Largo – Allegro [10'08]
Larghetto – Allegretto [6'42]
Andante – Allegro [12'12]
In this second volume of Spohr’s symphonies, Howard Shelley and the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana continue their exploration of this enjoyable and little-known repertoire. Formerly one of the most significant personalities in nineteenth-century German music, Spohr’s symphonies were as popular as those of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven until he fell from fashion in the later part of the nineteenth century.
Symphony No 4 was quickly acclaimed as the composer’s symphonic masterpiece after its first performance. It is a forward-looking, programmatic work based on a poem by Carl Pfeiffer, ‘The Consecration of Sounds’. Unusually, it features a slow finale, and in this way was an important example to future composers including Tchaikovsky and Mahler. Symphony No 5 is a deeply felt work, pouring out pent-up emotions from dramatic events in the composer’s life at the time of writing with real expressive power.
The disc also features the overture to a cantata Das befreite Deutschland (‘Germany liberated’), composed following Napoleon’s disastrous defeat at the battle of Leipzig in October 1813.
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Louis Spohr was one of the most significant personalities in German music in the first half of the nineteenth century, equally outstanding as a composer, violinist, conductor, teacher and organizer who was considered a leading pioneer of early Romanticism. He ranked as one of the great composers, his music played and loved by thousands. Until the emergence of Mendelssohn and Schumann his symphonies were the only such works to join on a regular basis those of the three Viennese giants, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, in the general international repertoire and, along with his overtures, they remained staples of concert programmes until the end of the nineteenth century.
By then he was slipping from this Olympian height and he eventually became primarily a name in the music history books; but in more recent decades he has enjoyed something of a revival, mainly fuelled by his delightful chamber music, such as the Nonet and the Octet (on Hyperion CDA66699), the Double Quartets (on Hyperion CDD22014) and his works for clarinet which have been taken up by many of the world’s finest exponents of that instrument (including Michael Collins, on Hyperion CDA67509 and CDA67561).
Spohr composed nine published symphonies between 1811 and 1850, four of which bear programmatic titles. A tenth was composed in 1857, but this had to wait until 1998 for its first public performance and remained in manuscript until it was published in 2006.
Spohr was born in Brunswick on 5 April 1784 and died in Kassel on 22 October 1859. He was a twenty-year-old violin virtuoso when he shot to overnight fame after a concert in Leipzig on 10 December 1804. The following year the young composer was offered the post of Music Director at the enlightened court of Gotha and, at twenty-one, he became the youngest incumbent of such a position in the whole of Germany. Subsequently he held major positions in Vienna (1813–15) where he became friends with Beethoven, Frankfurt (1817–19), and finally Kassel (1822–57). In between he found time for numerous concert tours, including in Italy (1816–17), England (six times between 1820 and 1853) and Paris (1821).
The cantata Das befreite Deutschland (‘Germany liberated’) was composed in Vienna early in 1814 following Napoleon’s disastrous defeat at the battle of Leipzig in October 1813; the plan was to mount it during the Congress of Vienna later that year but the project was thwarted. Consequently it was first heard at the Frankenhausen Festival on 19 October 1815, the second anniversary of the Leipzig battle. The overture starts in C minor with a powerful and ominous slow introduction including imaginative use of trombones, then the Allegro moderato enters in C major with a main theme which has a sense of striving before the arrival of the jaunty second subject.
It was after Spohr’s move to Kassel that his artistic emphasis switched from virtuoso violinist to international conductor, and while his output of violin concertos diminished, his final eight symphonies date from his years there.
When Spohr wrote to his friend the Leipzig music critic Friedrich Rochlitz in 1828, shortly after completing his third symphony, to express the happiness and satisfaction he felt in his Kassel post along with the contentment of his family life, he could hardly have foreseen that within four years everything would have taken a bitter turn. By the summer of 1832 Spohr had suffered a series of hammer blows. The death of his beloved younger brother, Ferdinand, in 1831 was soon followed by that of his friend, librettist and fellow liberal Carl Pfeiffer at the age of twenty-eight, and he had worries over the declining health of his wife Dorette, who was to die in 1834. These personal tragedies were counterpointed by the situation in Kassel after the outbreak of civil unrest in 1831–2 and the reaction against it. In the turmoil, the ruling prince abdicated in favour of his son, who acted as regent, and Spohr found that the father’s tolerance of his Kapellmeister’s liberal political stance was not shared by his autocratic successor.
The future must have looked bleak for Spohr during his summer holidays in 1832 as he and his wife were taking the cure at the spa town of Bad Nenndorf. While there he browsed through a memorial volume of poems by his late friend Carl Pfeiffer and was particularly struck by Die Weihe der Töne (‘The Consecration of Sounds’). The poem, with its imagery of the relationship between sounds and life, inspired Spohr with the idea of setting it as a cantata in memory of Pfeiffer, but he felt that the verses were not suited to this and so became possessed by the challenge of using it as the basis for a large-scale orchestral work, his Symphony No 4 in F major Op 86, which he composed between July and October 1832.
Back in 1828 Rochlitz had sent Spohr suggestions about his third symphony but they came too late to influence that work. Rochlitz suggested that there should be no lack of simple, striking material and also strong contrasts with more inwardly felt parts. He added that it might be possible to work out completely new or infrequently used forms for symphonies, making it easier for the composer to keep his invention fresh and also avoid unfortunate comparisons. Rochlitz was of course referring to the symphonies of Beethoven, which were already casting a large shadow over his younger contemporaries.
Rochlitz’s idea of ‘infrequently used forms’ coalesced with Pfeiffer’s poetic imagery as Spohr constructed musical movements based on the verses in the poem. He requested that the poem be read out to the audience before a performance or printed in the programme (it is reproduced here on pages 8–9) and he also detailed the contents of the symphony in the score as follows:
First movement: Largo: Stark silence of nature before the creation of sound. Allegro: Activity of life after that silence. Sounds of nature. Uproar of the elements.
