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8.223252 - SPOHR, L.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 2 - Nos. 29 and 30 (New Budapest Quartet)

Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
String Quartet No. 29 in B minor, Op. 84, No. 3 • String Quartet No. 30 (Quatuor brillant) in A major, Op. 93


The composition of string quartets ran as a continuous thread throughout Spohr’s life. He wrote his first, Op. 4, at about the age of twenty, and more than fifty years later his last completed large-scale work was his thirty-sixth 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 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 brillant” or Solo-Quartett. Since the piano was not yet the universal accompaniment instrument it later became, many violinist-composers wrote pieces with string accompaniment to provide them with a repertoire in which they could display their technical brilliance at soirées and other occasions when an orchestra was not available. The Quatuor brillant, a kind of chamber concerto, was 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 “Quatour brillant”, 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 brillant, 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 recognized the essential difference between the Solo-Quartett and the “true” quartet, and in his twenty0eight 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

The first of the quartets presented here comes from Spohr’s Opus 84 set and was written in March 1832. Compared with the first two quartets in the set, the part for the first violin is more obviously brilliant, though the other instruments, particularly the cello, have plenty to do. Since Spohr had settled in Kassel in 1822, he had formed a regular quartet group which included the cellist, Hasemann, and the cello is given considerable prominence in a number of the quartets that Spohr composed from that time.

Opus 93 is the last example in Spohr’s output of the Quatuor brillant and was composed in September 1835. It had been a time of considerable change in Spohr’s circumstances. It was a shattering blow for him when his first wife, Dorette, died in November 1834. She had shared all his earlier successes, and in their younger days they had formed a brilliant harp and violin duo.

The following summer he felt the need of a good holiday and set off to Holland with his youngest daughter. Teresa, and his sister-in-law, Minehan Scheidler. On the way he had a very pleasant stay with Mendelssohn at Düsseldorl. At Zandford near Haarlem he enjoyed swimming, walking and attending local concerts, and then quite unexpectedly Minehan was taken ill and died. After her funeral he returned to Kassel. As he relates in his autobiography: “But there I felt the lonesomeness of our home yet more keenly, deprived of the one whom we had left behind, and I therefore began to experience the want of a partner through life who would also take an interest in my musical labours. The meetings of our society of St. Cecilia were near at hand, where at our weekly rehearsals the opportunity might present itself to me to make unperceived such observations as would perhaps enable me to select a lady in whom I might hope to find a solace for the remainder of my life, and one fitted to restore to me my lost happiness. I there bethought me especially of the sister of my deceased friend Karl Pfeiffer, whose serious tone of mind and warm interest for high-class music I had observed during her constant punctual attendance for several years at the concerts of the society, and who, moreover, as I knew through her brother, had a particular predilection for my music”.

It was at this time that he wrote Op. 93, but it was to be more than ten years before he wrote another string quartet (No. 31 in A major, Op. 132, in February 1846). He married Marianne Pfeiffer in January 1836 and, as she was an accomplished pianist, he was encouraged to write a number of works with piano parts, of which the most distinguished are the First and Second Piano Trios (Op. 19 and 123). He also wrote two more string quintets in the ten years up to 1846.

The Quartet in B minor, Op. 84 No. 3, begins with a quiet, melancholy theme in unison, and elements of this theme pervade the whole movement. Virtuoso passage work for the first violin emerges at times, and brighter textures offer contrast to the gloom of the opening. The overall construction is masterly. In this quartet the minuet comes second and has a distinctive character of its own with the trills and leaps of its main theme. The Trio brings back something of the melancholy of the first movement. The broadly laid out slow movement begins with an atmosphere of quiet prayer but later changes to an expression of anguish. The Finale has a wit and lightness of touch, avoiding any suggestion of triviality, but a hint of melancholy returns in the questioning note of the last bars.

The Quartet in A major, Op. 93, has a short, slow introduction in the minor key before the emergence of the main theme of the first movement with its cheerful, easy-going atmosphere. There are brilliant flourishes for the first violin but also some useful contributions from the other instruments. The slow movement is less florid than one might expect in a Quatuor brillant and has a soft, dreamy character. The Finale has a lively rhythm in both its main themes, which made it a favourite with audiences when Spohr played in it. The work was also taken up by some violin virtuosi later in the 19th century.

In these two works the differences between the “Solo-Quartett” and the “true” quartet are somewhat less obvious than in earlier examples. Op. 84 No. 3 has plenty of brilliance in the first violin part, and Op. 93 does not noticeably outshine it in this respect. It is not so surprising that Spohr did not compose any more examples of the Quatuor brillant in an era when the genre came to seem old-fashioned.

Chris Tutt
Spohr Society of Great Britain

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