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8.223598 - SPOHR: String Quintets Op. 106, No. 5 and Op. 129, No. 6

Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
String Quintets Op. 106, No. 5 and Op. 129, No. 6


Louis Spohr (1784–1859) was accepted during his lifetime as one of the most important composers of early German Romanticism whose career encompassed the period from Beethoven’s Op. 18 string quartets to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and whose compositions covered all the major genres of that era. Today’s revival of interest in Spohr was originally fuelled by the chamber music, especially the Nonet in F major, Op. 31, the Octet, Op. 32, and the Piano and Wind Quintet in C minor, Op. 52. It was music for strings, however, which dominated Spohr’s chamber output; 36 quartets, seven quintets, a sextet and four double-quartets. Spohr was involved in chamber music all his life—some violin duos composed in 1796 when he was a twelve-year-old in Brunswick still survive and his last completed large-scale work was his 36th String Quartet dating from the summer of 1857. From the time of his appointment as Kapellmeister in Kassel in 1822 (for life, but he was pensioned off in December 1857) until the year before his death Spohr organised an annual winter quartet circle at which all the classical masterpieces were performed as well as his own works and those of once popular composers such as Fesca and Onslow. As additional string players were easily available from among his many pupils or the court orchestra, he was also able to compose quintets to add some variety to the programmes, and it was during this period of his life that his last five quintets were written (1826, 1834, 1838, 1845 and 1850), whereas his first two appeared much earlier, during Spohr’s time as orchestral director at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna (1813–15). In all of these he followed the example of Mozart in writing for two violins, two violas and a cello.

The first of these two quintets was composed in August and September 1838 at an eventful period in Spohr’s life. It had been a shattering blow for him when his first wife, Dorette, died in November 1834. She had shared all his earlier successes and in their younger days they had formed a brilliant harp and violin duo. In January 1836 he had married again and his second wife Marianne, being an accomplished pianist, encouraged him to write a number of chamber works with piano parts. This quintet was the only work for strings alone that he composed during the first nine years of his marriage with Marianne. Previously he had been producing a new set of string quartets every three or four years.

In June 1838 Spohr suffered another grievous loss with the sudden death of his youngest daughter, Therese, at the age of nineteen. Spohr says in a letter to Speyer that“she was an exact likeness of her never-to-be-forgotten mother’’. He and Marianne then went to Carlsbad to recuperate and travelled back via Leipzig where they met Schumann for the first time. Though both could be critical of each other’s works, they also had great admiration for each other. Spohr was to take a friendly interest in Schumann’s symphonies and string quartets and made a point of visiting Leipzig in 1850 when the opera Genoveva was being produced.

So, why did Spohr return to strings alone for this one work during this period? Though it would be misleading to describe the work as a direct response to recent events, he may have felt that certain impulses could not be adequately contained within the restricted scope of the song or the duet for violin and piano. Powerful feelings can be found in Spohr’s music from time to time in contrast to a more easy-going relaxed atmosphere. Just in the previous year he had composed the grandest and most powerful of his symphonies, No. 5 in C minor. For chamber music at home he had had a specially designed music-room added to his house in 1831. This may have been for him an inducement to write such spaciously laid out works as the String Quartet No. 29 in B minor, Op. 84/ 3 (Marco Polo 8.223252), and the Double Quartet No. 3 in E minor, Op. 87. Certainly this Quintet No. 5 has a spacious design and a richness of texture which sounds almost orchestral in places. The two previous quintets (No. 3 in B minor, Op. 69, and No. 4 in A minor, Op. 91) tended to be more intimate in scale and feeling.

The first movement in G minor opens with a powerful unison figure answered by quiet descending phrases like sighs of resignation. The opening figure appears in various guises during the movement and there is a remarkable transformation of it into a lyrical second subject. There are lighter moments with some flashes of violinistic brilliance, but the darker mood is never far away. In the development there is a build-up to an anguished outburst and a powerful lead into the return of the main theme. In the following Larghetto in E-flat peaceful melodies are clothed with rich harmony and instrumentation. Occasionally there are darker undercurrents in the cello part, but the mood of serenity prevails. This is abruptly broken by the vigorous, even fierce, onward rush of the Scherzo with its return to the home key of G minor. Changes of key and time signature along with some harsh dissonances maintain the striving, restless atmosphere. The Trio section is more relaxed with a singing tone from the first violin. The Scherzo and Trio are repeated, and in the concluding bar of the coda the first violin and cello play harmonics, anticipating the Finale where harmonics are a key feature. These are used to give an added colour to the bagpipe-like accompaniment for the, rapid main theme in this “pastoral” movement. The light, carefree atmosphere is maintained and there is no development section. As in a number of Spohr’s later chamber works there is a quiet end.

Quintet No. 6 in E minor was composed in February and March 1845 and was one of a series of instrumental pieces he wrote following the work on his last opera Die Kreuzfahrer. These also include his Fifteenth (and final) Violin Concerto (in E minor, Op. 128), the Piano Quintet in D, Op. 130, the String Quartet No. 31 in A, Op. 132, and the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, Op. 131. Of these works only the Quartet Concerto still has a place in the repertoire. The most significant chamber works to appear between Quintets Nos. 5 & 6 were the first three Piano Trios which made a considerable impact with their innovative writing for the medium. The opera Die Kreuzfahrer had productions in Kassel and Berlin, but failed to get a hearing elsewhere. Though it showed further progress towards the ideal of “music drama”, it was felt to be too restricted and old-fashioned in overall musical style. After its Kassel première the E minor Quintet was the first new work to be completed. In the opening Allegro we get a melancholy lyricism typical of many earlier Spohr works. One could compare it with the opening of the String Quartet in E minor, Op. 45/2 (Marco Polo 8.223258), or even of the G minor, Op. 4/2 (Marco Polo 8.223253). There is perhaps not the freshness of flow that one finds in the earlier works, but one gets a remarkable richness of texture. The figure in the opening bar recurs at a number of points throughout the movement without becoming too obtrusive. The minor key prevails at the end of the movement with a defiant gesture. The Scherzo in A minor is a lively movement with strong dynamic contrasts and a certain grim humour. This is set off by a flowing, gracious melody in the Trio which comes twice, once in A major, then, after the repeat of the Scherzo, in F major. The movement closes with a shortened version of each part. The Adagio in C is very typical of its composer with its long drawn out reflective main theme. A more pointed rhythm later on provides some contrast without disturbing too much the mood of the whole. We return to the home key of E minor in the Presto finale which maintains a furious pace with the rushing quaver figure which is present in almost every bar. Even the gentler contrasting theme is accompanied by this figure in the lower reaches of the cello’s range. The agitated mood carries right through to the abrupt ending.

This work ushered in a return to chamber works for strings alone in the last years of Spohr’s life. There were to be another six string quartets (including the two that were never published), a quintet, the string sextet and the 4th Double Quartet. These last two have been recognised as masterly works and we will probably find much of interest in the other works as they are recorded. Some, including contemporary commentators, have dismissed them too readily as mere pale imitations of earlier pieces. Their conservative idiom, however, conceals a wealth of genuine feeling and some progressive features.

© 1994 Chris Tutt
Secretary, Spohr Society of Great Britain

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