The German Ideal

Misha Donat

  • Carl Maria von Weber: Writings on Music edited by John Warrack, translated by Martin Cooper
    Cambridge, 402 pp, £35.00, December 1981, ISBN 0 521 22892 1

The reader of this scrupulously-edited volume will look in vain for the source of the most famous critical observation attributed to Weber – made apropos of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, that its creator was now ‘ripe for the madhouse’. The remark was quoted by Anton Schindler in the revised edition of his far from reliable biographical reminiscences of Beethoven, originally published in 1840. Schindler was unable to trace the origin of Weber’s comment, and had to content himself with offering his readers the promise that it would turn up ‘sooner or later’ among the composer’s posthumous papers. He also printed an extract from Weber’s unfinished novel, Tonkünstlers Leben, in which the composer-hero dreams himself transported to a concert hall, where a furious orchestral argument is taking place:

All of a sudden the property man entered the hall, and all the instruments crept nervously back to their places, for they were aware that it was his rough hand that packed them up and took them to rehearsals. ‘What!’ he cried. ‘Rebelling again, are you? Just wait! Pretty soon they’re going to put out Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, and then I should like to see which one of you can move a limb or a key.’

  ‘Oh no! Not that!’ begged all the instruments.

  ‘Give us an Italian opera; then at least one can get twenty winks from time to time,’ said the viola.

  ‘Fiddlesticks!’ retorted the property man. ‘You’ll soon learn. In these enlightened times when all traditions are flung aside, do you think that a composer is going to deny his divine, his herculean inspiration just to please the likes of you? God forbid! It is no longer a question of clarity, preciseness, restraint and emotion, as in the old days of artists like Gluck, Handel and Mozart. No; listen to the recipe from the newest symphony that I have just received from Vienna, and then tell me what you think. First there is a slow section, full of short, disjointed ideas, none of which has anything to do with any other. Every quarter of an hour we hear three or four notes. It’s exciting! Then there is a muffled roll of drums and a mysterious viola phrase, all adorned with the right number of rests and empty bars. Finally, after the audience has given up all hope of ever surviving the tension and arriving at the Allegro, everything bursts forth in a breakneck tempo, but care is taken that no principal theme emerges, and it is up to the listener to try and make one out. Modulations from one key to another abound, but they need not give you any trouble. Just remember Paer’s Leonore: all you have to do is make a chromatic run and stop on any note you like, and there is your modulation. Above all, every rule must be disregarded, for rules only fetter genius.’

Schindler is surely right in identifying the object of the satire as the mysterious slow opening of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony (pace John Warrack, who in his introduction to the present volume raises pedantic objections as to the strict accuracy of Weber’s description of the passage in question): but it is equally clear that, far from identifying with the orchestral players of his day, Weber is actually ridiculing their stupidity. At the same time, it cannot be denied that Weber’s response to Beethoven’s genius would seem to have been at best equivocal – and that at a time when the older composer was universally recognised as the greatest musician of the age. Weber’s satire appeared in 1809, at around the same time that E.T.A. Hoffmann published the two famous Beethoven reviews in his Kreisleriana which remain to this day outstanding examples of perceptive analysis – the one on the Fifth Symphony, the other on the two piano trios Op. 70.

In his attack, Schindler also called to his aid an early letter in which Weber complained to a publisher to whom he had submitted some of his works: ‘You seem to find that in my quartet and Caprice I am an imitator of Beethoven, and flattered as many might be by this, it is not at all pleasing to me. In the first place, I hate everything bearing the stamp of imitation; and secondly, my views differ too much from Beethoven’s for me to feel I could ever agree with him. The passionate, almost incredible inventive powers inspiring him are accompanied by such a chaotic arrangement of his ideas that only his earlier compositions appeal to me, while the later ones seem to me hopeless chaos, an incomparable struggle for novelty, out of which break a few heavenly flashes of genius proving how great he could be if he would tame his rich fantasy.’

In later life, Weber more than made amends for his youthful outburst. In the summer of 1823 he conducted a revival of Fidelio at the Dresden opera house, describing it as ‘this mighty work which bears testimony to German grandeur and feeling’; and a few months later, in the company of a group of friends, he paid a fleeting visit to Beethoven in Baden. (Beethoven by this time had studied the score of Weber’s masterpiece, Der Freischütz, and had been understandably amazed by its originality and mastery. ‘I would never have thought it of such an unassuming fellow,’ he is said to have remarked.) ‘It was uplifting for me,’ Weber reported to his wife, ‘to be overwhelmed with such loving attention by this great genius. How saddening is his deafness! Everything has to be written down for him.’

Weber’s remark as to the German spirit of Fidelio is significant. He himself may be regarded as the father-figure of the nationalist movement in music that was soon to sweep across Europe; and in his position as Music Director at the Dresden opera house, he attempted to place German opera on a firm footing. To this end, he wrote his own introductory notes to the works he performed there; and it is these that form the bulk of the present collection. Unfortunately for Weber – and, indeed, for us – as an opera composer he shone alone among the mediocrity of his contemporaries, and the great majority of the works he discussed (they included a considerable number of French operas in translation, but virtually nothing from Italy) have fallen into obscurity. The names of Wenzel Müller and Joseph Weigl are known at least to Beethoven scholars, in view of his having based a variation movement on a theme by each composer (an aria from Weigl’s L’Amor Marinaro formed the starting-point of the Finale of the Clarinet Trio Op. 11, while a simple street song from Müller’s Die Schwestern von Prag scaled symphonic heights undreamed of by its creator in Beethoven’s Kakadu Variations for piano trio): but who today has heard of Bernard Anselm Weber’s Deodata, Peter von Winter’s Das Unterbrochene Opferfest, Friedrich von Drieberg’s Don Tacagno, Friedrich Himmel’s Fanchon, Anton Fischer’s Das Hausgesinde or Carl Ludwig Hellwig’s Die Bergknappen?

One opera that prompted an unusually long review was E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Undine. Weber criticised Hoffmann’s predilection for diminished seventh harmony as a means of creating superficial tension, and also found fault with his lack of musical continuity (‘a certain brusqueness in cadences’, as he put it): but he was full of praise for the unbroken magic of the music’s atmosphere, and for the strongly characterised material and instrumentation which accompanied the personage of Kühleborn, the agent of Fate. Here, surely, was the inspiration behind the famous scene in the wolf’s glen from Der Freischütz, and for the delineation of the sinister Caspar. (‘Caspar, the monster, stands solid as a house,’ was Beethoven’s reaction.) Hoffmann, in his turn, later wrote a lengthy review of Der Freischütz, which he went to see half a dozen times following its premiere on 18 June 1821. For Weber’s music he could find no words of praise too fulsome: but he was less enthusiastic about Friedrich von Kind’s libretto, which he regarded as being an offshoot of the fashionable, but cheap, supernatural novels of the day. ‘If Kind’s contribution were to be buried with them,’ he wrote, ‘posterity would have nothing to mourn; but the immortal breath of life which Weber has blown into the wonderful characters will certainly protect him from oblivion.’ Posterity, too, would share Hoffmann’s view of Der Freischütz as being, together with Fidelio, the most significant German opera since Mozart.

It was in his review of Undine that Weber formulated his idea of opera as ‘the German ideal – namely, a self-sufficient work of art in which every feature and every contribution by the related arts are moulded together in a certain way and dissolve, to form a new world’. This earliest view of a Gesamtkunstwerk was to be seized upon by Wagner, whose own musical style was so strongly influenced by that wolf’s glen scene. It was Wagner who, in 1844, arranged for Weber’s mortal remains to be transported from London to Dresden; and at the reburial ceremony he gave a speech, in which he declared: ‘Never has a more German musician lived than you. Wherever your genius led you; in every distant floating realm of fantasy, it always remained linked by a thousand tender fibres to the German people’s heart.’

Weber was well aware of his own literary shortcomings, and he expressed them succinctly enough in his marginal notes for a sketch of Tonkünstlers Leben:

I find my style highly coloured, and – because its intention is to give an exhaustive account – slightly precious and bombastic. Nevertheless, I cannot divorce myself from it, however much I may respect and be deeply devoted to the clarity of a Goethe, a Schlegel or a Tieck. Perhaps it may be my very musicality that accounts for it. The many descriptive adjectives in a language closely resemble the instrumentation of a musical idea. I am conscious of being able to reproduce such an idea with just as much clarity as I conceived it, though this is very seldom true of ideas I wish to express in words.

The ‘highly coloured’ style of Tonkünstlers Leben, then, owes less to Goethe, Schlegel and Tieck than to those two musically-influenced writers of the early Romantic movement, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Jean Paul. (Though, to be sure, the notion of the artist as hero derives from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister.) From the ‘Larventanz’ chapter of Jean Paul’s Die Flegeljahre – a chapter that was to play a prominent part in the early piano music of Schumann – Weber borrowed the idea of setting a part of the action during a masked ball; as well, perhaps, as a general fondness for cryptograms. According to Weber’s notes, the chapters of his novel were each to have been headed by a single musical note, contributing eventually to a choral cadence, and having first formed a canon al rovescio – i.e. reading the same both ways. From Hoffmann’s Kreisleriana Weber may have taken the idea of incorporating musical criticism within a fictional framework. Moreover, the fragmentary nature of Tonkünstlers Leben, with its many abrupt switches in style, possibly reflects the schizophrenia of Hoffmann’s novel Kater Murr, in which pages from the biography of the (fictional) Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler are interwoven with the life story of a cat.

As a writer on music, Weber cannot stand comparison with Hoffmann, Wagner or even Schumann: but as a reflection of the artistic aims of his age, this collection of essays presents a fascinating document. It has been fluently translated by Martin Cooper, and John Warrack’s copious editorial notes are of enormous help in piecing together a picture of that all but forgotten musical society of which Weber was the guiding spirit.