Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)

Composer

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His times: Weber’s Germany was shaped by war and upheavals both social and intellectual. In that context, Weber had to chart a careful course between the demands of emerging middle class audiences, existing aristocratic patrons and influential musical theorists. One result of that was the composer’s quest to educate the former by including vernacular styles including waltzes and folksongs in his music. Another was the composer’s emergence as a ‘prototype’ Romantic, keen to create all-powerful artworks based on broad, readily-emotional concepts. Naturally, this had a huge effect on the development of German opera.

His music: Speaking of opera, Weber’s vocal music took inspiration directly from its texts and is acutely dramatic – travelling through harmonies, keys and rhythms that are suggested by words and narratives rather than traditional compositional rules. In writing for the orchestra, Weber relentlessly mined for new sonorities; audiences were enraptured by his novel sounds and his composing colleagues were prompted to explore the orchestra and its instruments anew. Weber’s piano works – often mercilessly idiosyncratic in their tailoring to the composer’s own wide hand-span – markedly influenced the great virtuosos Liszt and Chopin and his choral music and songs generated immense popularity in Germany. All are tinged with Weberian directness, harmonic individuality and sonorous depth.

Himself: Weber had a habit of getting on the wrong side of his aristocratic patrons, often through no fault of his own – he was unfortunate, as well as physically clumsy and spindly. Illness dogged Weber throughout his short life; tuberculosis eventually killed him as he was preparing the opera Oberon in London.

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