seriously concerned with establishing himself as a performer and composer.
Weber traveled extensively throughout Germany and Austria, playing his own compositions and composing. In 1813 he became an opera conductor in Prague. The following year he fell in love with Caroline Brandt, a singer in his company, whom he married in 1817, a year after he had been appointed conductor of German opera in Dresden. He served in this post and remained active in the city's musical life until his untimely death.
Creation of the German Romantic Opera
Weber's vast and varied theatrical experience in the provincial opera houses of central Europe bore fruit in Der Freischütz (The Freeshooter), produced in Berlin in 1821. Composed to a libretto by Friedrich Kind and heavily indebted to folk superstition and sentimentalized medieval German history, the opera was an enormous success. In this one composition Weber succeeded in creating a prototype for the German romantic opera which he himself was unable to equal.
In 1824 Weber's second major opera, Euryanthe, with a libretto by Helmine von Chézy, was produced in Dresden. Overly complicated and without the instant popular appeal of Freischütz, Euryanthe did not live up to expectations. That year Weber received an offer to go to London to prepare an English opera based on C. M. Wieland's Oberon. Although seriously ill, Weber agreed to undertake this work since he was financially straitened. He left for England in 1825 to supervise the performances of Oberon, which was a great success. He died in London on June 5, 1826, of tuberculosis.
Weber was a prolific composer in many forms. In addition to his piano music—several sonatas, variations, two concertos, and the fanciful Konzertstück—his production includes symphonies, chamber music, vocal works, and two clarinet concertos. His major accomplishment, however, was to create the first great popular success for German romantic opera. The folklike quality of much of his vocal writing has ensured his popularity in Germany, but elsewhere he is a composer more honored by name than in performance. The overtures of his three major operas have long been repertoire items in the concert hall, but the operas themselves deserve to be better known. Weber was also a respectable prose writer, especially of music criticism, thus proving himself to be entirely in keeping with 19th-century romantic aspirations.
Further Reading on Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber
Good biographies of Weber are William Saunders, Weber (1940), and Lucy and Richard Poate Stebbins, The Enchanted Wanderer: The Life of Carl Maria von Weber (1940). His operas are examined in Donald J. Grout, A Short History of the Opera (1947; rev. ed. 1965).
Additional Biography Sources
Benedict, Julius, Sir, Carl Maria von Weber, New York: AMS Press, 1980.
Friese-Greene, Anthony, Weber, London; New York: Omnibus, 1991.
Warrack, John Hamilton, Carl Maria von Weber, Cambridge, Eng.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Warrack, John Hamilton, The New Grove early romantic masters 2: Weber, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, New York: Norton, 1985.