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ClassicsOnline Home » SPOHR: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8
Louis Spohr (1784-1859)
Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8
The nine published symphonies of Louis Spohr 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 Sound). 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. With the Eighth Symphony Spohr
returned to the standard non-programme forms so this coupling enables us to
make a direct comparison of Spohr the innovator with Spohr the formalist.
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 121, for double orchestra
"Irdisches und Göttliches im Menschenleben" [Earthly and Divine in
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 Cassel 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:
Das Kind in sel'gem
Ahnt der Versuchung Nähe kaum.
Reisst ihre Lockung es auch hin, -
Sie trübt noch nicht den reinen Sinn.
The World of Childhood
The child in innocence dreams on,
How near him still Temptation steals; Drawn unsuspecting
to its sweet control,
There is not yet gloom in his pure soul.
Zeit der Leidenschaften
Doch in des Herzens heilgste
Mischt bald sich wilder
Es wird der Mensch entrückt dem hohen Ziele,
Er folgt der Welt, - denkt nicht der Ewigkeit!
The Age of Passion
But in the heart's most holy springs of feeling
Soon all the passions mingle their wild strife;
Then swerves man from his high goal and, reeling,
Pursues the world - forgets the "Eternal Life."
Endlicher Sieg des Göttlichen
Wird aber in des ird'schen Treibens Ketten
Der freie Geist nun ganz gefangen sein? -
O nein! Sein Genius* wacht -
mahnt - will ihn retten.
Er siegt - und sel'ge Ruh' zieht bei ihm ein!
Final Triumph of the Heavenly
But will this slavery of earth forever
Hold the free spirit in ignoble chains?
O no! His Genius* watches - warns - and will deliver;
He wins! and heavenly rest rewards his pains!
(* "Genius"; not the modern usage of intellectual
brilliance, but the singular of genii, meaning an attendant good spirit
associated with a person or place).
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" offers the Edenesque
stage which is lost in the second movement's "Zeit der Leidenschaften"
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" the two worlds struggle for mastery.
Eventually the hymnlike 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
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
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
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 long-held pianissimo chord; those who demand a
tub-thumping conclusion to their symphonies must go elsewhere.
Keith Warsop, Chairman,
Spohr Society of Great Britain
Alfred Walter was born in Southern Bohemia in 1929 of
Austrian parents. He studied at the University of Graz and in 1948 was
appointed assistant conductor to the Opera of Ravensburg. At the age of 22 he
became conductor of the Graz Opera, where he continued until 1965, while
serving at Bayreuth as assistant to Hans Knappertsbusch and Karl Böhm. From 1966
until 1969 he was Principal Conductor of the Durban Symphony Orchestra in South
Africa, followed by a period of fifteen years as General Director of Music in Münster.
In Vienna he has worked as guest conductor at the State Opera and in 1986 was
given the title of Professor by the Austrian Government. In 1980 he was awarded
the Golden Medal of the International Gustav Mahler Society. For Marco Polo,
Alfred Walter has recorded more than 15 volumes of the label's Johann Strauss
II Edition, works by von Schillings, von Einem, de Bériot, Reinecke and all
symphonic works of Furtwängler. He is currently engaged in recording the
complete symphonies of Spohr.
Last Albums Viewed
SPOHR: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8