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Hyperion Records

CDA67802 - Spohr: Symphonies Nos 8 & 10
The Stages of Life (c1835) by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
Museum der Bildenden Kunste, Leipzig / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67802
Recording details: April 2010
Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
Produced by Ben Connellan
Engineered by Michael Rast
Release date: February 2011
Total duration: 67 minutes 46 seconds

'These performances—crisp, clear and affectionate—are well recorded and make for pleasing listening, not least Spohr's symphonic swan-song. With just Symphonies Nos 7 and 9 remaining to complete Hyperion's cycle, those converted will need no persuading. Anyone new to Spohr's symphonies would do well to start here' (International Record Review)

Symphonies Nos 8 & 10
Adagio – Allegro  [12'40]
Poco adagio  [6'23]
Finale: Allegro  [9'50]
Allegro  [7'23]
Larghetto  [7'10]
Finale: Allegro  [5'54]

Howard Shelley’s fascinating discs of Spohr’s symphonies with the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana have reignited interest in a composer who was once the most important in Europe, and particularly so in England, where he was worshipped by all of musical society.

Spohr’s Eighth Symphony is one of the composer’s more conservative experiments with the form. The Tenth is the composer’s final symphony and remained unpublished – languishing in the former Prussian State Library in Berlin for many years – until 2006. Both works bring unexpected pleasures. This is the penultimate volume of a series which as a whole is an important historical document of musical taste.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
When the fifty-nine-year-old Louis Spohr visited England in the summer of 1843 to conduct performances of his own compositions, the Musical World enthused: ‘Spohr—the great Spohr—the immortal while yet living, founder of a new feeling, if not of a new school in music—Spohr, the mighty master … has been acknowledged by the people in a manner that does them, no less than him, the highest and proudest honour.’ The Musical Examiner added: ‘Spohr has come among us. What associations does this honoured name awake in the bosom of every true artist! Spohr—the great Spohr—the composer of The Power of Sound [Symphony No 4] and The Last Judgment, is in England—in London—in the midst of us all.’ And The Times newspaper joined in by affirming that his works ‘will live so long as music occupies the rank of an art’. Such ecstatic estimates of Spohr were not uncommon during this period. Indeed, since the death of Beethoven in 1827 many in both Germany and Britain ranked him as the greatest living composer, equalled only latterly by the much younger Mendelssohn.

This adulation was not confined just to the musical public at large; his fellow composers also held him in high regard. Brahms said of Jessonda, Spohr’s most successful opera: ‘I find the opera magnificent … Jessonda captured my heart and I shall feel the same about it for the rest of my life.’ Schumann ended a glowing review of Spohr’s Symphony No 7 with the clarion call: ‘Let us follow him in art, in life … may he stand with our greatest Germans as a shining example.’ Mendelssohn said: ‘Even as a boy I had the greatest esteem for him in every respect and, with my riper years, this feeling has in no way been weakened.’ Chopin found Spohr’s Octet to be ‘lovely, exquisite’. Bruckner is said to have told conductor Hans Richter that it was Spohr who gave him the main theme of his great Te Deum when appearing to him in a dream. And Wagner’s obituary tribute concluded: ‘He was a serious, honourable master of his art; the central tenet of his life was belief in his art, and his deepest inspirations sprang from the strength given by this article of faith. Honour be to Spohr’s name! May his memory be revered and his admirable example cherished!’

One of the attributes that helped Spohr to be placed at such an Olympian height was that, like his great predecessors in the German musical tradition, he made his mark in all of the major genres—operas, oratorios, symphonies, concertos, overtures, chamber music for a variety of ensembles and Lieder.

Spohr was born in the north German city of Brunswick on 5 April 1784, the first child of Carl Heinrich Spohr, a doctor who was a pioneer of homeopathic medicine, and his wife, Juliane Ernestine Luise, daughter of the Lutheran minister at the city’s main church. Both parents were keen amateur musicians and at the age of five young Louis was given his first violin, an instrument that still survives in the Brunswick state museum. He made considerable progress on it during his childhood studies and at the age of fifteen joined the Duke of Brunswick’s court orchestra before going on to establish himself as the leading German violinist of his day. When only twenty-one he won his first major post with his appointment as music director at the court of Gotha (1805–12), before moving on to positions in Vienna (1813–15), Frankfurt (1817–19) and finally Kassel (1822–57), where he died on 22 October 1859 nearly two years after his retirement. Spohr also made many concert tours throughout Europe with his first wife, the harp virtuoso Dorette Scheidler, including a long-awaited trip through Italy in 1816–17 and a visit to Paris in 1820–21.

