Music was Germany’s pride in prosperity and her solace in desolation. When Mme. de Staël reached Weimar in 1803 she found music an almost daily part of an educated family’s life. Many cities had opera companies, and, since Gluck, they strove to depend less and less upon Italian works and arias. Mannheim and Leipzig had orchestras famous throughout Europe. Instrumental music was rising to public competition with opera. Germany had great violinists like Louis Spohr (1784–1859), celebrated pianists like Johann Hummel (1778–1837). King Frederick William II played the violoncello so well that he took part in quartets, sometimes in orchestras, and Prince Louis Ferdinand was so accomplished a pianist that only his royal descent kept him from rivaling Beethoven and Hummel.24
Germany also had a music master renowned throughout Europe as teacher, composer, and virtuoso on almost any instrument: Abt (i.e., Abbot) Georg Joseph Vogler (1749–1814). He early won fame as organist and pianist, learned the violin without a teacher, and developed a new system of fingering, well adapted to his sesquipedalian fingers. Sent to Italy to study composition with Padre Martini, he rebelled against one teacher after another, took a turn to religion, was acclaimed in Rome. Returning to Germany, he founded a music school in Mannheim, then in Darmstadt, finally in Stockholm. He rejected the laborious methods of composition taught by Italian teachers, and promised quicker perfection. Mozart and some others thought him a charlatan, but later consideration gave him high rank, not as composer but as teacher, performer, organ builder, and man. He toured Europe as an organist, attracting enormous audiences, earning enormous fees, and improving organs. He transformed the style of organ playing, and won a contest with Beethoven in improvisation.25 He was the honored teacher of a dozen famous pupils, including Weber and Meyerbeer. When he died they mourned him as if they had lost-a father. On May 13, 1814, Weber wrote: “On the 6th our beloved master Vogler was suddenly snatched from us by death…. He will ever live in our hearts.”26
Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826) was one of the many children of twice-married Franz Anton von Weber. Of Anton’s daughters or nieces two have appeared in these volumes: Aloysia as Mozart’s first love and a famous singer, and Constanze, who became Mozart’s wife. Sons Fritz and Edmund studied with Joseph Haydn, but son Carl gave so little promise that Fritz told him, “Carl, you may become anything else you like, but a musician you will never be.”27 Carl took to painting. But in Franz Anton’s wanderings as director of a dramatic and musical troupe mostly composed of his children, Carl’s instruction in music was resumed by a devoted teacher, Joseph Heuschkel, under whom the boy quickly developed a talent that astonished and rewarded his father. By 1800, aged fourteen, Carl was composing, and giving public performances. Meanwhile, however, the hectic hurrying from town to town had some effect upon Carl’s character: he became restless, nervous, excitable, and changeful. He became so fascinated by the lithography invented by his friend Aloys Senefelder that for a time he neglected musical composition, and went with his father to Freiberg in Saxony to undertake lithography on a commercial scale. Then, early in 1803, he met Abt Vogler, took fire again, became Vogler’s pupil, and accepted a rigorous routine of study and practice. Vogler’s confidence in him spurred him on. Now he developed so rapidly that, on Vogler’s recommendation, he was invited to serve as Kapellmeister at Breslau (1804). He was only seventeen, but he accepted, and took his ailing father with him to the Silesian capital.
The youth was not fit for a post requiring not only diverse musical accomplishments but skill in the handling of men and women of all temperaments. He made devoted friends and dedicated enemies. He spent too avidly, rebuked incompetence too sharply, and drank too recklessly. Mistaking a glass of nitric acid for wine, he drank part of it before he realized that he was imbibing fire. His throat and vocal cords were permanently injured; he could no longer sing, he could with difficulty speak. He lost his position after a year; he supported himself and his father and an aunt by giving lessons. He was near despondency when Duke Eugen of Württemberg offered all three of them rooms in his Schloss Karlsruhe in Silesia (1806). But Napoleon’s disruption of Prussian territory and finances ruined the Duke, and Weber, to feed his trio, had to forget music for a while and serve as secretary, at Stuttgart, to Duke Ludwig of Württemberg. This duke was a lord of revelry, dissipation, and dishonesty, and Carl deteriorated under his influence. He developed a passionate attachment to the singer Margarethe Lang, and lost his savings and his health in losing her. He was rescued from debauchery by a Jewish family in Berlin—the Beers who were the parents of Meyerbeer. Marriage sobered him, but did not restore his health.
He won fame during the War of Liberation by putting to music the martial songs of Karl Theodor Körner. After the war he joined in another campaign—against Italian opera: he composed Der Freischütz (1821) as a declaration of independence against the roving and winning Rossini. It was first performed on June 18, 1821, the anniversary of Waterloo; it was carried high on the wings of patriotism; never had a German opera been so successful. It took its theme from the Gespensterbuch (Ghost Stories), and frolicked with the fairies who protected the “free-shooter”; Germany was, in those Grimm days, taking large helpings of fairies; soon (1826) Mendelssohn would offer his Midsummer Night’s Dream overture. Weber’s opera marked the victory of Romanticism in German music.
He hoped to continue his success with Euryanthe, which had its premiere in Vienna in 1823; but Rossini had just conquered Vienna, and Weber’s subtler music failed to charm. The failure, combined with worsening health, so depressed him that for almost two years he ceased to compose music. Then Charles Kemble, manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, offered him a thousand pounds to write an opera for Wieland’s Oberon, and to come to London and conduct it. Weber worked heartily on the task, and studied English so sedulously that when he reached London he could not only read but speak it well. At the premiere (May 28, 1825) Oberon was a wild success, which the happy author described that same evening to his wife:
I obtained this evening the greatest success of my life…. When I entered the orchestra the house, crammed to the roof, burst into a frenzy of applause. Hats and handkerchiefs were waved in the air. At the end of the representation I was called to the stage… All went excellently; everyone around me was happy.28
But further performances were not so well received, and a concert for Weber’s benefit, on May 26, 1826, was a sad failure. A few days later the depressed and exhausted composer took to his bed, stricken with acute tuberculosis; and on June 5, he died, far from home and family. The romantics die young, for in twoscore years they live their threescore and ten.