As we have already seen in the life stories of a number of musicians, the career they were to follow was often decided by the father, who determined to form them into wonder children, either for monetary gain or for the honor and glory of the family. The subject of this story is an ex-ample of such a preconceived plan.
Franz Anton von Weber, who was a capable musician himself, had always cherished the desire to give a wonder child to the world. In his idea wonder children need not be born such, they could be made by the proper care and training. He had been a wealthy man, but at the time of our story, was in reduced circumstances, and was traveling about Saxony at the head of a troupe of theatrical folk, called “Weber’s Company of Comedians.”
Little Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst, to give his full name, was born December 18, 1786, at Eutin, a little town in Lower Saxony. He was the first child of a second marriage, and before the baby boy could speak, his career had been planned ; the father had made up his mind to develop his son into an extraordinary musical genius. It is not recorded what- his young mother, a delicate girl of seventeen, thought about it; probably her ideas for her baby son did not enter into the father’s plan. Mother and child were obliged to follow in the train of the wandering comedians, so baby Carl was brought up amid the properties of stage business. Scenery, canvas, paints and stage lights were the materials upon which Carl’s imagination was fed. He learned stage language with his earliest breath ; it is no wonder he turned to writing for the stage as to the manner born.
As a child, he was neither robust nor even healthy, which is not surprising, since he was not allowed to run afield with other children, enjoying the sweet air of nature, the flowers, the sunshine and blue sky. No, he must stay indoors much of the time and find his playmates among cardboard castles and painted canvas streets. This treatment was not conducive to rosy cheeks and strong, sturdy little legs. Then, before the delicate child was six years old, a violin was put into his hand, and if his progress on it was thought to be too slow by his impatient father, he was treated to raps and blows by way of incentive to work yet harder. His teachers, too, were continually changing, as the comedians had to travel about from place to place. After awhile he was taken in hand by Michael Haydn, a brother of the great Josef. Michael was a famous musician himself and seldom gave lessons to any one. But he was interested in Carl and took charge of his musical education for some time.
It was not long before Carl Maria’s genius began definitely to show itself, for he started to write for the lyric stage. Two comic operas appeared, “The Dumb Girl of the Forest,” and “Peter Schmoll and his Neighbors.” They were both performed, but neither made a hit.
When Carl was seventeen, the father decided he should go to Vienna, for there he would meet all the great musicians of the time. The boy was at the most impressionable age : he was lively, witty, with pleasant manners and amiable disposition; he soon became a favorite in the highest musical circles. It was a gay life and the inexperienced youth yielded to its allurements. In the meantime he did some serious studying under the famous Abbé Vogler. The following year the Abbé recommended him to the conductorship’ of the Breslau Opera House. This was a very difficult post for a boy of eighteen, and he encountered much jealousy and opposition from the older musicians, who did not relish finding themselves under the leadership of such a youth. A year served to disgust him with the work and he resigned. During the year he had found time to compose most of his opera “Rubezahl.”
For the next few years there were many “ups and downs” in Carl’s life. From Breslau he went to Carlsruhe, and entered the service of Prince Eugene. For about a year he was a brilliant figure at the Court. Then war clouds gathered and the gay Court life came to an end. Music under the present conditions could no longer support him, as the whole social state of Germany had altered. The young composer was forced to earn his livelihood in some way, and now became private secretary to Prince Ludwig of Wurtemburg, whose Court was held at Stuttgart. The gay, dissolute life at the Court was full of temptation for our young composer, yet he found considerable time for composition; his opera “Sylvana” was the result, besides several smaller things. During the Stuttgart period, his finances became so low, that on one occasion he had to spend several days in prison for debt. Determined to recruit his fortunes, he began traveling to other towns to make known his art. In Mannheim, Darmstadt and Baden, he gave concerts, bringing out in each place some of his newer pieces, and earning enough at each concert to last a few weeks, when another concert would keep the wolf from the door a little longer.
In 1810, when he was twenty-four, he finished his pretty opera “Abu Hassan,” which, on the suggestion of his venerable master, Vogler, he dedicated to the Grand Duke. The Duke accepted the dedication with evident pleasure, and sent Carl a purse of gold, in value about two hundred dollars. The opera was performed on February 6, 1811, and its reception was very gratifying to the composer. The Grand Duke took one hundred and twenty tickets and the performance netted over two hundred florins clear profit. It was after this that Carl Maria went on a tour of the principal German cities and gave concerts in Munich, Prague, Berlin, Dresden and other places. He was everywhere welcomed, his talents and charming manners winning friends everywhere. Especially in Prague he found the highest and noblest aristocracy ready to bid him welcome.
Weber paid a visit to Liebich, director of the Prague theater, almost as soon as he arrived in town. The invalid director greeted him warmly.
