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8.555966 - SPOHR: String Quintets Nos. 3 and 4
Louis Spohr (1784-1859)
Complete String Quintets • 2
Louis Spohr was accepted during his lifetime as one of the most important composers of early German Romanticism whose career encompassed the period from Beethoven’s Op. 18 string quartets to Wagner’s Tristan and whose compositions covered all the major genres of that era. Today’s revival of interest in Spohr was originally fuelled by the chamber music, especially the Nonet in F major, Op. 31, Octet in E major, Op. 32 and Piano and Wind Quintet in C minor, Op. 52. It was music for strings, however, which dominated Spohr’s chamber output; 36 quartets, seven quintets, a sextet and four double-quartets. Spohr was involved in chamber music all his life — some violin duos composed in 1796 when he was a twelve-year-old in Brunswick still survive and his last completed large-scale work was his 36th string quartet dating from the summer of 1857. From the time of his appointment as Kapellmeister in Kassel in 1822 (for life, but he was pensioned off in December 1857) until the year before his death Spohr organized an annual winter quartet circle at which all the classical masterpieces were performed as well as his own works and those of once popular composers such as Fesca, Onslow and Andreas Romberg. As additional string players were easily available from among his many pupils or the court orchestra he was also able to compose quintets to add some variety to the programmes and it was during this period of his life that his last five string quintets were written (1826, 1834, 1838, 1845 and 1850), whereas the first two arose much earlier, during Spohr’s time as orchestral director at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna from 1813 to 1815. All of Spohr’s quintets follow the model of those of his great idol, Mozart, in using a second viola.
In his memoirs Spohr tells us something about his quartet parties: “I established here [in Kassel in 1823] a quartet circle at which, in turn with some other families who were lovers of music, we gave three quartets every week, and concluded the evenings with a frugal supper. At first the quartet consisted of [Adolf] Wiele [1794-1845], solo violinist and subsequently concertmeister of our court orchestra, of my brother Ferdinand [1792-1831], who took the viola, and of our excellent cellist [Nikolaus] Hasemann [1788-1842]. But as by degrees, both in the orchestra and in this small circle, death made some vacancies, others were obliged to be substituted in their place, and then some time was always required until we obtained once more the old customary ensemble again. In 1831 my brother was first snatched from us, then Wiele, and at last Hasemann [the 74-year-old Spohr’s memory is faulty here; Hasemann predeceased Wiele]; but their places were again filled by new members of our court orchestra, so that the quartet parties, which took place only in the winter months, never ceased entirely, and I myself up to quite recently  played two quartets in each of them.”
The Quintet in B minor dates from April 1826, when Spohr was enjoying the fruits of his first years in Kassel. His opera Jessonda (1822), his first double-quartet (1823) and his oratorio Die letzten Dinge (1826) had established his position among the leading composers of the day and he was revelling in the opportunities his Kassel post gave him. As he wrote to a friend in 1828: “Heaven be praised, as the father of a family and an artist I am in a very fortunate position and have never yet become acquainted with lasting regrets that gnaw at the heart. My work in my official post is so in accordance with my wishes, as I could not have found in any other German town”. The quintet marks a return to instrumental composition after the sustained involvement in opera (Der Berggeist, 1824), incidental music (Macbeth, 1825) and his oratorio, and it stands out as one of his finest chamber works. The legend of Spohr as “soft and sentimental” does an injustice to the wide range of his music but it is idle to deny that it is a component of his artistic personality and this quintet displays that side at its best.
The B minor tonality reflects that of the tragically stormy overture to Macbeth but here we start with a note of wistful pathos, rather akin to that at the opening of Schubert’s contemporaneous A minor String Quartet. The second subject is a variant of the first but in a less flowing mood while intervening passagework paints flecks of gold amid the subdued hues of the main material. As usual with Spohr, these bravura sections are underpinned by thematic links with the rest of the movement; nor are they confined to the first violin. The cellist especially gets a good share of the virtuosity in a part written for Hasemann, the cellist of Spohr’s Kassel orchestra, who was an outstanding performer. The outgoing, virile side of Spohr comes to the fore in the dynamic D major scherzo while the B minor trio is a beautiful contrast in 6/4 time with the first violin having a memorable role in ballad mode. The Adagio, in G major, is in Spohr’s favourite hymn-like mood, intense nobility which continues the note of optimism introduced in the scherzo. The barcarole-style finale, however, brings back the wistful longing and despite episodes in the major key, the movement returns to B minor with a quintessentially Romantic dying fall in the closing bars.
If the B minor Quintet comes from a happy period in Spohr’s life, by the time of the Quintet in A minor (1833-34) the shadows had begun to close in. The two quintets are an excellent demonstration of the fact that composers are not slaves to the emotion of the day, for while the A minor also opens with that note of pathos so prevalent in its predecessor, its whole direction is towards a more optimistic frame of mind. The turning point in Spohr’s relationship with Kassel followed the revolutionary year of 1830. In 1831 Spohr suffered two big personal losses — the deaths of his younger brother and artistic colleague, Ferdinand, and of his friend, librettist and fellow-democrat Carl Pfeiffer. When the revolutionary fervour reached Germany, Spohr’s excitement at what appeared to be the dawn of a democratic, united country was endless. But the forces of repression fought back and in Kassel, where promises of a constitution had been made, autocratic rule soon renewed its grip. Alongside these blows, the unstable political situation led to artistic economies which struck directly at Spohr’s own interests; opera performances were cancelled, attempts were made to disband Spohr’s orchestra and, when the Elector abdicated and his son ruled as Regent, Spohr found the high-handed, arbitrary interference of the son far more annoying than the father’s. To cap it all, Spohr’s beloved wife, Dorette, was worryingly ill and was to die in November, 1834.
The A minor Quintet is a confident assertion of the will to face up to life’s problems. Already, in the first movement, after the melancholy note of the first subject, the second main theme is much firmer and diatonically based. It frequently interjects its resolve into the musical argument although the coda resignedly fades out in the minor. The Larghetto, in F major, is a lyrical interlude with a contrasting section in D flat major, which injects a greater liveliness enhanced by its rhythmic complications. The minuet is one of a type in which Spohr specialised — with a rather menacing minor key march-like tread. Here, instead of the expected relaxation of a conventional trio, we have a fleeting scherzo in the major key which dashes along at three times the pace of the minuet. After the two sections have been repeated, the violins have the scherzo material in the coda while the other instruments stay with the minuet. The finale is a driving Presto in which all three main thematic strands are continually pressing forward. Diatonic scale passages are a feature of the movement and these effectively overcome the chromatic tendencies to which Spohr was partial. The tension tightens in the development, which is a full-blown fugue on the second part of the first subject, while the coda manages to cover elements of all the material as it clinches a climactic A major conclusion.
Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain
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