Movement 1: The world of childhood. Introduzione: Adagio Allegretto
Movement 2: The age of passion: Larghetto Allegro moderato
Movement 3: Final victory of the divine: Presto Adagio
The standard symphonic plan of four movements, with two inner ones comprising a slow movement and a minuet or scherzo, is abandoned. Instead there are three movements whose sequence in effect takes us from the cradle to the grave. As well as drawing parallels with Liszt’s symphonic poem of that title, Spohr’s Symphony No 7 also has interesting affinities with Liszt’s Faust Symphony of 1854–7, in terms of structure and ideas (Liszt admired Spohr and conducted several of his works). Spohr’s wife provided verses to preface each movement.
A short introduction featuring a prominent horn solo leads to Kinderwelt (‘The world of childhood’) in a clear C major. A simple, attractive theme has playful interjections from the wind instruments followed by a more lyrical motif. The small orchestra dominates, with the large one generally giving support or echoing the ‘childhood’ themes. Robert Schumann, in an enthusiastic review of the symphony, said of this movement: ‘The deep mind of the master now opens itself in the whole of its rich fulness and speaks to us in the noblest sounds.’
In the F minor second movement, Zeit der Leidenschaften (‘The age of passion’), the earthly elements step to the forefront and the large orchestra comes into its own. A slow introduction produces a little ‘love duet’ between the clarinet and bassoon of the small orchestra, but rumblings in the bass accompany a gradual acceleration that launches the main Allegro moderato. The first violin of the small orchestra then leads the way with a virtuoso solo part as the music seems to throw itself into hedonistic manifestations of passion. However, warlike fervour soon intrudes: fanfares on horns and trumpets propel the orchestras into a powerful march. After both sections reappear in slightly abbreviated form the movement rises to a huge climax and the final word goes to a thump on the timpani.
The third movement, Endlicher Sieg des Göttlichen (‘Final victory of the divine’), sets the two principles in direct opposition. A Presto in C minor launches the large orchestra on a ‘ride into the abyss’ while its smaller companion interjects with more lyrical, hymn-like tones, easily shrugged off at this stage. Gradually these warning sounds become more insistent, but the large orchestra continues to batter away against these until its force recedes and the first movement’s C major is reimposed. After a two-bar pause the tempo slows to Adagio and the two orchestras unite to celebrate the victory of the divine principle or, if the listener wishes, the redemption of humanity. The theme of the small orchestra dominates this coda as the music rises to a climax three times, with the third one the most emphatic (Spohr withholds the timpani from the clinching chord of each of the first two climaxes so the final one gains extra power), before winding down to a beautiful conclusion. The composer gave the work its premiere in Kassel shortly after completing it in September 1841, and the symphony soon did the rounds of European concert halls, including a London performance by the Philharmonic Society Orchestra conducted by Moscheles on 30 May 1842.
It was Spohr’s seventh symphony which drew from Schumann this eloquent tribute: ‘Let us follow him in art, in life, in all his striving! The industry which is apparent in every line of the score is truly moving. May he stand with our greatest Germans as a shining example.’
from notes by Keith Warsop © 2012
Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain