Weber's friendship in Stuttgart with the librettist F.C. Hiemer led to his first operas that enjoyed significant circulation to German theatres, Silvana (composed 1808–10) and Abu Hassan (1810–11). Of these, the three-act Silvana is the more ambitious but less even work. That its chivalric plot is a reworking of the old Waldmädchen story is all but certain, and even with Hiemer's revisions the libretto still betrays its origins as a heterogeneous ‘heroic-comic opera’ (as it is designated in the first edition of the piano score). Thus alongside the love-versus-duty conundrum faced by the principal aristocratic characters Rudolf and Mechtilde is an old-fashioned buffo bass in the part of the squire Krips; emblematic of the unevenness of the libretto, however, is the fact that Krips, so prominent in Act 1, has only one piece throughout the remainder of the opera. For ambience the libretto also stresses features like the forest and medieval court pageantry that justify its designation in other sources as a ‘romantic’ opera.
Musically, Silvana deploys a mixture of genres and styles typical of German opera in general and ‘heroic-comic’ opera in particular (apart from the word ‘renovata’ on the autograph of the overture there is little evidence of the extent to which Weber's music might also draw upon the earlier opera). The vocal styles range from that of comic and popular song to italianate bravura singing, and the solo numbers consist of strophic pieces, generally assigned to Krips and to aspects of the ambience of the drama, as well as large-scale multi-tempo aria forms for the serious characters. By Weber's own admission, the new arias for Rudolf and Mechtilde for the Berlin production of 1812 marked an important stage in his development as a composer of arias. Different kinds of ensembles are also present, including an Introduzione and multipartite finales for Acts 1 and 2. For the title character, who is voluntarily mute until the dénouement, Weber wrote a number of formal dances as well as pieces that coordinate mime with expressive orchestral playing, such as no.7 and no.12; the former of these is in effect a ‘duet’ in which she replies to the singing Rudolf through gestures largely accompanied by solo cello. Hunting scenes (Act 1) and court pageantry (Act 2) provide ample opportunity for the use of chorus and stage instruments, and the opera concludes with a lengthy torch dance.
The one-act comic opera Abu Hassan is an altogether less pretentious work, but perhaps for that reason it more fully matches dramatic and musical interest; fittingly, it is the earliest of Weber's operas to have enjoyed a modest, but more or less continuous performance history. The plot, taken from The Thousand and One Nights, is the story of the title character and his wife Fatime, who feign their deaths in order to collect burial funds that will enable them to pay off their considerable debts; the comical treatment of this subject may well have been inspired by Weber's own unhappy experiences with creditors in Breslau and Stuttgart. Through its economy of means (demanded in part by the small scale of the work) the opera exemplifies a level of maturity that Weber attained with his second period of study with Vogler in 1810. Though the opera falls into the tradition of ‘Türkenoper’, it makes relatively little use of so-called Turkish music and other exoticisms, confining these to the overture (to set the couleur for the entire work) and the final two pieces (which bring the Caliph on to the scene). Instead, the focus falls on the love between Hassan and Fatime, who are treated as sentimental but clever characters, more like Figaro and Susanna than Belmonte and Konstanze.
Weber: (9) Carl Maria von Weber, §13: Operas
(iii) Mature operas.
The great leap forward from Abu Hassan to Der Freischütz is less a matter of style or compositional technique than of clarification in Weber's thinking about the problems of opera in general and German opera in particular. The six-year gap between the completion of Abu Hassan and the start of work on Der Freischütz allowed Weber as a critic and conductor to reflect upon questions of character, dramatic truth and wholeness as they pertained to the lyric stage and to find in works that he admired – Mozart's operas, the opéras comiques of Méhul and Cherubini, Beethoven's Fidelio, Spohr's Faust and Hoffmann's Undine – models for realizing his goals.
