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History Of Music:
George Frederic Handel
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Ludwig Van Beethoven
The Romantic Composers
Development Of The Piano
Famous Operas And Their Composers
Wagner And His Music Dramas
Tristan And Isolde
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Carl Maria von Weber was born in Prussia in the year 1786. His father was a wandering theatre director and the boy's early life was spent amid strange and often degrading scenes. His education was of necessity irregular, but Weber had strong literary tastes and soon made himself master of his circumstances. Although he was gay and reckless as a young man, his early surroundings do not seem to have made a lasting impression upon his character. In his later life his resolute determination and simplicity of habits were very apparent.
He possessed in a strong degree the dramatic sense, which he early turned to account. Romanticism appealed to him strongly and the varied circumstances of his life confirmed this tendency. "His brightness, his peculiarities, his lively melodies and artistic wanderings were in full accord with the romantic spirit of German national life, and made him seem more like a troubadour of old than a man of the practical nineteenth century."
His first opera of importance was "Silvanna," written in 1810, and the following year his comic opera "Abu Hassan" made its appearance. The years from 1813 to 1817 he spent as opera director, critic and composer; at this time the patriotic zeal of his countrymen was turned against Napoleon, and Weber wrote many songs, expressing the feeling of Prussia, which added greatly to his popularity. In 1817 he was called to Dresden to direct the opera, and this afforded him excellent opportunity to help German opera gain a firm foothold. The next nine years were spent in composing and directing, and during this time his three greatest operas were produced: "Der Freischutz," "Oberon" and "Euryanthe." His later life was spent in ill-health away from all his friends, but his compositions show nothing of his sorrow. He died suddenly in London on June 4, 1826. A few years later his body was removed to Dresden, where a funeral oration was delivered by Richard Wagner.
Weber did not create German romantic opera, which had already been foreshadowed by Mozart, but he gave it the distinctive character which it has retained. The real ante cedent of his work may be found in the German "Songspiel" of the eighteenth century. This was an entertainment in which dialogue was interspersed with songs, some of them based on fairy tales and allegories. Out of this song-play grew the romantic opera of Weber and later composers.
The plot of "Der Freischutz," which means "one who shoots with magic bullets," is taken from an old tradition of a forest demon who is able to furnish magic at the price of the purchaser's soul. Max, in love with Agatha, must win her by proving himself the best marksman in the forest. In a preliminary trial he is defeated and, urged by Kaspar, enters into an agreement with the demon, Zaniel, for use of his magic bullets. Kaspar himself is in the power of the evil spirit, and unless he can furnish another victim as substitute will have to forfeit his soul; for this reason he has persuaded Max to enter into a similar compact.
Meanwhile Agatha is filled with forebodings of evil and tells her fears to a pious hermit, who gives her a magic wreath of roses which will ward off all harm. The day of the contest arrives and Max easily defeats his competitors with the first six bullets; the demon then forces him to direct the seventh at Agatha, but she is saved by the magic wreath and the bullet instead kills Kaspar. Thus Zaniel is given his original victim and Max is free to claim his bride.
"The music to this national legend, combining as it did all of Weber's brilliancy with the beautiful simplicity of the German Volkslied, won a success that was not only tremen dous at the start, but as lasting as any in the realm of opera. The German nation went wild with delight over their new drama. Weber himself, after conducting a performance of it in Vienna, wrote in his diary: `Greater enthusiasm there cannot be, and I tremble to think of the future, for it is scarcely possible to rise higher than this. To God alone the praise!' The noble horn quartette of the overture, the tender prayer of Agatha, the brisk hunting choruses, the sombre grandeur of the incantations, the homely comfortings of Anne and the bridesmaids, and the sensational climax, must have dealt an overwhelming blow to the conventionalities that still remained in the old-style operas."
"Euryanthe" has to do with the military romance so popular with writers of opera texts. That it was not wholly successful is due to the triviality of its plot, for musically it is one of the finest works ever produced by German genius. In "Euryanthe" Weber attempted to merge the aria with the declamatory style of recitative, thus creating a continuous music which formed a perfect union of poetry. If we wish to compare Weber with Wagner, we should compare "Euryanthe" and "Lohengrin," for although the latter is stronger in every way, their musical style is much the same.
In "Oberon" are shown three different phases of romanticism,-fairy, military and court life, which are represented by melodies of ravishing beauty. In his overtures Weber car red out the principles established by Cluck and showed great originality in the use of the orchestra for dramatic purposes. He produced novel effects and opened a new field in orchestral possibilities. He made much use of "local color," which term when applied to music means bringing to the hearer's mind the association connected with certain scenes and epochs, by means of musical themes. For example, if Oriental scenes are to be presented, the modern composer uses characteristic Oriental music to accompany them. Thus local color becomes a means of artistic expression; this inclination to call up scenes by means of musical sounds connected with them is a thoroughly romantic trait.
The Romantic School of Opera reached its culmination under Richard Wagner, but his work would have been impossible had it not been for the foundation laid by Weber.