That Wild Waltz of Von Weber’s
Involuntary encounters with an obstinate tune
Seldom heard nowadays, but once a huge favourite — and an earsore to others. The tune known as Weber’s Last Waltz, or Weber’s Last Musical Thought (La dernière pensée musicale de Weber, Weber’s letzter Gedanke). By a series of odd coincidences, I came across it several times within a few weeks. Presumably because I was attuned to the tune, so to say, encounters multiplied. And it is those encounters, and their unsuspected connections, that make this tune fascinating. Not as a piece of music, but as a piece of cultural history.
Because there is little good that one can say about the tune itself. It is well-known nowadays that Weber’s Last Waltz is not by Weber, and it is no dying thought. Nor is it truly a waltz — Ländler might be the more fitting term. Given its lack of musical charms, its erstwhile popularity can only be explained by the evocative power of its spurious title.
The composer is in fact Weber’s younger colleague Carl Gottlieb Reissiger (it is Nr. 5 of his Danses brillantes, op. 26). The story of how the confusion has come about is told (without source) in Slonimsky’s Book of Musical Anecdotes:
Shortly before Weber went to London, where he was to die in 1826, an obscure German composer, Karl Reissiger, gave him one of his waltz manuscripts, published in 1824. Weber carried it with him, and it was found among his effects after his death and subsequently published as The Last Thought of Weber. (p. 115)
Weber died at age 39, at the height of his fame. One in a long series of personalities whose early death-by-consumption has contributed to their romantic appeal: Pergolesi, Novalis, Keats, Chopin, Marie Duplessis (La traviata) and so on. As has been noted by Jeffrey Kallberg, “A special mystique radiated about a final artistic utterance, one from which publishers hastened to profit” (p. 123). Similar use was made of the presumed dying thoughts of Vincenzo Bellini and Beethoven (in his case, there were two: a string quintet fragment and a piano bagatelle). Schubert’s posthumous song collection Schwanengesang may also be included in this category. Erik Satie satirically alluded to the practice with his Avant-dernières pensées (1915).
In case this has made you curious about the music in question (it might be better than I say), and since there is no decent recording around (there is an old one by Jacqueline Bonneau, but it is absurdly slow — still under the spell of death, it seems), I here offer my own:
Carl Gottlieb Reissiger, by the way, is not such an obscure figure. He was Weber’s successor as Kapellmeister of the Hofoper in Dresden and is the composer of over 200 opus numbers, not including his eight operas. He even has his fan site nowadays. The fact that he got none other than Richard Wagner at his side as second Kapellmeister may have tarnished his reputation. Wagner, in his autobiography (Mein Leben), is eager to point out that he, not the modestly gifted Reissiger, was Weber’s “true successor” (with the widow’s blessing). He portrays his former colleague as lazy, conformist, and sycophantic.
My colleague Reissiger, to whom I sometimes reported my complaints about the Directorate’s lack of concern for our demands for performance standards in the opera, consoled me by the fact that, over time, I would abandon such whimsicalities and would surrender to the inevitable fate of the Kapellmeister. In saying so he proudly struck his stomach and expressed his hope that mine would quickly grow to the same fullness. (p. 285, my translation.)
Hector Berlioz met both Kapellmeister during his concert tours in Germany in 1844, and notes in his travel report (later included in the Mémoires) that “in Paris Reissiger is hardly known except by that sweet and melancholy waltz published under the title Weber’s Last Thought” (vol. 2, p. 66, my translation). Douce et mélancolique — a surprising characterization, from such an authority.
It’s DTPOT … again!
The first time I came across Weber’s supposedly last waltz was in Marian Wilson Kimber’s recent The Elocutionists. She mentions a poem by the popular American writer Nora Perry, published in 1872, That Waltz of Von Weber’s. An old accountant in a gloomy office is suddenly reminded of his first and only love, when a street organ plays the waltz they once danced together.
Gayly and gayly rang the gay music,
The blithe, merry music of harp and of horn,
The mad, merry music, that set us a-dancing
Till over the midnight came stealing the morn.
And just as the dawn came stealing and stealing,
The last of those wild Weber waltzes began;
I can hear the soft notes now appealing and pleading,
And I catch the faint scent of the sandal-wood fan.
What is it, indeed, in this dusty old alley,
That brings me that night or that morning in June?
What is it, indeed?—I laugh to confess it,—
A hand-organ grinding a creaking old tune!
But somewhere or other I caught in the measure
That waltz of Von Weber’s, and back it all came,
That night or that morning, just there at the dawning,
When I danced the last dance with my first and last flame.
It is a perfect example of the Darling They’re Playing Our Tune phenomenon, the subject of my previous post. Except that here the Darling is absent. It shows that there was a popular awareness of the phenomenon long before psychology gave it its jocular name. A movie to a script that may have been inspired by Perry’s poem, Von Weber’s Last Waltz, was shot in 1912.
It is also typically a poem to be recited with music, as Wilson Kimber reminds us (p. 68). I’ll give it a try — but at the bottom of this post. Let me first sketch two more of my encounters.
A déjà vu in Berlin
Søren Kierkegaard, 30 years old and recently relieved of his magnum opus Either/Or, makes a trip to Berlin in May 1843. It is his second visit to the city, and he takes lodgings in the Hotel de Saxe, overlooking the Spree, which had pleased him on the previous occasion. On the 10th he makes a note in his diary that he feels “in very bad shape, on the point of collapse”.