The English love affair with Spohr dated from 1820 when he came to London to perform at the Philharmonic Society concerts and where he composed his Symphony No 2, which he dedicated to the Society. The 1843 visit that garnered the accolades quoted above was Spohr’s third to England; it followed one in 1839 and was succeeded by three more, in 1847, 1852 and 1853. It was during the 1847 trip, made at the invitation of the Sacred Harmonic Society to conduct his choral music, that the Philharmonic Society commissioned the eighth of Spohr’s ten symphonies.

He began sketching the music in August though the bulk of the work was done during September and October. In a letter dated 9 November 1847 Spohr informed his former colleague Moritz Hauptmann that he had just completed the symphony. The Philharmonic Society performed it under Sir Michael Costa at London’s Hanover Square Rooms on 1 May 1848, but had allowed Spohr to give the premiere in Kassel on 22 December 1847. However, though the work was received with the respect due to a composer of Spohr’s standing, many seemed disappointed that he had returned to a more conservative structure than in any of his symphonies since the first. Even the non-programmatic third and fifth symphonies contained rudimentary elements of cyclic form, but such things were absent from the eighth.

With hindsight we can point to other composers whose eighth symphonies have been used as an opportunity to project a more relaxed mood after strong sevenths. Spohr himself, in his seventh, had written for double orchestra when dealing with Irdisches und Göttliches im Menschenleben (‘the Earthly and Divine in Human Life’), while the differences between Beethoven’s powerful seventh and more light-hearted eighth had already provoked comment. Later, Dvorák’s melodious eighth (like Spohr’s, in G major) followed his D minor seventh which, the composer said, ‘must be such as to shake the world’. Then in the twentieth century Vaughan Williams put his epic Sinfonia Antartica behind him with his ‘little eighth’.

The relaxed mood in Spohr’s Symphony No 8 in G major, Op 137, is not established without opposition. First, a dramatic slow introduction in G minor, Adagio, seems to portend weighty matters only for the clouds to be swept away by a lyrical opening theme to the Allegro. The second subject too is cut from the same cloth, but the bridge passages undermine this stability and the bridge motif proves to have a wider thematic significance as it forms the fugato at the core of the development. The two moods are never wholly reconciled and the movement ends in an uneasy truce.

The highly expressive Poco adagio in C minor has a funereal tread with extensive use of trombones, but it turns to the major towards the close. The air seems to have been cleared for a good-humoured atmosphere to dominate in the final two movements, which introduce elements of the serenade. The Scherzo foreshadows the Brahmsian type of intermezzo-scherzo with its Allegretto pace and 2/4 time signature, while the Trio, Un poco meno allegro, features a virtuosic solo violin which returns in the coda to have the last word. The Allegro finale, with its quirky main theme, gives a prominent role to the wind instruments, especially with the second subject, and at the end the music dies away gently, having left earlier conflicts far behind.

Spohr completed his final symphony, No 10 in E flat major, WoO8, in April 1857, and the story behind it has an intriguing parallel with Sibelius’s last symphony, his eighth, with the important difference that Spohr’s work survived whereas the Finnish master is believed to have destroyed his. It would appear that both composers were worried about how their final symphonic testament would stand up to public scrutiny in comparison to their earlier ones which had won such acclaim. Spohr put this feeling into words when he wrote to his friend, the Frankfurt banker and Lieder composer Wilhelm Speyer, on 27 November 1857: ‘I recently received a request from the Philharmonic Society in London to write a symphony or other large-scale orchestral work for next season. I turned down the request because, though I have recently written some quartets worthy of my earlier ones, I do not feel myself able to write a symphony capable of being placed alongside my previous ones from my second symphony onwards. I must also take care not to sink in the estimation of the English in particular.’

