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8.570963 - SPOHR, L.: Double String Quartets, Vol. 1 (Forde Ensemble) - Nos. 1 and 2
Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
Louis Spohr was ranked as one of the great composers for much of the nineteenth century. He was born in the German city of Brunswick (Braunschweig) on 5 April 1784 and went on to win an enormous reputation as composer, violin virtuoso, conductor and teacher, holding major posts in Gotha (1805–12), Vienna (1813–15) where he became friendly with Beethoven, Frankfurt (1817–19) and finally Kassel (1822–57), where he died on 22 October 1859. He also undertook numerous concert tours with his first wife, the harp virtuoso Dorette Scheidler (1787–1834), most notably to Italy (1816–17), England (1820) and Paris (1821). In later years Spohr reduced the number of his public violin performances but his renown as a conductor led to many invitations to take charge of music festivals, including the inauguration of the Beethoven Monument in Bonn in 1845 as well as further visits to England in 1839, 1843, 1847, 1852 and 1853.
Spohr’s conducting repertoire was wide-ranging; apart from his own works and Handel, Haydn and Mozart, it took in Beethoven’s symphonies, including the Ninth, the concertos, Fidelio and the Missa Solemnis, Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser, Schumann’s Spring Symphony and various pieces by Schubert, Berlioz and Liszt. He also took a leading part in the revival of Bach’s masterpices such as the St Matthew Passion, with performances in 1832 (without orchestra because of opposition from the Kassel court), 1833, 1834, 1845 and 1851. His compositions covered all the major genres of his era with ten operas, four oratorios, ten symphonies, 28 concertos, much chamber music and nearly a hundred Lieder.
Despite Spohr’s busy career as violin virtuoso and conductor, he was involved in chamber music throughout his life, not only as a composer but also as a performer and concert organizer. He is credited with pioneering the standard programme of quartets by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in a single recital as well as putting on the first public chamber music concerts in Frankfurt in 1818. Later, during his time in Kassel, he held weekly winter quartet parties from 1822 until 1858, the year before his death.
Spohr’s chamber music for string ensemble amounts to 48 compositions, made up of 36 quartets, seven quintets, a sextet and four double quartets, written for the same eight instruments as Mendelssohn’s popular Octet. These double quartets, however, are unique in the chamber music repertory for, as Spohr himself made clear, ‘Mendelssohn’s Octet belongs to quite another kind of art in which the two quartets do not concert and interchange in double choir with each other but all eight instruments work together.’
Spohr credited the violinist-composer Andreas Romberg (1767–1821) with suggesting the idea of a composition for double quartet ‘when we played a quartet together for the last time before his death’. Spohr set to work on his First Double Quartet in D minor, Op. 65, in March 1823 and completed it the following month: ‘I imagined how two quartet groups sitting close to each other should be made to play one piece of music and keep in reserve the eight-voice combination for the chief parts of the composition only. I was greatly impressed to find that its effect was far greater than that of simple quartets or quintets’.
The presence of the complete octet is immediately announced by the powerful unison opening of the Allegro, then the second quartet begins the continuation one bar before the first quartet joins in. This opening theme bears a superficial resemblance to the start of the Haffner Symphony, K.385, by Spohr’s great hero Mozart, but the chromaticism Spohr uses has its roots in another Mozart opening, the E flat String Quartet, K.428. Spohr’s second subject takes a leaf out of Haydn’s book by being a more lyrical version of the main theme. Elements of this theme underpin a section of passage-work by the first quartet on the way to the extensive development section.
The main subject of the G minor Scherzo swings between a staccato-motif and a legato phrase, then comes a serenade-like Trio in G major in which the first violin and cello of the first quartet share the melody while the second quartet has an accompanying rôle. The short Larghetto in B flat major is a simple ‘song without words’ and acts almost as an introduction to the lively D major finale. Here the perky main theme, launched by the first quartet’s cello, is answered by an imitation of brass chords in the second quartet. This comes to the fore in the development where it remains the sole preserve of the second quartet. Textbook sonata-form is varied as the second subject starts the recapitulation and there is a brief reference to the ‘brass chords’ before the race to the finishing line.
This first double quartet proved immensely successful and the Second Double Quartet in E flat major, Op. 77, followed in December 1827. Spohr later composed a third, in E minor, Op. 87, in December 1832–January 1833 and the fourth and final double quartet (G minor, Op. 136) dates from April–May 1847.
The Second Double Quartet has four well-contrasted movements with the lyrical opening once again fashioning a second subject which is an altered version of the first theme. As in the First Double Quartet, this one begins in unison but pianissimo and restricted to the first quartet. The English composer Harold Truscott (1914–1992) praised Spohr’s use of chromaticism during the build-up to the second subject through ‘the magical divergence on to B major harmony […] just as the music is busily preparing for a second subject in C minor. The B major proves to be the tonic “Neapolitan” sixth of B flat major, the normal key at this point, but Spohr’s masterly use of this chromatic harmony for six bars has made the normal sound much stranger than if he had made use here of something really unusual.’ He added that the return to the recapitulation was ‘the most necessary thing at that moment. This is classical structure as the greatest masters understood it.’
The march-like C minor Minuet, a speciality of Spohr’s, has a menacing tread and makes a feature of exchanges between the two quartets, then gives way to a completely contrasting Trio in A flat major, in fact a miniature serenade bringing forward the first violin and viola of the first quartet. Here, in contrast to the minuet proper, the second quartet steps into the background. After the repeat of the minuet, there is a lengthy and poetic coda.
The main theme of the attractive A flat major Larghetto con moto is warmly expressive and the movement includes some tricky moments to be negotiated by the second quartet which involves off-beat demisemiquavers on the two violins and having to slot in with pizzicato semiquavers on the viola and cello. The work is rounded off with a tunefully catchy Allegretto finale which comes close to foreshadowing the Bohemian foot-tapping appeal of Dvořák. Here the second quartet sets up the rhythmic pattern which dominates the movement while the first quartet takes the melodic lead.
It is fascinating to follow Spohr’s progress through his four double quartets and to notice how he brought the second quartet more and more into equal balance with the first. To start with, in 1823, he had to rely on pupils and orchestra members to form his second quartet and so was understandably wary of giving them too exposed a rôle, whereas in the first quartet he took the first violin part himself supported by the members of his regular quartet ensemble, which included the star cellist Nikolaus Hasemann. Later, as his tuition began to improve the quality of string players available to him, he felt able to do more with the second quartet. Prime examples can be heard in the exchanges between the quartets in the minuet of the Second Double Quartet and the tricky accompanying part for the second quartet in the same work’s slow movement.
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