Movement 1: Andante grave – Allegro
Movement 2: Larghetto
Movement 3: Scherzo – Trio
Movement 4: Allegro
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.
from notes by Keith Warsop © 2010
Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain