Written by Ronald Comber
Overture to Der Freischutz
Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826)
There have been few composers who have had as prominent an influence on the shape of musical development as Carl Maria von Weber, yet of all the important figures in the history of music, probably no one else has achieved lasting fame for the promise of greatness, rather than for its fulfilment. Throughout his creative life, Weber laboured mightily to reconcile three disparate elements of his existence. First, he had a vision of a new form of music-drama, based on direct emotional experience rather than on emotional effect. Second, he was, from early in his career, employed predominantly as a doctor for ailing opera companies, combining within himself the roles of musical director, administrator, and entrepreneur. And finally, yet most important in the end, he had to deal with chronic ill-health which threatened him with long periods of debilitating inactivity. By the age of 40, Weber had achieved international renown for his first successful attempts at the new style of composition, as well as for his career as a conductor-manager, but his frail constitution was taxed beyond its limits and he died the same year.
Although Weber’s demise occurred at the very time when he could have written any number of great mature works, his just-developed Romantic style became the example for composers for the rest of the century. From Schumann to Richard Strauss, music was enriched through one man’s search for musical truth.
Weber’s opera, Der Freischutz, could be said to be his greatest success. Started in July 1817, it took three years of scribbling in the spare time afforded by the complete reorganization of the Dresden Opera to finish it. The new work had a triumphant premiere in Berlin on June 18, 1821, and an equally great success in Vienna on October 3rd. It has remained in the forefront of the repertoire ever since.
The Overture is a demonstration in miniature of Weber’s powers of dramatic utterance. From the opening mood of foreboding, through the tension of the principal subject, the heroism of the counter-subject and the glamourous expectancy of the conclusion, a new force in the Romantic vision has arrived.
Concerto in E Minor for Violin & Orchestra, Op. 64
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Mendelssohn first suggested the possibility of composing a violin concerto in a letter to his Leipzig Gewandhaus concertmaster, Ferdinand David in 1838. David, thrilled with the prospect, made sure that Mendelssohn kept working on it, reminding him at every opportunity of his eagerness to perform it. Soon, however, David found that Mendelssohn was pursuing him in turn, asking for advice on the playability of every passage, for Mendelssohn, a peerless orchestrator, wished to produce a work so perfectly tailored to the instrument that it would be absolutely natural in the hands of a first-class soloist. Mendelssohn finished the Violin Concerto in September 1844, sending it off to his publisher with David’s blessing. When the proofs came back for correction, though, both composer and consultant had second thoughts. A thorough reworking followed, with David taking an active hand in the cadenzas. David gave the first performance of the Violin Concerto at the Gewandhaus on March 13th, 1845.
The Concerto is in three interconnected movements. The first movement opens with the solo violin immediately soaring into full flight – an important innovation on Mendelssohn’s part, lending an air of urgency hitherto lacking in the conventional orchestral tutti.
The second movement is a lovely wordless song with a contrasting middle section. Again a bridge passage connects the movements. This time a growing sense of urgency leads first to fulfilment, then to the start of the final modulation.
The last movement is akin to a Mendelssohn Scherzo in spirit, in spite of its Sonata form. Much lighter than the other movements, it offers musical pyrotechnics for the violin rather than violin pyrotechnics that happen to be musical.
Symphony No. 2 in C Major
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)
Schumann began sketches on his Second Symphony as part of the recovery process from a nervous breakdown brought about by overwork. The years 1843 and 1844 had been hectic; the editorship of the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, a professorship in the Leipzig Conservatory under Mendelssohn, a growing reputation as a composer, and his wife’s major concert career had led Schumann to the brink of a complete collapse.
Moving to Dresden offered him escape. Later Schumann was to tell a friend, “…I wrote my Symphony in December, 1845, and I sometimes fear that my semi-invalid state can be divined from the music. I began to feel more myself when I wrote the last movement, and was certainly much better when I finished the whole work. All the same it reminds me of dark days”.
Dark days indeed, for Schumann, having sketched the Symphony in its entirety by the end of 1845, was then unable to orchestrate it, due to the first attacks of tinnitus – the constant loud ringing in the ears that was to persecute him off and on for the rest of his days. Schumann only completed the scoring of the Second Symphony on October 19th, 1846, less than three weeks before its scheduled premiere in Leipzig on November 5th, under Mendelssohn.
The work is in four movements. The first opens with an interweaving of contrasting themes; a clear uplifting motto in the trumpets and an oddly uncertain theme in the strings, portents of things to come. The sudden incursion of the Allegro main portion of the movement leads to further emotional conflict. An aggressively double-dotted Principal Subject leads to a second Subject in a warring key. The Development raises the struggle to fevered proportions, as material from both the Introduction and the Exposition is hurled together in a series of shattering climaxes. A carefully planned sense of exhaustion heralds the triumphant defiance of the Recapitulation.
The Scherzo second movement, with two related Trios, further develops the conflict. Dominated by brilliant passage work, the movement projects frequent reminders of the opening themes from the first movement, until, at the very end, they emerge triumphant.
The Adagio slow movement is one of Schumann’s best works for orchestra. The melancholy beauty of the music, especially in the long oboe, clarinet and bassoon solos, is perfectly set in a jewel of formal construction.
The Finale, an Allegro molto vivace, provides an apotheosis in which differences are resolved. The splendid Principal Subject leads to a remembrance of melancholy in the Second Subject, derived from the slow movement’s melodic source. As the music progresses, one of Schumann’s happiest inventions is heard. The Development and Recapitulation are here combined; that is, the Principal Subject is developed and followed by a straight utterance of the Second Subject, then the Principal Subject is played straight followed by a development of the Second Subject and so on. The invention works wonderfully. The alternation of material adds a striking sense of motion to the whole, leading to an enormous Coda which ends the work with a new mood of hope.