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8.223255 - SPOHR, L.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 5 - Nos. 7 and 8 (New Budapest Quartet)

Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
The Complete String Quartets, Vol. 5


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.

String Quartet No. 7 in E-flat major, Op. 29 No. 1 • String Quartet No. 8 in C major, Op. 29 No. 2

In 1812, having accepted a contract as solo player and leadoff the orchestra at the Viennese Theater an der Wien, Spohr relinquished his post as Konzertmeister in Gotha. He was only to remain in Vienna for two and a half years, but this period was crucial to his artistic development; spurred on by daily contact with so many of the most accomplished musicians of the day, he reached a new peak of achievement in his compositions. During the years 1813–1815 he wrote some fifteen major works, including the path-breaking opera Faust. However, his attention was focused principally on chamber music. One reason for this was an arrangement which Johann Tost (dedicatee of Haydn’s Op. 54, 55 and 64 string quartets) made with him soon after his arrival in the Austrian capital, whereby Tost agreed to pay him for any chamber music he might care to write in Vienna; all Tost required in return was the sole right of possession of the music for a limited period, by which means he intended to ensure that he would be invited to any musical gathering at which the works were to be played.

The three quartets Op. 29 were composed as part of this agreement with Tost. The first to be completed, in the spring of 1813, was the F minor Quartet, later published as Op. 29 No. 3, Op. 29 No. 1 was written until the summer of 1814, and it owed its genesis to an incident at a musical party where a composition by Friedrich Ernst Fesca, which used a theme derived from the letters of his surname, had been played. Spohr recalled in his memoires that he, Hummel and Pixis had afterwards been teased about their unmusical names and that his had prompted him to see whether he could not make something out of his. The two-note motto which begins the E-flat quartet was the result: E-flat (in German musical orthography written and pronounced Es) stood for “s”, the abbreviation “po” (for piano) followed, then came B natural (in German orthography “h”) and the name was completed with a crotchet rest (resembling a letter “r”). The motif, stated in unison, gives the opening of the quartet an intriguing ambivalence between E-flat major and C minor. Harmonic boldness is evident throughout the movement, the development of which contains passages that seem prophetic of the mature Wagner (who had been born the previous year). The second movement, an inventive set of variations, provided Spohr with ample opportunity to display his skill as a violinist; the Scherzo makes effective use of fugato; the opening theme of the finale is an excellent example of the way in which Spohr’s individual use of harmony gives an unexpected character to a conventionally cheerful melody. The masterly organization of material, which is apparent in the quartet as a whole, may perhaps reflect the impact of Beethoven, whom Spohr came to know well during his time in Vienna.

The Quartet in C, Op. 29 No. 2, which was written shortly after wards in January 1815, stands in sharp contrast. It has a gentler Mozartian quality than the E-flat quartet; this tone is established by the opening theme of the first movement, though the harmonically daring second subject, marked “Con molto espressione”, is typically “Spohrish”. The third movement is a fine martial Menuetto in C minor and the finale an ebullient helter-skelter. But perhaps the most individual movement is the second, a tender Adagio in F major, full of expressive chromaticism; it contains a striking passage in which the first violin performs delicate embellishments over a reference to the principal theme of the movement, played by the cello in its tenor register.

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

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