Like other musicians active in the first decades of the 19th century, Weber lived through a volatile time marked by war, social change and intellectual upheaval. Characteristic of an era of transition, his career is marked by a number of paradoxes and contradictions that make it difficult to limit him to fixed categories. He relied quite extensively on patronage, carefully cultivating contacts with aristocrats such as Duke Eugen, Princess Stéphanie, the King and Queen of Bavaria, the Prussian royal family, Duke Emil Leopold and the Grand Princess Maria Paulovna; and despite recurring frustrations in Dresden, the last ten years of his life were filled with signs of true devotion to the royal family. At the same time, he looked to the emerging middle-class public as the more significant and stimulating audience for art in the new century. Yet he also recognized the risks presented by this anonymous, mass audience, whose tastes naturally ran more to entertainment than to serious art, especially in a period when the hardships of war led audiences to seek escape and diversion. Reluctant to compose in the commercial manner that Dussek had called the ‘selling way’, Weber chose instead to speak to this newer audience by elevating their popular styles and genres like the waltz and folksong to a higher level of artistic significance, and through his efforts as a writer and conductor he strove to educate this new audience to a higher standard of appreciation.
Equally paradoxical is Weber's relationship to early 19th-century German Romantic ideology. He has often been regarded as a (even ‘the’) leading exponent of early Romanticism in music, and much of his activity does resonate with the Romantic agenda: his emphasis on the wholeness of the art work; his insistence on the ‘characteristic’, sometimes at the expense of the ‘beautiful’; his appeal to feeling as the ultimate arbiter of the ‘truth’ of an artistic experience; his reliance on ‘romantic’ subjects (in the sense of ‘non-classical’) for his operas; and the high value that he placed on originality. But his must be regarded as a qualified Romanticism, as significant elements in his thought and work are hard to reconcile with the critical thinking of contemporaries like Hoffmann and Tieck. Nowhere in Weber, for instance, does one find the quintessentially Romantic view of instrumental music as a gateway to transcendent experience; his review of Fesca's string quartets in fact seems to assert instead the primacy of vocal music precisely because of its more direct contact with life. Weber's works, novel as they undoubtedly are in so many ways, also seem at times to go against the grain of mainstream Romanticism. The close dependence of his operatic music on text and situation as a guide for melodic, rhythmic and harmonic choices, with resultant fissures in the purely musical logic of melodic development, seems rather different from the kind of relationship between music and libretto described in Hoffmann's writings on opera. The superficially ‘romantic’ librettos of Der Freischütz and Euryanthe – texts that he not only sanctioned but helped shape – manifest strong ties to Enlightenment and Biedermeier values in their avoidance of moral ambiguities, their trust in Providence to guarantee the triumph of virtue and in their implicit support of the social status quo (Reiber, P(iii)1993; Doerner, P(iii)1993–4). And more generally, the triumphant conclusions of the vast majority of large-scale vocal and instrumental works have little in common with Romantic alienation, irony and ambivalence, betraying again a consciousness rooted in Enlightenment optimism and shaped by the Biedermeier desire to restore order to a world shaken by a generation of revolution and war.
The question of nationalism in Weber's thinking and artistic output presents another area for paradox and ambiguity. Certain features of Weber's life and personality would seem to contradict the kind of nationalist interpretation evident in Wagner's Rede an Weber's letzter Rühestätte of 1844 and implicit in the dedication of Jähns's thematic catalogue to ‘the German people’. With the exception of the emotional patriotism that he experienced along with many fellow Germans in the heady days of 1814–15, Weber mostly stayed aloof from the political issues of his time. Before 1814 his references to the Napoleonic wars primarily treat them as a nuisance impeding the pursuit of art, and the letters from the last ten years of his life contain very few references to the political conditions and climate of restoration Germany. At first glance, Weber's artistic cosmopolitanism also seems to militate against a nationalist interpretation. His operatic repertories were international, especially at Prague, where he was free to choose works from German, French and Italian traditions, and his own works drew upon the genres, forms and styles of the different national schools much as had the works of Handel, Bach and Mozart. However, various factors did combine to make Weber a potent symbol of German art and nation for his contemporaries and for later generations (W.M. Wagner, P(i)1994). In the patriotic choral songs of Leyer und Schwerdtand the folkloric Der Freischütz the German people found artistic expression of their collective experience and self-image. Cultural politics in Berlin in 1821 further helped establish Der Freischütz as a German antipode to the international grand opera style of the unpopular Spontini. Through his conflicts with the Italian opera in Dresden Weber became a prominent and outspoken advocate of the right of German opera to exist on an equal footing with the other national traditions, and in the wake of the ‘Rossini-Fieber’ of the early 1820s, Weber's operas became important rallying points for resistance to an art that Weber himself considered suspect. And Weber's seemingly cosmopolitan ideal of a German art that not only synthesizes but also deepens and extends the elements borrowed from abroad betrays more than a whiff of cultural chauvinism.
