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8.555968 - SPOHR: String Quintet No. 7 / String Sextet, Op. 140 / Potpourri
Louis Spohr (1784-1859): The Complete String Quintets, Volume Four
Quintet No. 7 in G minor, Op. 144 • Sextet in C major, Op. 140 • Potpourri, Op. 22
Louis Spohr was accepted during his lifetime as one of the most important composers of early German Romanticism whose compositions covered all the major genres of that era. He was born in Brunswick where he became a teenage member of the court orchestra and developed into the leading German violinist of his day. He held major conducting posts in Gotha (1805-12), Vienna (1813-15), Frankfurt (1817-19) and finally Kassel (1822-57). In between, he found time for numerous concert tours including St Petersburg, Italy, England (six times) and Paris. As a conductor he had much to do with establishing the regular use of the baton and he was also a renowned teacher, training some two hundred violinists, conductors and composers.
Spohr’s music is a mixture of Romantic (harmony, instrumental texture) and Classical (formal design) tendencies and this latter side of his musical personality played a part in his later fall from popularity as it must have appeared old-fashioned to those brought up on the heady sounds of Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss.
The Potpourri, Op. 22, is scored for five string instruments (solo violin and string quartet) and therefore makes an appropriate and attractive appendix to the Naxos set of Spohr’s string quintets. It dates from 1807 when the 23-year-old Spohr doubled up as a touring violin virtuoso and orchestral director at the princely court of Gotha. For his tours Spohr composed not only violin concertos and shorter pieces with orchestra but also works suitable for salons or smaller centres where orchestras were not available. The work remained a favourite of the composer for many years and he later prepared an orchestral version which he played in London in 1820 and Paris in 1821. After a slow introduction in which Spohr’s expressive style is displayed to the full, a Russian folk-tune is introduced followed by three decorative variations. A modulatory passage leads to the second tune; none other than Là ci darem la mano from Don Giovanni by Spohr’s great hero Mozart. There are variations on this before the Russian tune returns for the coda.
Between the composition of his Sixth String Quintet (Naxos 8.555967) in 1845 and the Seventh in October- November 1850, Spohr wrote his single String Sextet, in C major, Op. 140, (March-April 1848) so it is fitting to include it in this volume as we conclude our survey of his seven string quintets, especially as it is one of his finest works. Spohr was the first composer of note since Boccherini in 1776 to tackle this combination of two violins, two violas and two cellos and his essay sparked off renewed interest in the medium, leading to the two masterpieces of Brahms with a number of other important composers soon following the example of the two German masters.
To some extent both the Sextet and the Quintet are coloured by Spohr’s reaction to the 1848 revolution which looked as if it might bring about a united, democratic Germany which the composer had so long awaited; the Sextet in the immediate euphoric expectation of fulfilled hopes and the Quintet at the more depressing period when the forces of repression were regaining the upper hand. Indeed, there was something of a family tradition that the Sextet expressed Spohr’s feeling of exultation over the events of 1848. According to the chapters they appended to Spohr’s Autobiography: “In 1848, shortly after the outbreak of the revolution in France, Spohr, somewhat under the influence of ideas of liberty etc. composed his Sextet ... on making entry of which in the list of his compositions, he appended the words ‘Written in March and April, at the time of the glorious people’s revolution for the liberty, unity and greatness of Germany’. And this composition, so rich in fresh melodies and truly ethereal harmonies than almost any other work by him, gives eloquent proof of his exalted mental state, for it rises joyfully above the storms of the present to presage the emergence of peace, hope and purest harmony that he visualised would soon blossom out of momentary strife.” In fact, Spohr nowhere recorded any specific programme for this Sextet though others have attempted to discern one. Hans Glenewinkel, in his important 1912 study of Spohr’s chamber music, remarks that the trilling motif which appears frequently throughout the first movement is “an expression of joy, sometimes restrained, sometimes bursting impetuously out” while the “elegiac undercurrent” in the coda suggests “a prophetic vision that the spirit of freedom will be fettered again in sleep and dreams before its definitive release.” Glenewinkel also points out that Spohr chose to emulate Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the interlinking of Scherzo and Finale, and the mere presence of Beethoven’s Fifth in this context suggests that the ideal of political freedom inspiring the Sextet is not invalid.
The Sextet’s warm and expansive opening theme, Allegro moderato, points ahead to Brahms and this opening movement is unified by the trilling motif which appears again and again with the various themes. A subsidiary trilling figure plays a prominent part in the development in which elements from both main themes metamorphose into a new melody. The Larghetto in F major features a hymn-like solemnity and an effective contrast comes from the secondary material with its rhythmic kick. The earnest Scherzo, Moderato in A minor, alternates with a wonderfully sonorous A major section marked con grazia in which Spohr writes for the first violin and first cello in octaves. After a pause, the rising octave from the start of the Scherzo launches the joyful C major finale, Presto. The secondary trilling figure which featured in the first movement’s development is now integrated in the finale’s main theme. The Scherzo and its A major section are repeated before the finale bursts in again only for the Scherzo to make a surprise return for the coda; then a few bars Prestissimo bring the Sextet to a euphoric conclusion.
Despite Spohr’s immediate enthusiasm for the events of 1848 it was not long before the reactionaries fought back and by the end of 1849 they had regained control. During that year Spohr rejected an invitation to perform in Breslau which was then under martial law, stating: “I would find myself unable to breathe, let alone to make music”. He finally made the visit in the summer of 1850 after martial law had been lifted and played the Sextet (perhaps thereby affirming his continuing belief in the principles of the revolution). A Breslau newspaper reported: “...that, at his present age  he plays with all the fire and energy of a young man and surmounts the greatest difficulties with amazing vigour and authority, is simply phenomenal; it has never happened before!” However, the ruling prince in Kassel, Friedrich Wilhelm, had not forgotten 1848. He had been forced to grant a constitution, saw the new German national flag flying in his capital and appeared in public wearing the national cockade in his hat. Even more galling was the fact that he had to listen to his own Kapellmeister Spohr conducting revolutionary songs and, the final insult, felt obliged to request Spohr to perform a popular patriotic song. During 1850, though, his autocratic authority was re-imposed as martial law was declared in September while in December, a few weeks after Spohr had completed the Seventh Quintet in G minor, op. 144, Prussian soldiers numbering four thousand marched into Kassel to support the crackdown. Writing to a friend, Spohr was now in despair: “Our position is desperate! The cowardice of the Prussian Government has robbed us and the whole of Germany of the freedom we have won, and unfortunately there is no hope that this generation will see a second and, let us hope, successful rising of the German nation. If I were not too old, I would now emigrate to the free country of America.”
A feeling of melancholy and unease which permeates much of the Quintet, dominates the first movement, Allegro moderato, and even the warmly lyrical second subject, coloratura embellishment by the first violin and the major key conclusion, fail to dispel it. Again, the noble E major main theme of the Larghetto alternates with unsettled sections which return three times to the opening melody, as if homing in on a beacon of light. Brahms is again not far away in the syncopated opening of the Menuetto in G minor which emphasises once more the basic mood of the work. The G major Trio acts as a counter-balance though this is also absorbed into the minor tonality in the coda. The barcarolle-style finale, Allegro, offers a relaxed G major resolution to the tensions of earlier events but even here the music gently fades away in contrast to the optimism displayed at the close of the Sextet.
The prince was soon able to indulge his revenge on Spohr. On New Year’s Day 1851 Bavarian troops entered Kassel to reinforce the Prussians and ten soldiers were billeted on each house “inhabited by refractory elements”. Spohr’s aged father-in-law had to suffer this iniquity and only the composer’s great international fame prevented him from receiving the same treatment. Nevertheless, he did not escape scot free as his ten assigned soldiers were installed at an inn with Spohr having to foot the bill for them. After a series of other spiteful acts by the prince, finally in November 1857 Spohr was curtly pensioned off and even banned from sitting with his old orchestra. The prince even pursued Spohr beyond the grave when, in 1861, he prevented the court orchestra from holding a graveside commemoration on the anniversary of the composer’s death which took place on 22nd October 1859. Time and history, however, contrived a posthumous revenge for Spohr. Soon after the end of the Second World War, Lady Mayer, researching for a book on Spohr, visited Kassel which had been heavily bombed in 1943 and reported: “By a strange trick of fate, Spohr’s monument still stands untouched by the devastation from the skies. His tall figure, baton in hand and violin under his arm, rises up opposite the ruined palace of his patron and tormentor; a symbol of the immortal art which in his life he so nobly served.”
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