“So, you are the Weber! I suppose you want me to buy your operas. One fills an evening, the other doesn’t. Very well, I will give fifteen hundred florins for the two. Is it a bargain?” Weber accepted, and promised to return the next spring to conduct the operas. He kept his promise, and the result was much better than he ever dreamed. For beyond the performance of his operas, he was offered the post of music director of the Prague theater, which post was just then vacant. The salary was two thousand florins, with a benefit concert at a guaranteed sum of one thousand more, and three months leave of absence every year. This assured sum gave young Weber the chance of paying his debts and starting afresh, which, he writes “was a delight to him.”
The composer now threw himself heart and soul into improving the orchestra placed in his charge. Before long he had drilled it to a high state of excellence. Many new operas were put on the stage in quick succession. Thus Weber worked on with great industry for three years. The success he achieved created enemies, and perhaps because of intrigues, envy and ill feeling which had arisen, he resigned his post in 1816. The three years in Prague had been fruitful in new compositions. Several fine piano sonatas, a set of “National Songs,” and the Cantata, “Kampf und Sieg,” (Struggle and Victory). This last work soon became known all over Germany and made the gifted young composer very popular. During this period Weber became engaged to Caroline Brandt, a charming singer, who created the title role in his opera of “Sylvana.”
Weber had many kind, influential friends in Prague, who admired his zeal and efficiency as music director. One of them, Count Vitzhum, did all he could to secure Weber for Dresden.
On Christmas morning, 1816, he received the appointment. He wrote to Caroline: “Long did I look on Count Vitzhum’s letter without daring to open it. Did it contain joy or sorrow? At length I took courage and broke the seal. It was joy! I am Capellmeister to his Majesty the King of Saxony. I must now rig myself out in true Court style. Perhaps I ought to wear a pigtail to please the Dresdeners. What do you say? I ought at least to have an extra kiss from you for this good news.”
He went to Dresden, and at first looked over the situation. On nearer view the prospect was not as bright as it had appeared at first. There was a rival faction, strongly opposed to his plans for the promotion of German opera. There had never been anything tolerated at Dresden but Italian opera, and there were many talented Italian singers to interpret them. Weber was encouraged by a new national spirit, which he felt would favor German opera, and was determined to conquer at all costs. He finally succeeded, for, as he wrote to a friend, “The Italians have moved heaven, earth and hell also, to swallow up the whole German opera and its promoter. But they have found in me a precious tough morsel; I am not easily swallowed.” It was the same kind of fight that Handel waged in England, and that Gluck fought against the Piccinists.
“Joseph and his Brethren,” by Mehul, was the first opera to be taken up by the new conductor. He drilled the orchestra much more carefully than they had been accustomed, and while, in the beginning, some were sulky at the strictness they were subjected to, yet they finally saw the justice of it and at last took pride in doing their work well. “Joseph” was brought out January 30, 1817. The King and Court were present, and everything passed off well, indeed remarkably well. His majesty was greatly pleased and did not cough once during the whole performance, as he used to do when things did not go to suit him.
In spite of Italian opposition which still continued, Weber’s efforts to establish German opera kept right on, until at last it became a State institution, and the composer was appointed musical director for life. With this bright prospect in view he was able to wed his beloved Caroline. They were married on November 4. A quotation from his diary shows the talented musician had become a serious, earnest man. “May God bless our union, and grant me strength and power to make my beloved Lina as happy and contented as my inmost heart would desire. May His mercy lead me in all things.”
Weber was now entering the most prolific and brilliant period of his life. His music became richer, more noble and beautiful. The happy union with Caroline seemed to put new life and energy into him, and as a result his works became quickly known all over Europe. His mind was literally teeming with original themes, which crowded each other, struggling to be expressed. First there was the “Mass in E flat,” a beautiful, original work; then a festal Cantata, “Nature and Love,” written to celebrate the Queen of Saxony’s birthday. After this the “Jubilee Cantata,” composed to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the reign of Augustus, of Saxony. The Italian faction prevented a performance of the whole work, and only the Overture was given. When the entire work was heard it made a great sensation. Now came a Jubilee Mass and some piano pieces, among them the charming and famous “Invitation to the Dance,” with which every one is familiar. While writing all these works, the composer was busy with one of his greatest operas, “Der Freischütz.” On May 8, 1820, a hundred years ago, the score of “Der Freischütz,” was sent to the director of the Berlin theater, and directly put in rehearsal. The rehearsals had not proceeded very far before Weber, the tireless cease-less worker, had finished his important opera, “Preciosa,” which was also despatched to Berlin. “Preciosa” was brought out before “Der Frei-schütz,” which was just as it should be, as the public needed to be educated up to the “Freischütz music. “Preciosa” was founded on a Spanish story, “The Gypsy of Madrid,” and Weber has written for it some of his most charming melodies, full of Spanish color, life and vivacity. Nowadays the opera is neglected, but we often hear the overture. It is to be noted that the overtures to each of Weber’s operas contain the leading themes and melodies of the operas themselves, showing with what skill the artist wrought. When Weber’s widow presented the original score of “Der Freischütz” to the Royal Library in Berlin, it was found there was not a single erasure or correction in the whole work.
