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8.223257 - SPOHR, L.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 7 - Nos. 11 and 12 (New Budapest Quartet)
English 

Louis Spohr (1784-1859)

The Complete String Quartets

The composition of string quartets ran as a continuous thread throughout Spohr's life. He wrote his first, opus 4, at about the age of twenty, and more than fifty years later his last completed large-scale work was his thirty-sixth string quartet, WoO. 42. This varied body of works constitutes a significant contribution to the quartet literature of the first half of the nineteenth century; it contains abundant examples of the harmonic and melodic features and the experiments in form and metre that fascinated his contemporaries.

At the time of Spohr's birth in 1784, Haydn's innovative opus 33 quartets had been published for only two years, and Mozart, inspired by their masterly handling of the medium, was still working on his six quartets dedicated to Haydn. Over the next few years Mozart produced his last quartets, while Haydn rose to new heights in the series of works that began with opus 50 in 1787, and in 1801 Beethoven published his six opus 18 quartets. During Spohr's formative years as student and Kammermusicus in Brunswick, he came to know and love this repertoire of chamber music, which he played, along with works by lesser contemporaries, at frequent quartet parties. It was to have a lasting impression on his own approach to quartet writing. His devotion to Mozart, in particular, was to remain intense throughout his life, and he retained a lively admiration for Haydn. Despite his often quoted criticisms of Beethoven's later works he was, in fact, among the earliest champions of the opus 18 quartets in northern Germany and performed them within a very short time of their publication; indeed, on his concert tour of 1804 his advocacy of these quartets put him at odds with some notable musicians. In Berlin the celebrated cellist and composer Bernhard Romberg, after complimenting him on his performance of one of them, remarked disparagingly, "But my dear Spohr, how can you bear to play such absurd stuff?"

Spohr's activity as a virtuoso violinist, however, also brought him into direct contact with a radically different kind of quartet which was profoundly to influence his approach to the medium: this was the so-called quatuor brilliant or Solo-Quartett. Since the piano was not yet the universal accompaniment instrument it later became, many violinist-composers wrote pieces with accompaniment to provide them with a repertoire in which they displayed their technical brilliance at soirées and other occasions when an orchestra was not available. The quatuor brilliant, a kind of chamber concerto, was a natural outcome of this. During Spohr's early concert tours, when Beethoven's quartets failed to interest his audience, he could always count on rousing their enthusiasm with a performance of the Quartet in E flat major, opus 11 (1804), by the much admired French violinist Pierre Rode, which, though not published with the title quatuor brilliant, was an important precursor of the genre.

The influence both of the Viennese classics and of virtuoso violin music is clearly evident in Spohr's own works for string quartet. The virtuoso tradition is emphasized in two potpourris and two sets of variations with string trio accompaniment, composed during the years 1804 to 1808, and in his eight virtuoso quartets, written between 1806 and 1835. His first quatuor brilliant, opus 11, which he described in a letter to his publisher, Kühnel, as "of the Rode type" was followed by five more which were published with the same title. These are in three movements, without a minuet or scherzo, after the pattern of Rode's prototypes. A seventh, opus 30, was similarly designated on the autograph score despite its four movements, and opus 27 too, though it was published as Grand quatuor, is in the same tradition, being referred to in Spohr's autobiography as a Solo-Quartett. But Spohr clearly recognised the essential difference between the Solo-Quartett and the "true" quartet, and in his other twenty-eight quartets the emphasis is on dialogue among the instruments. Though difficult, even virtuoso, passages are often given to the first violin and sometimes to the other instruments, these are skilfully integrated into the general design so that the main focus is on a conversational working out of motifs. For Spohr technical brilliance was always at the service of loftier musical aims, and, on the whole, his quartets achieve a notably successful synthesis of the classical and virtuosic polarities in his musical nature.

Clive Brown

[Clive Brown is an internationally recognized authority on the music of Spohr and the author of Louis Spohr: A Critical Biography. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1984.]

String Quartet No. 11 in E Major, Op. 43 (1817) "Quatuor brilliant"

