Schubert’s operas had no appreciable effect on the Romantic composers, for the simple reason that they were never heard on account of the absurdities of their librettos and the weakness of their stage situations. At about the same period, a slightly older composer was beginning a series of works destined to place German Opera on a firm basis, to exercise a decided influence on Wagner, besides contributing not a little to the development of piano technique.
Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber was born at Eutin, December 18, 1786. His father, a restless man of many talents, was a theatrical manager during Weber’s early years, when constant traveling was the rule, and music lessons the exception. His irregular early instruction under several teachers, of whom Michael Haydn was the most eminent, was supplemented by two years of solid study under the gifted and eccentric Abbé Vogler. From 1804 to 18o6, Weber was music-director at the Breslau theatre, and soon made a name for himself as composer and pianist as well as conductor. After this he remained under the protection of the Duke of Wurtemburg, earning a living by giving lessons, and acting as secretary to the Duke’s brother. During this period he composed an opera “Silvana,” overtures, a cantata, piano music, etc. Three years of wandering, chiefly on concert tours, ensued after his banishment from Wurtemburg on account of unjustly suspected complicity in an intrigue for a position at court. To these years belong a comic opera, “Abu Hassan,” the piano concertos in C and E-flat, three concertos for clarinet, the piano sonata in C, etc. In 1814 and 1815, he composed the choruses, “Lyre and Sword,” and a cantata, “Battle and Victory,” both the outcome of political events, and widely popular from their patriotic character. In 1816, he be-came music-director of the German opera at Dresden. He revived interest in German opera, stimulated public support and in the following years began the composition of “Der Freischütz,” an opera thoroughly German in its character and the keystone of Weber’s fame. It was not finished until 1820, for in the meantime he wrote much of his best piano music, songs and incidental music for a gipsy play “Preciosa.” Just after the completion of his popular Concert-piece for piano and orchestra, “Der Freischütz” was given for the first time at Berlin, June 18, 1821, and the result was one of the greatest triumphs ever bestowed on a German composer. It was soon given in all the principal theatres in Germany, including Dresden, and also in Vienna. In 1823, Weber’s most ambitious opera, “Euryanthe,” was given in Vienna and proved almost a failure. Weber’s health, which had not been satisfactory for some years, showed signs of being undermined. “Euryanthe” was per-formed with greater success during 1824 and 1825, at Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin, where Weber was almost too ill to conduct. In spite of his ill-health he agreed to write an opera for the Covent Garden Theatre, in London, beginning the music to “Oberon” early in 1825 and finishing the last number in the spring of 1826. The performances were more than satisfactory, and Weber was received everywhere with enthusiasm. His strength was now entirely over-taxed, and he hoped to return to his family, but he died suddenly from consumption, on June 4, 1826.
Weber’s personality was pleasing; of excellent birth, his experience of the world through his positions as opera-director and his frequent concert-tours, made him an agree-able companion and a favorite in society. He was cultivated, well read in philosophy and science ; he possessed considerable literary and critical ability. In consequence of his intellectual and social gifts, he was a new type of musician, who did much to improve the social status of the composer. He was a remarkable pianist, with an immense command of technic, original in style and eloquent in ex-pression; also a forceful conductor.
Weber the Composer.Weber is, first of all, the composer of the three operas, “Der Freischütz,” “Euryanthe” and “Oberon,” which are discussed in Lesson XXXVII. The overtures to his operas are his best orchestral works; his symphonies and chamber-music are unimportant. However, his three concertos for clarinet and orchestra are classics in the literature of that instrument. Weber’s songs are interesting for the sidelight they throw on the development of the Folk-song tendency, but in this line he was entirely overshadowed by Schubert and Schumann. However, Weber’s piano music is exceedingly important. The concertos for piano are seldom heard, but the “Concert-piece” is still amply worth study. The piano sonatas (especially those in C and A-flat) show great technical inventiveness, melodic charm and original effects, but they are less happy in point of form. Next to the sonatas in interest comes the delightful Op. 65, “Invitation to the Dance,” so well-known in Berlioz’ orchestral version. In addition are the “Momento Capriccioso,” Op. 12, the Rondo in E-flat, Op. 62, the “Polacca Brillante,” Op. 72, the Polonaise, Op. 21. Weber did much to develop the technic of the left hand; his piano compositions are thoroughly pianistic and rank high in the music of the Romantic period.
