Any attempt to come to terms with Weber must start with the fact that one work, Der Freischütz, has tended to overshadow his many other accomplishments. What Weber feared as early as 1822 did come to pass. But to focus one-sidedly on Weber as the creator of Der Freischütz does little justice to an individual who did not dwell single-mindedly on opera. As early as 1810 Weber consciously cultivated an image as a musician who combined composition in a variety of genres with performance, aesthetic reflection and criticism, and to these talents must be added his remarkable skills as conductor and opera organizer. Contemporary evidence demonstrates the extent to which this image of universal achievement was accepted. What is more, to view Weber's accomplishments primarily through the prism of Der Freischütz obscures the ways in which his career reflected various cultural and social cross-currents in the German-speaking world of his day, like the shift of patronage from the aristocracy to the bourgeois market-place, the role of the press in shaping the opinion of the new musical public and the emergence of a new compositional aesthetic from late 18th-century sources.
As the polemic surrounding the production of Das Waldmädchen in Freiberg attests, Weber learnt at a tender age the power of the press, and throughout his life he took up the pen for a variety of practical and idealistic reasons: as a source of income, to promote his own artistic activities and those of his own associates, to raise the level of critical discourse about music, to educate largely bourgeois audiences to an appreciation of ‘the good’ and on occasion to express poetic urges. The correspondence with Thaddäus Susan from 1802 to 1804 reveals collaborative plans for the founding of a musical journal and for a history of the Viennese theatre; however, from this period survive only a few entries that made their way into Gerber's Neues … Lexikon der Tonkünstler (Kaiser, K1910). Although the last year in Stuttgart witnessed the production of a few essays and the start of his novel, it was his life as a freelance musician from 1810 to 1812 that led Weber to turn regularly to writing as a source of much-needed income and as a way to further the goals of the Harmonischer Verein. From this period also date a number of ambitious but unrealized plans: a new journal, a handbook for touring musicians, a biography of Vogler and a larger study of aesthetics. After a hiatus during his first two years as conductor in Prague, Weber resumed writing in late 1815 with ‘dramatic-musical notices’ in the k.k. priv. Prager Zeitung, brief essays about new operas designed to overcome what he perceived as unresponsiveness in the Prague audiences. In Dresden he continued from 1817 to 1820 to publish such introductions in the Abend-Zeitung, fully aware that his efforts ran the risk of being misconstrued as an attempt to prejudice audiences only to his point of view. During the years 1815–20 Weber also produced a substantial number of reviews for the Prager Zeitung (1815–16), a lengthy explanatory essay about his cantata Kampf und Sieg (1816) and various essays for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, including the important review of Hoffmann's Undine (xix, 1817, cols.201–8).
Beyond the expository prose, two other sources provide important insight into his views on music, culture and society. First, Weber produced a number of items of poetry and fictional prose, of which the most significant by far was his unfinished novel Tonkünstlers Leben. Drawing inspiration from Hoffmann and Jean Paul, Weber worked sporadically on Künstlerleben (its original title) between 1809 and 1820, conceiving it as a forum for discussion of social and aesthetic issues in modern music and opera. The loosely constructed plot, to the extent that one can be inferred from the extant sources, is quasi-autobiographical, as the life, professional career and attitudes of its musician-protagonist are strikingly similar to those of Weber himself. Second, his extensive correspondence not only provides indispensable biographical information but also frequently sheds important light on his critical perspectives and artistic goals.
Various factors converged around 1820–21 to cause Weber to stop writing reviews and ‘dramatic-musical notices’ and to turn over his unfinished novel to Friedrich Kind. The hostility with which some of his literary efforts were greeted in Dresden, especially his comments on Meyerbeer's Emma di Resburgo in early 1820, was a source of profound disillusionment. His declining health led him to see the need to conserve his strength and time for his own projects. And finally, his breakthrough to widespread celebrity as a composer with Der Freischütz in 1821 seems to have made it harder for him to appear publicly as a judge of other composers’ music.
Weber's writings deal with a number of crucial issues in early 19th-century music, such as the relationships between artist and society (particularly the problems of the touring virtuoso), the function and nature of criticism, and new developments in instrument construction. His numerous writings on opera, based on extensive knowledge of repertory and years of experience in the theatre, are of exceptional interest. For instance, they reveal his perspectives on various genres and national schools of opera. In Weber's writings French opera, as found especially in lighter works by Boieldieu, Dalayrac and Isouard, is seen to give priority to verbal, dramatic and intellectual values. In contrast, Weber regarded Italian opera as more passionate and more melodically orientated, although in his view it had declined in recent years, especially in the works of Rossini and his followers, into merely sensuous delight with little substance. As Weber saw it, the ideal of German opera was to synthesize the melodic and expressive qualities of the older Italian style and the French concern for drama and declamation with traditional German mastery of harmony and instrumentation and a purported German inclination towards seriousness and depth of feeling. But he also articulated serious weaknesses in German opera, including its difficulty in developing a strong identity, the lack of experienced librettists, the superhuman demands placed on German singers by the cosmopolitan repertory of German theatres and the relatively weak institutional support afforded it by theatre managements.
Given the fact that Weber's discussions of art are, for the most part, scattered throughout letters, brief essays and the disconnected chapters of the unfinished novel, it is hardly surprising that they do not develop a systematic and consistent aesthetic or theoretical viewpoint. But they do offer a number of important hints about his understanding of art and his goals as a composer. For a figure often considered representative of early Romanticism in Germany, many of his views seem quite old-fashioned. Thus for Weber music is a language of the passions whose principal goal is to arouse the feelings of the listener. His writings abound with references to the 18th-century principle of variety within unity and his language retains many concepts derived, probably through Vogler, from traditional rhetorical approaches to music. His comments on harmony and modulation reveal a fairly conservative bent, as he criticizes composers for abrupt or unwarranted modulations that destroy the sense of key or are not matched to changes in feeling. And though he encourages young composers to cultivate all genres of composition, his comments on the string quartets of Friedrich Fesca (AMZ, xx, 1818, cols.585–91) imply the traditional primacy of vocal music, inasmuch as he considers it to be more deeply immersed in human activity than are the genres of instrumental music.
At the same time, Weber's writings manifest a number of newer or more individual ideas. Various comments about influence and emulation and about composers (like Joseph Weigl) who tended to repeat themselves demonstrate the importance that he attached to originality, not as an end in itself but as the only way by which art and the artist could progress along new paths. Although he collected dozens of treatises, he criticized traditional music theory for its inability to correlate prescriptions and prohibitions for compositional technique with his own goals of expression. He abhorred ‘imitation’ of non-musical effects, and his remarks on vocal music make it clear that he sought to express through music not the words themselves but rather the feeling behind them.
Especially prominent in his writings are interrelated concepts of truth, character and wholeness. By ‘truth’ Weber generally seems to mean the projection of appropriate feeling, either in composition or in performance. ‘Character’ is almost synonymous, although in stressing the maintenance of character throughout a work Weber implies that it is a more permanent quality residing in the work itself, encompassing its individual components (e.g. ‘characters’ in an opera) as well as the overall mood, atmosphere or ‘colouring’ (Kolorit, Farbengebung) of the entire piece. And a strongly delineated and pervasive character contributes to the oft-mentioned goal of wholeness, which entails both the integration of all the utilized means (melody, harmony, orchestration, verbal and scenic means, etc.) into a ‘Haupt- und Totaleffekt’ as well as the ‘organic’ subordination of successive parts and details to the whole.