Weber’s vocal works: More than just Der Freischütz

March 7, 2017
Ray Heigemeir
Carl Maria von Weber

Carl Maria von Weber, 6 Lieder und Gesänge, op. 66

Memorial Library of Music, MLM 1141

Guest blogger: David Wilson

Carl Maria von Weber is remembered today primarily for his opera Der Freischütz, almost to the exclusion of all else. Yet Weber was, in fact, a prolific, and widely respected composer—even Chopin, a notoriously cantankerous critic of other composers, admired Weber’s work. His compositional output includes several symphonies, chamber music, piano music, and dozens of art songs. While a few of the examples of this latter category are still performed today, many of Weber’s songs are almost completely unknown to contemporary audiences.

One such set of almost-forgotten songs is Weber’s 6 Lieder und Gesänge, op.66, the manuscript of which resides in Stanford’s Memorial Library of Music. This manuscript, in Weber’s own hand, is a very clean copy—ready, if you will, to be played or sung. At some point, this copy probably came into the possession of Friedrich Jähns, Weber’s cataloguer, as the title page contains a brief cataloging note by Jähns. The manuscript is characterized by clarity of presentation and handwriting, and the high-quality, durable paper on which it is printed. It is most probably the very score Weber assembled to send to his publisher, Schlesinger, which we can ascertain by the fact that the publisher plate number for the first printing of these songs was 1026, which has been written in a hand (and ink) other than either Weber’s or Jähns’ at the bottom of the title page.

These songs have not enjoyed extensive circulation. The only two publications of the complete opus appear to be in 1819, and as part of a larger collection of Weber songs in 1870. Subsequent editions, such as C.F. Peters’ early 20th-century printing, only published three of the songs from the set. Although these songs will be included in the critical Gesamtausgabe that has been in progress from Schott since 1998, series IV, which is to include all of Weber’s art songs, has not yet been released by the company. As only three of the six songs have been recorded, the opus as a whole remains largely unknown.

This begs the question of why they should remain so obscure. Part of it is certainly due to the fact that Weber, allegedly conservative in composing Lieder, causes him to be overlooked in favor of his almost-exact contemporary, Schubert. But is this narrative entirely convincing?

It is true that these songs show a trend towards conservative Hausmusik-centric compositional style. All of these strophic songs are clearly performable by amateur pianists and singers. But as Liedscholar Susan Youens reminds us, 19th-century German Lieder acted not as mere entertainment, but as a medium in which societal norms surrounding 19th-century familial, social, and sexual mores were performed.[1]

Hausmusik, signiert R. A. Höger, Öl auf Leinwand, 90 x 125 cm
Hausmusik, signiert R. A. Höger, Öl auf Leinwand, 90 x 125 cm

Some of Weber’s op.66 songs do exactly this. For example, the opening piece of the set, “Das Veilchen im Thale,” is a rather generic story of a flower who chooses a brief life of beauty in the sun over a long life of shady obscurity. Similarly, “Ich denk dein!” the third song, is practically a curio cabinet of German Romantic tropes: nightingales, twilight, sweet anguish, and eventual union of lovers in a distant time and place. Both songs exhibit Weber’s conservative compositional leanings, with simple, chordal or arpeggiated accompaniments, and “catchy tunes” in the vocal line.

So far, so (morally) good. However, some of the other pieces in this largely unknown opus are much harder to fit into the morally upright 19th-century Lied. Take, for example, the second song, “Rosen im Haare,” which celebrates the heady combination of alcohol and two lovers’ physical union. Or take, as another example, the fourth song in the set, a jocular piece in which the speaker looks at the flowers, at the birds, and everything around him, and desires a wife. Until, that is, he looks at women themselves, and realizes that he doesn’t want a wife, after all. Or the final piece, for bass soloist and chorus, in which the speaker’s solution to an entirely unsatisfactory world is to drink enough wine to forget.

Auerbach's Keller
The scene in Auerbach's Keller, from Goethe's Faust, is one of the most famous drinking songs in German literature.

While Weber’s songs may not have had the revolutionary oomph of Der Freischütz, they nonetheless show Weber’s flair for both vocal and dramatic writing. Furthermore, he experimented with topics and themes, seemingly attempting to expand the scope of the German Lied. Perhaps it is time to re-explore these songs, not as lesser landmarks along the paths trod by the likes of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Wolf, but rather as short detours off onto another path altogether.

With thanks to Astrid Smith, Rare Book and Special Collections Digitization Specialist, and the Digital Production Group for providing downloadable images of this item. 

David Wilson

Guest blogger David Wilson is pursuing graduate studies in musicology at Stanford University, where his main research interests concern the intersection of music and politics. He holds degrees in vocal performance and German literature.

[1] Susan Youens, “Hugo Wolf, Mädchenlieder, and the Evolution of Women in Song (lecture, Vancouver International Song Institute, June 2011).