Weber’s Influence.Weber’s position in the evolution of the Romantic school is extremely important. In Opera his exploration of the imaginative field in so many directions not only opened a new vein in dramatic music, but its influence was felt in every branch of composition. Thus several of Schumann’s choral works, Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” music, the “Walpurgis Night” cantata, the concert overtures, and pieces for piano and orchestra are direct musical descendants of Weber. Mendelssohn’s Concerto in G minor, the “Serenade” and “Allegro Giojoso,” his scherzos and “Songs Without Words” are the direct out-come of Weber’s example. In general, the technical style of Weber’s piano music was thoroughly absorbed by both Mendelssohn and, to some extent, Liszt, who edited Weber’s sonatas and solo pieces with tempting additions; he transcribed for piano the overtures “Jubilee,” “Freischütz” and “Oberon,” and arranged the “Polacca Brillante,” Op. 72, for piano and orchestra. Liszt was very fond of Weber’s music, his piano style was sympathetic to him, his interpretation of the Concert-piece, Op. 79, never failed to produce an overwhelming effect. Finally, Weber’s influence on Wagner must be mentioned. Wagner greatly admired Weber’s dramatic insight, his picturesqueness, and especially the poetry and novel color of his orchestral style
The influence which Mendelssohn exercised during two-thirds of the 19th century among he more conservative German musicians and in England was nothing short of extraordinary. He undoubtedly gave great impetus to the study of the classic masters, especially Bach, and his ro-mantic tendencies were so balanced and controlled as to gain a speedy recognition for his music. Today, Mendelssohn the classicist is less admired, and his music will live chiefly for its romantic qualities.
Mendelssohn’s Life.Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy 1 was born at Hamburg, February 3, 1809. His father, a prosperous banker, moved to Berlin in 1811. His first lessons in music were given him by his mother, but he soon began to study the piano with Ludwig Berger, a pupil of Clementi, and composition with Zelter. In 1820, he began to compose systematically. In 1821, he made the acquaintance of Weber, and his enthusiasm for the romantic composer lasted all his life. In 1824, he formed a life-long friendship with Moscheles, who gave him piano lessons. Already he was remarkable for his improvisations and for playing from scores. In 1825, a trip to Paris brought him into contact with the celebrated musicians there. In this year he composed his octet for strings, in which his individuality first asserted itself strongly. In the following summer he wrote the overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a precocious evidence of originality. In 1827, he made the first draft of his overture “A Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage,” a further step into the realm of imagination. In 1829, he organized the first performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” music since the composer’s death. In this year a visit to England, where some of his compositions were performed, was followed by a trip to Scotland, the Hebrides and Wales, of which his impressions are recorded in the “Hebrides” overture, the “Scotch” symphony and other works of later years. He traveled much during the following years. In 1833, after another visit to England, where his recently composed “Italian” symphony was played, he conducted a musical festival at Düsseldorf, the first of many similar engagements. During the next few years he was constantly employed in conducting, playing and composing, especially his oratorio “St. Paul.” In 1837, he married Miss Cécile Jeanrenaud. From this time dates his second piano concerto in D minor, in which are to be seen traces of Thalberg’s piano style. During the next few years Mendelssohn lived at Leipzig. In 1843, he established a conservatory at Leipzig, long the most celebrated in Europe. Schumann, and later Moscheles, were among the teachers as well as Mendelssohn himself. In 1846, Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah” was given a triumphant first performance at Birmingham under the composer’s direction. In 1847, he made his tenth visit to England for performances of “Elijah,” of his completed “Midsummer Night’s Dream” music (composed in 1845), the “Scotch” symphony and other works. The death of his sister, Fanny, following soon after those of his parents, was so great a shock to him that he went to Switzerland for a rest. He returned improved in health, but could not consider commissions for new works from England, Frankfort and Cologne. He was considering a trip to Vienna to hear Jenny Lind sing in “Elijah” when he was taken suddenly ill and died, November 4, 1847.
Personal Traits.Mendelssohn is described as having an unusually animated, winning personality. He was immensely fond of society, which he could enjoy without detriment to his work. His letters describe in detail his innumerable professional engagements, his round of social festivities and his journeys with equal fidelity. Mendelssohn was fond of out-of-door life, walking, riding and swimming; he also greatly enjoyed dancing. One of his favorite relaxations was to sketch from nature or paint in water-colors. Mendelssohn was a remarkable pianist, of an unaffected type, not a virtuoso, yet his interpretations were full of vigor, charm and a thoroughly musical spirit. His improvisations were remarkable for their spontaneous invention, brilliance and science displayed, and his cadenzas to Beethoven’s 4th concerto and Mozart’s, in D minor, were striking examples of his skill. Mendelssohn was also a remarkable organist, if English testimony is to be credited. At all events, he did much to further the knowledge of Bach’s organ works. Mendelssohn’s incessant activity undoubtedly hastened his death ; the amount that he compressed into his short life was incredible.
Compositions.The works most representative of Mendelssohn are the “Scotch” and “Italian” symphonies, the overtures “A Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Hebrides,” “Melusina,” “Ruy Blas” ; the concertos and two smaller pieces for piano and orchestra; the concerto for violin; the octet for strings; two quintets and seven quartets ; three quartets for piano and strings; two trios; two sonatas for piano and ‘cello; for the piano, six preludes and fugues ; three sonatas ; the `Serious Variations” ; six books of “Songs Without Words”; many smaller pieces, including the “Capriccio,” Op. 8 ; the “Rondo Capriccioso,” Op. 14 ; the Caprices, Op. 33; the Scherzo A Capriccio and others ; sonatas, preludes and fugues for organ; the oratorios “St. Paul,” and `Elijah”; music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” to the dramas “Athalie,” “Antigone” and “OEdipus” ; the cantata “Walpurgis Night.” He also wrote a great deal of church music, psalms, hymns, motets, and cantatas for various occasions, including the “Lobgesang,” a symphony-cantata ; many part-songs, duets and songs for single voice with piano accompaniment.
Mendelssohn’s Tendencies.Although he wrote almost exclusively in the conventional forms, Mendelssohn cannot be regarded as a continuator of the classics. In form, thematic development, counterpoint, part-writing, etc., he imitated the letter of classic example closely, but could not attain the inner spirit. To some extent he followed Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven, but the chief source of his individuality is the romanticism of Weber. His piano style is adapted from that of Weber with some extensions of his own. Showered with praise as he was during his lifetime, as the possessor of all the classic virtues, we now admire him chiefly for his romanticism, timid and fastidious though it appears by comparison with the genuine innovations of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner. In the light of the sturdy qualities of Brahms, his classicism seems superficial. His style was too polished to admit of real vigor. Nevertheless, Mendelssohn of the two symphonies, the “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Melusina” and “Hebrides” overture, the violin concerto, the piano concerto in G minor, the sonata for piano and ‘cello in D, the scherzo of the octet, the “Serious Variations,” the Scherzo A Capriccio and some half a dozen of the “Songs Without Words” shows us a delicate and charming individuality with the refinement and decided perceptions of the poet, who regarded the world with the eyes of a romanticist recording many impressions of picturesqueness and grace, if seldom of strength.
Mendelssohn’s Influence as an Artist.For a time, Mendelssohn’s influence was unbounded. His symphonies and overtures were considered worthy successors to those of Beethoven ; his chamber-music was equally valued ; his oratorios were regarded as on a level with those of Handel ; his piano music, especially the “Songs Without Words,” were in universal vogue. His orchestral style contained many novel features, it is true, but his chamber-music was not written in the genuine manner and is far inferior to that of the later master, Brahms. His oratorios contain some notable choruses and airs, but on the whole are only faint imitations of the real oratorio style. Still they sufficed to form the foundation of an English school of composition in this form. His piano music contains much that is trivial, but at its best undoubtedly did something to pre-pare the way for the deeper romanticism of Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. His songs also have far less variety of mood and lyric inspiration than those of Schubert and Schumann, but they too acted as prophets of the more vital creations to follow.
That this reverence for Mendelssohn was no mere infatuation of the moment but a sober respect can best be judged from the diversity in nationality and temperament of those who came under his influence : Gade, the Norwegian ; Sterndale Bennett, the English composer and pianist; Hiller and Reinecke among the Germans, and Rubinstein from Russia. These names constitute but a small proportion of Mendelssohn’s disciples, his personality dominated musical England in every branch of composition for many years ; and English composers are only just beginning to throw off the yoke of adherence to the traditional oratorio form as exhibited in “St. Paul” and “Elijah.” Schumann admired Mendelssohn without réserve and without a suggestion of jealousy, although the tide of popular favor neglected him for his more easily understood contemporary. Today, criticism has swung possibly too far in the opposite direction, and Mendelssohn suffers from depreciation.
Grove’s and Riemann’s Dictionaries.Articles on Weber and Mendelssohn.
Benedict.Carl, Maria von Weber.
Rockstro.Life of Mendelssohn.
Lampadius.Life of Mendelssohn.
Reinecke.Mendelssohn (Century Library of Music} , Mendelssohn’s Letters.