A systematic study of the reception of Weber and of his place in 19th-century music remains to be written, but certain aspects are understood well enough to give some support to Philipp Spitta's suggestion that Weber could with some justification be regarded as the most influential musician of the 19th century. Although Weber may not have been the sole ‘creator of German Romantic Opera’, his critical and organizational efforts on behalf of German opera made him the most visible proponent of the genre of his day, and with Der Freischütz he produced a work that competed successfully with popular French and Italian operas not only in Germany but in other countries as well. The impact of Der Freischütz on opera of the 1820s, 30s and 40s is evident, as it inspired a spate of gothic works like the vampire operas of Marschner and Lindpaintner, and even as late a work as Der fliegende Holländer owes much to it; outside Germany, its success as Robin des Bois prepared the way for Meyerbeer's Robert le diable. And though Euryanthe all but disappeared from the repertory of the 20th century, it is clear that this opera left a profound impression on Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. Weber's piano music was held in high esteem by his contemporaries and was demonstrably important for subsequent pianist-composers like Mendelssohn, Chopin and, above all, Liszt (Tusa, Q1999). For Berlioz Weber's music was a revelation that helped him find his own way to originality (Heidlberger, Q1994). More generally, Weber's exploration of novel sonorities significantly enriched the art of orchestration and placed a new premium on the expressive quality of sound per se. And through works like the Fourth Piano Sonata, the Concert-Stück and especially his mature opera overtures Weber pointed ahead to the poetically conceived concert overtures and symphonic poems of the mid-19th century.
At the same time, an adequate understanding of Weber's place in 19th-century music must also take into account various negative strands of reception. Contemporary resistance to anti-Classical (and arguably anti-Romantic) tendencies in much of his music is a recurring refrain that merits serious attention. Critical comments by Hegel, Grillparzer, Spohr, Schubert and even Wagner about the ‘realism’, ‘lack of melody’, and ‘mosaic’-like qualities of Weber's music point up the fact that his goals of ‘truth’ and ‘character’ occasionally produced music that was difficult to reconcile with traditional ideals of euphony, melodic-rhythmic flow and formal rounding. Thus, though his operatic successors eagerly emulated numerous effects in scoring, harmony and broad musico-dramatic structure, few seem to have been as willing as Weber to subordinate musical qualities to the goal of continuously truthful expression.
The decline of Weber's reputation and the disappearance of much of his music from the repertory also need to be studied, although one may provisionally suggest some reasons for these. On the one hand, with the triumph of Wagner's mature operas came heightened expectations of the logic of plot and character development that made Euryanthe and Oberon increasingly difficult for audiences to accept (efforts to ‘rescue’ these operas for posterity through alternative librettos have all failed); only Der Freischütz has been able to hold the stage, and even this work fared poorly in non-German theatres in the 20th century. And on the other, the emergence of Beethoven's style as the dominant paradigm for instrumental music and of Schubert's lieder as the corresponding model for German song tended to overshadow Weber's significant contributions in these areas. In this regard it seems significant that two of Weber's most prominent defenders in the 20th century were Debussy and Stravinsky, composers whose own distance from the predominantly symphonic style of 19th-century music allowed them to appreciate Weber's art on its own terms.