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ClassicsOnline Home » SPOHR, L.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 14 - Nos. 31 and 36 (Moscow Philharmonic Concertino String Quartet)
Louis Spohr composed string quartets throughout his career, the String Quartet No. 36 being his last completed large-scale work, composed in 1857 and modelled on those of Haydn and Mozart. As a result of depression during his later years, Spohr embargoed its performance, but as this recording shows it is a work of consummate craftsmanship. His String Quartet No. 31 was composed eleven years earlier and found favour with Mendelssohn and Wagner for its tightly woven counterpoint and sophisticated character. The earliest piece here, the Potpourri No. 4, is a short virtuoso display piece that draws on favourite opera arias by his idol Mozart.
Louis Spohr (1784-1859): Quartet No. 31 in A major, Op. 132
Quartet No. 36 in G minor, Op. 157 • Potpourri No. 4 in B major, Op. 24
The composition of string quartets ran as a continuous thread throughout Spohr’s life. He wrote his first, Op. 4, at about the age of twenty, and more than fifty years later his last completed large-scale work was his String Quartet No. 36, Op. 157. This varied body of works constitutes a significant contribution to the quartet literature of the first half of the nineteenth century; it contains abundant examples of the harmonic and melodic features and the experiments in form and metre that fascinated his contemporaries.
At the time of Spohr’s birth in 1784, Haydn’s innovative Op. 33 quartets had been published for only two years, and Mozart, inspired by their masterly handling of the medium, was still working on his six quartets dedicated to Haydn. Over the next few years Mozart produced his last quartets, while Haydn rose to new heights in the series of works that began with Op. 50 in 1787, and in 1801 Beethoven published his six Op. 18 quartets. During Spohr’s formative years as student and Kammermusicus in Brunswick, he came to know and love this repertoire of chamber music which he played, along with works by lesser contemporaries, at frequent quartet parties. It was to have a lasting impression on his own approach to quartet writing. His devotion to Mozart, in particular, was to remain intense throughout his life, and he retained a lively admiration for Haydn. Despite his often quoted criticisms of Beethoven’s later works he was, in fact, among the earliest champions of the Op. 18 quartets in northern Germany and performed them within a very short time of their publication; indeed, on his concert tour of 1804 his advocacy of these quartets put him at odds with some notable musicians. In Berlin the celebrated cellist and composer Bernhard Romberg, after complimenting him on his performance of one of them, remarked disparagingly, ‘But my dear Spohr, how can you bear to play such absurd stuff?’
Spohr’s activity as a virtuoso violinist, however, also brought him into direct contact with a radically different kind of quartet which was profoundly to influence his approach to the medium: this was the socalled Quatuor brillant or Solo-Quartett. Since the piano was not yet the universal accompaniment instrument it later became, many violinist-composers wrote pieces with string accompaniment to provide them with a repertoire in which they could display their technical brilliance at soirées and other occasions when an orchestra was not available. The Quatuor brillant, a kind of chamber concerto, was a natural outcome of this. During Spohr’s early concert tours, when Beethoven’s quartets failed to interest his audience, he could always count on rousing their enthusiasm with a performance of the Quartet in E flat major, Op. 11 (1804) by the much admired French violinist Pierre Rode, which, though not published with the title quatuor brillant, was an important precursor of the genre.
The influence both of the Viennese classics and of virtuoso violin music is clearly evident in Spohr’s own works for string quartet. The virtuoso tradition is emphasized in two potpourris and two sets of variations with string trio accompaniment, composed during the years 1804 to 1808, and in his eight virtuoso quartets, written between 1806 and 1835. His first Quatuor brillant, Op. 11, which he described in a letter to his publisher, Kühnel, as ‘of the Rode type’, was followed by five more which were published with the same title. These are in three movements, without a minuet or scherzo, after the pattern of Rode’s prototypes. A seventh, Op. 30, was similarly designated on the autograph score despite its four movements, and Op. 27 too, though it was published as Grand quatuor, is in the same tradition, being referred to in Spohr’s autobiography as a Solo-Quartett. But Spohr clearly recognised the essential difference between the Solo- Quartett and the “true” quartet, and in his other 28 quartets the emphasis is on dialogue among the instruments. Though difficult, even virtuoso, passages are often given to the first violin and sometimes to the other instruments, these are skilfully integrated into the general design so that the main focus is on a conversational working out of motifs. For Spohr technical brilliance was always at the service of loftier musical aims, and, on the whole, his quartets achieve a notably successful synthesis of the classical and virtuoso polarities in his musical nature.
