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8.223253 - SPOHR, L.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 3 - Nos. 1, 2, 5 (New Budapest Quartet)

Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
The Complete String Quartets, Volume 3


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 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 Op. 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 Op. 50 in 1787, and in 1801 Beethoven published his six Op. 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 Op. 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 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 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, Op. 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 emphasised 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, Op. 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, Op. 30, was similarly designated on the autograph score despite its four movements, and Op. 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. 1 in C major, Op. 4, No. 1 • String Quartet No. 2 in G minor, Op. 4, No. 2 • String Quartet No. 5 in D major, Op. 15, No. 2

When the young Spohr wrote his first string quartets he was director of music at the court of Gotha and had established himself as the leading German violin virtuoso. His compositions were almost solely for his own instrument—violin concertos, duos for the violin and shorter pieces for violin accompanied by string trio for him to play in salons when orchestras were not available, but he was ambitious to essay other branches of composition and soon after his Gotha appointment in 1805 he turned to harp music (for his wife, Dorette, whom he married in February 1806), opera, the clarinet (for the virtuoso Johann Simon Hermstedt) and lieder. Among the earliest of these attempts in new genres are the two Op. 4 string quartets, published in 1807 but probably worked on over the previous two years.

The obvious influences on the Quartet in C major, Op. 4 No. 1 are Haydn, and more particularly Mozart and Beethoven, especially in the Op. 18 quartets which Spohr adored. Beethoven’s influence is shown particularly in Spohr’s effective use of short, dramatic segments of the thematic material in the development. Spohr’s virtuoso background emerges through the bravura-like passage work given to the first violin in the closing sections of the Allegro spiritoso but it must be said that these have nowhere near the technical difficulty of Spohr’s contemporary concertos and potpourris. The C minor Menuetto takes Mozart as the model while the Adagio, although again looking to Mozart, has some prophetic moments. The movement acts also as an introduction to the finale, ending on a half-close before the Allegro begins. The influences on this finale are less obvious but the music, it must be confessed, is more anonymous. Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in this quartet.

The impression made by the Quartet in G minor, Op. 4 No. 2 is far more striking and yet the work could be said to be made up of influences—Beethoven in the first movement, Mozart in the second, Haydn and Beethoven in the Scherzo and Rode plus fugato style in the Finale, but Spohr makes something positive of these influences and the result is probably the most attractive of all his Gotha quartets. The opening material of the Allegro moderato has a stronger taste of Spohr’s own manner than the previous quartet, though again the motivic working is Beethoven-like in its use of short figures. The Poco adagio is one of the finest of Spohr’s early slow movements even though its model is obviously Mozart’s Quartet in A major, K. 464. This rich movement is ideally complemented by the Scherzo in which catchy rhythms are handled with a droll humour.

Analytically the Finale-rondo ought to be a disaster with its Rode-like dotted opening tune imported from the Quatuor brillant and contrasted with severe minor key fugato passages but in performance it comes off wonderfully well because of the tremendous high spirits which are generated. Even after Spohr had, during his lifetime, entered the ranks of “the great composers”, with many more quartets to his name, this one continued to be popular, appearing in many arrangements including one for violin and guitar!

Spohr comments on the early quartets in his autobiography: “In quartets, certainly the most difficult of all compositions, I had already made a trial the year before. But with them I succeeded no better than song-compositions. Shortly after their completion they no longer pleased me; and for that reason I should not have published them had not my Leipzig publisher, Herr Kühnel, at whose house I played them in the autumn of 1807, retained them almost by force and shortly afterwards published them as Op. 4 the New Quartets, Op. 15, also brought out by Kühnel, pleased me it is true somewhat longer; but at a later period when I had learnt to produce a better style of quartet composition I regretted also that I had published them.”

The Quartet in D major, Op. 15 No. 2, is in three movements; it lacks a slow movement (although there is a four-bar slow introduction to the Finale), possibly owing to criticism by the composer Johann Friedrich Reichardt, whose standing as a critic was high during his lifetime. Spohr relates the story: “I…immediately arranged a musical party at my house in his honour at which I let him hear my two new and just finished quartets (of Op. 15)…I set much value upon his opinion and awaited it with a feeling of acute expectancy. I therefore felt somewhat chafed when Reichardt had various objections to make and expressed them sans gene. But it was perhaps more the self-sufficient look of infallibility with which he pronounced his judgement that wounded me; for some time after, I was obliged to admit to myself that Reichardt’s observations were in many respects just. There was one remark which I frequently called to mind in my subsequent studies. For instance, in an Adagio, from beginning to the end, I had carried out a figure after the style of Mozart, now in one key and then in the other, and in my delight at this scientific interweaving, had not noticed that it at last became monotonous. But although Reichardt praised the manner in which I had carried it through, he spoke unsparingly against it and added moreover, maliciously: “You could not rest until you had worried your motive to death!” As the slow movement of Spohr’s other Op. 15 quartet does not fit this description in any way, we can assume that the criticised Adagio originally belonged to Op. 15 No. 2 and was removed by Spohr before the manuscript was sent to the publisher. The work overall is the most confidently handled of Spohr’s quartets to this date. The opening Allegro moderato is laid out on ambitious lines and the initial material is so richly endowed that it permeates the whole of the movement. In addition, more so than in any of Spohr’s other early quartets, the conversational interplay of the instruments is here to the fore. The rich sound world of this movement’s coda points ahead to more romantic sonorities, leaving the sparer world of the classical quartet behind.

The Scherzo, with its many sforzandos and pauses, is influenced by Beethoven while the finale, Allegro molto after a largo introduction, is, surprisingly, a full-blown fugal movement. Beethoven’s Third “Rasumovsky” Quartet, which had recently appeared, had famously featured such a movement, no doubt sparking Spohr to emulation. It makes a highly exhilarating and successful end to the quartet but Spohr never again turned to this type of quartet finale.

As Clive Brown says in his definitive study Louis Spohr: A Critical Biography (Cambridge 1984): “Curiously enough, though less distinguished musically than the finest of Spohr’s later string quartets, the Op. 15 set are in some ways a more satisfactory example of the genre simply because they are closer to their classical models”.

Keith Warsop

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