The F minor Largo introduction expresses the gloom at the deep silence of nature before the creation of sound, then the first subject of the Allegro in the major reflects the activity of life itself; sounds of nature including birdsong and the murmur of a stream form the second subject; and the development features the ‘uproar of the elements’. When the storm dies down, life and nature return to normal in the recapitulation. But these contrasting events are given cohesion by a motto theme heard in the slow introduction which forms the opening of the first subject and provides hints of the approaching storm while the coda links material from exposition and development.
The second movement handles sounds associated with a domestic and social setting in three separate sections, two marked Andantino representing a lullaby and a lover’s serenade with solo cello separated by an Allegro dance. To unify the movement Spohr brings back all three sections simultaneously as a coda in which time signatures of 2/8, 3/8 and 9/16 are combined. Spohr was no doubt inspired by a similar feat in the dance scene from Act I of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, an opera he greatly admired.
Verses six and seven picture war and battle, and these provided the opportunity for a march movement, thereby being both descriptive of the poem and—following Rochlitz’s advice—an infrequently used symphonic form. (Of course, two years earlier, in 1830, Berlioz had composed a march movement in his Symphonie fantastique, but Spohr appears not to have known this work at the time he conceived his own symphony.) After the march proper there are contrasting sections covering the strife and the anxious feelings of those left at home before the march storms back to an exalted victory. The tempo broadens to Andante maestoso and Bach-like contrapuntal string figurations accompany a chorale theme which Spohr identifies as the Ambrosian Hymn of Praise or Te Deum, with the melody (1540) by Johann Kugelmann (1495–1542).
In the finale, funeral music—Larghetto in F minor—starts up with drum rolls and sighing appoggiaturas from the wind instruments. A gravely beautiful chorale, Begrabt den Leib in seiner Gruft, on cellos and clarinets with a halting pizzicato accompaniment, mourns the dead; not, presumably, just those who were slain in the third movement’s battle but also those close to Spohr who had died the previous year. The music reaches F major as the tempo notches up to Allegretto; now comes ‘Consolation through tears’, a gentle theme bringing the symphony to a final state of resigned acceptance. Spohr requested that this finale should be performed very softly and restfully, so that even the fortissimos ought not to be rough or hard.
Spohr conducted the symphony’s premiere in Kassel on 4 November 1832 and this work was very quickly acclaimed as his symphonic masterpiece, remaining in the core repertoire for many decades. If we except the last section of Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony (No 45) there is no precedent among Spohr’s great predecessors for closing a symphony with a slow finale. This therefore was definitely an ‘infrequently used form’ and this finale of Spohr’s proved an important example to future composers, including Tchaikovsky (Symphony No 6) and Mahler (Symphonies Nos 3 and 9).
It was the success of Die Weihe der Töne in Vienna in 1834 and 1836 which led to the composition of Spohr’s next symphony, commissioned by the Viennese Concerts Spirituels. The Symphony No 5 in C minor Op 102 was completed on 27 September 1837 and received its premiere in Vienna on 1 March 1838. By this time, following the death of his wife in 1834, Spohr had remarried. His new wife, Marianne, was twenty-three years younger than her husband and was the sister of the composer’s late friend Carl Pfeiffer. Although Marianne provided Spohr with the domestic stability he desired and proved a loyal companion, the composer never really recovered from the death of Dorette and his feelings of loss were intensified in the summer of 1838 when their youngest daughter, Therese, died shortly before her twentieth birthday.
In the fifth symphony Spohr seems to have poured out the pent-up emotions of his losses in the 1830s with real expressive power. For the first movement he revised a fantasy-overture he had written in November 1836 on Ernst Raupach’s adaptation of the mythical tragedy The Daughter of the Air by the Spanish dramatist Calderón (1600–1681) about the Assyrian princess Semiramis, though the composer did not assign any programme to the symphony. The work opens with a slow introduction in C major featuring a lyrical theme over a pedal point. All seems serene at first but gradually the music becomes more animated and then the full orchestra erupts with a powerful Allegro motif in C minor. This is extended with considerable impetus before the mood relaxes somewhat for the second subject in E flat, but tension quickly returns until the development. Here an oboe brings back the lyrical theme from the slow introduction, but this period of repose is interrupted by development of the second subject. The lyrical theme tries again, this time on the violins in a relaxed G major with a pizzicato accompaniment, but soon an undertow of the Allegro material appears and the recapitulation bursts in. In the coda the mood is restless and uncertain, but finally brightens up to C major after seeming to head for a minor key conclusion.
The Larghetto in A flat major is one of Spohr’s finest slow movements. It is the heart of the symphony with an elevated, aspiring theme leading to instrumental ‘sighs’ as three trombones add gravity to the orchestration. A more active contrasting section works with a dotted fugato figure, and when the main material returns to build up to the movement’s climax this fugato phrase is incorporated into the texture, and is then recalled by the horns to permeate the coda.
A horn call opens the C major Scherzo which works with a short motif full of energy, and is contrasted with a trio in D flat major which is dominated by delicate interweaving of the wind instruments while the strings play pizzicato, before the coda combines both scherzo and trio. This Scherzo was encored at the Vienna premiere.
The Presto finale brings a return of conflict and the key of C minor in a stormy, contrapuntal outpouring which drives forward without let-up, while trombones in their highest register emphasize the drama. The lyrical theme from the first movement returns to do duty as the second subject with its rhythm adapted to the restless energy of the finale. This lyrical theme starts the coda in A flat major, but the mood of restlessness is not really resolved despite a modulation back to C major as the final chords are punched out.
Keith Warsop © 2008
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