Professor Clive Brown
Clive Brown is an internationally recognised authority on the music of Spohr and the author of Louis Spohr: A Critical Biography. Cambridge University Press, 1984.
The Quartet No. 31 in A major, Op. 132, dates from February 1846, Spohr’s 24th year as Kapellmeister in Kassel, and marks the composer’s return to the string quartet following a long gap. After completing his Op. 84 quartets in March 1832, during the next fourteen years Spohr wrote only his final quatuor brillant (the Quartet in A major, Op. 93) in September/October 1835. The eleven-year intervening period before the composition of Op. 132 can be put down to Spohr’s second marriage in 1836. His new wife, Marianne Pfeiffer, was an accomplished amateur pianist and for some years Spohr concentrated on works involving the piano which included much Lieder and a number of chamber pieces. In December 1845 he wrote his Quartet-Concerto in A minor, Op. 131, and this may have rekindled his interest in the string quartet for he went straight on to compose Op. 132.
If Spohr’s quartets had been given nicknames in a similar way to Haydn’s, this would no doubt have been called ‘the Wagner quartet’ in view of the fact that Spohr played it during a musical evening at Mendelssohn’s house in Leipzig in 1846 at which he met Wagner for the first time. In a letter home Marianne Spohr reported how Mendelssohn and Wagner ‘read from the score with countenances expressive of their delight’.
This new work was a very special sort of quartet; in a letter to a friend Spohr referred to it as a ‘brillanten’ work but it is not a conventional quatuor brillant for a virtuosic solo violin with a simple string trio accompaniment. The other instruments have much to do and the dominance of the first violin is less concerned with brilliant passagework and more with technically demanding motivic and developmental matters, in effect keeping up a running commentary on the music from beginning to end.
The good-natured opening Allegro vivace handles two themes of related elegance and charm which avoid deeper conflict as the music projects a feeling of gentle cheerfulness. Only in the development section does a stronger atmosphere come to the fore through contrapuntal intensification. In the deeply-felt Adagio in D minor, a touching lament is sounded which turns to a more dramatic and declamatory expression in the contrasting section before the movement settles into D major for its later stages without appreciably lightening the mood. The A minor Scherzo has a balletic feel and the main motif with its marked rhythm is tinged with melancholy, an atmosphere reinforced by a sliding phrase which gradually turns into a chromatic scale. The Trio moves to A major and provides a marked contrast with a poetic etude for the first violin which develops into an almost orgiastic section as the other instruments join in. The finale, Allegro molto, is stamped with a fantasia-like atmosphere through the persistent use of an arpeggiated violin figure which opens out the basic sonata form of the movement. This arpeggio occurs three times to launch the finale before the first subject proper arrives. Then the first violin sustains a 30-bar ostinato-like figuration below which the other strings play reminiscences of the arpeggio leading to the second subject. It is this arpeggio, too, which has the last word as it heads towards emphatic fortissimo chords and a final two-bar fade-out.
It was with this work that Spohr started numbering his quartets but he must have miscounted or overlooked one of the earlier pieces for he called this ‘No. 30’ and continued to label his later quartets one below their real number, so throwing into confusion many early catalogues of his compositions.
Spohr completed his Quartet No. 36 in G minor, Op. 157, his final work in the genre, in August 1857. According to the chapters added by his family to the composer’s Autobiography which cover his final years, it was praised by both performers and listeners but Spohr himself was so dissatisfied with it that after attempting some revisions he told his wife that it should never be made public, along with the previous quartet, No. 35 in E flat major, Op. 155. But as late as November 1857 Spohr seems to have thought highly of this quartet as well as its predecessor for, in a letter to a friend, he said: ‘I recently wrote some quartets which seem good enough to be added to the others.’