With Friedrich Kind's libretto for Der Freischütz Weber finally had the basis with which to implement his mature conception of opera as total theatre. Drawing principally upon Johann August Apel's novella Der Freischütz: eine Volkssage (1810), about a hunter who bargains with demonic forces to obtain magic bullets, Kind, in close collaboration with Weber, developed a story depicting the conflict of the sharply opposed worlds of good and evil. The story plays out against a rustic 17th-century backdrop, a Bohemian village set in a forest that is similarly dichotomous: whereas the forest beneficially provides the livelihood for the community, it can also be unholy, as the darkest part of the forest, the Wolf's Glen, is a locus for demonic activity and the place where the protagonist, Max, obtains the magic bullets from the demon Samiel in a spectacular nocturnal scene filled with ghostly apparitions and novel stage effects inspired by popular theatre (Newcomb, P(iii)1995). Apel's novella abuts on a tragic ending, but the Biedermeier, moralizing sensibilities of Kind (and presumably also Weber) lead their version to a happy ending, as the childlike trust in Providence of Max's bride Agathe averts disaster and reaffirms the social order (Reiber, P(iii)1990, 1993).
Like Silvana, Der Freischütz exhibits a wide diversity of types and styles, a fact signalled in the autograph score by Weber's polyglot designations of pieces according to the national origin of the type (see the edition, with facsimile of the autograph, by Georg Schünemann; P(iii)1942). The large-scale scene ed arie of Agathe and Max, for instance, reveal a composer knowledgeable of recent Italian developments that he appropriates and modifies. But, more than before, the diverse elements are deployed in ways that reinforce the central dramatic lines of development. As the critic and theorist J.C. Lobe (P(iii)1855) pointed out in an essay allegedly based on an interview (probably apocryphal) with the composer, Weber developed an overall ‘Kolorit’ for the opera by delineating musically, in conjunction with visual details, the two sharply opposed dramatic spheres. The world of simple rustic virtue and trust in God is treated primarily in a lyrical fashion that is rhythmically square, euphonious, consonant, diatonic and in the major mode. The purest examples of this type approximate to folk music (in which Weber was immersed during 1817–1818 with the composition of the folksong settings of opp.54 and 64) and the chorus no.14 is actually designated as a ‘Volkslied’. A.W. Ambros (J1860) identified another simple piece, the Act 1 march, as a borrowing from a popular march that was current in Prague in the early 19th century.
In contrast, the powers of evil are consistently characterized through antitheses to the foregoing: minor mode, dissonance, chromaticism, rhythmic disturbance and unusual sonorities (e.g. flute and clarinet in their lowest, ‘hollow’, registers) in conjunction with vocal styles that are either non-cantabile, inappropriate (like the coloratura for the bass-baritone villain Caspar), or not even song at all. In the Wolf's Glen scene, for instance, the invisible spirits sing on a monotone, and song is denied altogether not only to Samiel but eventually also to Max, who ceases to sing as he descends into Samiel's realm. Features that cut across this dichotomy serve to characterize the overall ambience, like strophic form, which is taken up as an emblem of folk life both by the villagers and by Caspar (but to very different effect), and the sound of the horns, which characterize not only the hunting activities of Max's colleagues but also the demonic ghostly huntsmen in the Act 2 finale. Max also cuts across the dichotomy, inasmuch as he is caught between the two spheres; his multi-sectional scena ed aria, for instance, juxtaposes the demonic style in sections pertaining to his current despair with more lyrical sections devoted to thoughts about the past and Agathe.
A number of technical means also serve to reinforce the wholeness and character of the work. Following Spohr and the French composers, Weber made extensive use of reminiscence motifs in order to overcome the potential autonomy of the individual piece. Of these the most important by far is the ‘Samiel chord’ used to mark appearances and invocations of the demon. In an entity that is rather more a distinctive sound than a motif, evil is defined through syncopation, hushed and dark sonority, tremolando, the absence of melodic motion and the dissonance of a diminished 7th chord tied to a particular set of pitch classes (F, A, C, E). As writers since Waltershausen (P(iii)1920) have pointed out, this harmonic feature influences the tonal choices in the Act 2 finale, the famous Wolf's Glen scene, an unprecedented complex of gestural, scenic and orchestral interaction (with relatively little singing) in which the principal, tritone-related keys of F minor and C minor are supplemented by E major (at the point of Max's arrival) and A minor (at the apparition of Agathe and at the start of the casting of the bullets). In general, following principles enunciated in his commentary on Kampf und Sieg, Weber chose keys in ways that balance traditional affective connotations (like the association of C minor with tragedy or E major with the divine) with structural and vocal-technical demands. And to greater extent than any of his earlier overtures, the Freischütz overture creates an emotional and intriniscally musical synopsis of the drama, by presenting, juxtaposing and developing within the conventions of sonata form various theme complexes, largely drawn from the opera, that embody two sharply contrasting spheres, and by resolving the implied conflict through thematic apotheosis of the ‘second theme’ into a sonic image of triumph.
The two completed operas written after Der Freischütz are built from similar principles; inasmuch as their ambience and dramatic issues are quite different, however, they differ profoundly from the earlier opera and each other with respect to style and Kolorit. The invitation to compose an opera for Vienna, the operatic centre of the German-speaking world, encouraged Weber to conceive his next opera, Euryanthe, on a far larger scale. Designated in most authentic sources as a ‘grosse romantische Oper’, the work combines the defining attribute of ‘grand opera’ as Weber understood it, the technique of through-composition (normally associated with classical subjects), with various attributes of the newer ‘romantic’ opera such as a medieval setting with a supernatural component and a high degree of structural and genre variety (Tusa, P(v)1991).
Although seriously flawed in certain respects, Helmina von Chézy's libretto nevertheless allowed Weber to realize ideals of organic wholeness and ‘Totaleffekt’ even more thoroughly than in Der Freischütz. Like its predecessor, Euryanthe involves distinct dramatic spheres with contrasting musical colours. The overarching world of medieval chivalry is suggested by a level of seriousness, artifice, elegance and brilliance not found in Der Freischütz. Against this chivalric background the dramatic and musical opposition of good and evil is once again crucial to the dramaturgy, the former represented by the troubadour-knight Adolar and his beloved, Euryanthe, and the latter by Lysiart and his accomplice Eglantine. Another dramatic plane is inhabited by the ghost of Adolar's sister Emma, the principal element added by Chézy and Weber to the original plot. Slow, chromatic and seemingly aimless music for divisi muted violins and violas characterizes the ethereal but restless existence of a spirit condemned to eternal wandering; with Emma's redemption at the end of the opera, however, this music is transformed into a diatonic form.
While Euryanthe's dependence on Der Freischütz is evident in a number of ways, there are also features in the later opera that go beyond its predecessor. Weber himself noted in his correspondence with Brühl the more active role for the chorus in Euryanthe. The larger-than-life passions elicit a higher degree of chromaticism throughout the opera than in the earlier work. Because of its through-composed status as a ‘grand opera’, the tonal organization and instrumentation of Euryanthe were planned with greater ingenuity than ever, and groups of pieces often form extended scene complexes with a clear sense of dramatic and musical progression towards a local climactic goal (e.g. nos.1–4, 12–13, 17–20). And where dialogue separates the formal pieces, Weber composed a flexible, expressive type of accompanied recitative that has little in common melodically or harmonically with conventional approaches to recitative (A.A. Abert, P(v)1967).
As already noted, Euryanthe's failure to capture the public's imagination was a source of bitterness and puzzlement for Weber. In retrospect, however, it is easy to identify some of the causes for its fate. Unquestionably the obscurities and logical lapses in the libretto caused much ambivalence towards the opera. But contemporary reception also suggests that audiences of the day did not always warm to its music either. On the one hand, the opera's selfconscious distancing from the tuneful, popular folk music style of numbers in Der Freischütz doubtless disappointed many listeners. And on the other, Weber's attempts to express every nuance of feeling through characteristic details of melodic shape, instrumentation and harmonic progression worked against the kind of melodic and rhythmic ‘flow’ that operagoers of the time, an age dominated by Rossini, wished to hear. For Franz Grillparzer, Weber's harshest critic, the music to Euryanthe ceased altogether to be music because it did not allow melody to grow out of itself in an ‘organic’ way, and even the mature Wagner in Oper und Drama (1850–51) felt compelled to criticize the ‘mosaic’ qualities of the melodic construction.