On June 18, 1821, came the first performance of Weber’s masterpiece, “Der Freischütz.” The theater was beseiged for hours by eager crowds, and when the doors were at last opened, there was a grand rush to enter. The whole house from pit to galleries was soon filled, and when the composer entered the orchestra, there was a roar of applause, which it seemed would never end. As the performance proceeded, the listeners became more charmed and carried away, and at the close there was a wild scene of excitement. The suecess had been tremendous, and the frequent repetitions demanded soon filled the treasury of the theater. Everybody was happy, the composer most of all. The melodies were played on every piano in Germany and whistled by every street urchin. Its fame spread like lightning over Europe, and quickly reached England. In London the whole atmosphere seemed to vibrate with its melodies. In Paris, however, it did not please on first hearing, perhaps because it was so thoroughly German. But somewhat later, when renamed “Robin des Bois,”-“Robin of the Forest,”it was performed some three hundred and fifty times before being withdrawn.
Weber kept ever at work. Two years after the production of “Der Freischütz the opera of “Euryanthe” was completed. The libretto was the work of a half demented woman, Helmine von Chezy, but Weber set out to produce the best opera he was capable of, and to this story he has joined some wonderful music. It was his favorite work; he wrote to his beloved wife two hours before the first performance: “I rely on God and my `Euryanthe.’ ” The opera was produced at the Karnthnertor Theater, in Vienna, on October 25, 1823. The composer, though weak and ill, made the long journey to the great city, that he might personally introduce his favorite to the Viennese. He wrote his wife after the performance: “Thank God, as I do, beloved wife, for the glorious success of ‘Euryanthe.’ Weary as I am, I must still say a sweet good night to my beloved Lina, and cry Victory! All the company seemed in a state of ecstasy; singers, chorus, orchestra ;all were drunk, as it were, with joy.”
The title role was taken by Henrietta Son-tag, a young girl, still in her teens, though giving high promise of the great things she achieved a few years later. Strange to say, a short time after its first appearance, “Euryanthe” failed to draw. One reason might have been laid to the poor libretto, another to the rumor, started, it is said, by no less an authority than the great master Beethoven, that the music of the opera was “only a. collection of diminished sevenths.”
The composer lost no time in laying his score before Beethoven, who said he should have visited him before, not after the performance. He advised him to do what he himself had done to “Fidelio,” cut out nearly a third of the score. Weber took this advice, and remade parts of the opera, where he deemed it necessary.
The strain of the production of “Euryanthe” told severely on the composer’s delicate health, and he returned to Dresden in an exhausted state. There was no rest for him here, as official duties were pressing. The malady afflicting his lungs had made rapid progress and he began to fear he should not be long spared to his wife and little ones.
He shook off the apathy and took up his pen once more. His fame was known all over Europe and many tempting offers came in from all directions. One of these was from Covent Garden Theater, London, in the summer of 1824, which resulted in a visit to the English capital. Charles Kemble, the director of Covent Garden, desired Weber to write a new opera for production there. “Oberon” was the subject at last decided upon; it was taken from an old French romance. Weber at once set to work on the music of this fairy opera, and with the exception of the overture, had finished the work in time to bring it to London in 1826. He was ill and suffering at the time he left home, February 7, and it seemed as though he were bidding a final good-by to his wife and little ones.
Arrived in London, Sir George Smart invited him to take up his residence in his house. Here he had every comfort, a beautiful piano too was placed at his disposal by one of the first makers in London. “No King could be served with greater love and affection in all things,” he wrote; “I cannot be sufficiently grateful to heaven for the blessings which surround me.” Here he composed the beautiful Overture to “Oberon” which was only completed a few days before the first performance of the opera.
“Oberon” was given at Covent Garden on April 12. The house was packed from pit to dome, and the success was tremendous. Next morning the composer was in a highly nervous and exhausted state, but felt he must keep his promise to Kemble and conduct the first twelve performances of “Oberon.” He was to have a benefit concert, and hoped through this to have a goodly sum to take back to his little family. Sad to relate, on the evening chosen, May 26, a heavy rain fell and the hall was nearly empty. After the concert he was so weak he had to be assisted from the room. The physician ordered postponement of the journey home, but he cried continually, “I must go to my ownI must! Let me see them once more and then God’s will be done.”
The next morning, when they came to call him, all was still in his chamber; he had passed away peacefully in sleep.
Weber was buried in London. His last wishto return home,was finally fulfilled. Eighteen years after, his remains were brought to Dresden, and the composer was at last at home.