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Hyperion Records

CDA66699 - Spohr: Octet & Nonet
Recording details: November 1993
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: April 1994
Total duration: 60 minutes 23 seconds

'An excellent pairing of two enduringly attractive works' (Gramophone)

'It's doubtful that either has ever received a performance superior to this … superb' (Classic CD)

'A highly recommendable disc on all counts' (CDReview)

Octet & Nonet
Allegro  [11'19]
Scherzo: Allegro  [6'29]
Adagio  [7'03]
Finale: Vivace  [7'35]
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
’May you, dear Spohr, wherever you find real art, and real artists, think with pleasure of me, your friend Beethoven.’ In this personal testament to his sometime companion, Beethoven acknowledged a central figure in the development of European concert music. As the nineteenth century progressed Louis Spohr was engaged and feted by the major musical establishments for whom he conducted the steady output of orchestral, solo and chamber works. His reputation clearly rivalled that of Schubert, Schumann, Weber, Berlioz and others.

After Viotti (formerly Europe’s top violinist), Spohr became Germany’s favourite virtuoso, equalled only by Rode and Paganini. In particular he displayed great agility, noteworthy strength of the left hand and a wide compass of tone. The legendary Italian achieved still wider fame and unprecedented notoriety as an ‘ally of the devil’ from, the 1830s, but his forerunners’s music was held in far greater esteem. Though virtually unknown today, for a time Spohr’s nine symphonies were regarded as second only to Beethoven’s. His compositions were heard extensively and enjoyed great popularity. The opera Jessonda vied with Weber’s Der Freischütz in its acclaim, while Faust (another of his eleven operas) enjoyed a period of immense popularity on both sides of the Channel. He was among the more prolific of German ‘romantics’ with works including fifteen violin concertos, four concert overtures, 34 string quartets, seven string quintets, five piano trios and four double string quartets. The chamber works on this disc exemplify his flair for tackling new or neglected combinations. No one but Boccherini (Notturno Nonet No 8) had attempted nine-part chamber writing.

Especially notable in the 1820 London season was Spohr’s brief publicity as a cause célèbre, though some doubt surrounds the incident, caused by using a baton to conduct the London Philharmonic Society—a widely noted event, though Spohr was by no means first to draw attention to the beat in this way. Much of the existing information comes from his autobiography, a fascinating document, but not without its errors. Die Selbst biographie van Louis Spohr was reproduced in 1954 by Eugen Schmitz in the Bärenreiter-Verlag, Kassel and Basel, drawing on the 1860 original as its source material. An English edition had appeared in 1865 and this confirmed the variety of factual errors plus evidence of a faulty memory. It seems to confirm that Spohr did indeed use a baton in his London rehearsals, only (some say) to discard it during his public appearances. Perhaps more pertinently, he is credited with recreating Baroque oratorio and giving it truly ‘Romantic’ form.

In the early nineteenth century Spohr numbered Meyerbeer, Kreutzer, Hummel, Moscheles, Schuppanzigh, Clementi, Field, Cherubini and Moritz Hauptman among his musical companions. Time has treated Spohr more shabbily than several of his contemporaries. What a contrast from an era (170 years past) when his musical ‘star’ was so much in the ascendant. In those early days of travel and during his residence in Vienna, Northern Germany was in political turmoil, Napolean was in retreat, and the Congress of Vienna ushered in the last party-like phase of Habsburg splendour and social gaiety. Vocal concerts were mounted by the Tonkunstler Verein (founded 1772). The aristocracy had founded Liebhaber Konzerte, and Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde was already instituted. At the influential Theater an der Wien, Count Palffy offered Spohr a three-year engagement as conductor and concert­master. Spohr was uncertain, being reluctant to give up duties as ‘Herzoglich Gothaischer Konzertmeister’, a post he had first held at the Ducal Court of Gotha in 1805.

