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8.555965 - SPOHR: String Quintets Op. 33, Nos. 1 and 2
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Louis Spohr (1784-1859)

The Complete String Quintets, Volume 1

Louis Spohr was accepted during his lifetime as one of the most important composers of early German Romanticism whose career encompassed the period from Beethoven’s first string quartets to Wagner’s Tristan 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, Octet in E major, Op. 32 and Piano and Wind Quintet in C minor, Op. 52. It was, however, music for strings 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 until the year before his death, Spohr organized 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 string quintets were written (1826, 1834, 1838, 1845 and 1850).

The first two quintets arose much earlier, during Spohr’s time as orchestral director at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna (1813-15) and are directly related to his dealings with Johann Tost, the former Esterházy violinist, for whom Haydn wrote his quartets Opp. 54, 55 and 64, and Mozart his quintets K. 593 and K. 614, who in 1790 married a rich widow, Anna de Jerlischek, and established himself in business as a cloth manufacturer at Znaim (now Znojmo in the Czech Republic). Spohr tells in his memoirs how he was approached by Tost soon after he settled in Vienna with the request that he compose chamber music at an agreed fee, the manuscripts to be retained by Tost and made available for performance only with Tost in attendance; after three years they would be returned to Spohr who could then sell them to publishers. Intrigued by the offer but suspecting Tost’s motives, Spohr demanded more explanation and was told that it would ensure that Tost was invited to all the major music salons and so meet possible important business contacts. Reacting in the same businesslike way, Spohr fixed the price of thirty ducats for a quartet, 35 for a quintet and so on.

Because of a mistake by the publisher, the Op. 33 quintets were issued in the wrong order. No. 2 in G major was actually composed first, towards the end of 1813 soon after Spohr had finished work on the Nonet. It was Tost who suggested a string quintet as the next commission and the result was a work which takes high rank in the Spohr canon. As a devoted worshipper of Mozart, it was natural that Spohr should follow his idol in using a second viola in his quintets rather than the second cello generally favoured by Boccherini, whose music he did not particularly admire. Some of Spohr’s chamber works have been criticized as having the manner but not the matter of the Viennese Classics but that is emphatically not the case with the G major Quintet. Spohr’s ambition to show that he was something more than just a composer of violin concertos (and hence to be ranked with the likes of Rode, Kreutzer and their like) and the impact of Beethoven, with whom he became friendly during his stay in Vienna, led him to produce a high level of concentrated energy, especially in the opening Allegro, one of the most outstanding displays of thematic integration in his output. The deceptively mild opening theme generates the material for the whole movement, including the second subject; there is much contrapuntal working, rhythmic vitality and occasionally a whiff of Spohr’s own virtuosity in the first violin part. The G minor Scherzo is Spohr’s first in a style which he made particularly his own, the Fantasiestück, suggesting the world of E. T. A. Hoffmann or the Brothers Grimm. Earlier in the year Spohr had completed his opera Faust, in which hags and witches appear in the midnight mist of the Blocksberg scene, and something of this spills over into the scherzo. The Trio section is more relaxed, as if the dancers were being obscured by the whirling mist. Spohr marks the third movement in B flat major Andante, an inventive set of variations in which each of the five instruments steps forward in turn, with a more intense minor key section. Spohr was proud of the opening subject of the finale with the alternation between minor and major, referring to it as the "half-melancholy, half-merry" subject. There are some bizarre moments, especially when elements of the Scherzo seem to be trying to invade the music as well as a slight tang of Hungarian gypsy style in the second subject, a reformulation of the "half-merry" part of the opening material.

At the time of the first performance, an anonymous Viennese reviewer was highly critical of the first movement, saying: "This eternal re-chewing of the theme in every voice and key is to me just as if one had given an order to a stupid servant that he could not understand and which one was obliged to repeat to him over and over again in every possible shape of expression." Spohr soon found out that the reviewer was Ignaz Franz von Mosel, an amateur author and composer, and admitted that he had said of a tragedy of Mosel’s "I never heard anything so wearisome in all my life". This had got back to the writer who took his revenge through his review. Encouraged by Tost, Spohr responded for the first and last time in his life to a published criticism of his music. The literary feud continued until the magazine’s editor declared "this correspondence is closed", and, says, Spohr, "as such quarrels were exceedingly unpleasant to me, I was very glad to be able to return to my harmless occupation of composing."

The Quintet in E flat major dates from August 1814, soon after the completion of the Octet and the Seventh Violin Concerto and something of the concerto’s virtuosity is apparent in the first violin part of the quintet, which resembles a quatuor brillant although, as in his string quartets Opp. 27 and 30, Spohr gives the other instruments plenty to do, so that the virtuoso writing for the first violin is usually underpinned by thematic connections in the other parts and the work has a degree of developmental complexity that the conventional quatuor brillant never aspired to. Unexpectedly, the closing material of the first movement’s exposition returns to play a major rôle in the development. Like the finale of the G major Quintet, the Larghetto here could be categorized as "half -melancholy, half-merry", as the tense and anguished opening in C minor gradually relaxes before a light-hearted contrasting section in a major key takes over. The minuet epitomizes the period’s mixture of Classical and Romantic, the former in the smooth and elegant lines of the minuet proper and the latter in the trio section with the rich harmony of the accompaniment on the G string and the dramatic rô1e of the first violin. The finale contrasts - and sometimes combines - virtuosity and lyricism with the latter winning out as the movement winds down to a quiet conclusion, something of a Spohr fingerprint in later chamber works.

Spohr’s relationship with Tost ended soon after the composition of this quintet. Spohr wrote that since the account had last been settled he had delivered the Octet, two string quartets and the quintet without receiving the agreed price. At first this had not bothered him "but when it became suddenly reported in the city that the wealthy Herr Tost had sustained severe losses and was on the point of bankruptcy; that he no longer called upon me; and even failed to appear at a musical party where I played from one of his manuscripts but sent it instead of coming, the matter looked dubious". Spohr therefore called on Tost "to come to a clear understanding." Tost confessed that his future was unsettled if not ruined and immediately returned to Spohr all of his manuscripts so that he could sell them to a publisher. In addition he pressed on Spohr a credit note for 100 ducats which he promised to meet if his affairs recovered. Spohr wrote that as the works had become popular in Viennese musical circles he was able to sell them to publishers for a considerable sum. At the same time, he decided to leave Vienna and held an auction of costly furniture, presented to him by Tost for his apartment, which "realised a sum far beyond our expectations." Finally, Spohr took the money along with his savings, which were in Vienna paper currency, to a banker’s and changed it for gold. "Scarcely had I done this when all Vienna was alarmed by the news that Napoleon had escaped from Elba, landed in France and been hailed with the greatest joy. The rate of exchange fell suddenly so low that if I had delayed the conversion of my paper into specie but one day more I should have suffered a loss of more than 50 ducats." So Tost not only produced a treasure trove of music from Spohr (nonet, octet, two quintets, four quartets and the cantata Das befreite Deutschland) but also enriched the composer materially.

Keith Warsop

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