In accepting a commission from Covent Garden in London, Weber virtually guaranteed that his last opera, Oberon, would stand apart in many ways from his earlier efforts. Behind J.R. Planché's libretto, based principally on Wieland's romance of 1780, lay a tradition of English opera more closely allied to 18th-century popular theatre than to contemporary continental opera, a concept of theatre orientated more towards visual spectacle than the musical realization of action and conflict (Warrack, P(vi)1976). The plot involves a large number of non-singing roles and the main developments take place primarily in spoken dialogue. In such a conception, music is largely relegated to incidental functions that establish ambience and character and draw attention to scenic effects (Dahlhaus, P(vi)1986), although it must be said that Planché's libretto accorded music a greater role than most English librettos of the time. Obvious parallels with Die Zauberflöte point up further ties to the 18th century: the disposition of the four principal characters into two pairs of lovers, heroic (Reiza and Huon) and comic (Fatima and Sherasmin) respectively; exotic settings (Baghdad and Tunis); magical effects and scene transformations; a magic instrument (Oberon's horn) that on more than one occasion saves the principal characters from harm; and the Enlightenment theme of human perseverance in the face of severe trials.
Despite its distance from Weber's ideals of romantic opera as total theatre, Planché's libretto nevertheless played directly to many of his strengths as a composer. For example, it gave him the opportunity to delineate three distinctive musical spheres through music of great originality and charm: a Western-chivalric style, associated primarily with Huon of Bordeaux and the music of Charlemagne's court in the third act, builds on the courtly style of Euryanthe; the Islamic courts of Baghdad and Tunis are characterized not only by the traditional Turkish instruments but also by Egyptian and Turkish melodies that Weber found in books in the Royal Library in Dresden; and for the realm of elves and nature spirits Weber invented soundscapes of unprecedented lightness and transparency, such as the gossamer music of the opening fairy chorus, the ethereal music for mermaids and fairies in the Act 2 finale, and the recurring music for high flutes and clarinets that accompanies Oberon himself. The libretto's specification of music as an accompaniment to scenic effects also prompted some of Weber's most striking music, like the powerful storm scene in Act 2 and the majestic ‘Ocean’ aria, Weber's most fluid adaptation of scena ed aria form (Schmierer, P(vi)1986).
Although Oberon remains true to Weber's goals of dramatic truth and Kolorit, certain features in the compositional approach do seem different from the earlier operas; however, in the absence of further operas it is difficult to know whether such differences arose primarily from the character and demands of the libretto, from a desire to make concessions to specific singers and to an English audience that Weber probably considered unsophisticated by continental standards, or from new impulses in his artistic development that death prevented him from pursuing further. For example, the amount of coloratura in the music for Reiza and Huon is greater than one might expect on the basis of the preceding operas, where bravura singing had been principally associated with the rage of Caspar, Lysiart and Eglantine. The musical style of Oberon is on the whole more tuneful, less chromatic and less dissonant than Euryanthe, more ‘Classical’, doubtless a consequence of the libretto but perhaps also a reaction on Weber's part to various criticisms of the earlier work. The motivic approach is arguably also different from any of the preceding operas. The storm music is developed quite symphonically, the degree of motivic elaboration in Oberon's aria (no.2) has few precedents in any of Weber's earlier vocal pieces, and even the simple way that the Mermaids’ Song develops its accompaniment from a persistent horn motif is unusual for Weber. And as Jähns noted in 1871, the opera points towards a more subtle use of leitmotif technique, as the stepwise rising 3rd with which both of the borrowed ‘exotic’ melodies begin is easily related to the opera's most important leitmotif, the call of Oberon's horn, and can be traced in a number of other pieces as well.