Movement 1: Adagio – Allegro
Movement 2: Poco adagio
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegretto – Trio: Un poco meno allegro
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro
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.
from notes by Keith Warsop © 2011
Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain