Music can be an intimate business: everybody seems to know everybody! So I was amused to learn that Mozart and Weber were related to each other through marriage (Mozart’s wife Constanze was half-niece to Weber’s father). Although they wouldn’t have known each other, this connection seems particularly apt because, alongside the wit, brilliance and charm that permeate the music of both composers, each was fundamentally influential in the creation of German opera.
Yet it is this very achievement that distorts our knowledge of Weber. While Mozart’s music transcends genres, Weber’s reputation still rests primarily with his opera Der Freischütz. Rather in the way that Carl Orff is known almost exclusively for Carmina Burana, people often associate Weber’s music with the supernatural eeriness of the Wolf’s Glen in Der Freischütz, three operatic overtures and little else.
So imagine our delight when Emma Abbate and I were bequeathed a well-loved copy of Weber’s keyboard duets by our friend, the composer Stephen Dodgson. In short, we discovered Weber’s life beyond opera. The simplicity of his op. 3 shows a teenager whose lyrical genius is already evident in miniature, while the pathos of op. 10, no. 5 betrays a sensitivity equal to his younger contemporary, Franz Schubert. We even wondered whether Weber went to the gym, as each set discloses variations that are increasingly athletic. Perhaps the most characterful movement for us is op. 60, no. 4, where spicy rhythms offset a proud theme that has earned it the tasty nickname À la zingara.
The heady mix of Mozartian sophistication and bel canto beauty in Weber’s three sets of keyboard duets shows a composer of extra-ordinary breadth and versatility. Small wonder that Paul Hindemith was to use several of these operatic vignettes in his celebrated Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. Like Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas, the music’s concision should not fool us into thinking that the works themselves are insubstantial. As Weber stated: ‘Trifles make up existence, and give the observer the measure by which to try us.’
© Julian Perkins
This reflection was written for a disc of Weber's complete keyboard duets, recorded on original instruments from the Finchcocks Musical Charity and released on Deux-Elles with Julian Perkins and Emma Abbate.