Andante grave – Allegro [8'08]
Scherzo – Trio [6'49]
Howard Shelley’s fascinating series of Spohr’s symphonies continues to inspire interest and delight in this underrated composer.
By the time Spohr came to write his Third Symphony he was established in the top rank of contemporary composers. It is a richer, more romantic work than its two predecessors, both through its orchestration and the more plastic quality of its themes with their stronger flavour of poetic fantasy. It also moves a step further away from the classical ideal and nearer to a romantic freedom of form.
The Sixth Symphony was written in an entirely new form—each movement in a different historical style—which baffled contemporaries. Today we accept compositions which work with musical styles from earlier periods such as Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana, Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella or Richard Strauss’ Dance Suite after Couperin but when Spohr pioneered the process with his ‘Historical’ Symphony contemporary listeners and critics completely failed to comprehend this concept. But it is in fact a very effective work. The styles imitated are filtered through Spohr’s imagination so giving the symphony its enduring fascination and providing it with a phoenix-like attribute of revival after each critical cremation.
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The ten symphonies of Louis Spohr span a period of forty-six years which saw music move from the Classical dominance of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to the Romantic era of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner. Spohr himself was an important link in this development, through his exploitation of chromatic harmony, his formal experiments and his four programmatic symphonies. When Spohr composed his first symphony in 1811, Beethoven still had to write his seventh, eighth and ninth, but by the time of Spohr’s final one in 1857 the entire symphonic output of Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann had come and gone, and all three of these composers were dead.
Spohr was born in the German city of Brunswick on 5 April 1784 and joined the court orchestra there as a fifteen-year-old violinist. He became the protégé of the Duke of Brunswick, who sponsored Spohr’s tuition under the Mannheim violinist Franz Eck during a concert tour to St Petersburg in 1802–03. Within two years Spohr was acclaimed as the leading German violinist and went on to become music director at the court of Gotha (1805–12), orchestra leader at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien (1813–15), and opera director in Frankfurt (1817–19). He fulfilled a long-held ambition with a tour through Italy in 1816–17, was engaged by London’s Philharmonic Society in 1820 and then visited Paris to give concerts in the winter of 1820–21.
By this time Spohr had been happily married for fifteen years and was the father of three young daughters, so he was keen to find a musical post which guaranteed a secure future. He achieved this aim with his appointment as Kapellmeister for life at Kassel where he took up his duties in January 1822. During his years in Kassel Spohr reached the peak of his fame, and was especially fêted in England where he made five more visits between 1839 and 1853. He also championed Wagner, conducting Kassel performances of The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser. Finally, the seventy-three-year-old composer was pensioned off by his princely employer in December 1857 and lived on in Kassel for nearly two more years before his death there on 22 October 1859.
It was in Kassel that Spohr’s main artistic emphasis switched from that of virtuoso violinist to international conductor and as a result his symphonic output increased considerably during these years. He seemed rather hesitant in his approach to the form during his earlier career, with just two symphonies dating from 1811 and 1820 respectively, but in March 1828 Spohr completed his Symphony No 3 in C minor Op 78. By this time he had established himself among the first rank of composers with his first two symphonies, violin concertos, chamber music and above all his operas Faust (1813), Zemire und Azor (1818) and Jessonda (1822) as well as his oratorio Die letzten Dinge (1826), the work known in England as The Last Judgment.
The Third Symphony is a richer, more romantic work than its two predecessors, both through its orchestration and the more plastic quality of its themes with their stronger flavour of poetic fantasy. It also moves a step further away from the classical ideal and nearer to a romantic freedom of form.
A spacious slow introduction, Andante grave, launches the first movement, and this gradually outlines the main motif of the following Allegro. Here the opening theme also serves as the second subject but shaped more lyrically while rhythmically stronger motifs are used for bridge passages. A major break with tradition comes at the close of the exposition; there is no repeat nor is there a development section to ‘work out’ the themes of the Allegro. Instead it is the Andante grave music which returns with note values lengthened to accommodate the prevailing Allegro tempo, and the material is expanded before reaching the recapitulation which soon moves into C major; there is an emphatic coda to end the movement in a positive mood.