It seems from this letter that Spohr’s commission from the Philharmonic Society arrived after he had shelved the tenth and he did not mention the work to Speyer. Soon after the symphony’s completion Spohr rehearsed it with his Kassel orchestra and, according to the section added to his memoirs by his second wife, Marianne Pfeiffer: ‘Despite the many beauties and new ideas it contained, it did not seem to him worthy of bringing to an end the impressive sequence of symphonies he had composed in earlier years; thus it came about that this tenth symphony was condemned by Spohr himself to eternal oblivion, if not to destruction.’ Such was Marianne’s devotion to Spohr’s memory that after his death she did not destroy the symphony but kept it unperformed and unpublished until it eventually found its way into the former Prussian State Library in Berlin, where it still remains. It was not until American conductor Eugene Minor examined the symphony and prepared a performing version that it received its premiere—at New York’s Carnegie Hall on 22 March 1998, when Mr Minor conducted his Bergen Youth Orchestra of New Jersey. It was eventually published in 2006.

The ethical question arises of whether or not to disregard the composer’s wishes, but now the symphony is in the public domain listeners can make up their own minds as to whether Spohr was right in suppressing it. Usually it is the youthful work of composers that is disinterred against their known wishes, as happened some thirty years ago with the early C minor symphony of Grieg. In Spohr’s case the problem is compounded by the composer’s attempt to overhaul his musical style radically and follow a new path. In the words of the German musicologist Hans Glenewinkel when studying the two string quartets Spohr wrote around this period, the composer made ‘his guiding principle the return to the classical ideals of his youth’.

The tenth is the most concise of all Spohr’s symphonies, with no episodic matter and only a minimum of bridge passages. It also mixes the old and the new, for along with the neoclassical formal structure Spohr’s chromatic harmonic language is completely up to date, and for the first time his orchestra includes valve horns and trumpets as well as a tuba. The first movement does away with the usual slow introduction and launches immediately, forte, into the Allegro. This first thematic group is punctuated by lighter passages focusing on the woodwind supported by pizzicato strings before the brief lyrical second subject appears. All of these elements are covered during the development section and after a straightforward reprise the music reaches a powerful conclusion.

The seamless Larghetto is dominated by the opening theme with its slight tinge of melancholy, and the main contrast arrives with the classically orientated closing motif. With the Allegretto Scherzo we hear the influence of Haydn, with unexpected pauses and dynamic contrasts reminding us of the original meaning of ‘scherzo’ as a joke. Lyricism takes over in the Trio where the woodwind sing a broad melody accompanied by running quavers from the first violins, while later on horns and trumpets add a gentle fanfare.

Haydn again comes to mind at the start of the Allegro finale where the main theme comprises three-bar units instead of the expected regular four-bar ones—just the sort of thing the old Esterházy genius delighted in doing. With his second subject Spohr brings his symphonic output full circle as this triplet-based motif matches the one at the identical point in the finale of his very first symphony, written forty-six years earlier, which also used triplets and was in the same key of E flat major. Finally, a rumbustious few bars close Spohr’s last symphonic outing.

As an up-and-coming composer in March 1810, Spohr was one of four who were invited to set an opera libretto for the Hamburg Theatre. His Der Zweikampf mit der Geliebten (‘The duel with the beloved’) was premiered on 15 November 1811, exactly one year after its completion—the first of his operas to be produced. The fine and compact overture is perhaps the nearest Spohr came to the tradition of Sturm und Drang familiar to us from a number of Haydn’s minor-key symphonies. In this overture the E minor tonality turns to the major just before the close, reflecting the opera’s happy ending. The music is an appropriate prelude to the cliff-hanging plot, in which the heroine, disguised as a man, is poised to fight a duel against her lover before, in the nick of time, all is made clear and the pair fall into each other’s arms.

Keith Warsop © 2011
Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain


Other albums in this series
'Spohr: Symphonies Nos 1 & 2' (CDA67616)
Spohr: Symphonies Nos 1 & 2
'Spohr: Symphonies Nos 4 & 5' (CDA67622)
Spohr: Symphonies Nos 4 & 5
'Spohr: Symphonies Nos 3 & 6' (CDA67788)
Spohr: Symphonies Nos 3 & 6
'Spohr: Symphonies Nos 7 & 9' (CDA67939)
Spohr: Symphonies Nos 7 & 9
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