'The performances are first rate, and the solo horn playing is glorious' (The Guardian)
'Performed with commitment and style by instrumentalists well versed in Spohr's musical particulars under Howard Shelley's glint-in-the-eye direction … There is a charm and genuineness that is readily apparent and which is welcome. The recording is first class' (IRR)
Part 2 No 1: Summer. Largo [6'41]
Introduzione in D major WoO5 [0'50]
Festmarsch in D major WoO3 [5'22]
We talk of the nine symphonies of Beethoven and Bruckner but what about the ten of Spohr? Howard Shelley and the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana conclude their survey of his symphonies with two that push the boundaries of the genre itself. Both Nos 7 and 9 are programmatic works, something that Spohr along with Berlioz did much to champion. In the Seventh, titled ‘The earthly and divine in human life’ and inspired by a holiday in Switzerland, he uses not one but two orchestras to great colouristic effect. His Ninth explores that perennial favourite theme of composers from Vivaldi to Glazunov, the Seasons (though Spohr starts with winter rather than spring). As if that were not enough, Howard Shelley also offers the premiere recordings of a brief, powerful Introduzione and a triumphant, at times almost Rossini-ish, Festmarsch.
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Louis Spohr stands alongside Hector Berlioz as a pioneer of the programme symphony in the early Romantic era, with four such works composed between 1832 and 1850. But while Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and to a lesser extent his Harold in Italy and Romeo and Juliet remain part of today’s concert life, Spohr’s works held their place in the repertoire only for a few decades. Yet between them Berlioz and Spohr introduced many of the common types of subject matter treated in later programme symphonies and symphonic poems.
With the Symphonie fantastique Berlioz invented the biographical programme, while his Harold in Italy and Romeo and Juliet were based on masterpieces of literature, and his Symphonie funèbre et triomphale dealt with a great public event. Spohr, with his Die Weihe der Töne (Symphony No 4, ‘The Consecration of Sounds’), handled philosophical material taken from a poem describing the effects of sounds in their various manifestations on human life—birdsong, the lullaby, dance, marching to battle, the Te Deum and funeral music. Then, his ‘Historical Symphony in the style and taste of four different periods’ (No 6) initiated the idea of working with musical styles from earlier times, which had such successors as Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana, Grieg’s Holberg Suite and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Of the two symphonies recorded here, No 7 has an ethical or metaphysical dimension, and No 9 deals with nature, although here, to be sure, Spohr had many predecessors.
It is true that in the eighteenth century composers wrote symphonies with programmes, the most outstanding examples of which are the twelve works by Dittersdorf based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. But as the nineteenth century dawned the dominance of the mature masterpieces of Haydn and Mozart relegated these earlier programmatic symphonies to the library archives. So to the first generation of Romantic composers, Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony stood in solitary splendour as a template of the programme genre.
Berlioz, of course, shunned the conventional symphony, but Spohr was equally happy to move between the programmatic and non-programmatic in his ten symphonies, dating from 1811 to 1857. Consequently he found himself in the firing line from critics on both sides of the musical factions of the day: from the radicals who disapproved of his more traditional symphonies and from the conservatives who attacked the programmatic ones.
Another contrast between the two composers is that the Frenchman had still to establish his reputation when he burst upon the scene with his Symphonie fantastique, whereas when Spohr wrote his first programme symphony he was already an acclaimed master who had made his name as early as 1804 as a violin virtuoso and composer of highly praised concertos. After his emergence from the ducal orchestra in his home city of Brunswick, Spohr’s career took off with appointments in Gotha (1805–12), Vienna (1813–15), Frankfurt (1817–19) and finally Kassel (1822–57). Alongside these positions he also made many concert tours, including trips to St Petersburg, Italy, England and Paris, as well as playing an important part in the development of baton conducting. His operas Faust (1813), Zemire und Azor (1818) and Jessonda (1822), together with his oratorio Die letzten Dinge (1826), helped to cement his reputation in the front rank, and after the death of Beethoven in 1827 he was considered by many to be the greatest living German composer.
Spohr’s final programme symphony, No 9 in B minor, Op 143, Die Jahreszeiten (‘The Seasons’), was completed in April 1850 and has an autobiographical significance. Spohr conceived the idea of the work in December 1849, but his second wife, Marianne, fell seriously ill on Boxing Day and for a while her life was in danger. The day after her full recovery, 22 January 1850, following a heavy overnight frost, Spohr slipped on the ice and fell, suffering severe concussion which kept him bed-ridden for some weeks. While laid up, ideas for the symphony haunted his sleepless nights and as soon as he was fit enough to get up he worked away at the new composition.
The symphony is scored for a large orchestra, including four horns, three trombones and a bass horn (serpent or ophicleide), and has an unusual construction with its division into two parts, the first linking winter and spring and the second summer and autumn. Part One seems to reflect Spohr’s own January misfortunes, for most other works based on the seasons—Vivaldi’s four violin concertos, Haydn’s oratorio, Raff’s cycle of four symphonies and Glazunov’s ballet—open with spring and close in winter. By contrast, Spohr’s symphony starts in the depths of winter, with powerful outbursts alternating with icy interludes on the wind instruments and pizzicato strings, while a trudging second subject which reaches B major in the recapitulation is blown aside by the insistent main theme and a return to B minor. Eventually winter’s motif seems to melt away and the sound of birdsong heralds the emergence of spring, a scherzo and trio. A languorous dance, Moderato, still accompanied by the birdsong, is contrasted with a much livelier Presto before this first section returns.
