Weber produced a steady stream of instrumental music between the six fughettas (op.1) of 1798 and the completion of the Piano Sonata no.4 in 1822, following which his poor health and pressing commissions forced him to devote hs energies to his last two operas. The surviving instrumental works include examples in most of the major genres of the early 19th century – notably absent are the string quartet and piano trio – as well as pieces in newer genres, like concert dances for solo piano and through-composed concertante works for soloist and orchestra. Much of this music arose from Weber's specific needs as a performer or concert-giver. The piano concertos, several of the variation sets and the Rondo brillante can be directly related to his public appearances as a pianist, and the piano sonatas, designed for private performance, were also calculated for his formidable technique. His contracts with virtuosos led to concertante works for various instruments, of which the concertos for Baermann represent some of the most significant works ever written for clarinet. The symphonies (especially no.1) and the overtures figured prominently in his activities as concert-giver. And most of the surviving ‘chamber’ works – the Grand quatuor (piano quartet, which he frequently performed), the variations for piano and violin j61 and three pieces for Baermann (j128, 182 and 204) – were also largely calculated for public performance, with the result that they stand apart from Classical ideals of equal participation and ‘durchbrochene Arbeit’ by featuring a principal virtuoso soloist.
In contrast to the amount that he wrote for professional performers, Weber composed relatively little explicitly for the burgeoning amateur market: three sets of four-hand piano pieces, the six Sonates progressives for violin and piano, the Divertimento assai facile for guitar and piano, and the piano variations on a gypsy theme (j219). And though he frequently alluded to contemporary dance music throughout his compositional output, and transformed the dance itself into concert music in the two polonaises and Aufforderung zum Tanze for solo piano (see fig.3 above), he wrote only a small amount of functional dance music for home consumption, significantly distancing himself from this genre when he had his last set of dances (j143–8) published anonymously by Kühnel in 1812.
(ii) Forms and genre.
(iii) Programme music.
Weber: (9) Carl Maria von Weber, §11: Instrumental works
Stylistically, the instrumental music manifests a number of traits that are also characteristic of the vocal and dramatic works. Given the fact that his writings stress the primacy of the melodic line, it is not surprising that Weber's approach is essentially homophonic; exceptions include frequent note-against-note passages (often in fast tempo) and conspicuously contrapuntal passages normally reserved for developments and codas. He preferred diatonic melodies, often based on the notes of the triad, but these are frequently embellished with appoggiaturas and chromatic auxiliary notes. With respect to rhythm, his music demonstrates a strong predilection for dotted and dance rhythms, and pieces in triple and compound time frequently exploit cross-rhythms. A favourite melodic-rhythmic gesture is to break off an energetic line abruptly at its apex. To the tonal and harmonic conventions of the time Weber also brought personal touches, including sudden pivots from one key to another by means of diminished 7th and augmented 6th chords, unconventional harmonizations of exotic melodies (another legacy of Vogler), the use of surprising harmonic progressions for climactic effect near the conclusion of a piece, and (in the vocal pieces) unorthodox, sometimes even harsh, progressions to emphasize the poetic or dramatic content.
A major concern of Weber, throughout his music, was to maximize the technical, sonic and expressive potential of the forces. In the piano music, for instance, he took over all the typical virtuoso techniques of the period around 1800 (scales, arpeggios, double notes, trills, octaves), but his search for new techniques and sonorities led to features that set his pianism apart from the brilliant style of Hummel and other virtuosos, including techniques based on rapid arm movements (octave glissandos, fast staccato chords, leaps), widely spaced chords in the left hand for a fuller sonority, tremolos, and the combination of legato melody and staccato accompaniment in one hand. In addition to the clarinet's traditional athleticism, the works for Baermann were designed to exploit the cantabile qualities of his playing and the distinctive characteristics of the instrument's lower registers. And the multiphonics in the Concertino for horn offer a particularly recherché example of pushing an instrument to its limits. Similarly, the works for orchestra (particularly the slow movements) contain many novel, atmospheric effects, such as the juxtaposition of low strings (in Weber's ‘melancholy’ key of A major) against the high register of the soloist in the second movement of the First Piano Concerto; the combination of clarinet and three horns in the slow movement of the F minor Clarinet Concerto (no.1); and the combination of muted divisi violins and viola in the slow movement of the Piano Concerto no.2. Weber the dramatic composer later drew upon various of these sonorities in pieces like Agathe's cavatina in Der Freischütz and the ghost music in Euryanthe.
Weber: (9) Carl Maria von Weber, §11: Instrumental works
(ii) Forms and genre.
With respect to form, Weber relied on the conventions established by the later 18th century but frequently interpreted them in ways that deviate from the descriptions codified by 19th-century writers like A.B. Marx. Moreover, Weber's desire not to repeat himself led to a number of differing strategies within the conventions.
Variation forms are prominent throughout Weber's output, especially in the earlier years where they are closely associated with his needs as a performer. Thus the independent sets for solo piano and chamber combinations are generally extrovert, virtuoso pieces orientated towards public performance, as Weber played several of them (especially j53 and 141) at public concerts throughout his career; what is more, it seems likely that the solo variations on Joseph (j141) and on a Russian theme (j179) originated in public improvisations in 1811 and 1815 respectively. Variation procedures are important for a number of concertante works from his earlier years (j49, 64, 79, 94, 109, 158 and 188) and also occur as movements in each of the collections of four-hand piano music and as slow movements within the Piano Sonata no.3 and the Flute Trio. In addition, the Turandot overture, based on the lost Overtura chinesa of 1806, is essentially an orchestral theme and variations movement.
Weber's approach to variation reveals several individual traits. As to the choice of theme, only the variations on the romance from Joseph can be said to be based on a truly popular operatic melody. On other occasions Weber chose themes that pay homage to his mentors Vogler (j40 and 43) and Danzi (j64, 83 and 94 are probably based on an unidentified melody by him), or that refer to his own music (j103 and 128 are based on Silvana; j265 on the song j212). Most characteristic, however, and one of Vogler's strongest legacies to Weber, is his preference for themes drawn from folk or exotic sources, like the Chinese melody taken from Rousseau's Dictionnaire de musique for the Turandot overture, the Norwegian theme from Vogler's Polymelos for j61, and the Russian and gypsy melodies in the last two sets for solo piano. Various formal strategies are also characteristic. Following his studies with Vogler in 1803–4 (and a probable encounter with Beethoven's variations op.34), Weber tended to exploit higher degrees of tempo and character contrasts between successive variations (Veit, H1990). From this period on the variations normally conclude with codas or finales that extend the last variation into an elaborate, developmental peroration; moreover, the variations for piano on a Russian theme begin with an impressive introduction that adumbrates not only the theme but also the variation techniques that will be used in the course of the piece, perhaps a notated reflection of the kind of ‘Fantasie’ with which Weber would normally preface the performance of variations in public. And in the Turandot overture and the variation movements or sections within the larger cyclic works strict variation procedures are interrupted with interpolated codettas and episodes that develop aspects of the thematic material more freely.
With two prominent exceptions (j64 and 279), the large cyclic works (those in three or four movements) begin with movements in so-called sonata form, which also provides the basis for most of the overtures. Because of their superficial proximity in time to the masterworks of the Viennese school, these movements are among the least appreciated in Weber's output, since, on the one hand, they demonstrate few of the high Classical style's motivic and textural complexities that are favoured by most analytic methodologies, and, on the other, they do not demonstrate the extravagant experimentation associated with Beethoven's music. The distance from the Viennese style is particularly evident in transitional passages and developments, where Weber's preference was to juxtapose and vary complementary and contrasting musical ideas rather than elaborate a small number of themes and motifs systematically in the manner of Haydn and Beethoven. Yet Weber's sonata-style movements offer a number of points of interest and certain of his experiments were in fact influential in their own right.
For example, the sonata-form movements contain a fairly wide range of strategies for presenting and interrelating the principal themes. Some of them (e.g. the first movements of the Symphony no.2, the Piano Quartet, the Clarinet Quintet and the Piano Sonata no.3) approximate the Beethovenian-Marxian paradigm with strong thematic contrast between the two main tonal areas of the exposition; this is also the norm in the opera overtures, which typically draw their thematic substance from vocal pieces in the opera. But other movements, like the opening movements of the first and fourth piano sonatas, reduce the contrast between the so-called first and second themes and instead stress contrasts within the first theme itself, or between the first theme and the ensuing transition, that are then developed in the subsequent themes (Veit, M1986; Quintero, M1996). Similarly, the first movements of the concertos, though generally dependent on the traditional alternation of tutti and solo sections, tend to reduce the amount of material that is literally shared between orchestra and soloist. In the majority of the concerto movements in double exposition form the orchestra presents only a ‘pre-form’ of the music that will be more fully given by the soloist, and in the First Clarinet Concerto there is very nearly a complete separation of the orchestra's rather martial, triadic themes from the plangent, drooping melodies (marked ‘con duolo’) of the soloist.
The recapitulations and codas of Weber's sonata-style movements are also interesting as he employs a number of strategies for surprise and variation. The first movements of the Symphony no.1, Piano Sonata no.1 and the F minor Clarinet Concerto, and the overture Der Beherrscher der Geister elide the end of the development and the start of the recapitulation so that the definitive return to the tonic key does not coincide with the restatement of the opening theme. The recapitulation of the Flute Trio reverses the order of the first and second themes. Many of Weber's recapitulations – which generally are quite compressed in comparison with their respective expositions – and/or codas play out strongly teleological trajectories to bring about a sense of catharsis or climax in the latter stages of a piece. The first movements of the Piano Quartet, the First Piano Concerto and the Piano Sonata no.3 seemingly follow Beethoven by offering a heroic reinterpretation of the principal theme at the start of the recapitulation. The simultaneous combination of themes originally presented separately (perhaps inspired by the first movement of Mozart's F major keyboard sonata k533) affords a kind of intellectual climax in the recapitulation of the First Piano Concerto and in the coda of the Clarinet Quintet. A number of movements have significant codas that build tension just before the end by delaying a strong structural cadence to the tonic. Most characteristic of all is Weber's technique of reinterpreting a lyrical secondary theme heroically in the recapitulation; first appearing in the overture Der Beherrscher der Geister of 1811 and particularly associated with the overtures to the last three operas, where this kind of transformation conveys obvious programmatic connotations, this effect of apotheosis left a strong impression on later composers, most notably on Liszt's understanding of sonata form.
