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Overture to Oberon

About the Work

Karl von Weber
Quick Look Composer: Karl von Weber
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Itzhak Perlman, violin Sep. 21 - 23, 2005
© Richard Freed
Weber conducted the premiere of his opera Oberon in London on April 12, 1826, three days after completing the score. Hans Kindler conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of the Overture, on October 30, 1932; the most recent ones, on October 9-11 and 14, 1986, were conducted by Günther Herbig

The score calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons in pairs, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration, 9 minutes.

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Weber was in declining health when he took on the commission for his final opera, Oberon, or The Elf King's Oath. When he left Dresden to begin rehearsals in London, he expressed a presentiment that he would die in England, and indeed he succumbed to tuberculosis there less than two months after conducting the work's premiere. It has been suggested that he might have lived to return home if his English opera had not been such a dismal failure.

The blame for that is usually ascribed to James Robinson Planché's inept libretto, based on a masque by William Sotheby which in turn combined elements from Villeneuve's story Huon de Bordeaux and Wieland's poem Oberon. It was dismissed by Sir Donald Francis Tovey in one of his “essays in musical analysis” some seventy years ago as “not even a bad drama . . . but the merest twaddle for regulating the operations of scene-shifters.” Weber himself definitely found it burdensome. In addition to the challenge of setting an English text for the first time, he regarded the English notion of opera as being “very foreign to all my ideas and maxims,” and expressed the fear that

the intermixing of so many principal actors who do not sing and the omission of music in the most important numbers will deprive Oberon of the title of an opera, and will make him unfit for all other theaters in Europe.

Since Weber's time a dozen different revisions of the German-language version of the text have been made, and several of the original English one, but the work has never been able to hold the stage. Berlioz, who admired Weber profoundly, deplored this neglect, but conceded that perhaps “such a work can please only an audience of poets, with kings of intellect in the stalls.” Tovey's compatriot Percy Scholes left a decidedly enthusiastic evaluation of Oberon as a work delightflully fresh and original throughout, and entirely different from all the rest of Weber's compositions. The keynote of the whole is its picture of the mysteries of elfland and the life of the spirits of the air, earth and water. True, this note is struck in Der Freischütz and Euryanthe , but in Oberon it is struck with full force and vibrates with an almost intoxicating sweetness.

The Overture, which has met with a far happier fate than the opera itself, is characterized from beginning to end by that “intoxicating sweetness.” In it Weber makes use not only of material from the opera, but also of motifs from the incidental music he wrote in 1818 for Eduard Gehe's tragedy Heinrich IV. The same Tovey who dismissed the libretto as “the merest twaddle” cherished the Overture as “a gorgeous masterpiece of operatic orchestration,” and many musicians have declared this last of Weber's compositions for orchestra to be also his finest.