Carl Maria von Weber 1786-1826
Carl Maria von Weber
Carl Maria von Weber
Overture to Der Freischütz

The premiere of Der Freischütz in 1821 marked a turning point in the development of German opera. Until the early nineteenth century, German grand opera had been dominated by Italian composers. The Singspiel, native German-language opera with spoken dialogue instead of recitative, was regarded as more lowbrow. Beethoven elevated the Singspiel to higher level in Fidelio, whose unspecified location suggests an unspecified Spanish setting. But in Der Freischütz, Weber created a Singspiel combining all the trappings so dear to the early Romantics: the darkly supernatural; the idealization of the common folk; and, in part, German folksong style that skillfully combined popular music with elements of high art. An overwhelming success, it solidified the entire German school of operatic Romanticism that led directly to the music dramas of Wagner.

Weber based Der Freischütz on a German legend, popular in the Singspiel tradition and the hearts of early Romantics. He used – in part – German folksong style that skillfully combined popular music with elements of high art. Der Freischütz was an overwhelming success, solidifying the entire German school of operatic romanticism that led directly to the music dramas of Wagner.

The plot involves a hunter who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for a set of charmed silver bullets that hit their mark regardless of where they are aimed. In this struggle between the forces of good and evil, virtue finally prevails – with the help of a good woman. The music is admirable for its charm, folk-like melodies and dance tunes, as well as moments of dramatic tension and excitement. While many of the ideas were to some degree old hat, Weber had managed to combine them in a way that “hit the mark” of the German soul. In 1899 American music historian Henry Krehbiel wrote: “There was never an opera, and there is no likelihood that there will ever be one, so intimately bound up with the loves, feelings, sentiments, emotions, superstitions, social customs… of a people.”

Except for the opening horn theme, the overture is made up entirely of melodies from the opera. But rather than stringing the melodies together like a medley, Weber created a finished composition in the form of symphonic sonata form. Its string tremolo, pizzicato basses and pregnant pauses are the quintessence of German Romanticism.

The overture opens with a slow introduction portraying the forest and the life of the hunting community. Example 1 It comes from a peasant chorus in Act 1, in which Max is bemoaning his bad luck at shooting to Kaspar, wile the peasants tell him never to lose hope. The music turns menacing in the ensuing first theme of the Allegro, Example 2 which corresponds to a point in Max's Act I aria in which he works himself up into such a state as he fears he is surrounded by the powers of darkness and even doubts the existence of God. Kaspar then makes his deal. The second lyrical theme, which conforms both to the sonata-allegro tradition and the apposition of evil and good, comes from the conclusion of Agathe’s Act II aria in which she expresses her fear and love for Kasper as his showdown approaches. Example 3
Carl Maria von Weber
Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in F minor, J. 114

Composer, conductor, pianist and critic Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber is considered one of the founders of the Romantic movement in Germany. With his opera Der Freischütz, he helped lay the foundation for German romantic opera, paving the way for Wagner. As an orchestrator he was an innovator, discovering and capitalizing on new characteristics and sonorities of many instruments, especially the horn and the clarinet.

It was only during the second half of the eighteenth century that the clarinet was sufficiently developed to become generally accepted as an orchestral and solo instrument. During this period, it attracted a number of highly talented players who, in turn, inspired many composers to write for the instrument. Anton Stadler was the inspiration for Mozart, for Carl Stamitz, Joseph Beer, and for Brahms, Richard Mühlfeld. Weber was taken with Heinrich Baermann (1784-1847), whose expressive playing and velvety tone contrasted with the shriller style of some earlier players and instruments. Weber noted Baermann’s “welcome evenness of tone from top to bottom.” For a while, Weber and Baermann toured together through Austria and Germany.

Weber wrote his clarinet concertos in 1811 on a commission from Maximilian Joseph, King of Bavaria, who had been greatly impressed by the composer’s Clarinet Concertino, which Baermann had performed in Munich. The Concerto No. 1 took one month to write, and Baermann had only one month to practice the formidable difficulties of the score before the premiere.

In the first two movements, Weber’s themes are extended, delaying resolution in order to highlight the expressive qualities of the instrument. The first movement begins with a theme by the orchestra, Example 1 which the clarinet shapes and decorates into a more respectable melody. Example 2 Because the movement is in a minor key, at least one subsidiary theme must be in the relative major, and Weber provides two. Example 3 & Example 4

The second movement marked Adagio ma non troppo, is even more emotive. Example 5 There is a lovely interplay between the clarinet and the horns in the middle of the movement. Example 6

The Finale, Rondo: Allegretto, is a spirited romp, with surprising modulations and elaborate pyrotechnics that put considerable demands on the soloist. One half of the rondo theme entails rapid staccato playing. Example 7 The episodes are another matter, the first another languid melody in the minor. Example 8 If one compares Weber’s writing for the clarinet in this movement with Mozart’s in either the Concerto or the Clarinet Quintet, it is possible to hear not only the contrast between the classical and early Romantic styles, but also the expanded possibilities of the instrument itself just 20 years later.
Felix Mendelssohn 1809-1847
Felix Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn
Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, “Italian”

Felix Mendelssohn is one of a handful of composers whose families recognized and nurtured their gifts. He had inherited the intellectual gifts of his grandfather, the eminent Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, while his banker father provided all the material comforts of a young aristocrat. The Mendelssohn household was a Mecca for the intellectual elite of Germany, and the many family visitors fawned over the prodigy and his talented sister Fanny. Fortunately for the development of his rare abilities, his carefully selected teachers were demanding and strict.

One of the results of the financial security of the Mendelssohn family was Felix’s ability to travel extensively in what was then considered the "civilized" world – Western Europe and Italy. Some of his most successful orchestral compositions represent musical travelogues of such trips: the “Scottish” and “Italian” symphonies and The Hebrides Overture. An added perk to all this travel was that family connections, and Felix’s reputation as a Mozartian Wunderkind attracted the attention to his music throughout Europe. Queen Victoria herself had several audiences with the young composer, during which he play and she sang.

Traveling to Italy in 1830, Mendelssohn stopped in Weimar, where he spent two weeks talking with the forbidding grand old man of German literature, the 80-year-old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was a heady experience for the young composer, and he continued on to Italy in high spirits. He was at once completely captivated by the sights and sounds of the sunny country and wrote home “...what I have been looking forward to all my life as the greatest happiness has now begun, and I am basking in it.” He immediately set about composing the “Italian” Symphony, whose premiere he conducted in London in 1833 at the invitation of the London Philharmonic Society.

The first movement, Allegro vivace, opens with a buoyant theme reflecting the sparkle of the Italian sunshine and the young composer’s rush of excitement Example 1. The contrasting second theme is a lilting figure for two clarinets playing in parallel thirds. Example 2

The Andante con moto second movement is in a darker mood. It was composed after a visit to Naples, where Mendelssohn was greatly depressed by the poverty he saw. The doleful woodwinds and plodding staccato on the cellos and double bass may depict a religious procession he is known to have witnessed in the city streets. Example 3

The charming and graceful the Con moto moderato third movement lightens the mood again and uses the traditional scherzo Example 4 and trio form Example 5. The finale, Saltarello: presto with its driving triplets is based on the nineteenth-century folk version of a medieval Italian dance. In fact, Mendelssohn may have taken the two dance themes from folk music he had heard at a Roman carnival, in which he participated during his visit and described in detail in his letters Example 6 & Example 7. But this is one of those assumptions that is more guesswork than demonstrable fact Example 8. Both themes provide a difficult staccato workout for the upper winds reminiscent of the scherzo from the Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. The middle part of the movement, however, is dominated by a new melody for the violins, also in triplets. Example 9

It is seldom that an audience has the opportunity to hear a composer’s early drafts of a work. But that is exactly what we do hear every time we attend a concert with this popular work on the program. Mendelssohn was dissatisfied with the Symphony, never again conducted it after the premiere and refused to publish it. It is not clear what displeased him in such a joyous work; perhaps its spontaneity went against the grain of his rigid academic training. In any case, he sat down in 1834 to revise it, rewriting the three last movements and commenting in a letter that he could not get the first movement right “In any way, it has to become totally different.”

As part of the commission, the original score was left with the London Philharmonic, and it is this version, published posthumously in 1851 (hence the high opus number), that became the public favorite; the later version was included in volume 28 of the collection of Mendelssohn’s unpublished manuscripts and was performed for the first time in 1992 and first recorded in 1998.

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016