After leaving Vienna on 18th March, 1815 (where, with his Opus 29 set he had developed "a better style of quartet-composition"), Spohr toured Germany and the following spring stayed in Switzerland where he busied himself preparing repertoire for his planned visit to Italy. He and his family arrived there on 5th September, 1816 and Spohr kept a diary from which we learn the circumstances behind the composition of his first string quartet since leaving Vienna. If Spohr's first quatuor brilliant could have been nicknamed "The Baby" as, while the composer was performing it at the house of a friend, the host was called away and later returned to say his wife had given birth to a son during its performance (Marco Polo 8.223254), Spohr's second might be entitled "The Sickbed". In his diary Spohr notes that he had been forced to postpone his planned departure from Rome to Naples because his daughters had caught scarlet fever. It was on New Year's Day 1817 that the nine-year-old Emilie was taken ill. Two days later Ida, aged eight, was also down with the disease and Spohr relates: " January 3. I have kept up my spirits and amused myself in inventing some puzzle canons and have now begun to write a new solo quartet." But the children made an unexpectedly speedy recovery and the quartet was not completed until May when the Spohrs were relaxing in Switzerland where they had stored their belongings. Soon afterwards Spohr gave the première of the quartet at a concert in Zurich with part of the proceeds being donated to charity at a time of severe famine. (Happily enough, the children's illness had no lasting effects - Emilie, who married a businessman in 1828 and emigrated to New York in 1840, lived to the age of 88, while Ida reached 83. At the age of 17 she married a Jewish architect-anti-semitism played no part in Spohr's make-up; it was foreign to his high ideals of liberty and democracy). In comparison with the first quatuor brilliant the other instruments, without detracting from the prominence of the first violin, take a bigger part in the proceedings. Anyone expecting fireworks à la Paganini in a quartet called "brilliant" will be disappointed; while the first violin has its share of bravura passagework in the outer movements, much of the time it concentrates on embellishing the sweetly lyrical melodies. Spohr sometimes liked to vary the basic constituents of sonata form (see also Opus 58, No. 2, on Marco Polo 8.223256 where the scherzo is one of a set of variations) and in the opening Allegro moderato, instead of a central development he constructs the movement in "Lied" or A-B-A form, where the development is replaced with a section in D major which presents the opening material in more romantic setting. The theme of the deeply-felt Adagio may be categorised as a lament but soon a warmer climate develops. There is hardly any bravura passagework "stitched in" here; instead all is devoted to enhancing and ornamenting the thematic material. The minuet finale is far removed from the classical model. Its mazurka-like melody is a definite romantic touch while energetic sforzandos and syncopations enliven the proceedings. A more peaceful G major section fulfils the role of trio.

String Quartet No. 12 in C Major, Op. 45, No. 1 (1818)

In autumn 1817 Spohr took up the post of Music Director at the Frankfurt Opera. The following summer he was asked to institute Frankfurt's first regular public string quartet concerts and for these he wrote his three Opus 45 quartets. A striking example of the development of the string quartet as a concert genre is the difference between the performance of Spohr's early quartets ten years or so before where the composer expected "pick-up" groups to take part, and the Frankfurt quartet Spohr formed, whose names he recalled many years later: second violin the concertmaster Hofmann, viola Bayer, cello Nikolaus Hasemann, at that time bass-trombonist of the orchestra and afterwards first cellist of the Kassel orchestra. The concerts began in autumn 1818 at Frankfurt's Rothes Haus, the programmes including works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Fesca and Onslow as well as Spohr's new works. Spohr recalls: "We had practised in the most careful manner in two rehearsals. They made therefore a great sensation by the precision of their execution." With the influence of his Italian trip behind him, the Opus 45 quartets use more romantically shaped themes rather than the shorter motives of Spohr's Viennese quartets and they made a great impression on Jean-Paul Richter, the famous author of fantastic novels full of the world of German romanticism. Spohr says that after hearing Opus 45, No. 1, Jean-Paul "ascribed to it a highly poetical significance of which, while composing it, I certainly never thought, but which recurred in a striking manner to my mind at every subsequent performance." Disappointingly, Spohr fails to tell us what Jean-Paul's "programme" was. In the first movement of this work both first and second subjects are cantilena-like themes but Spohr provides strong contrasts by appending march-like material to both of them. The development section is one of Spohr's longest and best, especially in the range of his typical harmonic subtleties. The spectral C minor Scherzo was no doubt one of the things which fired Jean-Paul's imagination as it can still do to ours. This is the world of the German Märchen, a grimmer realm than that of Mendelssohn's "fairy" scherzos. The Andante Grazioso in the romantic key of A flat major is one of the most immediately appealing movements in all Spohr in which his style of expression comes close to Schubert with a simple ballad-like melody which seems to flow so naturally that the art behind it (violins frequently in octaves, for instance) goes unremarked. The main theme of the finale has an Alpine character, a style Spohr had come to know during his spells in Vienna and Switzerland, which fascinated him so much that he utilised this sort of material in three finales - the Notturno, Opus 34 (1815), the Third Clarinet Concerto (1821) and this quartet where its development is the most extensive. This Alpine theme is contrasted with a new subject which first appears in unison and then expands into a fugal texture. Imaginative harmonic treatment suddenly halts; after almost four full bars of a general pause the lower instruments play in waltz time while the first violin has the Alpine melody. More fugal development precedes a varied recapitulation.

Keith Warsop

Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain

New Budapest Quartet

András Kiss, 1st Violin

Ferenc Balogh, 2nd Violin

Lászlo Bársony, Viola

Károly Botvay, Violoncello

The New Budapest Quartet was formed in 1971 and in the same year won third prize at the Haydn International Competition in Vienna and second prize at the Carlo Jachino International Competition in Rome. The following year the quartet worked under the famous Hungarian String Quartet at the last of its summer courses and was hailed by critics as its successor. Since then the New Budapest Quartet has toured extensively throughout Eastern and Western Europe and in the Americas.


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