Today, the name Carl Maria von Weber is synonymous with Romanticism with a capital ‘R.’ He made two important contributions to the Romantic movement in music, which emphasized imagination over order and explored the inner emotional world of the artist: his magic opera Oberon (1826) and his supernatural opera Der Freischütz (1821-1822). The latter, especially, with its eerie Wolf’s Glen scene evoking the depths and darknesses of Germany’s forests and its lusty characterization of the festivals and hunts of their inhabitants, became the banner behind which Romantics from Berlioz to Wagner rallied after the opera’s Berlin premiere.
The vast majority of Weber’s other works evince little of this desire to capture the essence of evil and evoke the supernatural in music. His two symphonies, with their folksy charm and good humor, are closer to Haydn than to the heaven-storming Beethoven . (In fact, Weber studied with Haydn’s brother Michael.) Weber’s piano music is, for the most part, of the virtuoso variety, concerned more with the display of his talents at the keyboard than with any metaphysical meditations. And his chamber music conjures up the warmth and comfort of a middle class drawing room more than it does the vision of a haggard genius furiously scribbling music in an icy garret. His most famous works in the genre – he composed a total of 14 chamber works – are those featuring the clarinet, the Clarinet Quintet and the Grand Duo Concertant for clarinet and piano. The mellow tones of the clarinet and Weber’s elegant, cultivated writing for the instrument evoke Biedermeier comfort and gemütlichkeit rather than the highly personal and emotional style we think of today as Romanticism.
The Trio in G minor for flute, cello, and piano, written in 1818-19, is entirely in this vein. Ah, but it’s in G minor, you say, so there must be a little bit of storm and stress along the way! Well, the work begins in this key, with the cello, then the flute, introducing the first theme over a piano obbligato, but Weber makes it clear that he doesn’t intend to linger in the minor for long. For the second theme, he abandons the minor mode. The exposition closes with an exuberant gesture tossed about among the three instruments. The brief development section works through fragments of the thematic material before a shortened recapitulation brings back the second theme. Just when the movement seems ready to end, Weber – in a witty little coup de théâtre that gives a taste of the opera composer he would soon become – recalls the movement’s opening to close the movement softly.
The Scherzo opens earthily but soon breaks into a spirited waltz. Weber weaves the two subjects together to form the fabric of the movement. The Andante espressivo, which the composer subtitled “Shepherd’s Lament,” begins with the principal theme played by the flute over a restrained piano accompaniment. The movement uses the theme, which has a folk-like quality reminiscent of many a Haydn slow movement, as the inspiration for a set of loose variations.
The Trio ends with a Finale that, like the first movement, cannot stay in the minor for too long. With its lively writing for the three instruments, it brings to a close a work filled with melodic invention of the most agreeable kind and opportunities for the three players to impress the listener with their virtuosity.
– John Mangum is Director of Artistic Planning for the San Francisco Symphony.