Weber, Carl Maria von
Carl Maria von Weber
Silvana, romantic opera in three acts (1808-10) on a libretto by F. K. Hiemer
after Das Waldmädchen by C. von Steinsberg
(b. Eutin, 18 or 19 November 1786; d. London, 5 June 1826)
On 17 July 1807 Weber, then not yet twenty-one years old, arrived in Stuttgart, where he took on the position of private secretary to Duke Ludwig, the younger brother of the newly established King Friedrich of Württemberg. His peripatetic early years seemed for the moment to have drawn to a close, and he immediately set out to satisfy his consuming passion for the theater by composing a new opera. It was not long before he encountered difficulties: his new employer, unlike the king, was uninterested in the theater; the king himself took an instantaneously dislike to the young man, and even had him imprisoned for a day after an ill-conceived prank; and Weber’s financial affairs soon careened out of control and left him deeply in debt.
Despite his young years, Weber already had four operas to his credit by the time he arrived in Stuttgart. He now turned to one of his juvenile efforts – Das Waldmädchen im Spessart, a lightweight proto-Romantic opera that he had written at the age of thirteen (1800) – and sought to refashion it into a more substantial and mature work. He was encouraged in his efforts by the local composer, Franz Danzi; and a jovial littérateur named Franz Karl Hiemer (1768-1822) was engaged to rework the libretto and bring it up to modern standards. Hiemer’s work proceeded at a snail’s pace, however, and Weber found himself constantly having to pester his collaborator for more text. Finally, in a youthful jeu d’esprit, he cast his complaints in the form of a fifty-line poem in rhymed couplets (19 July 1809) that began somewhat as follows:
As thou art left unmov’d by prose,
In verse shall I lament my woes.
O mightiest tyrant of the rhyme,
Whose will transmutes to deed sublime!
Pay heed to the composer’s plaint
And save him from his parlous state …
This good-natured doggerel had the desired effect, and by February 1810 the opera was ready to enter rehearsal. At this point, however new problems arose from a completely unexpected quarter.
In April 1809 Weber had been joined in Stuttgart by his aged father, a musician and conductor of lax ethical standards who soon took a close interest in his son’s financial affairs – to the extent that he embezzled 800 gulden to pay off his own debts. Desperate to escape this imbroglio, Weber accepted a welcome loan from a local townsman, not knowing that in fact he was being bribed to help exempt the man’s son from military duty. This carefully laid bombshell exploded while the rehearsals for the première of Silvana were underway: the boy was inducted, the father initiated a lawsuit against Weber, and the composer found himself arrested by police during a rehearsal and imprisoned for sixteen days with no knowledge of the charges pressed against him. The trial proceeded relatively favorably with the intervention of the king, who realized that to convict Weber would expose the system of graft at his own court. Weber was released, but only to be arrested again on 17 February when forty-two creditors simultaneously foreclosed on his debts. Again the king intervened; Weber was “banished in perpetuity” from Württemberg and escorted to the border on 26 February, three days after completing the finale of Silvana.
A Stuttgart première now being unthinkable, Weber began to look elsewhere. With the help of some friends, a performance was arranged in Frankfurt for the fall; the original Stuttgart Mechtilde agreed to sing her part, and the title role was given to a promising new soubrette, Caroline Brandt, who was later to become Weber’s wife. But on 13 September, during the dress rehearsal, it was announced that the celebrated balloonist Mme Blanchard would attempt an ascent on the same day as the première. Desperate attempts were made to alter the dates, but to no avail, and the playbill for the new opera contains the disconsolate notice: “To begin at 7 o’clock in case Mad. Blanchard’s balloon journey takes place; otherwise as always at 6 o’clock.” The ascent did indeed take place, and during the performance the audience and even the cast chattered with excitement about the day’s momentous event. Weber felt his efforts had been seriously undermined; and although the opinion of his new opera seemed positive and several numbers were even encored, he was barely persuaded to acknowledge the audience’s applause. Ironically, another performance, scheduled ten days later on 26 September, again had to compete with Madame Blanchard.
Despite these contretemps, Weber was convinced of the value of Silvana and never abandoned or cannibalized it, as he had his four earlier efforts for the stage. In 1812 a new opportunity for a performance arose in Berlin, where, after surmounting much professional intrigue (and after rewriting nos. 4 and 10 to new words), Weber conducted the work on 10 July. The success was striking, and the composer felt vindicated, as he confided to his diary: “God be praised, the just cause has attained victory in the teeth of every cabal.” It was Weber’s first operatic success and paved the way for his future career as the founder of German romantic opera. In later years he never lost sight of the importance of Silvana to his artistic vision: “From this time on I can fairly reckon with having come to terms with myself; and everything that later years have done and will do can only amount to polishing the rough edges and lending the requisite clarity and intelligibility to this solid groundwork.”
The plot of Silvana is an age-old tale of love triumphant, but with new wrinkles of special appeal to the newly emerging romantic movement. It is set in the Middle Ages. Silvana (soprano), a young woman left alone in the wilds and unable to talk, is discovered there by Count Rudolph (tenor), who promptly falls in love with her. The Count, however, is already betrothed to Mechtilde (soprano), who is actually in love with Albert (tenor). These amorous complications are compounded by the fact that Albert is the son of an ancient enemy of Mechtilde’s father, Adelhart (bass), whose second daughter he had abducted long before the opera begins. It transpires in the course of the work that this daughter is none other Silvana, who recovers her voice and is ultimately able to bring about a union with her lover, Rudolph, amid universal rejoicing.
The Silvana material obviously held a special appeal to the young Weber, particularly the mute main character, which allowed him to transfer much of the emotional weight of the title-role to the orchestra (especially the oboe). Equally important is the part for cello, which may reflect the influence of Franz Danzi in the work’s inception. The parts for the villain (Adelhart) and the knightly hero (Rudolph) are sharply drawn and clearly anticipate the figures of Caspar and Huon in Weber’s later output for the stage. The identification of human feeling and natural phenomena (the “pathetic fallacy”) that was to undergird so much of German romantic opera finds initial expression in the opera’s emotionally charged depictions of nature. Most impressive, however, is Silvana herself, some of whose musical features, and especially the handling of her unspoken emotions, would find their way into Wagner’s Sieglinde.
The success of the 1812 Berlin performance was instrumental in launching Weber’s theatrical career. A vocal score of Silvana (less the ensembles) was published that same year by Schlesinger in Berlin, and performances soon followed in Dresden (1815), Bremen and Prague (1817), Leipzig (1818), Königsberg (1821), Riga (1823), and elsewhere. When Weber was appointed court conductor in Dresden in 1817 he immediately arranged a performance of Silvana, for which he produced a third and final revision of the score (1818). Silvana was also Weber’s first opera to be performed abroad in translation, when it was given in London in English in 1828. The complete vocal score was published posthumously in that same year, again by Schlesinger in Berlin. Among the other printed versions of the opera in circulation were a remarkable version for solo piano “sans paroles” and another for piano duet. The overture proved to be especially popular: besides Weber’s own version for piano, published in 1826, it also existed in an arrangement for piano, flute, violin, and cello (London, 1828) and became exceptionally well-received in a scoring for military band (London, 1882). Later in the century Silvana was subjected to much insensitive revision (including the addition of words to Silvana’s mute oboe melodies and the incorporation of such favorites items as Invitation to the Dance and parts of the piano sonatas), but nevertheless held the stage. The first publication in full score had to wait until the 1920s, when it was edited by Willibald Kaehler as volume 2, no. 2 of the Complete Edition (1926). It is this volume, incorporating the material from the Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Dresden versions, that forms the basis of our study score.
Bradford Robinson, 2005
Performance material: Lienau, Frankfurt