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8.223254 - SPOHR, L.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 4 - Nos. 3, 4, 6 (New Budapest Quartet)

Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
The Complete String Quartets, Volume 4


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 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 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 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, 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. 3 in D minor, Op. 11 (Quatuor Brilliant) • String Quartet No. 4 in E Flat major, Op. 15, No. 1 • String Quartet No. 6 in G minor, Op. 27

The Quatuor Brillant in D minor, Op. 11 is in complete contrast to Spohr’s classically orientated contemporary quartet sets of Op. 4 and Op. 15. Here, all the focus is on the first violin with the other three instruments acting strictly as the accompaniment. In addition, the use of the three-movement form, without a scherzo or minuet, plus the preference for a Rondo finale accentuates the relationship with the violin concerto. When Spohr took over“the manner of Rode” for this type of quartet, he also took over Rode’s melodic style of“noble melancholy” as exemplified in the main material of the Allegro moderate. Although the quartet is entitled “brillant”, Spohr strove to avoid empty virtuosity and the first violin is given much that is highly expressive intermingled with the bravura passagework expected of this genre. The Adagio is an operatic aria for the first violin—here Spohr seems to have modelled his theme on II mio tesoro from his great hero Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. The final Rondo is in the dotted rhythm popularised by the French violin school of Vietti, Rode and Kreutzer. Here, the other instruments have a little more to do but, overall, this is an effective display piece for the first violin. If the quartet had been by Haydn it would no doubt have been nicknamed “The Baby” in the light of this anecdote related by Spohr in his autobiography: “One Sunday morning I was playing a solo-quartet of mine (D minor, Op. 11) when the master of the house was suddenly called away; but returning after some time, he announced to the company that during the playing of the quartet a son had been born to him!” Spohr goes on to say that the baby, Louis Kleinwächter (“in compliment to me he was christened after me”) went on to become a distinguished amateur composer whose enthusiasm for Spohr’s compositions was so great that he determinedly battled to have them included in programmes to such a degree that he became known as “the mad Spohrist.”

With the Quartet in E flat major, Op. 15, No. 1 we return to the quartet style of the Viennese classics. The spirit of Haydn seems to beam over this work, especially in the sparkling 6/8 final Presto (Spohr calls it a rondo but it turns out to be in sonata form). The first Allegro vivace is a genial, relaxed movement in which Spohr manages to give all of the instruments a share of the action even though the first violin has its usual share of cadential passagework. The quiet ending to this movement becomes a fingerprint of many later Spohr string quartets. The C minor Andante could be characterised as a funeral march with a trio in the major where the cellist is encouraged in a soaring duo with the first violin. Haydn and Mozart are never very far away either in the Menuetto and, all in all, this quartet shows Spohr well on the way to developing confidence in his handling of the genre, but he was not satisfied with what he had achieved, and soon after the composition of Op. 15 in 1808 wished he had not allowed them to be published. Spohr relates an amusing story about a recital in Hamburg in that year, when he played the quartets in numerous soirees. A rich banker had bought 40 tickets for each of Spohr’s public concerts and therefore imposed on the composer to perform at his house in order to give the banker’s social circle a treat. Spohr made it a condition that “the best artists of Hamburg should be invited to accompany me. This was promised and upon my entering the brilliant company I not only found Romberg (Andreas Romberg, composer and violinist) was present but saw another distinguished violinist. Just as the quartet-playing was about to begin, a fourth violinist made his appearance with his instrument and we now saw with astonishment that the master of the house had invited violinists only. As a good accountant he knew that to play a quartet, four persons were necessary, but not that a violist and cellist should be among them!”

Between the Op. 15 quartets and the next one, the Quartet in G minor, Op. 27 comes a four-year gap, vital years in the development of Spohr’s individuality as a composer. It might have been expected that the promise shown in the early quartets would have resulted in more mature works in the same vein but Spohr struck out on a different path. Perhaps one reason for this is explained in the autobiography where he says that many early works had been written directly on Mozartian models. He comments, on an overture modelled on Mozart’s to Die Zauberflöte: “In my admiration of Mozart and the feeling of wonder with which I regarded that overture, an imitation of it seemed to me something very natural and praiseworthy, and at the time when I sought to develop my talent for composition I had made many similar imitations of Mozart’s masterpieces… shortly after that time I became sensible that a composer should endeavour to be original both in the form of his musical pieces and in the development of his musical ideas.”

What Spohr appears to have attempted was to import the expressive melodic style of the French violin school (the vein of “noble melancholy”) as used in the Quatuor brillant into the classical quartet style; the result was the style of Spohr’s mature string quartets. For, although Op. 27 is technically a Quatuor brillant with the first violin dominating through virtuosic passagework akin to that of Spohr’s violin concertos, formally the work is on the broadest scale with fully worked development sections, four movements which include a minuet, and a degree of intensity to which the conventional Quatuor brillant never aspired. Op. 27 was written in the autumn of 1812during Spohr’s journey to Vienna where he planned to give concerts. In fact, he impressed the Viennese so much that he was offered a lucrative post at the Theater an der Wien. It was while in Vienna that he met Johann Tost, violinist-turned rich businessman, who contracted Spohr to provide him with chamber music which included the famous Nonet and Octet. At first, however, Spohr had only the Op. 27 quartet to offer and this was soon being performed by the composer at various Viennese musical parties. When published it was dedicated to that same Count Rasumovsky who is immortally linked to Beethoven’s Op. 59 quartets. The Allegro moderate opens with a theme full of “noble melancholy” which, it has been suggested, could almost be used as Spohr’s visiting card. The movement alternates between deep romantic feeling and highly virtuosic passagework. The Adagio, which exists in sketches suggesting it might have been originally intended for a violin concerto, is on a much larger scale than those in the earlier quartets, fusing Mozartian lyricism with dramatic intensity. The brooding G minor Menuetto is balanced by a Ländler-like trio in B flat major while the final Vivace is a tour de force involving a 6/8 theme in G and a 2/4 theme in D, bringing the quartet to a rousing and cheerful conclusion—no doubt to the relief of the first violin.

Keith Warsop

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