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8.555527 - SPOHR, L.: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 (Slovak State Philharmonic, A. Walter)
Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
The nine symphonies published during Louis Spohr’s lifetime divide fairly clearly into five which follow the classical traditions (No. 1, 1811; No. 2, 1820; No. 3, 1828; No. 5, 1837; and No. 8, 1847) and four which have titles (No. 4, 1832; No. 6, 1839; No. 7, 1841; and No. 9, 1850). While those of the first group are in the usual four movements with a scherzo coming third, the programmatic works offer a number of variations on this ground plan. The spur for such adventurous treatment may have come in July 1828 when the Leipzig critic, Friedrich Rochlitz, an old friend of Spohr’s, who was unaware that the Third Symphony had already been completed, sent him some advice relating to the work. Among other ideas, he said: “It may be possible to work out completely new or infrequently used forms for symphonies; this would have the double advantage of making it easier for the composer to remain fresh in his invention and of avoiding unfortunate comparisons.” Rochlitz was undoubtedly referring to the symphonies of Beethoven when he mentioned ‘unfortunate comparisons’. Whether or not Spohr was worried about such ‘comparisons’, he certainly looked to ‘completely new or infrequently used forms’ when he came to write his Fourth Symphony ‘Die Weihe der Töne’ (‘The Consecration of Sounds’). However, the overall shape of that work was patterned to resemble a four-movement symphony even if the internal procedures of the movements did not. In the Seventh Symphony, even this simulation of traditional symphonic shape was jettisoned and what we really have is a symphonic poem in three movements. When composing the Eighth Symphony, Spohr returned to the standard symphonic form, so this coupling enables us to make a direct comparison between Spohr the innovator.
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 121, for double orchestra is subtitled ‘lrdisches und Gottliches im Menschenleben’ [The Earthly and Divine in Human Life]. The chapters appended to Spohr’s memoirs by his heirs tell us of the immediate inspiration for this symphony, composed in August and September 1841. It arose after Spohr’s summer vacation to Switzerland (the chief object of which was to enjoy “the beauties of nature”) but which also took in a visit to the Lucerne Music Festival where the composer’s oratorio Des Heilands letzte Stunden (“Calvary”) was performed, and, on the way home, a stop in Frankfurt to hear Gluck’s opera Iphigenia in Aulis. The passage continues: “Scarcely was Spohr returned to Kassel than he began with great zeal a new work, the plan of which he had conceived upon the journey, while in view of the magnificent Swiss mountains and lakes. When once more seated with his wife in the carriage, on his return from the Lucerne Festival, he told her with the greatest joy that, inspired and refreshed with all the beautiful and pleasing impressions made upon him by nature and art combined, he felt the strongest impulse to write a truly grand orchestral work, and if possible, in some new and more extended form of the symphony. On the half-joking reply which she made to him: ‘If the simple symphony does not give sufficient scope to your creative faculty, then write a double-symphony for two orchestras in the style of the double-quartets’, he seized the suggestion immediately with much warmth and thereupon sank into a deep reverie, as though he were already beginning the composition, but soon after, added that, exceedingly attractive as the problem was, it could only be successfully carried out if made subservient to the expression of a determinate idea—and that the two orchestras should have given to them respectively the expression of a meaning and sentiment in strong contrast with each other.”
We are told that Spohr rejected many plans before he came up with the idea of representing the two principles of the earthly and the divine. This latter principle is embodied in a small orchestra of 11 instruments—flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, two violins, viola, cello and double bass—while the full orchestra represents the earthly. Formally, the Seventh represents the furthest Spohr was to go in his ‘new and more extended form of the symphony’. There is no scherzo or minuet, no conventional slow movement and the work is shaped totally by the dictates of the programme. Each movement carries a four-line verse motto, written by Spohr’s second wife Marianne, after the composition had been completed. They are:
(The World of Childhood
2. Zeit der Leidenschaften
(The Age of Passion
3. Endlicher Sieg des Göttlichen
(Final Triumph of the Heavenly
Behind the pattern of the Seventh Symphony can be discerned a subliminal shape which characterises a number of Spohr’s major works since a series of tragedies, bereavements and blows to his artistic and democratic political hopes rained down on him during the 1830s—namely, a nostalgia for a lost, happy time of the past and a distaste for the present, both in the way music was developing and the repression of political institutions. Thus, in the Seventh Symphony, the first movement Kinderwelt (The World of Childhood) offers the Edenesque stage which is lost in the second movement’s Zeit der Leidenschaften (The Age of Passion) with its headlong plunge into life’s pleasures followed by the military march rhythms which display the warlike side of human nature. In the presto finale Endlicher Sieg des Göttlichen (Final Victory of the Divine) the two worlds struggle for mastery. Eventually the hymn-like tones of the small orchestra tame the stormy ‘ride to the abyss’ of the large one; the tempo changes to adagio, the two orchestras join forces and chords reminiscent of the Dresden Amen bring the work to a peaceful close. Here Spohr envisages that adherence to high spiritual, ethical and moral values will eventually regain that lost ‘ideal state’.