The Larghetto in F major stands firmly among the family of romantic slow movements, featuring a seamless cantabile main theme, a transformation of the Allegro’s first subject, while the contrasting material is a highly passionate outpouring for unison strings enhanced by rhythmic punctuation from the wind which brings Tchaikovsky to mind. A particularly expressive passage on violas and cellos is given to the first horn with fine effect when it reappears later on.
The C minor Scherzo is far removed in mood from the clear-cut, driving rhythms which this title usually conjures up. Instead it seems to reflect something of the romantic atmosphere of Spohr’s operas from this period, which feature black magic, supernatural events, mountain sprites and the like. The only fortissimo comes with the two final chords; otherwise dynamics are generally subdued, punctuated by the occasional forte, and the music, which never reaches an outright climax, evokes a spectral world that turns warmer in the major-key Trio where the wind instruments gambol with captivating effect.
The Allegro finale establishes a positive atmosphere from the outset with its C major tonality and onward-driving main theme that dominates the movement and whose first six bars provide almost all of its material. A figure from this is used as the basis of the second subject and the opening theme accompanies it in the bass, then the contrapuntal hints in the exposition turn into a full-scale fugue to replace a development as the orchestral entries reach a powerful climax before the recapitulation. Finally, brass fanfares underpin a triumphant coda.
The composer gave the symphony its premiere in Kassel on Easter Sunday, 6 April, 1828 in a concert which also included Leo’s Miserere and Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, the first time Spohr had conducted this great work which later became one of his repertoire pieces. The Third Symphony quickly became a standard work throughout the nineteenth century, and many distinguished interpreters conducted it, including Mendelssohn, on 18 March 1847 in the last concert he gave before his death, and Wagner, on 25 June 1855 during his stint with the Philharmonic Society in London.
Spohr’s development through his first five symphonies mirrored the pattern found in the works of the great Viennese masters, whose final symphonies are seen as the culmination of their achievements in the form. However, with his Symphony No 6 in G major Op 116, Spohr broke this mould to compose a work which was sui generis and baffled contemporary listeners. He worked on the symphony in July and August 1839 in response to a commission from London’s Philharmonic Society and gave it the title ‘Historical Symphony in the style and taste of four different periods’. Each movement reflects a period in the history of music: Bach–Handel 1720; Haydn– Mozart 1780; Beethoven 1810; and the Very Latest Period 1840.
During the 1820s and 1830s there was a growing interest in music of earlier times culminating in a series of historical concerts directed by Mendelssohn in Leipzig early in 1838. Spohr himself contributed to this movement with his Concertino for violin and orchestra Op 110, ‘Sonst und Jetzt’ (‘Then and Now’), from February 1839, which contrasted violin styles of the composer’s youth and the contemporary period. He was also involved in the revival of Bach, and as early as 1809 had acquired the autograph of the 15 Inventions and 15 Sinfonias BWV772–801, part of the Clavier-Büchlein for W F Bach, and from 1823 in Kassel he began performing Bach’s motets alongside such composers as Palestrina and Carissimi. In 1827 Spohr obtained the score of the St Matthew Passion and only the obstruction of his ruling prince prevented him from possibly preceding Mendelssohn in the public resurrection of this masterpiece, though he was eventually allowed to perform it in 1832, 1833, 1834, 1845 and 1851.
The opening movement of the Sixth Symphony evoking the period of Bach and Handel begins with a slow introduction, Largo grave, which presents the main theme of the following contrapuntal Allegro moderato. In place of a development section, Spohr introduces a Pastorale reminiscent of Handel before returning to the Bachian fugal material.
Although the two great Viennese classical masters are linked in the E flat major Larghetto’s title, and the opening motif slightly resembles the main theme of the slow movement in Haydn’s Symphony No 87 (1785), he then disappears from view as Spohr offers a beautiful and touching tribute to his hero, Mozart, with material modelled on the Andante con moto in his E flat major Symphony K543. At one point Spohr reminds us that he stands behind this evocation of Mozart; a dotted Mozartian phrase is shortened and transformed into a motif which instantly brings to mind the opening of Spohr’s popular Nonet.
The G minor Scherzo reflects aspects of Beethoven through its use of three timpani at the start plus some abrupt gestures; here Beethoven’s use of timpani in his Seventh Symphony is the clear inspiration as Spohr played in its 1813 premiere in Vienna under the composer’s direction, recalling that ‘the wonderful second movement was encored and made upon me also a deep and lasting impression.’ In contrast, the major-key Trio follows a typical Spohr procedure in being based on varied and modified forms of the Scherzo theme, whereas Beethoven’s trios are usually independent of the Scherzo proper.
The stylistic differences between the movements are accentuated by a gradual growth in the size of the orchestra. ‘Bach–Handel’ is scored for the usual strings plus two each of flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns; ‘Haydn–Mozart’ adds two clarinets; ‘Beethoven’ brings in three timpani as well as two more horns; and the ‘Very Latest’ finale expands to a full-blown romantic ensemble with the addition of piccolo, two trumpets, three trombones, triangle, cymbals, bass drum and side drum.
For this finale Spohr adopted a modern style which he deplored—that of Parisian grand opera and ballet. Here he seems to be saying ‘anything you can do, I can do better’, mixed in with some hints of composers such as Auber and Adam plus a sideways glance at Berlioz and Meyerbeer. It was this movement which most confused the London audience when Sir George Smart conducted the Philharmonic Society’s orchestra in the first performance at the Hanover Square Rooms on 6 April 1840, for they would probably have expected something in Spohr’s own style as exemplified in his earlier symphonies.
Today we accept compositions which work with musical styles from earlier periods such as Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana, Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella or Richard Strauss’s Dance Suite after Couperin, but when Spohr pioneered the process with his ‘Historical’ Symphony contemporary listeners and critics completely failed to comprehend this concept.
However Spohr professed himself well satisfied with this finale, commenting in a letter to a friend that the ambiguous reaction of people to it was exactly the effect produced by the very latest style of music; he pointed out that some thought he was satirizing the modern school while others felt that he meant to show how much more effective the latest compositional style could be.
Schumann, in a well-known criticism of the Sixth Symphony, stated that when it was played in Germany one could hear from every corner of the hall the sound ‘Spohr … Spohr’, and it is true that the composer’s personal fingerprints are present throughout but this is a positive feature. The styles imitated are filtered through Spohr’s imagination so giving the symphony its enduring fascination and providing it with a phoenix-like attribute of revival after each critical cremation.
Soon after completing the Sixth Symphony Spohr visited England, where his Passion oratorio Des Heilands letzte Stunden (known in Britain as Calvary) created a big impression at the Norwich Musical Festival in the presence of the composer, so that the festival committee immediately commissioned a new work from him for the next festival in 1842. This was The Fall of Babylon which Spohr completed in December 1840.
The Overture begins, Andante, in a gloomy E flat minor using the oratorio’s opening number, the lamenting chorus of the enslaved Israelites on the banks of the Euphrates near Babylon, ‘Gott unsrer Väter, hör die Bitten’ (‘God of our fathers, hear our prayer’). A vigorous theme in the major launches the Allegro moderato before the march of the victorious Persian army is introduced, featuring a piccolo and side drum. This march theme recurs as a leitmotif during the oratorio, most significantly in the ‘fall of Babylon’ scene. One unusual feature of the overture’s orchestration is that, although Spohr uses a large orchestra including four horns and three trombones, he omits the timpani, perhaps seeking a more brassy, brazen Old Testament sound.
Keith Warsop © 2010
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