As with all performers before the era of recorded sound, it is difficult to document Weber's accomplishments as a pianist and conductor. Apart from the evidence his own piano pieces offer as to his technique and treatment of the instrument (see §11 below), there is relatively little detailed information about his piano playing, about which published reports give contradictory views. For example, while the reviews and memoirs emanating from the Harmonischer Verein, from his friends in Berlin (Lichtenstein's memoirs) and from his pupil Benedict (F1881) extol the sensitivity and poetry of his improvisation and performance, reviews of his concerts in Vienna in 1813 and 1822 are decidedly lukewarm, suggesting that Weber did not possess the brilliance and accuracy of the best Viennese pianists of the day.
His accomplishments as a conductor were more universally acclaimed, as he seems to have had a genius for getting the most out of his orchestras. In many ways Weber was the prototype for the modern opera conductor. Viewing the conductor as the ‘central point and effective soul of the whole’ (letter of 21 January 1818 to Vitzthum), he directed with a baton and arranged the podium and orchestral seating so as to facilitate his communication with both stage and pit and improve the acoustical qualities of the performance. In line with his view of opera as total theatre, he immersed himself in all aspects of production and took special interest in innovations in stagecraft, as is evident from his detailed notes on the Berlin staging of the Wolf's Glen scene in Der Freischütz (W. Becker, L1962). In principle a proponent of ‘Werktreue’ and a foe of intrusions (like inappropriate coloratura) that violate the spirit of a work, Weber was nevertheless also pragmatic enough to admit alterations that accommodated a piece to local tastes or modern audiences, like the cuts that he made in Dittersdorf's Doktor und Apotheker in Prague or his use of updated versions of Méhul's Joseph and Grétry's Raoul Barbe-bleue in Dresden. His letter to the conductor Aloys Praeger about the performance of Euryanthe shows that he also tolerated facilitations to allow a performer to convey more effectively the spirit of a work. His emphasis on spirit and feeling as the ultimate arbiters of artistic truth led him in the same letter to espouse a theory of tempo – one that he presumably followed in practice – that allowed subtle fluctuations in the pulse according to the ebb and flow of passion in the piece.
Weber: (9) Carl Maria von Weber
10. The composer.
Despite the wide currency of certain works, Weber the composer remains far less well understood than most figures of comparable stature of the 19th century. There are a number of reasons for this, beginning with the fact that scholarship failed to produce a complete critical edition of his works during the 20th century. Such an edition, however (along with critical editions of his diaries, correspondence and writings), was begun in the 1990s under the auspices of the Carl-Maria-von-Weber-Gesamtausgabe. The origins and early development of his style are clouded by the loss of most of the music composed before 1802 and by ignorance of his earliest studies. Clearly he came to know and admire Mozart's music very early, through the repertory of his family's ‘Wandertruppe’, and he continued throughout his life to profess in work and deed his allegiance to Mozart. Superficial Mozartisms abound in the early pieces, and Weber's propensity for climactic contrapuntal perorations in his mature instrumental pieces may betray a lingering influence of the finale of k551 (which Weber called the ‘crown’ of all symphonies) and that of the string quartet k387.
Yet Weber's study of Mozart and, to a lesser extent, Haydn only partly accounts for the ways in which his style developed, as his formative years also exposed him to works by numerous composers of German Singspiel and Italian opera of the later 18th century, as well as to the music of his various teachers. The sojourn in Vienna in 1803–4 doubtless marked an important turning-point, for during that time Weber probably made his first significant contact with the music of Beethoven and with the opéras comiques of Cherubini, Méhul, Dalayrac, Isouard and other French composers. And above all, the impact of Vogler at this juncture must not be underestimated, as the young composer acquired from the controversial old master not only a greater correctness in matters of harmony, part-writing and musical orthography, but also an enduring interest in folk and exotic music and, most important, a system for analysis that allowed him to understand the aesthetic basis for compositional procedures (Veit, H1990). From that time on Weber's development as a composer was essentially one of constant growth and maturation with no obvious breaks or ‘periods’ in terms of style or compositional approach; with continuous exposure to new works in a wide variety of styles and a self-imposed mandate not to repeat himself, he continued in his major works to explore and refine new means of musical expression up until the end in Oberon.
Another fundamental impediment to a full appreciation of Weber as a composer is that dominant analytic paradigms and procedures of the 19th and 20th centuries (developed mainly with reference to the music of Viennese Classical style and Beethoven in particular) do justice neither to Weber's vocal and dramatic works nor to his instrumental pieces. Despite his allegiance to Mozart, Weber did not adopt the peculiarly Viennese techniques of ‘thematische Arbeit’ or ‘durchbrochene Arbeit’. And his inability to understand the integrative devices in Beethoven's middle-period music – evident in his letter to Nägeli of 21 May 1810 where he reproaches Beethoven for lack of unity – suggests that it is futile to look for similar techniques in his own music. But to view his music therefore merely as a kind of potpourri or mosaic is unsympathetic to his professed goals of unity and clarity and belies the effect of his best works. Nor do traditional analytical models deal well with issues of paramount importance for Weber's music like ‘dramatic truth’ or the interplay of contrasting sonorities.
The documents of his compositional processes do not afford much help either. Like Beethoven, Weber usually sketched his pieces before writing them in score, and for large-scale vocal works like operas and cantatas he seems usually also to have made preliminary plans for overall tonal organization and choices of instrumentation (see his comments on the composition of Kampf und Sieg, ed. Kaiser, Sämtliche Schriften, 1908). But unlike Beethoven, Weber normally destroyed most of his preliminary drafts, and those that do survive, like the drafts for Euryanthe and Oberon, generally provide little evidence for the decision-making processes, as Weber seems mainly to have worked things out in his head and at the piano, sometimes over a long period, before writing out a draft. As implied in his comments on Cherubini's Lodoïska, he also seems to have conceived texture and sonority simultaneously with the invention of melodic content and thus was usually able to write out his scores quickly and with very few revisions. The fact that he often borrowed ideas from his earlier compositions is an aspect of the compositional process that has been little studied. Exactly how one can best discuss his music therefore remains an important issue for study. Attempts to apply Vogler's theories and the rhetorical traditions of the later 18th century, which a number of Weber's comments seem to echo, have shed some insight on Weber's approach (Veit, M1986), and Weber's own comments about composition and aesthetics, though scattered, afford further perspectives for sympathetic appraisal.
Lastly, various facets of reception history and criticism have disinclined scholars to take seriously the whole of Weber's compositional output. On the one hand critical biasses against ‘functional’ art have tended to cause scholars to overlook the large amount of occasional music, although most of Weber's music arose in conjunction with specific provocations – his own concerts, contracts with publishers, or commissions from theatres – just as had most of the music of 18th-century masters. And, as mentioned above, the way that historiography has tended to place his mature operas in general (and Der Freischütz in particular) at the centre of his output has worked against a clear and sympathetic understanding of his achievements by casting the vast majority of his works into their imposing shadow. This runs the risk of marginalizing the rest of his music as only a reflection of Weber's dramatic genius. To avoid this, the present article places the instrumental and vocal music first, in their chronological context before the major operas, which were the product of a brief but intense lifetime of observation, reflection, self-criticism and composition.