Overture to Euryanthe, J. 291

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            History is cruelly reductive, and it is the natural state of our collective memory that it often bears little resemblance to the balance of affairs that characterized the past.  Whole lives, bodies of creative work, and popular acclaim of significant artists commonly disappear from our experience—or survive in a cartoonish reflection that often singles out only one or two works of art from a vigorous and influential personal oeuvre.  Lucky is he who survives the winnowing out process.   Carl Maria von Weber has barely survived that process, and he, one of the most well-known conductors and members of the musical community of the first half of the nineteenth century, is now remembered for only a few of his voluminous compositions.  The overture to his penultimate opera, Euryanthe, is one of them.  The small group of others includes his solo works for clarinet, bassoon, and piano, and of course, his opera, Der Freischütz.

            During his heyday he composed in almost every genre, held important positions as a conductor (he is considered one of the fathers of modern conducting), traveled widely, wrote respected music criticism and essays, and knew almost every important continental musician.  Furthermore, he is considered one of the most important composers as late musical classicism moved into the romantic age.  Of course, the towering figure of Beethoven obscured many like folks of the time.

            His epochal opera, Der Freischütz (1821), was a major success, owing to its spooky libretto about magic bullets, a dark sinister “wolf’s glen,” and a new kind of orchestral writing to carry the mood and illusion.   It is generally considered a major step leading to the creation of German romantic opera, and an important precursor of Meyerbeer and Wagner. 

            His next opera was Euryanthe, and he had hoped to capitalize upon the success of the former work, and at the same time move on into a more complex and progressive dramatic style.  His intent was worthy and, indeed he had correctly sensed the trend of future developments in nineteenth-century opera, but the work was not generally well received, notwithstanding the hopes of the Viennese operatic establishment that had commissioned it.  It, indeed, in the words of the composer, was a “large romantic opera,” but this was an age dominated by the tuneful works of Rossini, and it languished.  He had simply overreached the contemporary public’s taste, and it must be admitted, most consider the libretto to border on the ridiculous, notwithstanding the glorious music.

            What is left is the overture, and it has become a concert staple.  It is a suitable opener for this dramatic tale, in the best tradition of Grand Opera established only a few years later in the operas of Meyerbeer and Wagner.  It’s instructive to remind oneself that this is 1823—early for this kind of powerful, romantic music—the time of Beethoven and Rossini, and well before Wagner’s early triumphs.  With this in mind it’s easy to hear von Weber’s work as a clear transition into Wagner’s inimitable style.  Too bad about the opera, but we have a magnificent overture left.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan