Karl Maria von Weber’s Life

weberThe immortal author of Freischutz, Euryanthe, Oberson, surely deserves a place of honor among the great musicians whose secrets of success we are trying to discover in this series.

Weber himself reveals to us in a letter he wrote to the father of his favorite pupil, Julius Benedict, which way he thought the best to arrive at the highest artistic goal. “My good Julius,” he writes, “gives me great pleasure and I trust that time, serious study and industry combined with this undoubted talent and his many intellectual qualities, will one day give the world an admirable artist. But earnest study of art can only proceed by slow and tedious stops; by such alone can any sure foundation be laid. It is one of the saddest signs of our times that our young men now content themselves with superficiality; they absent themselves from the classes and they afterwards lost themselves in vain and unsteady efforts at effect. It makes me smile sorrowfully to think that while many years are considered necessary to  learn the humblest trade, the study of art, the deep and all absorbing study of a life, is looked upon as accomplished by a few months fluttering here and there.” Weber shows us here the only way that may lead a musician to success. The same way he himself had trodden as a pupil, first of Michael Haydn, the brother of the famous Joseph, and then of Kalcher in Munich and of the Abbe Vogler.

In his own biographical sketches Weber writes that he owed to the clear, gradually progressive, careful instruction of Kalcher his mastery and skill in the use of art means, principally the pure four-part writing, which ought to be so natural to the tone poet if he is to make and his ideas intelligible to the hearer – just as orthography and rhythmical measure are necessary to the poet.

Also, Abbe Volger had a far-reaching influence on Weber’s artistic development. Vogler had been also the teacher of Meyerbeer and was of vast service to Weber in bringing the chaos of his previous teachings into order and light.

von Weber and Nature

But one may say that these channels conducive to success are too obvious. We all know in fact that talent, excellent teachers and strenuous study combined are likely to bring great results. There is, however, something quite exceptional in Webers’ career, and that is his peculiar ability to translate into music everything he saw. Color, form, space, time were transformed by a mysterious process of his inner being into sounds. Out of the strangest and most inharmonious noises his ear sucked in the most original and striking effects. Strange to say, lines and forms seem to have called forth melodies within him and sounds gave rise to  harmonies. His musical ideas, he was wont to say, came thickest upon him when the sight of outward objects was accompanied by the rolling of carriage wheels. Landscapes were symphonies to his ears and melodies spring up from every rise or fall of the road, from every trembling brook, from every waving field of corn, whilst the sounds of the wheels supplied the richest harmonies. Thus certain drives and walks were involuntarily connected in his mind with such or such musical ideas. Whenever any picturesque spot recurred to his mind it was combined with the recollection of the melody it had inspired.

(I take a walk early in the morning in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The park contains a menagerie, and when the time of feeding the animals comes, about eight o’clock, all the wild beasts – the hyenas, the wolves, the lions, the tigers – join in a weird chorus. What precious inspiration for a modernist. This unique ensemble sounds truly atrocious, but the modern composer is not afraid of that. The more horrible, the more cacophonic, the better. He would have only to put down the music on paper. Even the instruments are given. Oboes in the highest most shrieking range for the wolves. English horn for the hyenas, bass-tuba for the lions, etc. A wonderful, bewildering “Jungle Symphony.”)

Other composers, although in more limited proportion, have sought inspiration from the outward world. Mendelssohn used to hear music in everyday noises, like rolling of carriages, dripping of water, etc. When composing his songs he used to recite loudly and with great pathos the poetry he intended to put into music and he then noticed attentively the different inflections and modulations of the voice and he found that the music was given as if by magic from the recitation. He said that the composer had only to listen to it and write it down.

But happy as might be the ideas then elicited by outward objects, Weber was slow in accepting them. Experience has taught him that such musical inspirations strike upon the ear with brilliant and startling effects, yet fall upon the paper dead and cold. Portions of these fleeting musical apparitions to which he assigned no greater value and which he considered as unworthy of being stored up, he would reproduce in his inimitable improvisations at the piano – being not only a great composer, but also an eminent pianist – and as he played he would unroll before his mind’s eye the panorama whence the musical thoughts had sprung.

It is indeed one of the most precious assets of a reproducing artist to be able to form in his mind a vivid picture of the subject he will convey to the listener – the brook, the fountain, the sunrise, the storm, the conflagration. The more intense the picture he forms in his imagination, the nearer to the truth his interpretation will come. Nobody can communicate to the hearer something he does not feel himself, nobody can give what he does not possess.

Another important point in Weber’s imposing figure is his utter indifference to momentary applause. He was, for instance, very fond of his fellow pupil Meyerbeer, and was always anxious to exhibit his gifts in the most favorable light; but he saw with regret that the immoderate ambition of Meyerbeer for wringing applause from the audience has misled him to a direction so contrary to what he considered the truest principles. “My heart bleeds,” he wrote “to see a German artist gifted with his own natural power of creation letting himself down to a mere imitation in order to catch the applause of the crowd. I do not say that such applause should be despised, but it should not be the all and then end all.”

