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8.555365 - SPOHR: Music for Violin and Harp, Vol. 2
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Louis Spohr (1784-1859)

Louis Spohr (1784-1859)

Music for Violin and Harp, Vol. 2

Louis Spohr won an enormous reputation during the nineteenth century as a composer, violin virtuoso, conductor and teacher. He was also known for his upright, noble character and as a man of convinced liberal and democratic beliefs who was not afraid of speaking out against the autocracy which abounded in the small German principalities of the time. His contemporaries, indeed, also saw this ‘upright character’ translated into physical terms, as Spohr was around six and a half feet tall. He was one of music’s great travellers, wrote an entertaining and informative autobiography, compiled an influential violin tutor, invented the violin chin-rest, was one of the pioneers of baton conducting and devised the method of putting letters in a score as an aid to rehearsals. Spohr was born in Brunswick in North Germany on 5th April, 1784, and as a boy showed talent for the violin. When he was fifteen he joined the ducal orchestra and by 1802 had reached a stage at which the Duke considered him ready to go on a year-long study tour with the virtuoso Franz Anton Eck (1774-1804), ending in the then Russian capital, St Petersburg.

Spohr won overnight fame when a concert in Leipzig in December 1804 was ecstatically reviewed and this set him out on a successful career that took him to the position of music director to the court of Gotha (1805-12), orchestral leader at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, where he became friendly with Beethoven (1813-15), opera director at Frankfurt (1817-19) and finally, Hofkapellmeister at Kassel (1822-57), where he died on 22nd October, 1859. He also found time for numerous concert tours, including Italy (1816-17), England (1820) and Paris (1821). In later years he reduced the number of his public appearances as a violinist but continued to conduct important music festivals.

When Spohr was appointed music director in Gotha in August 1805 he had just turned 21 and was, as he said in his Autobiography, ‘from his earliest youth very susceptible to female beauty’. Here, he soon fell head over heels in love with the eighteen-year-old Dorette Scheidler, daughter of one of the court singers, Susanne Scheidler. Dorette was a brilliant harpist and an accomplished pianist, who also spoke French and Italian fluently. In pursuing his courtship, Spohr first composed a concert aria for the mother and then a sonata for violin and harp, thus ensuring that he was able to meet Dorette regularly at rehearsal. Eventually the sonata was ready for performance and, Spohr tells us, on the drive home after the concert ‘I at length found courage to say: "Shall we thus play together for life?" Bursting into tears, she sank into my arms; the compact for life was sealed!’

The wedding took place on 2nd February, 1806, and Spohr immediately began a detailed study of the harp. He wrote further works for it and, over the next few years, the Spohrs won an outstanding reputation as duet partners. One listener remembered many years later: ‘It was like hearing the angels sing! I have never heard anything like it, before or since; never have I been so profoundly impressed either by a violinist’s playing or by such perfect ensemble’.

In preparation for a concert tour in the autumn of 1809, Spohr composed the earliest work presented here, the Sonata in G major, published later as Op.115. It is the longest of his duo sonatas and arguably the finest. It follows the broad outlines of his previous sonata, Op.113, but with more subtleties and a greater infusion of lyricism. This is not confined just to the fine central slow movement; both the opening Allegro and the final Rondo end quietly, the latter winding down poetically to its triple piano conclusion.

The Sonata in D major, Op.114, dates from the winter of 1810-11 and here Spohr adopts a two-movement plan. The opening Allegro vivace is followed by a potpourri on themes from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. All of the themes are from the second act, first Pamina’s sorrowful ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’, then the terzet of the three boys ‘Seid uns zum zweiten Mal wilkommen’. The central section is based on Papageno’s ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ and is followed by the duet of the two men in armour from the finale. The final section is fast and furious, Monostatos’ ‘Alles fühlt der liebe Freuden’.

Spohr’s next substantial work for violin and harp dates from 1814, the Fantasie on Themes of Danzi and Vogler, Op.118. An agitated opening in B minor leads to variations on the Danzi theme before Vogler’s tune is introduced along with further variations, then Danzi reappears to round off the work. The theme by Abbé Georg Joseph Vogler (1749-1814) comes from his once-popular opera-ballet Castor und Pollux, and the one from a set of variations by Franz Danzi (1763-1826) has recently been traced back to an aria by Franz Süssmayr (1766-1803), the Mozart pupil who completed his Requiem.

It was in Frankfurt in 1819 that Spohr wrote his final composition featuring the harp as a solo instrument but sadly, this Sonata in G major remained unpublished and today cannot be found. When the Spohrs toured England in 1820, Dorette attempted to master one of the new Erard double-action harps but this proved beyond her strength and she was forced to give up the instrument. She briefly switched back to the piano but after the Spohrs settled in Kassel in 1822 she concentrated on her family life as the mother of three daughters.

In 1825 Spohr wrote a song for a drama Der Erbvertrag (The Testamentary Contract), which was based on a ghost story by Hoffmann. The action takes place in a castle by the Baltic and the heroine sings as the hero accompanies her. Here, Spohr uses the harp to simulate the sound of a harpsichord.

As the years passed, Dorette’s health worsened and she died on 20th November 1834.The shattering loss of his companion of almost thirty years rekindled in Spohr one final return to the harp in a touching tribute. During Dorette’s final illness Spohr was composing his oratorio Des Heilands letzte Stunden (The Last Hours of the Saviour: known in England as Calvary). He played parts to her as he completed them and took his turn to sit through the night by the patient’s sickbed. When Dorette died he was working on the chorus ‘King of Israel’ and the grieving husband marked the date and time of the event in his autograph score. By a strange coincidence, the recitative preceding the next aria, sung by Mary while Christ is on the Cross, includes the words ‘Our love o’er death itself shall triumph’. Spohr must have sensed the hand of fate in such a juxtaposition and when he felt able to return to work in January 1835, his setting of the soprano aria featured solo violin and harp, symbols of his happy years with Dorette.

Keith Warsop

Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain.

If you have enjoyed this recording and would like to find out more about the Spohr Society, write to: The Secretary, Spohr Soceity of Great Britain, 123 Mount View Road, Sheffield, S8 8PJ, UK. (e-mail: chtutt@yahoo.co.uk)

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