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8.223439 - SPOHR, L.: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6 (Slovak State Philharmonic, Košice, A. Walter)

Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78


At the time Spohr completed his Third Symphony in March 1828 he was on top of the world, both artistically and personally. His Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Eleventh Violin Concertos and his first two symphonies had established him as an instrumental composer of the front rank but the success of his opera Jessonda, first performed in 1823 and his oratorio of 1826, Die letzten Dinge, known in Britain as The Last Judgement, led to his being acclaimed as a worthy member of the great succession of German masters, after Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The deaths of Weber in 1826 and Beethoven in 1827 left Spohr as the recognised “greatest living composer” as far as Germany and Britain were concerned to add to his renown as a master violinist and a leading conductor. His home life, too, was filled with happiness. He and his wife, Dorette, after 22 years of marriage, were still deeply in love, as their letters to each other show: “Dearest heart’s soul, How I long for you, how I love you”, wrote Spohr, and Dorette replied: “My love for you is so great that I would sacrifice everything for you, even my life”. Their two eldest daughters had recently made happy marriages and the third daughter, Therese, now nearly ten, was a source of further joy. Spohr’s work as music director in Kassel was also crowned with success so it is no wonder that he was able to write to his old friend, the Leipzig music critic Friedrich Rochlitz in July 1828: “Heaven be praised; as the father of a family and an artist I am in a very fortunate position and have never yet become acquainted with lasting regrets that gnaw at the heart. My work in my official post is so in accordance with my wishes as I could not have found in any other German town”. The Third Symphony not only reflects the confidence and success Spohr enjoyed at the time of its composition but also appears to be a conscious attempt to respond to criticism of the “melancholy character” of his music. Many years later, in his memoirs, Spohr wrote that this criticism had become regularly stereotyped but“it has always been a riddle for me; to me my compositions appear for the most part quite as cheerful as those of any other composer … I am happy to say I am always of a cheerful tone of mind”. Yet the personal bereavements and blows to his artistic and political hopes during the 1830s saw this “melancholy character” reestablishing itself in his music and it may be that its earlier appearances reflected something in Spohr’s subconscious to which he would not admit.

The Andante grave introduction to the Third Symphony immediately imposes this “melancholy character”, which is dispelled by the arrival of the Allegro with its romantically-tinged lyricism, contrasted with cheerful episodes on the wind instruments, but “melancholy” is not banished so easily and instead of a conventional development the Andante grave material pushes its way back into the music, adjusted to the Allegro tempo. Eventually the positive elements win through for a clinching C major conclusion. One of the most perceptive commentators on Spohr, Herfried Homburg, has summed up precisely the impression this music makes: “Spohr inferred from such [Masonic] ideals that passions of whatever kind should be kept under control. So we can see that Spohr’s artistic life was controlled passion. If this is recognised we find it easier to understand an important component of his music (the mood so often criticised as ‘soft and sentimental’) which always strives towards grandeur and sublimity but, just before the growing warmth that can scarcely be restrained breaks into open flame, it seems to be controlled and sometimes turned to expressive lament”. In this first movement Spohr constructs both the first and second subjects from the same material and a variant of this is also used for the main theme of the hugely romantic Larghetto which could almost be described as a song of love (for Dorette?), at first sweetly lyrical but then giving way to a passionate outpouring of almost Tchaikovskian intensity—an impression reinforced by Spohr’s scoring here for unison violins, violas and cellos, with rhythmic interjections from the rest of the orchestra. The Scherzo invokes a shadowy, unsettled world. There are no clear-cut climaxes; instead half-lights and sudden dynamic outbursts hold sway. In contrast, the wind-dominated Trio blows any hobgoblins away—perhaps, if the Scherzo reflects the more unsettled side of German romantic fantasy (as exemplified in Spohr’s contemporaneous opera Pietro von Abano), the happier side of that world takes over here. The finale brings a life-enhancing conclusion with“melancholy” having no place in this outward-looking world. The opening bars contain the material from which the whole of the movement is built: Bar 1—Main theme; Bar 3—Figure used for closing fanfares; Bar 5—Figure which is extended to form the fugue material in the development; Bar 6- Basis of second subject. Contrapuntal treatment is never very far away in this Allegro. Both first and second subjects are accompanied by elements of each other and so it is no surprise that the core of the movement is a full-blown and exciting fugue. Finally, the fanfaring C major coda gives full expression to Spohr’s confidence in his artistic powers. The symphony received its first performance at an Easter Day concert in Kassel in 1828 (at which Spohr also conducted for the first time Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) and quickly went into the general repertoire where it stayed for the rest of the nineteenth century. Many well-known composers conducted it, including Mendelssohn, Wagner and in London Sterndale Bennett, Sullivan and Alexander Mackenzie.