In 1799 a strange incident very nearly gave an unexpected direction to Weber’s whole career. Senefelder, by turn actor, artist and poet, not being able to find a publisher for his comedies, discovered a cheap and easy means of reproducing MSS., which he himself could carry out, and thus become the inventor of lithography. Senefelder initiated the Webers, father and son, into his art, which seemed to open to the infatuated old baron (Weber belonged to an old aristocratic family) the most brilliant prospect for both. His enthusiasm proved contagious, as also young Carl Maria, fascinated by the idea of combining in himself the position of author, printer and publisher, worked with great zeal to attain proficiency as a lithographer and actually, though scarcely fourteen years of age, introduced considerable improvements in the lithographic press. Fortunately for the world and for himself, his father and Senefelder after some time fell out and henceforth Carl Maria devoted himself to music.

Another curious episode in Weber’s life was his connection with the royal family of Wurtemberg, where he found a dissolute, poverty stricken court and a whimsical, half-crazy king. His nominal duty was that of secretary to the king’s brother, Prince Ludwig; but the king had on several occasions treated him in a rude, offensive manner. Weber, therefore, hated the king, and at last his indignation prompted him to have revenge by playing a practical joke on the king. Meeting an old woman in the palace one day near the door of the royal sanctum, she asked him where she could find the court washerwoman. “There,” said the reckless Weber, pointing to the door of the king’s cabinet. The king, who hated old women, was in a transport of rage and, on her terror-stricken explanation of the intrusion, had no difficulty in fixing the mischief in the right quarter. Weber was thrown into prison and , had it not been for Prince Ludwig’s intercession, he would have remained there for several years.

In the composition of his operas Weber trod an entirely new path. In the overture his original idea was to give a complete epitome, nay, the very essence, of the opera. In his experience as a conductor he had observed that the forms of opera sanctioned for so many years did not answer to the requirements of the age. Each piece in the lyric drama belonging to the Italian repertoire, whether an aria, duet or a marceau d’ensemble was complete in itself as a musical composition and might be performed without scenic effect. It was of a stereotyped form, without any attempt at individuality. Weber’s first aim was to endow each of his operatic works with a distinct color of nationality. To understand Weber, the composer, one must think of him not only as the musician, but as the patriot and interpreter of the heart of the people.

Like all daring innovators, Weber had to suffer from antagonistic criticism. When his masterpiece Freischutz was performed for the first time in Dresden the public was enthusiastic; not so the press. Zelter, writing to Goethe treated the subject with derision by saying that “out of a small nothing the composer had created a colossal nothing.” Tieck spoke of the Freischutz as the most unmusical uproar ever heard from the stage. Spohr wrote: “As I never had great opinion of Weber as a composer, I wanted to discover the secret of its wonderful success, but this riddle was by no means solved, and I can only explain it by the gift Weber possesses to write for the general masses.” Weber resented the sting of these harsh and unjust criticisms. He had worked earnestly, honestly for the advance of art, and it was sad to be so entirely misunderstood, chiefly by those on whose sympathy and encouragement he had reckoned the most.

Berlioz and Weber

Only Berlioz, the great French composer, recognized the genius of Weber. “It is difficult,” he wrote in one of his essays, “to find in the old or new school a score so irreproachable from every point of view as that of the Freischutz, so uniformly interesting from one end to the other, with more freshness of melodies, more striking harmonic inventions, more striking rhythms, more energetic employment of the vocal and instrumental masses. From the beginning of the overture to the last chord of the final chorus, it seems impossible for me to find a single measure the suppression or alteration of which would be desirable. Intelligence, imagination and genius pervade the whole work with an intense brilliancy.”

Weber would have liked to bring a reform also in the humiliating position of the artists at his time, 100 years ago, but it was not in his power to effect it. Benedict, in his memoirs, so describes the “Tafel Musik” (dinner music) of the Saxon court Weber had to conduct at the state banquet of the king at Pillnitz in 1820. “In the large dinner hall sat the royal family and their retinue; the galleries around were filled with the members of the household and visitors, while on a round platform were the principal artists of the Italian opera and the whole orchestra, with Weber conducting the performance. The poor man was ill at ease in his stuff court dress, a green frock coat with an embroidered collar and large gold buttons, white breeches, buckled shoes, a three-cornered hat under his arms and a long sword at his side, at times dangling most uncomfortably between his legs. An instrumental overture was selected for soup and fish; a grand aria, Divanti palpits, sung by Mlle. Tibalda, came in for the entree; a short piano solo suited the vegetables; a quartet as piece de risistance accompanied the roast, and a sentimental ditty for the tenor was hardly heard under the popping of champagne corks and the serving of the ices. Then his majesty would rise, followed by the whole court, while artists, orchestra and spectators stood like so many statues speechless and motionless.

