Howard Shelley’s fascinating series of Spohr’s symphonies continues to inspire interest and delight in this underrated composer.
By the time Spohr came to write his Third Symphony he was established in the top rank of contemporary composers. It 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.
The Sixth Symphony was written in an entirely new form—each movement in a different historical style—which baffled contemporaries. 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’ Dance Suite after Couperin but when Spohr pioneered the process with his ‘Historical’ Symphony contemporary listeners and critics completely failed to comprehend this concept. But it is in fact a very effective work. 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.