It was Spohr’s Seventh Symphony which produced Robert Schumann’s often-quoted tribute to the older master: “Let us follow him in art, in life, in all his striving. The industry, which is apparent in every line of the score, is truly moving. May he stand with our greatest Germans as a shining example.”
Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 137
During his fourth visit to England in the summer of 1847, where he was conducting concerts for the Sacred Harmonic Society, Spohr was asked to compose a symphony for the Philharmonic Society of London. Perhaps mindful of the deeply conservative musical taste in England where his First and Second Symphonies were still his most popular, and the fact that his Historical Symphony (No. 6) had been hissed in London in 1840, Spohr did not attempt any experiments this time. The Eighth Symphony, however, is not a bland, pseudo-classical work—the ambivalence of Spohr’s position at that time is reflected in the emotional climate of the music. Fêted and praised as a master in the succession of Germany’s musical giants and happy in his domestic life, Spohr was yet frustrated in his artistic, ethical and political aspirations by numerous petty harassments and annoyances at the hands of the autocratic ruler of Hesse, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, whose Music Director he was. Spohr was deeply upset by the failure of the liberal and democratic cause which he supported to make any impact on the political structure of Metternich’s Europe. Spohr’s openly declared stance on political matters found him many times at odds with his princely employer and, to add to his feelings of impotence, he had to reject offers to move elsewhere because of commitments to dependents of his in Kassel—for instance, the widow and children of his brother Ferdinand to whom he had given a deathbed pledge that he would provide support for them.
The Symphony, composed between August and October 1847, is scored for two pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and trumpets, four horns, three trombones, timpani and strings. In keeping with the traditionalism of English taste it is in the conventional four movements and opens with a dramatic G minor Adagio introduction. The clouds lift to reveal a broad, relaxed melody and, to continue the mood of relaxation, the second subject turns out to be a variant of this. However, the lyricism of these is undermined by a note of emotional ambiguity introduced by the bridge material whose triplet movement injects a feeling of nervous irritation to the surrounding geniality. In the development, a fugato based on the bridge material increases the disquiet and the two states are never completely reconciled. In the coda, the music sinks to rest, a passage of harmonics accompanied by clarinets, bassoons and horns adding to the feeling that lyricism has won the day, but the final bars heave the music out of the relaxed mood to a fortissimo conclusion.
The wonderful Poco Adagio, which at times seems to anticipate Tchaikovsky and Brahms, allows the half-suppressed emotions of the Allegro to emerge fully in a tragic lament—perhaps a threnody for the now gone ‘good times’ of the old days and the misery of the present. As in the Larghetto of Spohr’s Fifth Symphony, so here the trombones are used imaginatively although, unlike its predecessor, this Adagio offers hardly a ray of hope.
After this emotional cul-de-sac, the Scherzo and Finale bring a serenade-like mood into the symphony as Spohr turns to an escapist world of childlike innocence— reversing the process of the Seventh Symphony. If that work started out from a ‘Kinderwelt’, this one finishes up there. The Scherzo, unusually for Spohr, is in 2/4 time and marked Allegretto. In true serenade style, it features horn calls and chattering woodwind, while in the Trio, Spohr calls for a full-scale virtuoso solo violin—perhaps the great violinist recalling his own youthful triumphs and, if so, another expression of his nostalgia for better times. The coda combines the main scherzo material with the solo violin in a movement which would not be out of place in a Tchaikovsky ballet score.
The fantasy world of the Scherzo acts as a bridge between the tragedy of the Adagio and the escapist mood of the Allegro finale, a mood which Spohr expressed explicitly in a letter of 18 months later “one will have to bury oneself in art so as to forget the misery of the times” (Spohr was refusing an invitation to perform in Breslau as a protest over the city being under martial law). The finale therefore turns its back on present realities and avoids the large-scale climactic movement which was becoming the norm in Romantic symphonies; instead Spohr offers an open-air piece which includes much good humour and colourful wind fanfares, but, right at the close, the realities of the first two movements are not completely erased. After one last tutti, the music, utilising the same figure which ended the first movement, subsides onto a longheld pianissimo chord; those who demand a tub-thumping conclusion to their symphonies must go elsewhere.
(* “Genius”; not the modern usage of intellectual brilliance, but the singular of genii, meaning an attendant good spirit associated with a person or place).
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