Summer begins Part Two, Largo, with the evocation of sultry heat achieved through dividing muted strings into nine separate parts. A central section dominated by a theme on horn and woodwind brings sounds of distant thunder before the heat returns, the music rises to a climax and then slowly dies away. Horn calls announce the arrival of autumn with their hunting rhythms, and Spohr also celebrates the season of wine festivals by quoting a then-popular drinking song, the Rheinweinlied ‘Bekränzt mit Laub’ (‘Decorate with a garland of leaves’) from the Lieder im Volkston (1782) by J A P Schulz (1747–1800). This undergoes fugal treatment in the development in combination with Spohr’s own main motif. The positive and joyful conclusion to the symphony suggests that Spohr had put his unfortunate wintry experiences firmly behind him. The work had its first performance at a Leipzig Gewandhaus concert on 24 October 1850, followed swiftly by a London outing under the baton of Michael Balfe (composer of The Bohemian Girl) on 25 November.
The Symphony No 7 in C major, Op 121, Irdisches und Göttliches im Menschenleben (‘The earthly and divine in human life’), was inspired by a Swiss holiday in the summer of 1841 where the beauty of the lakes and the majesty of the mountains seemed to demand musical expression in a work of real grandeur. When Spohr told his wife about these feelings she suggested a double symphony for two orchestras, on the lines of his double quartets where two string quartets shared and exchanged the musical material. The composer took up the idea avidly and devised the plan of representing the principles of the earthly and the divine in the human heart through the use of two contrasting orchestras. A small group of eleven instruments to exemplify the divine principle consists of a flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, two violins, a viola, cello and double bass, while a full orchestra represents the earthly side of mankind.
The standard symphonic plan of four movements, with two inner ones comprising a slow movement and a minuet or scherzo, is abandoned. Instead there are three movements whose sequence in effect takes us from the cradle to the grave. As well as drawing parallels with Liszt’s symphonic poem of that title, Spohr’s Symphony No 7 also has interesting affinities with Liszt’s Faust Symphony of 1854–7, in terms of structure and ideas (Liszt admired Spohr and conducted several of his works). Spohr’s wife provided verses to preface each movement.
A short introduction featuring a prominent horn solo leads to Kinderwelt (‘The world of childhood’) in a clear C major. A simple, attractive theme has playful interjections from the wind instruments followed by a more lyrical motif. The small orchestra dominates, with the large one generally giving support or echoing the ‘childhood’ themes. Robert Schumann, in an enthusiastic review of the symphony, said of this movement: ‘The deep mind of the master now opens itself in the whole of its rich fulness and speaks to us in the noblest sounds.’
In the F minor second movement, Zeit der Leidenschaften (‘The age of passion’), the earthly elements step to the forefront and the large orchestra comes into its own. A slow introduction produces a little ‘love duet’ between the clarinet and bassoon of the small orchestra, but rumblings in the bass accompany a gradual acceleration that launches the main Allegro moderato. The first violin of the small orchestra then leads the way with a virtuoso solo part as the music seems to throw itself into hedonistic manifestations of passion. However, warlike fervour soon intrudes: fanfares on horns and trumpets propel the orchestras into a powerful march. After both sections reappear in slightly abbreviated form the movement rises to a huge climax and the final word goes to a thump on the timpani.
The third movement, Endlicher Sieg des Göttlichen (‘Final victory of the divine’), sets the two principles in direct opposition. A Presto in C minor launches the large orchestra on a ‘ride into the abyss’ while its smaller companion interjects with more lyrical, hymn-like tones, easily shrugged off at this stage. Gradually these warning sounds become more insistent, but the large orchestra continues to batter away against these until its force recedes and the first movement’s C major is reimposed. After a two-bar pause the tempo slows to Adagio and the two orchestras unite to celebrate the victory of the divine principle or, if the listener wishes, the redemption of humanity. The theme of the small orchestra dominates this coda as the music rises to a climax three times, with the third one the most emphatic (Spohr withholds the timpani from the clinching chord of each of the first two climaxes so the final one gains extra power), before winding down to a beautiful conclusion. The composer gave the work its premiere in Kassel shortly after completing it in September 1841, and the symphony soon did the rounds of European concert halls, including a London performance by the Philharmonic Society Orchestra conducted by Moscheles on 30 May 1842.
It was Spohr’s seventh symphony which drew from Schumann this eloquent tribute: ‘Let us follow him in art, in life, in all his striving! The industry which is apparent in every line of the score is truly moving. May he stand with our greatest Germans as a shining example.’
Spohr’s memoirs go into some detail about the genesis of the Festmarsch in D major, WoO3. It was written along with the opera Der Berggeist for the marriage of the Kassel electoral prince’s daughter, Princess Marie, to Duke Bernhard of Saxe-Meiningen on 23 March 1825. Spohr says that the march was played as the newly married couple and the wedding guests moved in procession from the banqueting hall to the White Saloon, to be immediately encored. Spohr was required to incorporate an old German dance tune, the Großvatertanz (‘Grandfather’s Dance’), that was particularly associated with marriage—this tune was also used by Schumann in his piano pieces Papillons and Carnaval. Spohr, even in such a slight piece composed for a one-off occasion, does not allow his standards to drop. After a rousing opening on full orchestra the strings continue the march rhythm, but the woodwind introduce the ‘Grandfather’ tune in 6/4 time and, when this later reappears reinforced with trumpets and drums, they add a cheeky little four-bar pendant.
The sixteen-bar Introduzione in D major, WoO5, dates from the end of 1830 shortly after the Kassel populace, fired up by the July revolution of that year in France, had won from the elector a liberal constitution. To mark this achievement a festival evening was staged on 9 January 1831 at the Kassel theatre which included a play written for the occasion by city councillor Anton Niemeyer, and Spohr composed this miniature as a literal curtain-raiser to the event. As it is in the same key and uses the same orchestral forces as the Festmarsch it is played here as an effective prelude to the jaunty march.
Keith Warsop © 2012
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