Symphony No. 6 in G Major, Op. 116

During the 1820s and 1830s interest in music of earlier times was growing. Spohr himself was involved in this process; soon after taking over in Kassel in 1822 he founded a choral society which performed a wide range of music from Palestrina and Carissimi to Bach and Handel. He was lined up alongside Mendelssohn in the revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, was a founder member of the Bach-Gesellschaft and by 1838 was helping to arrange a “Historical Concert” which featured such composers as Rameau and Gluck. This intense involvement with music of the past together with Spohr’s admiration for Mozart and Haydn led him to make unfavourable comparisons when it came to certain areas of contemporary music (not all; for instance, he championed Wagner—what he seems mainly to have deplored was music written for sheer effect and lacking in substance). In January 1839 the Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bull gave two concerts in Kassel and while Spohr admired Bull’s technical ability he criticised him for stooping to showy effects. The following month Spohr wrote a concertina for violin and orchestra which he entitled Sonst und Jetzt (“Then and Now”) which was directly designed to contrast the old and new schools of violin playing. A Tempo di Menuetto antico displays Spohr’s own noble, singing style while a Vivace is full of modern “fireworks” and extravagant percussion effects. Shortly afterwards, in July and August 1839, Spohr went further in composing his Historical Symphony in the Style and Taste of Four Different Periods.

Spohr utilised some direct historical models for his symphony. In the first movement“The Age of Bach and Handel”, Bach’s C major fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One; and in the Pastorale section, a general atmosphere resembling the Pastoral Symphony from Handel’s Messiah together with a more specific affinity with that oratorio’s duet “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd”. In “The Age of Haydn and Mozart” the main models are a figure from Mozart’s 39th Symphony and one from the Prague Symphony. The tuning of the timpani in the Scherzo’s “Age of Beethoven” combines those found in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, significantly the Beethoven symphony that Spohr admired above all the others—he had taken part in the first performance of the symphony in Vienna under Beethoven’s direction on 8th December 1813. In the finale “The Newest of the New”, Auber and Adam and their like are treated satirically. In particular, the overture to Auber’s opera La Muette de Portici (Spohr had to conduct this opera more than 50 times in Kassel) has several features in common with this movement, especially the very opening, which starts with the same diminished seventh chord double forte. This guying of “the newest of the new” leaves the listener with the difficult aesthetic problem of switching from listening with all seriousness to the earlier movements to approaching the finale in the same spirit as Mozart’s Musical Joke. One passage showing up compositional “incompetence” caused by the “continual striving for effect” which Spohr deplored comes in the development when, within forty bars, there are six alternations of time signature between Alla breve and 2/4.

The problem of the finale taxed even those who admired the first three movements (such as Mendelssohn who suggested that a final style of Spohr’s own operatic overtures would have been better) but there are perhaps subliminal reasons why Spohr wanted to end the symphony like this. We know that, following the deaths of members of his family and friends during the 1830s (culminating in those of his wife, Dorette, in 1834 and his favourite daughter Therese in 1838), the blows to his political beliefs in the reaction to the attempts at German unity in 1831 and the petty tyrannies he and his second wife, Marianne, suffered from the ruler of Kassel, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, Spohr’s nostalgia for earlier, happier times became intense. This feeling that Spohr had left a “Garden of Eden” period never to be recaptured is vividly encapsulated in a paragraph from the composer’s memoirs which refers to 1813, when Spohr hired a boat to take him, his brother and his two young daughters down the Danube to Vienna to rejoin Dorette: “We were in the month of May, the moon was full and the deep blue sky was outspread over the charming country. Spring had just decked all nature in her first dress of tender green and the fruit trees were still laden with their beautiful blossom. The bushy banks of the majestic stream were the resort of numerous nightingales which, in bright calm nights particularly, poured forth an unceasing melody. It was indeed a delightful voyage and I have striven continually, during my whole long life, to make it again under similar circumstances; but alas! in vain”.

An interpretation of this problematic symphony based on Spohr’s possible inner motivation is that the Bach-Handel movement with its chunks of pseudo-Bach (the“Protestant counterpoint” of Sir Thomas Beecham’s well-known quip) exemplifies the strong moral and ethical basis of Spohr’s attitude to life and art. In the Haydn-Mozart movement we may suppose that Spohr has found his “ideal state”. The models of the slow movements of Mozart’s 38th and 39th symphonies are too close to be coincidental. This was also the period of the “Liberal” Austrian emperor Joseph II when the Freemasons were allowed to flourish. Mozart was Spohr’s lifelong idol; Spohr, like Mozart, was a Freemason (and one who subscribed with deep belief to the ideals of liberty and equality) and, looking back from Metternich’s Europe of 1839, the 1780s in Vienna must indeed have seemed an Edenesque period. If the first movement lays the moral base for the “ideal state” of the second, the Scherzo moves into the Age of Beethoven. Critics have often noted that there is little that is Beethoven-like in the proceedings of this Scherzo but here the inspiration is surely not Beethoven’s music but the idea of Beethoven as Hero. The three timpani with their three-pitch motif recall an age when people fought for their beliefs and German patriotism ran high as Napoleon’s yoke was thrown off (Spohr himself composed a cantata at the time—Das befreite Deutschland—“Germany Liberated”). Now, at last, the finale can make sense. For Metternich’s Europe and the petty tyrants Spohr so abhorred (like his own princely employer) could only be exemplified by the bombastic, trivial and banal style of music so fashionable then. If this was indeed Spohr’s inner motivation, then the title of the symphony becomes “Historical” in a more meaningful way.

Keith Warsop

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