On the Fringe: Louis Spohr
Updated: Feb 14, 2021
Posthumous fame is a fickle thing. So is fame in your own lifetime, I guess. There are many figures in the arts who were not appreciated in their lifetimes and who are now are regarded as truly great, and there are others who were highly praised in their lifetimes only to be almost forgotten today.
I have a strong sympathy for people in the latter category and the composer we're going to explore in this post qualifies perfectly. He was a composer who, while he was alive, was a major figure in the European musical world, as an instrumentalist and as a composer, as well as in the newly-developing field of conducting. Nowadays he is forgotten or ignored but I for one do think he is most definitely worth exploring. His name is Louis Spohr.
Ludewig - that's Ludwig with an e in the middle - Spohr was born in Brunswick, Germany, on 5 April 1784. Fashion at the time dictated that names were often preferred in French so he was always known, and is still known, as Louis. There was a strong family history of doctors and Lutheran pastors on his father's side, and Louis's father, Carl Heinrich Spohr, was a doctor. He also played the flute.
Spohr's mother was Juliane Ernestine Luise Hencke, a fine singer and pianist. When young Louis was three the family moved from Brunswick to Seesen, about 60 km south west of Brunswick, to enable his father to take up a new medical appointment.
Both Spohr's parents encouraged his early musical studies and he began learning the violin when he was five. When he was eight it was clear that his musical talent was real and worth developing and despite strong opposition from other parts of the family - who disapproved of music as a career - his parents sent him to school back in Brunswick so he could have better musical experiences.
While a pupil at the Collegium Carolinium he studied violin and music theory, and immersed himself in score study while playing in orchestras.
In 1799, when Spohr was only 15, Duke Carl Wilhelm Ferdinand of Brunswick appointed him as one of his court musicians. Three years later, in 1802, the Duke engaged the famous violinist Franz Eck to take Spohr as a pupil on one of his concert tours. When he returned the following year, Spohr was an established virtuoso himself and had begun composing concertos, as was the norm for virtuoso performers at the time. The first of Spohr's fifteen published violin concertos dates from this time and was published as his op. 1. [listen]
The visit to Brunswick of the French violin virtuoso Pierre Rode inspired Spohr to develop further and in 1804 he embarked on his own concert tour, for which he composed two more concertos. The glowing reviews he received from this tour led to him being invited to apply for the post of Konzertmeister - orchestral leader - in the town of Gotha, about 180 km south of Brunswick. He was appointed to the position in August 1805. This was a remarkable step up the professional ladder for Spohr, to have been given a post of such responsibility at the age of only 21.
Early works composed in Gotha include his first concert overture, an Overture in C minor [listen]. In the seven years Spohr was in Gotha he developed many varied interests, quite apart from his violin playing. He started to develop his technique as a conductor, then a very new branch of musical practice. Conducting as we know it really developed at the start of the 19th century and Spohr was one of its first exponents.
Spohr also developed an interest in liberal politics and joined the Freemasons in Gotha. On a personal level, he married in 1806. His wife was Dorothea Scheidler (known as Dorette). Dorette was a brilliant harpist and right away Spohr began composing works they could perform together, including a number of sonatas for violin and harp. [listen]
Spohr and his wife undertook several concert tours together between 1806 and 1813, during which time the couple had two daughters. Other music composed during the Gotha period included a number of string quartets, more violin concertos and a number of duos for two violins.
With Mozart's sublime clarinet concerto of 1791 regarded as a foundation work in the clarinet concerto repertoire, composers in the early 19th century began to write their own solo works for the clarinet. Spohr wrote four clarinet concertos over his career, the first two of which date from 1808 and 1810, while he was in Gotha. They were written for the virtuoso clarinettist Simon Hermstedt, whom Spohr met in 1808. They had a lot in common: they both adored Mozart and both (like Mozart) were Freemasons. Hermstedt originally trained as a violinist so there was another connection. When writing the first concerto, Spohr was unsure about the technical capabilities of the clarinet and gave Hermstedt the opportunity of suggesting changes to the score. Hermstedt liked the work so much that he chose rather to adapt the instrument to suit the music, and these adaptations were detailed in a preface to the concerto when it was published in 1812. [listen]
Spohr wrote a number of other major works in Gotha including his first book of lieder, his first symphony, his first oratorio and his first three operas. This is the symphony's third movement. [listen]
While he was at Gotha Spohr developed a reputation for being a fine violin teacher. Over the rest of his life he was highly sought-after after as a teacher and he would, later in life, come to write a famous treatise on violin playing based on his years of experience.
In 1813 Spohr left Gotha and moved to Vienna, the centre of the German-speaking musical world, to take up the post of Kapellmeister (effectively the leader of the orchestra) at the famous Theater an der Wien. He only lasted two years there, but, the stimulation of Vienna, and the many fine musicians he met and worked with there (including Beethoven), led to him writing a great deal of very fine music, especially chamber music, during this period.