Weber's slow movements also betray a composer who bridges past and future. A number of them focus in traditional fashion on cantabile melody, with vocal models like the romanza or lied very close to the surface in cases like the Second Clarinet Concerto and the Flute Trio. But others, like those of the Piano Quartet and the Second Piano Concerto, eschew traditional lyricism and periodic melody in favour of a more atmospheric, ‘speaking’ or fantasy-like approach that assigns a greater role to gestural and sonic qualities than to melodic continuity per se. Formally, Weber's slow movements tend towards sectional structures that juxtapose pronounced contrasts of style and character. The ternary forms of the Piano Quartet and the slow movement of the Grand pot-pourri, for instance, follow the Romanze of Mozart's D minor piano concerto by combining slow outer sections in a major key with a faster middle section in a minor key. Weber's slow movements also include examples (j50, 114, 138 and 199) that juxtapose three or more contrasting elements. The first three sections of the slow movement of the First Piano Sonata, for instance, present in succession warm chordal writing, an ornate bel canto melody and an ominous rhythmic ostinato; the movement concludes with a varied reprise of the opening section that synthesizes these three characters.
For his dance-like movements Weber preferred quick tempos, irrespective of whether he designated them ‘Minuetto’ or ‘Scherzo’. Here Weber approximates Beethoven's notion of the scherzo as a large triple-metre movement in which the humour implied by the title normally accrues through cross-rhythms, hypermetrical irregularities and other disturbances of the basic motion. Trios are normally more relaxed and are often cast as waltzes or ländler.
The finales of Weber's cyclic works generally look back to 18th-century notions of the finale as an entertaining, good-natured piece, a lieto fine rather than a cathartic summation and transcendence of the entire cycle. Here are witty duple-metre pieces (j50, 182), grazioso finales in the tradition of Mozart and early Beethoven (j199), and perpetual-motion pieces (for instance the finale of j138). The dance is once again important, informing both entire movements (the Polacca in j118 and the exotic Tarantella of j287) and significant dance-like episodes within movements (j51, 98 and 206).
Although some of the finales employ sonata form (j50, 76 and 259), Weber's preference was to conclude the cycle with a rondo. Most of Weber's finales synthesize rondo form with features of sonata form, such as modulation to a related key for the first episode and developmental episodes, but here again one can observe a certain distance from the Classical sonata-rondo of Mozart and Beethoven. In many examples no theme other than the refrain ever appears in the tonic, whereas in others (e.g. Piano Concerto no.1) Weber chose the second episode rather than the first as the one to be subjected to the ‘sonata principle’ (i.e. the recapitulation in the tonic of a secondary theme initially presented in a related key). Like the first movements, the finales also have their own teleological trajectories, reaching a climax at or near the end through conspicuous counterpoint (j64, 76, 98, 206), through a prolonged resolution of the final structural cadence (j138), or through a boisterous final presentation of a rondo's refrain (j287). A recurring tactic in the concertos especially is the initiation of the last statement of the refrain with a solo presentation over a dominant pedal that is forcefully resolved by a loud tutti presentation of the same theme.
In terms of the overall organization of the three- and four-movement cycles, Weber was generally quite conservative, preferring to separate the movements rather than run them together with attacca connections and avoiding the obvious inter-movemental quotation pioneered by several of Beethoven's middle-period works. To achieve a sense of wholeness his cycles instead normally contain features that subtly cross-reference the component movements: for instance, the similar contours in the opening themes of the first two movements of j50; the rhythmic jest that carries across the last two movements of j51; the G minor outbursts at the respective midpoints of the first two movements of j76; the emphasis on C major as an antipode to E minor in three of the four movements of j287; and the textural, expressive, melodic and formal resemblances between the first, second and fourth movements of j199. But one can also adduce many forward-looking features in the way that Weber organized his cycles. For instance, two of the smaller concertante works, j94 and j109, end in a key other than the one in which they start; such ‘progressive’ or ‘directional’ tonality (a feature normally associated with composers like Chopin and Wagner) also occurs in the Preciosa overture and a number of the songs. The underrated Grand pot-pourri for cello and orchestra and the famous Concert-Stück for piano and orchestra present novel alternatives to the traditional three-movement concerto, as both are large-scale four-movement works in which, unusually for Weber, the component parts do run together without break and, what is more, dispense with traditional first-movement form.
Weber: (9) Carl Maria von Weber, §11: Instrumental works