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8.223122 - SPOHR: Symphony No. 4 / Faust Overture / Jessonda Overture
Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
In his own day Louis Spohr was a figure of considerable importance as a composer. Until recently he has been remembered by posterity principally as a violinist-composer, his concertos more often allotted to students than heard in the concert hall. Historically it would be difficult to overestimate his contribution to the development of instrumental music and his treatment of opera in which he anticipates Weber and the music-pioneers in the use of the baton for conducting, causing some dismay and apprehension on the first occasion he appeared before a London orchestra wielding a stick. He was also one of the leading violin teachers and players of his time.
Spohr was born in Brunswick in 1784, the son of a doctor and grandson of a Lutheran pastor. Soon after he was born the family moved to nearby Seesen and there he had his first music lessons and experience of playing the violin in musical evenings at home.
His obvious talent seemed to justify more advanced teaching in Brunswick, in spite of his grandfather’s objections to any attempt to turn the boy into a professional musician. There followed, when he was fifteen, a brief and unsuccessful attempt at a concert tour to Hamburg, and subsequent kindly patronage from the Duke of Brunswick, by whom he was employed as a chamber musician. His patron allowed him lessons from the Mannheim violinist Franz Eck, whom he accompanied on a tour of Russia, and Eck’s teaching, coupled with the example of Pierre Rode, whom he heard on his return to Brunswick, provided the basis of his own virtuoso style and technique.
Success as a performer led Spohr, in 1805, to the position of concertmaster in Gotha, where the Duchess allowed him considerable freedom to travel, while his duties enabled him to develop as a composer and as a conductor. In Gotha he met his future wife, the harpist Dorette Scheidler, whom he married in 1806, and the couple went on to tour successfully together, including in their repertoire new compositions by Spohr for violin and harp. In 1813 he was given a very substantial inducement to leave Gotha for a three-year appointment at the Theater an der Wien as orchestra director. Vienna provided a considerable stimulus and offered an immediate opportunity for the composition of his first notable opera, Faust, with a new libretto by Joseph Carl Bernard, staged for the first time in Prague in 1816. The city brought the chance of friendship with Beethoven, whose work he had long admired and attempted to introduce to reluctant audiences with little time for such Baroque stuff. From 1817 to 1819 he was director of the opera in Frankfurt-am-Main, while continuing to tour as a performer.
In 1822 Spohr achieved something of the stability he had sought in a life appointment as Kapellmeister in Kassel, a position that had once been offered to Beethoven, who had used it as a lever to extract a pension from his benefactors in Vienna, and to Weber, who had rejected the proposal. From Kassel, where initially he received generous support from the Elector, he was able to continue his international career. He had an orchestra of 55 players at his disposal and a reasonably well funded opera-house, in which he was able to mount performances of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and Tannhaüser in later years.
Dorette Spohr, who had suffered variable health issues for some years, died in 1834, and two years later Spohr took the practical step of marrying the young Kassel pianist Marianne Pfeiffer, sister of his friend, the writer Carl Pfeiffer, author of the libretto of Spohr’s opera, der Alchymist, who is commemorated in the Fourth Symphony. After an immensely active and productive career he retired in 1857 and died two years later, his death sincerely mourned in Kassel. His achievement seemed by then less certain than it had in his heyday, and in some respects he appeared to his contemporaries to have outlived his reputation. He had, after all, been born into the age of Beethoven. By 1859 he was a relic of a past golden age, although the more discerning continued to honour him for the essential part he had played in the development of music in the nineteenth century.
Spohr wrote his Symphony No. 4 in F major, Opus 86, in 1832, a time of some difficulty in Kassel. Prince Friedrich Wilhelm had assumed power, on the withdrawal of his father, the Elector, but was deprived of the money necessary to maintain the opera, while attempts were made to induce musicians on contract to resign. Spohr now had less work to do. He began work on the new symphony during a summer holiday at Neundorf. A volume of poems by Carl Pfeiffer had recently been published and he considered at first setting the poem Die Weihe der Töne as a memorial cantata to the writer. Eventually he decided instead to make a symphony of it, describing it as “characteristisches Tongemaelde in Form einer Sinfonia”, with its four movements following very closely the literary source of the work.
The first movement opens with a slow introduction, illustrating the profound silence before the creation of sound. The Allegro that follows, in traditional sonata form, includes the gentle sound of the breeze and woodwind bird-song, before the storm that forms the central section of the movement, to die out in the distance in the final bars. The second movement demonstrates the function of music as lullaby, dance and serenade, the last with a solo cello. All three finally combine in a conductor’s nightmare of varying bar-lines and tempi.
The third movement shows the role of music as an inspiration to courage, here with a narrative element. Soldiers depart for battle, while in a central trio section those remaining behind express their anxiety, followed by the victorious return of the marching troops and the song of thanksgiving. The final movement buries the dead, to the sound of the chorale Begrabt den Leib, leading to ultimate consolation in tears.
Contemporary critical reaction to the symphony was mixed, in view of its programmatic nature, which some saw as indicating a lack of musical inspiration. With the public in Germany, and later in England, the symphony was enormously successful, in the latter country only after Spohr himself had directed the orchestra through the complications of the second movement.
The opera Faust, a remarkable precursor, in German opera, of Weber’s popular Der Freischütz, deals with the attempts of the hero to use his magic powers for good, all frustrated by Mephistopheles, who eventually drags him down to Hell. Spohr explained the overture as an attempt to show at first the sensual nature of Faust’s life, the arousing of his conscience, his determination, in a fugal section, to do good, and the final abandonment to sensual temptation and evil.
Jessonda is based on a play, La veuve de Malabar, by Antoine Lemièrre, adapted by Eduard Gehe. It was first staged in Kassel in July 1823. The story is set in Goa, where Jessonda, young widow of the old Rajah, who has just died, is to be burned on his funeral pyre. She is eventually rescued by her former Portuguese lover, the now victorious general Tristan d’Achuna. The overture portrays the two rival groups, the Portuguese and the Brahmins determined that Jessonda carry out the traditional rite of suttee. The opera aroused the admiration of contemporaries in Germany and in England, although the French remained as unimpressed as they had been by Faust.
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