|About this Recording
8.555500 - SPOHR, L.: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 5 (Slovak State Philharmonic, A. Walter)
Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
It is a commonplace of musical criticism that the symphonies of Beethoven cast a large shadow over his successors; that where the eighteenth century composer could turn out sets of three or six symphonies all in the day’s work, the nineteenth century composer was all the time aware that, after Beethoven, the symphony was judged by the most exacting of standards. Spohr was probably the first composer of repute to feel this pressure. Certainly, he approached the symphony hesitantly. His first two were both commissioned works, No. 1 being written in 1811 for the Frankenhausen Music Festival. The symphony was praised but even though Spohr spent the years 1813 to 1815 in Vienna, the home of the classical symphony, and became friendly with Beethoven, he did not return to the form until 1820 when, as part of his contract with the Philharmonic Society during his trip to England that year, he composed his Second.
Not until Spohr had settled in Kassel as Director of Music to the Elector of Hesse (from 1822) did he return to the symphony. During his first years in Kassel, Spohr concentrated on opera, oratorio and chamber music, but at the close of 1827, the year in which Beethoven died, he began his Third Symphony which he completed in March, 1828. It is interesting to speculate on Spohr’s return to the symphony so soon after Beethoven’s death. Whether that event lifted a psychological barrier or whether Spohr, after conquering the worlds of opera (with Jessonda) and oratorio (with The Last Judgment), now felt that his next target had to be the symphony cannot, of course, be confirmed. Perhaps the correct interpretation is a combination of both factors.
As with Beethoven and many of his successors, Spohr’s official tally is nine (There is a Tenth, in E flat major, which Spohr completed in 1857 two years before his death but, after rehearsing it, he decided that it did not reach the standard of his earlier works so he put it aside with instructions that it should never be performed. It was finally premièred in 1998 and published in 2005). With many nine-symphony composers, the ninth is seen as the culmination of an ever-deepening exploration into the creative personality but with Spohr the comparable rising curve to his symphonic output runs from the First to the Fifth. Thereafter, he turned in more experimental directions. So this recording offers the fascinating comparison of Spohr’s highly promising first foray into symphonic writing with the finest of all his nine—the Fifth.
No. 1 in E Flat major, Op. 20
Spohr relates in his autobiography how, following his success as violinist, conductor and composer (with his Second Clarinet Concerto) at Germany’s first music festival, held at Frankenhausen in 1810, he was asked to write ‘a grand symphony’ for the opening concert of the second festival, due in July, 1811. Spohr adds: “In this manner the opportunity presented itself for another interesting task, and I immediately set about it with spirit. Although hitherto it had been usual with me to lose, after a time, all taste for my first essays in a new style of composition, this symphony was an exception to the rule, for it has pleased me even in after years.” The work, completed by April and performed in Gotha (where Spohr was Concertmaster) and Leipzig before its festival début, proved to be a great success. It went into the repertoire of the Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts where, for a quarter of a century, it was played as often as any Beethoven symphony, and was a great favourite in Britain until the 1880s—indeed it received more performances at the Philharmonic Society concerts than any other Spohr symphony.
The famous writer of The Tales, E.T.A. Hoffmann, who was also an influential music critic, praised the First Symphony (even though he found fault with the length of the Scherzo and Spohr’s failure to use invertible counterpoint) and said: “The composer whose first symphony is written in such a manner as the present one raises the greatest and most beautiful hopes; we may congratulate ourselves that we can once again expect well-written symphonies, of which there have been few in modern times.” The symphony, scored for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings, dates from the end of Spohr’s first period of composition when he was taking the music of his idol Mozart as a direct model for a number of his works. “Shortly after that time I became aware that a composer should endeavour to be original both in the form of his musical pieces and in the development of his musical ideas”, Spohr wrote. Nevertheless, the Mozart influence was often a strength, as here where the youthful composer, happy in his marriage, his young family and his artistic successes, displays little of the “soft, sentimental Spohr” of musical legend. Despite the classical models, Spohr’s individuality is strong enough to make the work several stages removed from a mere copy of a Mozart symphony. The resplendent slow introduction, for instance, although clearly inspired by Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, offers some imaginative harmonic treatment as it leads to a festive Allegro. The second part of the movement’s main theme, driven by three repeated notes, is used with great dexterity in welding the Allegro together. The march-like second subject, typical of Spohr at this period (compare the String Quartet, Op. 15, No. 2 available on Marco Polo 8.223253, or the Second Clarinet Concerto available on Naxos 8.550689), plays little part in the development which concentrates on the main theme with fugato working out but undergoes fresh tonal adventures in the reprise. The A flat Larghetto con moto has a Haydn-like elegance to its main melody which reappears embellished with effective figurations after a more assertive central section. Spohr agreed with Hoffmann that the Scherzo was too long and decided to omit the standard repeats. It is still a fairly extensive movement which has a more ongoing dynamism through its range of modulation than the closed dance forms of the standard symphonic minuet or scherzo. The Allegretto finale mixes a jolly tune with much harmonic and developmental complexity, displaying a garrulousness akin to early Schubert, but all in all the symphony exemplifies the young Spohr’s confident, outward-looking attitude to life—only later were shadows to fall.
