Overture to Der Freischütz (1821)
Carl Maria von Weber (b. Eutin, 1786; d. London, 1826)
Weber was a first-rank piano virtuoso, an important composer of orchestral music and a leading composer in the creation of German Romantic opera. As a conductor, he held major positions at opera houses in Prague and Dresden. His cousin Constanze (née Weber) was Mozart’s wife. Weber’s father, a composer, was a colorful character who slipped the noble title”von” into the family name and eventually got himself and his son banished from the Duchy of Württemberg because of bad debts.
Weber is best known for his Der Freischütz (1821), a work whose immense popularity challenged the reign of Rossini-style Italian opera and helped shape the course of opera history; today it still resonates deeply with German audiences. In the opera there are three principal characters and several additional significant roles, but it is the People (“Das Volk” ) and the Forest, together representing the forces of Good, who are the real heroes. The Overture to Der Freischütz encapsulates both the plot and the revolutionary aspects of the opera.
Shortly after the Overture begins, two pairs of horns call back and forth and then join together, conjuring up the forest primeval and its hunting culture. Since Weber’s horns were valveless, only certain pitches were available on the instrument. By using pairs of horns pitched in two contrasting keys, the composer not only allowed for four-part harmony but also for a greater availability of pitch. When low, menacing sounds take over, the scene becomes supernatural and conjures up the frightening Wolf’s Glen. In the opera, the evil Caspar assists the hero Max in forging seven magic bullets, in order that Max might win an all-important shooting contest the next day. The winner will get to marry the head forester’s daughter, Agathe, who has already secretly pledged herself to Max. What Max does not know is that Caspar has marked Agathe as the target of the seventh bullet—a rogue bullet. The Overture succinctly hints at what will be an extended scene in the opera.
In the main part of the Overture, two fast-tempo melodies from arias in the opera serve as main themes. In the first one, Max’s music from his Act 1 aria conveys his worries about powers of darkness, despair and torment, as he wonders,”will no ray pierce through this night?” Tacked on to Max’s music is material from a terrifying section of the Wolf’s Glen scene, where the midnight heavens turn completely black and fire spurts from the ground. Agathe’s music from her Act 2 scene portrays hope, courage and faith as she realizes that she is”enchanted at his [Max’s] approach.” Spoiler alert: a higher power redirects the seventh bullet, Max confesses his misdeed, and the opera, as well as the Overture, ends with general rejoicing. Weber composed his operac overture in the the Classical sonata form but with forward-looking Romantic content. It remains a staple of the concert repertoire as well—a self-standing orchestral showpiece with compelling musical content.
Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503 (1786)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, 1756; d. Vienna, 1791)
The traditional numbering of Mozart’s piano concerti puts the Concerto in C Major as the twenty-fifth of twenty-seven in the list. It is the last of twelve piano concerti Mozart composed during a remarkable three-year period (1784-86). Since four of Mozart’s earliest works in this genre are really his mix-and-match arrangements of individual movements by several different composers, and since Mozart wrote an additional pair of (unnumbered) single-movement compositions for piano and orchestra, the question of numbering is not as simple as it might seem. Perhaps the safest label is from Köchel’s chronological catalog of Mozart’s work, where it appears as K. 503.
By the time he composed his Concerto in C Major in 1786, Mozart had solidly established himself in Vienna as a piano virtuoso and teacher, and he had produced a string of instrumental and operatic successes. His cultivation of the piano concerto as a major genre elevated the medium higher than most previous composers had done. His Italian operas Le nozze di Figaro (which had premiered earlier in the year), Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte would collectively raise the art of onstage musical characterization and storytelling to new levels; they would also provide possible additional clues to the understanding of his instrumental works.
In Mozart’s piano concerto movements, as in his operatic scenes, laughter can turn quickly to tears in a musical equivalent of the comédie larmoyante (“tearful comedy”), and Mozart’s music communicates the situation perfectly. His musical gestures suggest moods that read like a list of aria types in the operatic culture of Mozart’s day: confidence, rage, serenity, tenderness or pathos. Mozart himself had once observed that a piano concerto movement reminded him of a scene from an opera. He addressed that comment to his father, Leopold Mozart, a well-known composer in his own right as well as the author of an important book on technique and style in violin playing. Leopold, as his son’s primary musical tutor, and as the proud father who vicariously followed his son’s career trajectory, would have understood the analogy to be especially apt. When Mozart’s father weighed in with a professional opinion, however, he said that he found some of his son’s music”astonishingly difficult” from the standpoint of musical interpretation.
Near the beginning, the orchestra introduces a march-like theme. It begins with a”short- short-short-long” rhythmic pattern that propels the first movement to the very end and is rarely absent. The complete theme, however, remains the exclusive property of the orchestra until later in the movement, in the development section. There the piano later takes over the theme and allows the orchestra to share it. Indeed, most of the development is based on this single theme. A particular specialty of Mozart in his late piano concerti is the spotlight he shines on the wind instruments, which provide poignant moments. With Figaro complete and Don Giovanni soon to come, perhaps Mozart introduced them to each other in the Concerto in C Major.
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major, Op. 97,”Rhenish” (1850)
Robert Schumann (b. Zwickau, 1810; d. Endenich, 1856)
By 1840, the year in which he reached the age of thirty, Robert Schumann knew that his aspirations for a career as a virtuoso pianist would never materialize. In that year he married the love of his life, Clara Wieck, who, at the age of twenty-one, was well on her way becoming one of the greatest pianists of the century. Clara became Robert’s champion and his muse; s he urged her husband to move beyond his preoccupation with piano music and take up larger genres. By the time Schumann was thirty-five, and strong signs of his eventual mental breakdown were becoming evident, the composer began to find solace in the study of counterpoint, even writing fugues on the musical motif B-A-C-H (Bb-A-C-B).
In September 1850, the Schumanns visited Cologne to see its magnificent cathedral, still not quite finished after six centuries. Schumann had recently begun his new position as Municipal Music Director in nearby Düsseldorf, where his friend Wilhelm Joseph von Wasielewski was the concertmaster of the orchestra. When Wasielewski later became Schumann’s first biographer, he reported that the view of the cathedral from the Rhine River was what inspired the composer to begin a new symphony.
Schumann composed the”Rhenish” Symphony at a feverish pace, completing it in just one month, and he conducted and published it early the next year. The short time from Schumann’s initial sketching to the completion, performance and publication of the symphony was an important payoff for the effort of treading the long, twisting road of the forty-year-old composer’s career.
Schumann came of musical age after the death of Beethoven but could not escape his influence. In the”Rhenish” Symphony, Schumann honored the symphonic structures he had inherited from Beethoven but added personal touches. The first movement begins in medias res, jumping with no warning from the starting gate with unbridled nervous energy. In contrast, the second movement has the character of a gentle folk dance; originally it carried the title”Morning on the Rhine,” but the composer withdrew the title before the piece was published. In the third movement, the melodic gift that made Schumann such a successful composer of German art songs comes to the fore, especially in a lovely theme first heard soon after the beginning of the movement. Wasielewski reported that the fourth movement was inspired by a processional ceremony in the Cologne Cathedral, in which the Archbishop of Cologne was elevated to the rank of Cardinal. Here Schumann used his Bach-inspired contrapuntal abilities, suggesting a continuity of the present with the past. Near the end of the spirited final movement, the Cardinal’s theme from the previous movement reappears in full ceremonial robes. The”Rhenish” Symphony continues to be one of the composer’s most popular works.
Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.