The composer records how negotiator George Friedrich Treitschke ‘offered three times our [Spohr and first wife, concert harpist Dorette Scheidler] combined salaries at Gotha. He told me, moreover, that Count Palffy had succeeded in engaging the best living singers and he now wished to entrust to me the building of an orchestra from the finest musicians in Vienna; in short the Theater an der Wien would shortly be the best in Germany. I would have an opportunity to develop and distinguish myself as composer for the theatre.’ Privately, Spohr estimated he would be netting more than court conductors Antonio Salieri and his assistant Joseph Weigl. He estimated that together they would save a third, maybe even half of their joint salaries. I could … count on adding a good deal to the income by concerts, composition and teaching … I could (also) realize my childhood dream of a trip to Italy with my wife and children.’

At the age of fifteen Spohr had become a violinist in the ducal orchestra of Brunswick. Early compositions, written in his late teens, included the first three violin concertos and two string quartets. After a triumphant German concert tour (1804) he settled down to further composition and a somewhat quieter time with the Gotha orchestra. Even greater and still more unexpected fortune awaited the Spohrs in Vienna. One morning a distinguished visitor arrived at their doorstep with an extraordinary proposition. It was manufacturer and music lover Herr von Tost who broached his subject with a ‘hymn of praise’ to Spohr’s talent. The composer takes up this strange story: ‘He expressed the wish that everything I should write in Vienna be reckoned as his property for a period of three years. I was to give him the original manuscripts and make no copies … “they may be performed as often as is possible but the scores must be borrowed from me [Tost] for each occasion and performed only in my presence”.’

Spohr tells how Tost expressed a preference for forms tailored to programme requirements of private gatherings; quartets, string quintets, sextets and these larger scale works … the Octet and Nonet for strings and winds. Louis and Dorette were intrigued at the newcomer’s enigmatic overture. They promptly sought an explanation, discovering that Tost was a rich textile merchant with a cloth factory in Znaim. He also proved to be a founder member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and an inveterate concert-goer. It is thought that Tost had worked out a similar arrangement in relation to a number of Haydn’s quartets. On asking the beneficent stranger outright for his reasons, he replied … ‘I have two objects. Firstly, I want to be invited to the musicales where your compositions will be played. Secondly, I hope that on business trips the possession of such treasures will bring me the acquaintanceship of many music-lovers. That will be profitable for me and my business affairs.’

A deal was reached and without delay Spohr delivered an already-complete string quartet, asking for sixty ducats to pay a carpenter already at work renovating their new apartment. Through his commercial contacts Tost enabled the couple to save money while equipping the property in grand style. He explained: ‘Don’t worry, it will not cost too much. I shall not require cash. By degrees you will even it out with your manuscripts.’ Before a farewell visit to Gotha, the composer entrusted two further string quartets to Tost; his G minor, Op 27 (later dedicated to Count Razumovsky), and the F minor, Op 29 No 3.

On returning from Gotha the composer busied himself with Faust, completing it between the end of May and mid-September. ‘As soon as I had a few numbers finished,’ he writes, ‘I would rush off to Meyerbeer … a marvellous score reader. He would play the orchestral score and I would sing the vocal parts.’ Most significantly, within this opera Spohr anticipates Wagner and his use of ‘leitmotif’. The first performance was presented in Prague in 1816. But it was Meyerbeer who prepared a new production of Faust for the Berlin Opera while Johann Peter Pixis prepared a piano part for Vienna.

By now (winter) Spohr was busy with the Nonet. ‘After completing Faust,’ the composer recalled, ‘I bethought myself of my obligation to Tost and asked him what he would like. He thought for a moment and decided for a nonette, made up of four strings plus flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon, to be written in such a way that each instrument would appear in its true character. I was much attracted by the difficulty of the assignment and went right to work.’ Eventually the piece was in Tost’s hands. He had it copied out and invited Vienna’s best artists to his own house for a premiere under Spohr’s direction. At each later performance Tost would appear with the score and parts carried proprietorially beneath his arm. He set them on the stands himself and gathered them up delightedly after the performance. ‘He was as pleased by the applause as if he himself had been the composer,’ Spohr concluded.

The work was an unqualified success, played frequently that season and widely thereafter. An indication of its popularity was discovered en route to engagements in London over five years later, in 1819/20. Spohr and Dorette stopped in Gandersheim and presented concerts in Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, Kassel and Lille. Here the Amateur Society was run by a Herr Vogel and on their arrival Madame Vogel, beside singing its theme, promptly enquired if she was addressing the composer of the Nonet. Spohr wrote, ‘When I responded in the affirmative she fell on my neck in a burst of Gallic impulsiveness and cried; “Oh! how pleased my husband will be … car il est fou de votre Nonetto”.’