No. 5 in C minor, Op. 102
This symphony began life in November, 1836, when Spohr wrote an overture-fantasia to Ernst Raupach’s version of Calderon’s mythical tragedy The Daughter of the Air. He was not completely satisfied with the result, however, and when, the following year, the Concerts spirituels of Vienna commissioned a symphony, Spohr reworked the overture as the first movement of the Fifth, which was composed in August and September, 1837. The Vienna première on March 1st, 1838, was a triumph (the Scherzo was encored and one critic declared it was “electrifying”) and it was immediately recognised that the work was something special in Spohr’s output; starker and sterner than his usual compositions. Even Robert Schumann, who did not always welcome unreservedly other Spohr symphonies, said of this one: “In invention, construction and form the symphony contains so much that is truly beautiful and masterly and is overall such a fully-rounded and mature work that it must, without qualification, take first place among the symphonic productions of the present day.”
The Symphony No, 5, which adds a second pair of horns to the orchestra used in Symphony No. 1, is enhanced by some imaginative orchestration—for instance the use of trombones in the slow movement and, especially in the finale, in their highest register. Perhaps the sense of ‘storm and stress’ generated by the work has something to do with the trials and tribulations experienced by the composer in the 1830s, a time which contrasted strikingly with his happy life previously. In the first half of the decade Spohr suffered a series of hammer blows in both his personal and professional life. The death of his beloved younger brother, Ferdinand, in 1831, closely followed by that of his friend, librettist and fellow Democrat Carl Pfeifler, at the age of 28, and worries over the declining health of his wife, Dorette, were counterpointed by the situation in Kassel caused by the outbreak of revolution in 1830 and the reaction against it. Apart from the blows to Spohr’s Liberal sympathies and to his hopes of seeing a united, democratic Germany replace the myriad of autocratic small princedoms, events also affected the artistic sphere of his life as opera performances were suspended and concerts curtailed. The most crushing blow of all came in November 1834, when Dorette died. Spohr’s grief was boundless and to add to his despair, while trying to regain his composure with a short holiday on the Dutch coast, his companion, Dorette’s aunt Minchin, died suddenly. This sequence of events intensified Spohr’s nostalgia for earlier, happier days with Dorette in Gotha, Vienna and the first years in Kassel and led him to remarry in the hope of regaining that happiness. But before the wedding—to the late Carl Pfeiffer’s younger sister, Marianne—more heartache was caused when the autocratic ruler of Hesse, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, refused to allow the ceremony to go ahead until the new Frau Spohr renounced her pension rights. Happily, Marianne proved dedicated to Spohr and did her best to provide him with the home life he so desired.
The Fifth Symphony seems to reflect Spohr’s regret for earlier and happier times and his battle to come to terms with life’s slings and arrows. As an ardent Freemason (like his idol Mozart) Spohr strove to take stoically all that life threw at him, while fighting to uphold his ideals, artistic, ethical and political. Hints of this earlier ‘ideal state’ or ‘Garden of Eden’ image may be felt in the repose of the C major Andante introduction to the first movement, but this is immediately disrupted as the music works up momentum to launch the Allegro with a stormy main theme which cools off enough to give way to a balletic melody whose rhythm, ominously, has links with the first subject. After a brief development of this material, the ‘ideal state’ of the Andante makes a surprise return, flowering into an expansive and beautiful melody at the heart of the movement. Its stability is, however, undermined by fragments of the stormy main theme which eventually hurtles the music back to the recapitulation. Significantly, the big tune does not reappear and the music charges on to a rather unsettled conclusion.
The magnificent Larghetto in A flat, one of Spohr’s finest and most beautiful slow movements, is imbued with deep feeling and permeated with instrumental ‘sighs’ as it gravely searches for a resolution but, despite building up to an impressive climax in which a dotted fugato phrase from the middle section plays an important role, the quest is unfulfilled and the music fades away in quintessential Romantic manner with delicate horn calls sounding from afar. The stamping C major Scherzo, with its wind-dominated D flat Trio, offers a bucolic and idyllic interlude, rather as Bruckner was later to do, but the finale, Presto, a contrapuntal fantasia, drives relentlessly on, as if accepting life as it is, with all its problems, rather than yearning for a lost Garden of Eden. The second subject turns out to be the big tune from the centre of the first movement but now adapted, caught up and carried along in the music’s drive to a firm C major conclusion. Spohr’s determination to face life head-on was soon put to the test. The year after writing the Fifth he needed all his stoicism when his youngest and favourite daughter, Therese, died at the age of 19.
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