Hyperion Records

Symphony No 1 in E flat major, Op 20
March to April 1811; first performed in Gotha on 25 April 1811

'Spohr: Symphonies Nos 1 & 2' (CDA67616)
Spohr: Symphonies Nos 1 & 2
Movement 1: Adagio – Allegro
Movement 2: Larghetto con moto
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro
Movement 4: Finale: Allegretto

Symphony No 1 in E flat major, Op 20
In the summer of 1810 Germany’s first genuine music festival was staged in Frankenhausen and Spohr was selected as conductor, a remarkable accolade as he was by far the youngest contender for the position. This festival was such a success that another was planned for 1811, also under Spohr’s direction. For this second festival he was invited to compose a symphony, and during March and April 1811 he worked on his Symphony No 1 in E flat major Op 20. The premiere was in Gotha on 25 April 1811. It was also played on 20 May in a Leipzig Gewandhaus programme before its performance at the Frankenhausen Festival on 10 July. The composer later stated in his memoirs: ‘Though it had been usual for me to lose, after a time, all taste for my first essay in a new branch of composition, this symphony was an exception to the rule for it has pleased me even in later years.’ Spohr’s satisfaction with the symphony was widely echoed. E T A Hoffmann wrote in the influential Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung that ‘the composer whose first symphony is written in such a manner as the present one raises the greatest and most beautiful hopes’, while the same journal said of the Leipzig performance: ‘For many years we have scarcely heard a new work of this kind which possesses so much novelty and originality without singularity and affectation; so much richness and science without artifice and bombast.’

Anyone hearing Spohr’s symphony for the first time will immediately recognize the influence of his great symphonic predecessors. The Adagio introduction, with its powerful opening and upward-rushing string passages, along with the relaxed 3/4 main theme of the Allegro, point right away to Mozart’s Symphony No 39, K543, in the same key.

However, Spohr balances the influence of his hero with many examples of his burgeoning Romantic individuality, such as the harmonic richness of the introduction and the march-like second subject, a definite import from Spohr’s concerto style. In a dramatic stroke this theme’s return in the recapitulation is pianissimo and in the unexpected key of C major; it then reaches C minor before its repeat, forte, in the tonic of E flat major. The development section is characterized by its fugal treatment of the main theme, driven by three repeated notes, while the trumpet and drum fanfares of the tuttis serve as a reminder of Haydn’s London symphonies.

The Larghetto con moto—like the slow movement to Mozart’s K543 in A flat major—is in other respects closer to Haydn as it features one of those ‘nursery-rhyme’ tunes of which Haydn was so fond. It opens attractively with the cellos presenting the tune accompanied by pizzicato basses before the violins take over the lead. A contrasting idea is eventually combined with the main theme and the material is enveloped by delicate filigree decoration in the later stages. The brusque opening of the scherzo shows that Spohr was familiar with Beethoven’s style, but again he stamps his own harmonic mark on this movement. Metrical changes from 3/4 to 2/4 are also characteristic of Spohr, while the C minor trio is dominated by triplets and a descending chromatic bass.

A light-hearted theme starts the Allegretto finale but the music opens out with colourful harmonies as the second subject is fashioned from part of the opening tune. After a contrapuntal development there is a poetic lead-back to the reprise in which the main theme is this time presented on the wind instruments. Spohr avoids a lengthy coda, preferring a brief winding-up of the movement, and in his review Hoffmann found this to be rather abrupt though he preferred it to many contemporary works which ‘seem almost incapable of reaching their conclusion for they pile ending upon ending which is fatiguing for the listener’.

from notes by Keith Warsop © 2007
Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain

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