In addition to a number of string quartets, Spohr wrote two string quintets during the Vienna years, as well as two chamber works on an even larger scale: the Octet and the Nonet. The nonet in particular seems to straddle the worlds of chamber music and orchestral music, and these works make perfect companions for the larger-scale chamber works of Beethoven and Schubert. It's scored for violin, viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. [listen]
Another work completed in Vienna was Spohr's opera based on Goethe's Faust. It wasn't performed until Carl Maria von Weber conducted it in Prague in 1816. Spohr's operas are now almost totally forgotten, and recordings of them are very rare. It's an aspect of his creative life which still needs major reassessment, especially considering that his Faust was but the fourth of what would become a total of ten operas. [listen]
By this time, around the age of 30, Spohr's compositional style reached its full maturity. His combination of German and French styles makes his music stand out, and the influence of the Italian violin school (and especially the playing of Giovanni Battista Viotti) also influenced Spohr's writing, especially for his own instrument. But the fact that he didn't develop his style further for the remainder of his life led to charges of self-repetition, and caused the rapid decline in his reputation after his death.
After leaving Vienna, Spohr spent the next two years - 1815 to 1817 - living the life of an itinerant musician, performing in Switzerland, Italy and Germany. Perhaps the most famous work to have been composed during this period was the violin concerto no 8. Rather than being in the normal three-movement structure of a regular concerto, this work is in the form of a vocal scene. In other words, Spohr capitalised on the then-current craze for Italian opera (as exemplified in the works of Rossini) by writing a work in the form of an extended operatic recitative and aria, or scena, but instead of a voice, the solo role is taken by a violin (a role intended of course for Spohr himself). The work is also very lightly orchestrated with undemanding orchestral parts as he intended to perform the work in Italy, where provincial orchestras had an appalling reputation. [listen]
After two years on the road Spohr and his family decided to settle in Frankfurt where he was appointed Director of Opera. By all reports his nearly two years in Frankfurt did much to raise the standards of performance there. It was in Frankfurt that Spohr himself mounted his Faust, as well as a new opera, Zemire und Azor. [listen]
Frankfurt saw Spohr's family increase in size with the addition of a third daughter, but Dorette Spohr continued to perform as a harpist as she was able. Spohr also became involved in the musical life of Frankfurt in ways outside his work in opera, such as the composition and performance of yet more string quartets for a new series of chamber music concerts. The three opus 45 quartets date from this period, works which were later studied and praised by the famous and influential composer Luigi Cherubini.
Spohr's quartets reflect two different styles of string quartet writing which were popular in the early 19th century. One was the virtuoso quartet, in which the first violin is very much a soloist accompanied by the other three instruments, and Spohr wrote many such works. But the other style, the "true" quartet, in which all four instruments are equal partners in the musical dialogue, is represented in Spohr's output as well, and they are among his greatest compositions. The opus 45 quartets belong to this second, more serious form of quartet writing. [listen]
Spohr and his family were very happy in Frankfurt and made many friends there. Sadly, there were tensions between Spohr and the management of the theatre which led to him resigning his post at the opera. Spohr, Dorette and their three daughters were again on the road from late 1819.
The family spent most of 1820 in London, the result of a lucrative offer from the London Philharmonic Society. Spohr's initial impression on his English hosts was as a violin virtuoso rather than as a composer, although it was for this visit that he composed his second symphony. The second symphony is remarkable for a number of reasons. For a start it shows an enormous change in Spohr's style from that of the first symphony of nearly a decade before. Here there are sensations of Beethoven, even Brahms, with the romantic style more in evidence. It made a huge impression on the London audience at its premiere on 10 April 1820.
But the other reason the second symphony is remarkable is because it was at the final rehearsal of the work, on the morning of the concert, that Spohr changed the way in which he directed the orchestra. Instead of leading from the violin, as was customary, he put his violin down and produced a baton and conducted in the way we would expect. At the time it was so radical that the Philharmonic Society asked him not to do it at the concert.
At the concert, though, the composer had the last laugh. He played the violin at first but soon put it down and conducted, using his bow instead of a baton. The newspapers all commented on the event, and the fact that it was a better and more accurate way of keeping the orchestra in time and conveying the style required.
Within two decades baton conducting had become the norm in England, and most other places as well. [listen]
In London, Dorette Spohr's harp performances were also highly praised, but she started to become increasingly unwell. Playing the harp soon became too strenuous for her, so, as she was also a good pianist, Spohr composed other music for her to play. This included the quintet for piano and winds op 52. [listen]
After leaving London later in the year, the Spohr family had a brief stay in Gandersheim with Dorette's parents before moving on to Paris. Spohr's music never gained much popularity in France. Perhaps his severely uncomplimentary reports of the state of music in France became known. In any case, they soon left Paris and paid another visit to Gandersheim and it was on this second visit - in 1821 - that he created one of his most unusual works. Inspired by hearing rehearsals of 16th century choral music sometime before, Spohr decided to write his own setting of the Mass. This work, for unaccompanied ten-part chorus (in two five-part choirs) and five soloists, is both beautiful and challenging, and virtually unknown today. This is the Gloria movement. [listen]
In October 1821 Spohr and his family settled in Dresden. It was here he began work on Jessonda, which was to be his most successful opera, as well as writing another set of string quartets (the op 58 set) [listen]. In Dresden Spohr renewed his connection with Weber, and it was he who made it possible for Spohr to be offered the position as Kapellmeister - effectively director of opera - in Kassel, right in the centre of modern Germany.
