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It comes as no surprise that Carl Maria von Weber’s greatest achievements were as an opera composer. His father and mother belonged to a travelling theatrical troupe, which meant that young Carl (1786-1826) grew up in the theater. By the age of 17, he had written several pieces of theater music and had gained an appointment as music director to the provincial German city of Breslau. Weber immediately set about transforming the opera there – retiring older singers, demanding increased rehearsal time, and expanding the repertoire. Weber was poisoned as thanks for all of this hard work – he drank a glass of engraving acid doctored to look like wine. During his recuperation, the Breslau philistines who did not want to retire, rehearse, or learn new music dismantled Weber’s innovations, so the composer resigned in protest.
Weber spent the next decade moving from post to post, establishing a reputation as a concert pianist, and having a string of mildly scandalous love affairs. Finally, in 1817, he became music director in Dresden; it was during his time there that he composed his “Grand Heroic-Romantic Opera” Euryanthe, which had its premiere in Vienna in 1823. The work’s improbable story (which includes such devices as a poison ring and visitors from the spirit world) and brutal length (over four hours) made it a subject of derision, and it would be another 20 years before Europe would embrace both of these traits in the operas of Richard Wagner, whose works were made possible by Weber’s. For Euryanthe’s story, Weber and his librettist had turned to the epics of the Middle Ages, foreshadowing Wagner’s preference for such subjects on the grounds of their Germanness.
Weber crafted Euryanthe’s overture from thematic material that recurs later in the opera. Many of the motives are associated with specific characters or situations, a technique that Wagner would develop later in his own operas. The vigorous opening section contains two themes, both associated with the hero. The overture’s eerie central section is dominated by the strings, which play chillingly stark music associated with the ghost of the hero’s dead sister. The music increases in intensity before a return to the lively music with which the overture began brings it to a close.
John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA. He has also annotated programs for the Hollywood Bowl and Los Angeles Opera.