About this Recording
8.223256 - SPOHR, L.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 6 - Nos. 15 and 16 (New Budapest Quartet)

Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
The Complete String Quartets, Vol. 6


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

Quartet No. 15 in E Flat major, Op. 58, No. 1 • Quartet No. 16 in A minor, Op. 58, No. 2

Spohr was at the height of his powers when he composed these two quartets towards the end of 1821. In the previous few years he had journeyed to a number of other countries in Europe and had made his mark as a violinist, composer and conductor. Of particular significance to Spohr were his tour of Italy in 1816 and 1817 and his engagement to direct the Philharmonic Society’s concerts in London in the early part of 1820. One can see a greater Italian influence on Spohr’s melodies from this time. Even in the string quartets the lyrical element becomes more pronounced.

During his engagement at the opera house in Frankfurt from 1817 to 1819 Spohr had been able to set up a series of chamber music recitals and for these he had written his three Op. 45 quartets. When he moved to Dresden in 1821 he was determined to continue the promotion of chamber music, particularly the masterpieces of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven as well as works of his own as he relates in the Autobiography (Reeves & Turner, London, 1878): “Arrived in Dresden, we were conducted by Hauptmann to the lodgings he had hired for us, which were pleasantly situated in a quiet part of the town. Both my eldest girls immediately began their singing lessons with Mr. Miksch and I then went in search of my former acquaintances among the artists and amateurs of music, and foremost of all, of the orchestra director Carl Maria von Weber. He received me in a very cordial manner, and by degrees introduced me into all the musical circles, where I not only heard much good music, but had the opportunity of playing my own chamber-music. As the musicians who accompanied me evinced great interest in my quartet-play, this induced me, with their assistance, to give quartet parties every week at my house, to which I invited the most ardent lovers of music in the town. At these I brought forward, as I could not succeed in doing in Paris, all the quartets and quintets in succession which I had written up to that time, and as I soon got to the end of them, and they met with great approbation from all hearers, I was encouraged to write some new ones. In a short time, I finished two (the two first of Op. 58), and I took such interest in this work, as well as in the whole artistic life of Dresden, that I gave up my contemplated musical tour, and deferred it to the latter end of the winter”.

He did not write the third of the Op. 58 set until he had moved to Kassel early the following year to take up the post of Hofkapellmeister.

The Quartet in E flat major, Op. 58 No. 1, shows Spohr at his most inventive. Though he keeps to the conventional layout of movements, the varied material is handled with great skill and the work is a well-balanced whole. Earlier influences have been fully absorbed into Spohr’s personal style, but the characteristic figures and modulations are used to advance the momentum of the music. The opening bars of the first movement provide the basic foundations for all that follows. The second subject, like the first out of which it grows, has a mood of cheerful confidence. There are sterner moments to provide some contrast within the movement. The first violin carries much of the argument and after the second subject does have an extended passage of triplets, but nowhere does one get the impression of a miniature violin concerto. Nor does one in the broad noble melody which ushers in the slow movement, one of Spohr’s best. The more animated contrasting section fits in perfectly and in no way detracts from the solemn mood of the main theme.

The Scherzo in C minor with its vigour and humour forms an effective foil to the slow movement and the Ländler-like Trio provides a gentle interlude, with some echoes of first movement material. The finale is a cheerful Rondo with springy rhythms and effective use of counterpoint. The contrasts within the movement are handled with great skill and the quartet is brought to a brilliant conclusion.

Despite the prominence of the first violin in the first two movements of Op. 58 No. 1, already mentioned, there is no doubt about its place among Spohr’s “true” quartets. With its immediate successor, however, the Quartet in A minor, Op. 58 No. 2, there could be some ambiguity about its status. There is a more obvious virtuosity in some of the first violin writing and it is apparently only in three movements as is the case in an acknowledged“Quatuor brilliant”. The middle movement does in fact combine the functions of a slow movement and a Scherzo. In spite of the virtuoso writing for the first violin there is also plenty for the other instruments to do in each of the movements.

In the first movement are two contrasting main themes linked by some concerto-like passagework for the first violin. The mood of the opening theme is a familiar one in Spohr’s minor key works, melancholy and yearning for better times, but with more long drawn out and flexible construction than in earlier works, showing the increasing influence of Romantic ideas. The viola takes over the theme before the first violin launches into its first display passage. The confident second theme has an almost operatic flavour, and Hans Glenewinkel, who wrote a dissertation about Spohr’s chamber music for strings, suggested that this might have come from the sketches for the Black Huntsman. This was the opera on which he started work in 1818 and then abandoned when he heard that Weber was working up the same story as Der Freischütz. There is a strong development and the first part of the recapitulation is considerably altered and shortened.

The second movement, Andante in F major, opens with a charming, memorable theme, with two sections which are each repeated. After two variations and a link passage there is a change to the key of A major and to triple time with the heading Scherzo vivace. This is a free variation on the original Andante theme which is modified very ingeniously. With a modulation back to F and return to the first tempo there is a further variation and a coda.

The finale is designated a “Rondo alla Espagnola” and it opens with a theme in bolero rhythm. There are several episodes, some with the usual brilliant passagework, extensions of the bolero theme and a beautiful singing melody introduced by the first violin, then taken over by the cello. There is some masterly development of the material and a vigorous coda ends firmly in the minor key, a rarity for Spohr who usually ends his minor key works in the tonic major.

These fine works were a fitting prelude to Spohr’s period of greatest success. Thanks to Weber’s good offices he obtained his post in Kassel where he was to live for the rest of his life. During his first ten years there he made the Kassel opera one of the best in Germany and he composed some of his most successful works including the opera Jessonda and the oratorio The Last Judgement. He wrote another twelve string quartets during these years as well as the first two of his double quartets. By the end of the 1820s he was already regarded by some as Germany’s greatest living composer.

Chris Tutt
Secretary, Spohr Society of Great Britain

Close the window