In Stralsund I almost went mad hearing above me a young girl playing the piano, among other pieces Weber’s last waltz. The last time I was in Berlin it was the first piece I heard in the Thiergarten, played on a harp by a blind man.
It seems as if everything existed merely to bring back memories. My pharmacist, who was a confirmed bachelor, has married. With reference to that, he offered several explanations: one lives only once, one must have one person who understands him. How much there is to that, especially when said without any pretension, hit home to me. (p. 230)
The déjà vu, or déjà ouï, of Reissiger’s tune adds to Kierkegaard’s somewhat contrived experience of reliving the same, put into relief by the the pharmacist’s common sense adage: one lives only once (man lebt nur einmal, ironically, also the title of a much better waltz!). The experience is strong enough to inspire a new work, Repetition: An Essay in Experimental Psychology, in which Kierkegaard sets out the explore the obscure thesis that
repetition and remembrance represent the same movement, but in opposite direction; for what one remembers as something past, is repeated backwards; whereas actual repetition is remembrance in forward direction. (p. 329)
(I’m translating after a German translation. When as an experiment I put the German text in Google’s translation engine, it intriguingly translated Wiederholung the second time as recovery. A sign of its growing philosophical insight?)
The trip to Berlin here becomes part of the experiment:
When, for a long time, I had at least occasionally occupied myself with the problem whether repetition is possible and what significance it has, … it suddenly occurred to me: You can travel to Berlin, where you have been before, and find out … (ib.)
A waltz unwaltzed
Around the time Kierkegaard had his Berlin déjà-vu, the French poet Théodore de Banville wrote a poem titled La dernière pensée de Weber. Lovers of French art song will immediately recognize the first lines:
Sous tes voiles,
Sous ta brise et tes parfums ,
Je rêve aux amours défunts.
It is the text of one of Debussy’s earliest mélodies, and the first to be published in 1882. Commentators seem not to have noticed that the phrasing of Banville’s poem closely matches that of Reissiger’s opening bars, though not quite in a note by note fashion. Just try to sing it with the waltz: it matches, but at the same time it kills the poem. It is hard to associate starry veils and defunct lovers with the waltz’s bumpy bass and ya-da da-da melody. Debussy can hardly have failed to know the tune, and he no doubt consciously suppressed the title (his song is known as Nuit d’étoiles). He also chose to ignore the implied waltz rhythm, creating in 6/8 time a gentler swing.
Banville, on the other hand, must have been seduced by the legend of the dernière pensée, and ennobled the tune in his imagination with the whole aura of German romanticism. He introduces the poem with an appropriate quotation from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr), describing an intriguingly poetic dream of being a melody, and dying:
I was walking in a delightful garden … A soft and harmonious sound was audible, and a tender light lit up the landscape. … But suddenly I felt that I myself was the song I heard, and that I was dying. (My translation.)
And what to think of this description, in a 1912 study about the poet:
The three phrases of Weber’s admirable Last Thought express, in turn, pain, despair, and resigned despondency; but over the whole, in spite of the broken rhythm and the dissonances of the second sentence, reigns a serene melancholy, a kind of majesty; the air is both sad and soothing, obsessing like a dear and cruel memory. (p. 78, my translation.)
Now listen to Reissiger’s Ländler again …
Those irresistible alliterations
Similarly impressed with the false aura of the dernière pensée was Edgar Allan Poe, who made Reissiger’s tune a favourite of his morbid and hypersensitive Roderick Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1839), who could have served as a model for the typical decadent or symbolist French artist some fifty years later.
I shall ever bear about me a memory of the many solemn hours I thus spent alone with the master of the House of Usher. … His long improvised dirges will ring forever in my ears. Among other things, I hold painfully in mind a certain singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber. (p. 86)
Those conflicting characterizations of Reissiger’s innocuous tune, wild on the one hand, sweet and melancholy on the other hand, have baffled at least one literary scholar. Poe’s triple W may have been a source for Nora Perry’s sentimental poem of 1872. A poem, as I noted, that should be recited with music. Let me give it a try, skipping a few of the poem’s too many stanzas. There is a 1920 HMV recording of (anonymous?) bravura variations on the theme, played on cornet and concertina (a kind of bandoneon) by the virtuosos Lloyd Shakespeare and Ernest Rutterford. It presents us “Weber” in a somewhat “wilder” guise. With this as background, the poem might sound something like this:
Postscript (May 28). Reissiger at least twice made a statement about his authorship. An 1847 letter is quoted by Fétis in his Biographie universelle des musiciens (2nd ed., 1867, vol. 7, p. 224). A slightly different and more colourful version of the story is told in the letter published in 1855 in the Niederrheinische Musik-Zeitung (nr. 29, p. 229). Reissiger recounts having stayed in Weber’s house in 1824, where he played his op. 26 for Weber and his wife Caroline. Nr. 5 had pleased Weber so much that Reissiger had to repeat it several times, “and Weber even said to his wife, one could add words to the trio (in D-flat Major). And thus he sang: Net wahr? Du bist mein Schatzerl? (Ain’t it true? You are my sweetheart?)”. As Caroline later told him (he claims), Weber had often played it in Paris, on the way to London in 1826. “The rest is a matter of music dealers’ speculation. — To put it briefly, there was a musician in Paris who wrote it down, having often heard Weber playing it, and so after his unhappy death in London it appeared as Dernière Pensée”. He modestly concludes: “I have never put any value on this sweet little thing, and I believe that without Weber’s authority this Waltz would never have caused a stir”.