Spohr took up the Kassel post in 1822 and it was here that he remained for the rest of his life, another 37 years. His contract allowed him time to travel and perform elsewhere, and the musical establishment at Kassel rapidly became one of the finest in Europe under his leadership.
In 1822 Spohr was 38 and the move to Kassel marked a major turning point for him. Although he continued to play the violin in public for the rest of his life, Spohr never again travelled primarily as a violin virtuoso. Rather, it was in the new field of conducting that he made his subsequent reputation, more often than not as a conductor of his own music.
The premiere of Jessonda in 1823 was a triumph, cementing his reputation as one of Germany's leading composers. Jessonda is a major work which could very well stand revival today with its powerful drama and well-drawn characters. [listen]
Spohr also participated in the current popularity of choral festivals and oratorios, both in Germany and in England. His oratorio Die letzten Dinge was successfully premiered in 1826 at the Lower Rhine Festival. The title literally means "The Last Things" but in its English incarnation became known as The Last Judgement, in which form it was the sensation of the 1830 Norwich Festival. [listen]
The 1830 performance of The Last Judgement in Norwich secured Spohr's reputation in England as one of the greatest composers of the day. The early years in Kassel saw him produce some of his finest music, including two of his four double string quartets [listen], other chamber music, and the third symphony. [listen]
Political disturbances around 1830 saw Spohr's operatic activities come to a halt for more than a decade, but the saddest event of all came with the death of Dorette Spohr in 1834. At the time of his wife's death Spohr had been working on a large-scale Passion oratorio, Des Heilands letzte Stunden (The Saviour's Last Hours). He eventually finished it the following year and it too became immensely popular in England where it eventually assumed the English title of Calvary. [listen]
In 1836 Spohr remarried, taking as his wife Marianne Pfeiffer. She was a gifted pianist and this in turn inspired Spohr to focus on chamber music which involved the piano, something he had written little of up to that time. Between 1836 and 1849 he composed three duos for violin and piano, five piano trios, a piano sonata and a piano quintet. The piano sonata was dedicated to Felix Mendelssohn, a composer with whom Spohr had the best of relations; both composers admired each other greatly.
Apart from the chamber works involving the piano, Spohr's music from the time immediately following his second marriage include the fifth symphony and one of his better-known works these days, the set of six songs for soprano, clarinet and piano op 103. [listen]
In his later years Spohr continued to visit England to conduct his works there, with the oratorios being especially popular. In 1843 the English Spohr craze probably reached its height with the journal The Musical World writing about, "the great Spohr - the immortal while yet living...the mighty master...".
Back at his base in Kassel, though, political repression was fierce, and Spohr's liberal politics made him consider an offer to work in Prague. He decided to stay in Kassel, though, because his wife's family was there, but his interest in current political and artistic developments was obvious. In 1843 he mounted Wagner's The Flying Dutchman in Kassel, and when writing his own final opera Spohr described it as a "music drama", a term coined by Wagner himself. Spohr was also well-known for his humanitarian concerns and he constantly strove for better pay and conditions for his musicians.
Spohr's final years saw him highly respected in Germany as a conductor and musical figurehead. In 1845 he shared with Franz Liszt the direction of a major international Beethoven festival in Bonn. He was made a member of no less than 38 musical societies and awarded an honorary doctorate from Marburg University. In 1847, to mark the 25th anniversary of his appointment in Kassel, he was belatedly awarded the title of Generalmusikdirektor, a title still used throughout Germany and held in the highest esteem.
Triumphs in England in his final years contrasted with irritations and tensions at home, but the final indignity came when he was more or less forced to retire from the Kassel post in 1857. He broke his arm that same winter which put an end to his violin playing and as a result was given over to periods of despair.
Louis Spohr died in Kassel two years later, on 22 October 1859, at the age of 75. He left an enormous amount of superbly crafted music, and his treatise on violin playing revolutionised violin technique and teaching in the 19th century. Marianne Spohr lived until 1892.
Only in recent years with the dissemination of many (but by no means all) of Spohr's works on recordings is it becoming possible to reassess this remarkable musician's contribution to western art. It is fashionable these days to pooh-pooh Spohr as a B grade composer but it's my hope that this introduction to the man and his work will inspire you to explore further.
We'll end with one of Spohr's last works, one of the opus 154 songs for baritone, violin and piano, composed in 1856, three years before his death. It sets the Goethe poem Erlkönig (The Erl-king), the same one set by Schubert decades earlier. It lacks Schubert's manic hysteria, but it has a dark dramatic edge to it which makes it very worthwhile in its own right. [listen]
This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in November, 2012.