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8.573763 - SPOHR, L.: Violin Duets (Complete), Vol. 1 (J. Cooper, J. Dickenson)
Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
Louis Spohr was born on 5 April 1784 in Brunswick (Braunschweig) and spent his early years in the little town of Seesen in the Harz mountains, where his father was a doctor. It was in Seesen that he received his early violin tuition and wrote his first pieces. In 1797, having overcome his family’s opposition to him becoming a professional musician, the 13-year-old Spohr returned to Brunswick alone to continue his violin studies with court musicians Gottfried Kunisch and Charles Maucourt and to take theory lessons with Karl August Hartung. His efforts were crowned with such success that little more than a year later, in 1799, Duke Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand of Brunswick gave him a position in his court orchestra. The Duke also paid for Spohr to accompany the violinist Franz Eck as a pupil on a tour to St Petersburg in 1802–03 to complete his training as a violinist.
In 1804 Spohr made his first independent concert tour of Germany, gaining a reputation as one of the country’s leading violinists, and in 1805 he was invited to lead the court orchestra in Gotha. In 1813 Spohr moved to Vienna as Kapellmeister at the Theater an der Wien, but left again in 1815 to undertake an extended tour of Italy. From 1817 he spent a year as director of opera at the municipal theatre in Frankfurt am Main. A journey to London in 1820 to give concerts there established his reputation in Britain.
In January 1822, Spohr accepted the position of Kapellmeister at the court in Kassel, remaining there until 1857. Whereas he had been considered the leading German violin virtuoso until his appointment, his appearances as a violinist now became increasingly rare and were mostly confined to Kassel. Instead, he was now setting standards as a conductor. He continued to perform chamber music in the salons of families with whom he was on friendly terms until he broke his left arm in 1857 and it failed to heal properly. Spohr died on 22 October 1859 in Kassel.
Spohr’s Violin Duets, WoO 21 are not only his earliest surviving compositions, having been written in Seesen when he was about 12 years old, they are also the earliest pieces he mentions in his autobiography Lebenserinnerungen: ‘They were duets for two violins, which I performed at music evenings with my teacher, to my parents’ considerable astonishment.’
The Violin Duets, Op. 3 and Op. 9 (1805 and 1807 respectively) were among the earliest pieces to be published by Spohr. He added another set, Op. 39, in 1816. However, these pieces were extremely difficult for amateurs to perform and didn’t sell as well as had been hoped. In a letter dated 28 June 1823, Spohr therefore promised his publisher, Carl Friedrich Peters: ‘As soon as I have put together a few new things for an autumn tour, I’ll try my hand at some easy duets. It’s very unlikely that I’ll not be able to manage something simple for once!’ Peters was clearly sceptical about this pronouncement and wrote to Spohr again almost a year later on 4 June 1824: ‘My thanks to your dear wife for nagging you to compose a set of duets, but for goodness’ sake don’t make them so hideously difficult, otherwise we’ll miss the mark again and the duets won’t be fit for my purpose.’ Several more months elapsed before Spohr sent the Violin Duets, Op. 67 to his publisher on Christmas Eve, 1824. At present, we have no indication from Peters as to whether Spohr’s writing was easy enough on this occasion. However, the sole contemporary review writes approvingly: ‘Spohr’s violin duets assuredly occupy an important place among his works. They combine musical interest and brilliant writing for the instruments to a greater degree than those of other composers for the violin. Given that these new duets add to the aforementioned virtues that of ease of execution, they will be all the more welcome to the music-buying public.’
The same review considers the Op. 67, No. 1 duet to be characterised by an overarching ‘grace and tenderness’. This duet is focussed on the first movement, which is significantly longer than the second and third movements combined. As often in Spohr’s writing, modulation begins immediately after the exposition of the main theme; he is at one and the same time structuring the movement and paving the way for fresh musical ideas. The first violin accordingly introduces the second subject on the back of an unaccompanied rising chromatic figure in the second violin.
Spohr links the two ensuing short movements so that they balance the first. Not only does the first violin carry over its last note of the Andante second movement as the first note of the third (Rondo vivace), but shortly before the end of the movement, Spohr repeats the first eight bars of the Andante as one of the episodes in the Rondo. Finally, the Rondo begins not in its home key of A major, but in C major. This again reinforces the impression that the A major slow movement constitutes a short introduction to the Rondo.
Whereas the two themes in the first movement of No. 1 are very similar to each other, Spohr differentiates the themes in No. 2. The first subject has an incisive, dotted rhythm, whereas long, held notes predominate in the second subject. Spohr further points up the difference by having the first subject played in octaves by the two violins, whereas the use of double-stopping yields fourpart writing for the second subject.
Spohr also exploits the contrast between a full sound and a leaner tone to structure the slow movement. He begins quietly, with double-stopping in both parts, which rarely crescendo out of the prevailing piano to a forte. There follows a high-lying melody, played forte and accompanied by broken chords in the other part, before the two instruments exchange roles and then at length the movement returns to its subdued opening.
The concluding Rondo is, according to a contemporary review, ‘among the most genial and cheerful things Spohr has written’. And indeed, not only does the main theme bounce cheerily through the movement in a dotted rhythm, but one of the secondary themes also combines dotted notes with suspended seconds.
While No. 2 comprises the traditional three movements, fast-slow-fast, and Spohr links the slow movement to the Rondo in duet No. 1, No. 3 genuinely consists of only two movements. The first opens dramatically and forte with a thrice-repeated dotted motif, starting on a fairly high note. This is followed by a quiet, mollifying cantabile line before the impassioned opening is repeated. Following a few bars of passagework, the two contrasting elements of the theme are combined in a melody played by each violin in turn, enriched with the chromatic overtones typical of Spohr’s writing. This is followed by a second theme whose repeated semiquaver figures sound like a folk dance. A brief development section again juxtaposes the two variants of the first theme, before the more melodious version appears to emerge victorious at the beginning of the recapitulation. The rough secondary theme is repeated by way of contrast, then after some more passagework, the movement ends majestically with the first of the two variants of the main theme, played in the major.
The second movement introduces a minuet theme—a movement form that was by then already a little outmoded. Spohr gives us five variations in what is one of the few theme-and-variations movements in his oeuvre.
Spohr composed the Op. 67 duets at a time when his individual style was fully developed. By contrast, it is easy to discern that the Duet, WoO 21, No. 3 was written by a 12-year-old who had not yet had any lessons in music theory. All three movements have beautiful melodic ideas, but their movement is stilted. Moreover, there are audible compositional errors that are readily discernible even by an inexperienced listener. Or, as Spohr put it in his Lebenserinnerungen: ‘The duets my father carefully preserved may be childish and incorrect, but they do nevertheless have a form and a flowing melody line.’ This makes these three movements ideally suited to highlight just how much Spohr had developed as a composer by the time he wrote his Op. 67 duets.
Karl Traugott Goldbach
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