Hyperion Records

Symphony No 6 in G major, Op 116
July to August 1839; commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society; first performed under Sir George Smart at the Hanover Square Rooms, 6 April 1840; subtitled Historishe Symphonie im Styl und Geschmack vier verschiedener Zeitabschnitte

'Spohr: Symphonies Nos 3 & 6' (CDA67788)
Spohr: Symphonies Nos 3 & 6
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Movement 1: Bach-Händel'sche Periode 1720: Largo grave – Allegro moderato – Pastorale – Tempo I
Movement 2: Haydn-Mozart'sche Periode 1780: Larghetto
Movement 3: Beethoven'sche Periode 1810: Scherzo – Trio
Movement 4: Allerneueste Periode 1840: Allegro vivace

Symphony No 6 in G major, Op 116
Spohr’s development through his first five symphonies mirrored the pattern found in the works of the great Viennese masters, whose final symphonies are seen as the culmination of their achievements in the form. However, with his Symphony No 6 in G major Op 116, Spohr broke this mould to compose a work which was sui generis and baffled contemporary listeners. He worked on the symphony in July and August 1839 in response to a commission from London’s Philharmonic Society and gave it the title ‘Historical Symphony in the style and taste of four different periods’. Each movement reflects a period in the history of music: Bach–Handel 1720; Haydn– Mozart 1780; Beethoven 1810; and the Very Latest Period 1840.

During the 1820s and 1830s there was a growing interest in music of earlier times culminating in a series of historical concerts directed by Mendelssohn in Leipzig early in 1838. Spohr himself contributed to this movement with his Concertino for violin and orchestra Op 110, ‘Sonst und Jetzt’ (‘Then and Now’), from February 1839, which contrasted violin styles of the composer’s youth and the contemporary period. He was also involved in the revival of Bach, and as early as 1809 had acquired the autograph of the 15 Inventions and 15 Sinfonias BWV772–801, part of the Clavier-Büchlein for W F Bach, and from 1823 in Kassel he began performing Bach’s motets alongside such composers as Palestrina and Carissimi. In 1827 Spohr obtained the score of the St Matthew Passion and only the obstruction of his ruling prince prevented him from possibly preceding Mendelssohn in the public resurrection of this masterpiece, though he was eventually allowed to perform it in 1832, 1833, 1834, 1845 and 1851.

The opening movement of the Sixth Symphony evoking the period of Bach and Handel begins with a slow introduction, Largo grave, which presents the main theme of the following contrapuntal Allegro moderato. In place of a development section, Spohr introduces a Pastorale reminiscent of Handel before returning to the Bachian fugal material.

Although the two great Viennese classical masters are linked in the E flat major Larghetto’s title, and the opening motif slightly resembles the main theme of the slow movement in Haydn’s Symphony No 87 (1785), he then disappears from view as Spohr offers a beautiful and touching tribute to his hero, Mozart, with material modelled on the Andante con moto in his E flat major Symphony K543. At one point Spohr reminds us that he stands behind this evocation of Mozart; a dotted Mozartian phrase is shortened and transformed into a motif which instantly brings to mind the opening of Spohr’s popular Nonet.

The G minor Scherzo reflects aspects of Beethoven through its use of three timpani at the start plus some abrupt gestures; here Beethoven’s use of timpani in his Seventh Symphony is the clear inspiration as Spohr played in its 1813 premiere in Vienna under the composer’s direction, recalling that ‘the wonderful second movement was encored and made upon me also a deep and lasting impression.’ In contrast, the major-key Trio follows a typical Spohr procedure in being based on varied and modified forms of the Scherzo theme, whereas Beethoven’s trios are usually independent of the Scherzo proper.

The stylistic differences between the movements are accentuated by a gradual growth in the size of the orchestra. ‘Bach–Handel’ is scored for the usual strings plus two each of flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns; ‘Haydn–Mozart’ adds two clarinets; ‘Beethoven’ brings in three timpani as well as two more horns; and the ‘Very Latest’ finale expands to a full-blown romantic ensemble with the addition of piccolo, two trumpets, three trombones, triangle, cymbals, bass drum and side drum.

For this finale Spohr adopted a modern style which he deplored—that of Parisian grand opera and ballet. Here he seems to be saying ‘anything you can do, I can do better’, mixed in with some hints of composers such as Auber and Adam plus a sideways glance at Berlioz and Meyerbeer. It was this movement which most confused the London audience when Sir George Smart conducted the Philharmonic Society’s orchestra in the first performance at the Hanover Square Rooms on 6 April 1840, for they would probably have expected something in Spohr’s own style as exemplified in his earlier symphonies.

Today we accept compositions which work with musical styles from earlier periods such as Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana, Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella or Richard Strauss’s Dance Suite after Couperin, but when Spohr pioneered the process with his ‘Historical’ Symphony contemporary listeners and critics completely failed to comprehend this concept.

However Spohr professed himself well satisfied with this finale, commenting in a letter to a friend that the ambiguous reaction of people to it was exactly the effect produced by the very latest style of music; he pointed out that some thought he was satirizing the modern school while others felt that he meant to show how much more effective the latest compositional style could be.

Schumann, in a well-known criticism of the Sixth Symphony, stated that when it was played in Germany one could hear from every corner of the hall the sound ‘Spohr … Spohr’, and it is true that the composer’s personal fingerprints are present throughout but this is a positive feature. The styles imitated are filtered through Spohr’s imagination so giving the symphony its enduring fascination and providing it with a phoenix-like attribute of revival after each critical cremation.

from notes by Keith Warsop © 2010
Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain

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