Soon afterwards, on Boxing Day 1857 Spohr broke his left arm and although it healed remarkably quickly he found that he could no longer play the violin with his old fluency so sadly laid it aside forever. Just before his accident he felt inspired to begin composing a Requiem which he looked upon as the conclusion to his life’s work but by April 1858 decided that he no longer had the ability to produce works of such magnitude. These two blows to his performing and composing life plunged him into a deep melancholy and he began to doubt the quality of his last completed pieces. So his change of mood and ban on the performance of these last two quartets most likely came during this lengthy period of depression.
Therefore, to break Spohr’s 150-year embargo with this recording of his final string quartet has some justification in the composer’s own verdict of November 1857. In addition, as far back as 1912, the German scholar Hans Glenewinkel published a study of Spohr’s chamber music for strings in which he stated of Op. 155 and Op. 157: ‘These quartets represent a new phase and their quality is equal, if not superior, to that of his other late quartets.’ The ‘new phase’ referred to was Spohr’s attempt to return to the structure and proportions of the classical quartets of Haydn and Mozart while retaining the main features of his own individual style, especially in melody and harmony.
The opening G minor theme of Op. 157 possesses a strong character and is immediately developed, mainly by imitation. This Allegro is noteworthy, too, for its persistent syncopation and Spohr also experiments with the form of the movement. In the development the first subject group is stated in full but with a changed harmonic structure, then the recapitulation handles the material in reverse order starting with the second subject in the tonic major followed by the first subject section which reimposes G minor. Glenewinkel rates the E flat major Larghetto very highly indeed: ‘The movement is masterly as regards both the content and form, easily superior to most of the slow movements of Spohr’s later period.’ He especially points to ‘a beautiful, dreamy episode which sounds almost like a pre-echo of Grieg.’ A vigorous Menuetto in G minor makes a feature of grace notes while in the G major Trio, un poco più moderato, a lyrical theme is accompanied by cello pizzicati.
The G minor finale, Allegro molto, keeps up the rhythm of the main theme without a break throughout, constantly passing from instrument to instrument. Even when the restless motion is interrupted by the broader sweep of the second theme, the rhythm is continued on the viola. G major eventually takes over and at the end the music winds down to a pianissimo conclusion, a gentle close to Spohr’s lifetime devotion to chamber music.
The Potpourri No. 4 in B major, Op. 24, was written in autumn 1808 when Spohr was Music Director at the court of Gotha and had ample leave to pursue his career as a virtuoso violinist. The first violin is treated as a soloist and the other three instruments provide a simple accompaniment, as in a quatuor brillant which Spohr defined as a vehicle with which a solo performer could display his virtuosity in small musical circles. Spohr had discovered that when he introduced Beethoven’s recent Op. 18 quartets into his concerts, audiences found them difficult to assimilate. Though he persevered in the promotion of these works which he especially adored, he also hit upon a way of sending his listeners home contented by finishing up with a short virtuoso display piece—in effect a ‘built-in encore’ which helped to sweeten the medicine of the Beethoven.
Such a work is this potpourri which uses two popular melodies by Mozart. After a slow introduction in B major of Spohr’s own, marked Adagio con molto espressione, he introduces Pedrillo’s B minor Serenade from Die Entführung aus dem Serail ‘In Mohrenland gefangen war’. The accompanying trio play pizzicato in imitation of Pedrillo’s mandolin while the soloist indulges in flights of virtuosity. Then comes an Andante which modulates to B flat major and the second Mozart theme, Zerlina’s ‘Batti, batti’ from Don Giovanni. Following virtuoso variations on this, B minor and Pedrillo’s Serenade return for a short coda which ends simply and quietly—Spohr always puts his musical conception above milking the applause.
Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain
If you are interested in the Spohr Society, contact The Secretary; 123 Mount View Road; Sheffield S8 8PJ, UK, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.spohr-society.org.uk.
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