Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)

Clarinet Quintet in B Flat Major op. 34 (1815)


Weber’s life, like other artists in the springtime of the Romantic Era can be summed up - brilliant, but brief. As well as being a composer, he was also a conductor, virtuoso pianist, poet, music critic and lithographer. However, his major contribution to music was in the field of opera - and German opera in particular. Musicologist David Ewen has written of him:


"The operatic road that leads to Richard Wagner has many milestones but none more important than Weber. No other single operatic composer influenced Wagner so decisively as Weber (as Wagner himself was not slow to confess). For Weber not only established German opera, as opposed to the Italian type, exploiting folk elements, borrowing from Germanic traditions and superstitions, filling his work with the love of German landscape, forest, and village, saturating it with Germanic atmosphere and ideals. Further, he made more than one suggestion of what the music-drama should be, anticipating the Wagnerian revolution. For example, he used the Leit-motif (though not, of course, in Wagner’s extensive and comprehensive way): Der Freischutz has eleven themes that appear and reappear throughout the opera; Euryanthe, eight. Weber, more than any composer before his time, realized the importance of the recitative and assigned to it an all-important role in the framework of his operas. He used the orchestra symphonically, making it the spine and backbone of the opera. Finally, he strove for (and to a certain extent realized) a unity of the arts in the Wagnerian sense. As he himself wrote about Euryanthe: ‘It is a purely dramatic work, which depends for its success solely on the cooperation of the sister arts, and is certain to lose its effect if deprived of their assistance.’"


Now, what has this to do with chamber music? The answer is - very little, and, in fact, Weber composed very little chamber music. Excepting his works for solo instrument with piano accompaniment, of which there are six violin sonatas, Weber produced only three chamber music works - The Piano Quartet op 18 (1809) which he titled "Grand Quatour", the Clarinet Quintet op 34 (1815) entitled "Grosses Quintet" and the Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano op 63 (1819). The above named works are "grand" and "gross" in name only. His works have been criticized as not being in "true chamber music style". For, rather than interplay among the instruments, where all have an equal voice in the discourse, Weber’s chamber music, the Clarinet Quintet in particular, is more like a concerto with clarinet as soloist and the strings as an accompaniment. This is not at all an illogical way for an opera composer (used to writing for dramatic characters and writing arias) to approach such an ensemble. In fact, the mini-concerto idea predates the more egalitarian quartet and includes among its practitioners (whose examples have been heard in previous Sierra Chamber Society seasons) - Haydn, Mozart and Rossini.


Weber’s Clarinet Quintet was written for the outstanding clarinetist of the Munich Orchestra, Heinrich Bärmann. Weber was so taken with Bärmann’s playing that in 1811, he quickly composed two clarinet concertos and a concertino for him. He also started work on the Quintet, but did not complete it until four years later on August 25, 1815 - the day before the premiere performance.


It is a tribute to Weber’s ability that having written only three chamber works, this piece remains a favorite in the standard repertory.

1994-95 Season, Program II, Sunday December 11, 1994

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