Similar to Mendelssohn, von Weber’s system of composing was to memorize the words of the libretto and then the idea of the musical piece would flash upon his mind. It would then remain there, gradually assuming a perfect shape, and not till this process was attained would he put it down on paper. He noted down the voices fully and only marked here and there the harmonies of the places where particular instruments were to be introduced. Sometimes he indicates by signs his most characteristic orchestral effects. The whole score was so thoroughly developed in his brain that his instrumentation was more like the labors of a copyist:; and the notes flowed from his pen with the marks of all the shading of expression, as if copper plated on the paper. By this peculiar mental process the large quantity of work which he was able to accomplish can be explained. The scoring of his opera Euryanthe from his sketches occupied only sixty days.

1823 Weber was invited to go to Vienna to direct personally the first performance of Euryanthe. Weber tells in his biographical sketches of his meeting with Beethoven, who showed him the greatest interest, and complained to him about public, theaters, Italians, and more specially about his ungrateful nephew. Weber advised him to leave Vienna and go to England, where his works were so much appreciated. “Too late,” cried Beethoven, pointing to his ear and shaking his head sadly. He then invited Weber to dinner in the hotel where he used to take his meals, and the stern, rough man paid him much attention and served him at table with the most delicate care. After a long and most interesting conversation the time came for departure. Again and again Beethoven embraced Weber, and it was long before he would release the thin delicate hands from the grasp of his mighty fists. The two great musicians never met again.

In 1824 Weber was invited to go to England to write on original work in the English language. In spite of the contrary advice of the renowned physician, Hedemus, who warned him that his shattered health would allow him only a few months of life, he accepted the offer of ?1,000 for the direction of Freischutz and Preciosa and the composition of the opera Oberon taken from Weiland’s poem. The poor sufferer, struggling with death, began to study the English language just before his departure for London, and in short time became familiar with that idiom. On his way to London he stopped at Paris, and Cherubini, Rossini, Paer and Onslow gave him the heartiest welcome.

Weber was very shocked at the system then existing in fashionable circles of London toward artists. Whilst in Germany and in France princes and princesses associated in friendly terms with distinguished artists; in London, musicians were only considered as saleable merchandise. In the reunions of the aristocracy artists were not expected to mix with the company. Shut up until everybody had assembled in a small room, bidden by the insolent lackeys to enter the drawing room by a back staircase, even separated in some cases by a cord from the invited guests, commanded like menials to perform their numbers; the concert over, either directed to take refreshments in a separate room or to go home supperless – it was not to be wondered that even richly remunerated artists were disgusted with the treatment they received.

Weber’s ungainly figure formed also a bad contrast with the handsome Rossini’s who had been feted in London the year before. Weber was a little narrow-chested man with long arms and a thin, pale face from which the sensations of Oberon, the late hours to which he was pleased a smile played over his otherwise serious mouth.

Notwithstanding the many letters of introduction he had brought from the highest personages in the Fatherland, his professional engagements in London were limited to three. He describes as follows one of these receptions; “At half past ten I drove to Lord Hertford’s. Heavens, what a huge company! Splendid rooms, about 600 people assembled, all most brilliantly attired. Nearly all the stars of the Italian opera, also Volluti, the celebrated Puzzi and the no less celebrated double-bass Dragonetti. Every kind of music was sung, but nobody listened to it. The din and the noise of the throng were horrible. When I performed there was an endeavor to obtain a little silence and 100 person placed themselves sympathetically around me. God along knows what they heard, for I myself didn’t hear much of it. I bore in mind, however, my thirty guineas and was resigned. At last at two o’clock they went to supper, from which I excused myself.”

After sixteen most laborious rehearsals his opera was given at the Covent Garden and brought him his last and one of his greatest triumphs. The reaction after such a great exertion was terrible. The nightly representations of Oberon, the late hours to which he was unaccustomed, could not fail to hasten the final catastrophe. On the morning of the 5th of June, 1826, when the servant of Sir George Smart, at whose house Weber was living, knocked at his door he received no answer. Alarmed, all rushed immediately to the room. They burst the door open and found the beloved friend lifeless in his bed. The corpse was embalmed and found a resting place in the Moorfields chapel. Seventeen years after, specially through the efforts of Richard Wagner then capellmeister in Dresden, the mortal remains of Weber were transferred to Dresden and laid in the family vault.

An anecdote:

On the occasion of the production in Dresden of Mehul’s opera Joseph in Egypt, the tenor Genast introduced into his part a florid passage in the distorted Italian style. An angry look shot upon the stage by Weber so frightened the singer that as soon as all was over he tried to get out of the theater as fast as possible to avoid the coming storm. But Weber was too quick for him. He caught the delinquent and “What’s that you were doing?” he thundered at him. “Don’t you think that if Mehul had wanted any such ‘crinkum-crankum’ he would have put it better than you? No more such tom-foolery for the future! Go home and sleep off your fit of Italian intoxication!”

Resuming we find in Weber’s career the following striking points:

Prominent teachers and strenuous study combined, fecundated his natural genius.

He sought and found inspiration in the observation of nature’s wonderful forms and phenomena.

Utter indifference to the applause of the crowd.

Daring innovations in the overture and opera.