Typically, Spohr’s inventive powers were fuelled by challenge and he makes conspicuous use of all nine ‘voices’; mindful of Tost’s requirement that the Nonet should emphasize individual characteristics of each instrument. Perhaps the work’s most persuasive, and undoubtedly unifying, feature is the four-note sequence that begins it. It is present in all movements except the felicitous D minor scherzo—a structure built around two trios, one of which involves the strings while the other combines winds and double bass. The four-note motif is most predominant in Spohr’s opening Allegro where it is established immediately and reappears in fugal form as the movement develops.

As the expressive Adagio unfolds, this germ-like feature is heard yet again and within both exposition and coda it reinforces the movement’s basic construction. Spohr’s buoyant Vivace brings one last, jocular allusion to the persistent motif with a second subject reference from the oboe. The entire work is skilfully crafted and to this day retains the interest and appeal it held for those first, enthusiastic Viennese audiences.

Amid this flurry of creative activity a great sadness befell the Spohrs. Friedrich, the son that Dorette bore on 1 July 1814, died after less than three months. It was a terrible blow. Yet soon their high pace of life was resumed. Dorette practiced her harp while her husband busied himself with characteristic vigour. Napoleon’s defeat in the battle of Leipzig the previous October had caused a great wave of patriotism and a widespread creative response from all manner of artists. It also fired Tost to suggest that Spohr should write a cantata, Das befreite Deutschland, celebrating the Emperor of Austria’s return to Vienna. As it happened this lengthy choral work was first heard during the Frankenhausen Festival of October 1815. Events had marched on and now it was seen as commemorating Wellington’s victory at Waterloo.

When Tost planned a business trip to England he prevailed upon Spohr to incorporate a theme from Handel (The Harmonious Blacksmith) in his new Octet. This would find a glad response among English audiences, the benefactor reasoned. The Octet became a pivotal work of Spohr’s final days in Vienna. Scored for clarinet, two horns, violin, two violas, cello and bass, the work was reportedly inspired by the artistry of Theater an der Wien players Joseph Friedlowsky (clarinet) and Michael Herbst (horn). Long beforehand, Boccherini has brought increased sonority to a group of string quintets, using two violas. Spohr went a step further with just one violin revelling in the spotlight while his violas mirrored the timbre of brass and winds.

There is little in the first movement resembling construction processes found in the Nonet. It begins with an Adagio with the first bar announcing components (albeit back to front) found in the first ‘a tempo’ Allegro theme. Reference to the second subject is found in final moments of the introduction. Surprisingly, Spohr’s Adagio reappears, now allegro, after a brief segment of development. From here listeners are carried swiftly forward to the principal second subject.

The Menuetto is in the scherzo style. It has pronounced syncopation and a chromatic character; the Spohr imprint which later prompted Beethoven’s dismissive and sole recorded comment on his colleague’s music—‘It is too rich in dissonances; pleasure in his music is marred by his chromatic melody’, he grumbled. By now thge two composers were on divergent courses, finding little to admire in one another’s music.

Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith is introduced as the ‘Andante con variazoni’ theme. Here again interest is upheld through Spohr’s inexhaustible invention, a trait which performers warmed to, for it captivated both instrumentalists and audiences alike. Once again Schubert may readily spring to mind yet the movement retains much which typifies Spohr’s affirmative gifts, and his alone.

A breath of country air seems to permeate the rondo-style Finale. It is joyous, undemanding, meticulously crafted, and throughout its length remains in keeping with the work as a whole.

In our century it has been said that Spohr was ‘too often derivative and facile … most willing to accomodate audiences which sought entertainment rather than edification.’ More enlightened authorities find he had a true and worthwhile place in the musical continuum. A ‘minor Romantic’, Perhaps. But one who does not deserve the neglect that even now surrounds much of his work. These enchanting chamber pieces reveal something of the ‘voice’ that time may even now vindicate.

Howard Smith © 1994

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