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Carl Maria von Weber: Biography, Works & Music

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Important in the development of German opera and a proponent of the ideas of the Romantic movement, Carl Maria von Weber was a pivotal composer. In this lesson we will discuss his life, his music, and his ideas.

Romanticism comes to Germany

The early 19th century was an exciting time to live in Germany. The idea that the common man was noble, that his feelings mattered, and that all human beings belonged to a Larger Truth was sweeping the country. Goethe had just published Faust. Beethoven was revolutionizing the symphonic form. Carl Maria von Weber was in the midst of this potent mix and drew upon all these influences to create something new, a German opera.

Weber's Family Life

Weber was spectacularly fortunate to be a part of a large, extremely musical family. He was born on November 18, 1786 in Eutin, Holstein, Germany. His parents, Franz Anton and Genovefa, were both professional musicians. He had cousins, aunts, uncles, and brothers who were involved with theater and music. His first cousin, Constanze, was married to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Franz Anton organized a small traveling theater company. As the family moved from town to town, Carl would study piano, voice, and composition under the local musicians.

Carl Maria von Weber
A portrait of Carl Maria von Weber

In 1800, the family was living in Freiburg. There, Weber was given the libretto to Das Waldmädchen. A libretto, or 'little book,' is the story of the opera, the words the composer will set to music. Although not yet fourteen years old, Weber composed this opera and saw it performed at the Freiburg Theater. It was a complete failure. Nevertheless, the seed had been planted. Weber would continue to work in opera for the rest of his life.

Even Weber's wife was a talented musician. Weber married one of his former singers, Carolina Brandt, in 1817. She was a great help and encouraged him in his composition efforts. Together they had three children. They were happily married until his death from tuberculosis in 1826.

Weber's Music for Clarinet

In Munich, Weber became friends with the clarinet virtuoso, Heinrich Bärmann. At this time the clarinet was still a fairly new instrument, only joining orchestras in the 1780s. Weber was always fascinated by new sounds and ideas. The clarinet became one of his favorite instruments. For Bärmann Weber composed Concertino, Op. 26 and two brilliant clarinet concerti. These pieces remain standard repertoire for all clarinetists today. He composed a total of six clarinet works for Bärmann and wrote prominent parts for the clarinet in his orchestral music as well.

A clarinet from 1760
A photo of a 1760 clarinet

Weber and Romanticism

A popular philosophical idea, Romanticism, influenced poets, writers, composers, painters, and all educated thinkers of the early 19th century. Part of the Romantic ideal was a renewed interest in folk stories and legends. This, in turn, gave rise to nationalism, as artists in different communities began to feel pride in their folk culture. They sought to elevate this culture by creating poetry, novels, plays, and music that told the stories of their people. Weber was caught up in the Romantic fervor and became interested in German stories for German opera.

Weber's Operas

Weber had his first operatic success with a one-act opera called Abu Hassan. Loosely based on a story from One Thousand and One Nights, this opera did not satisfy Weber's desire to create German opera.

While living in Dresden, Weber began work on what would constitute his masterpiece, Der Freischütz. Dresden was still heavily influenced by the Italian opera tradition. Operas composed by Italians, based on Italian stories, were sung in Italian by Italian singers. To Weber this didn't make a lot of sense. Were they not Germans in Germany? In choosing Der Freischütz as his libretto, Weber started a revolution.

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