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ClassicsOnline Home » SPOHR, L.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 16 - Nos. 23 and 26 (Moscow Philharmonic Concertino String Quartet)
For Louis Spohr, virtuoso violinist and composer, the string quartet ran like a thread throughout his life. Strongly influenced by both the Viennese classics and the French violin school, he wrote a series of works that incorporated both of these models as he became one of the most important and esteemed composers of the first part of the nineteenth century. Both of the quartets on this recording reflect these different elements of his music, from the elegant refinement and impressive lyricism of the Quartet No. 23 to the thrilling panache of the technically demanding Quartet No. 26. This is the penultimate volume in the Marco Polo series of Spohr’s string quartets.
Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
Quartet No. 23 in E major, Op. 82, No. 1 • Quartet No. 26 in E flat major, Op. 83 (quatuor brillant) • Variations in A major, Op. 8
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 so-called 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 skillfully 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
Spohr composed his set of three string quartets Op. 82 in the winter of 1828/29 towards the end of his seventh year as Kapellmeister in Kassel and the first quartet, No. 23 in E major, was completed in October 1828. Spohr’s published groups of three quartets often include one which has a greater element of virtuoso writing for the first violin than the other two and that is the case here in comparison with the two companion works of Op. 82. Indeed, in this quartet Spohr adopts the condensed sonata form he used in his quatuors brillants, Op. 68 and Op. 83 by starting the recapitulation with the second subject, a procedure he adheres to in both the first and last movements.
In the opening Allegro there is a large degree of solo violin semiquaver passage work but this eventually turns out to be an integral part of the movement as it spreads to the other instruments and dominates the development where it is finally reduced to its simplest rhythmic form, creating a huge crescendo which bursts into the recapitulation.
The beautiful main theme of the C major Andantino evokes a pastoral atmosphere before a more active central section in A minor intervenes and elements of this material accompany the opening theme in the final bars. In the E minor Scherzo, the main motif is on the cello while the two violins interject syncopated sighs, bringing a melancholy colouring to the music. The Trio is more relaxed as it switches to the tonic major featuring scale passages leavened with a little counterpoint.
The finale, Allegro, also starts off in E minor but then swings between minor and major as the two main themes bounce along attractively with driving triplets keeping up the momentum. After some rich harmonic adventures the energy subsides right at the end for a quiet conclusion.
What inspired Spohr to incorporate examples of the violin virtuosity of his quatuors brillants into some of his otherwise solid examples of the classical string quartet? Undoubtedly, the answer lies in his often stated quest to test himself in all branches of composition which extended from the major classical forms, fugues and canons to a waltz modelled on the first Viennese masters of this genre, Johann Strauss senior and Josef Lanner. Spohr heard and played in quartets in this mixed mode composed by his friends Andreas Romberg and Friedrich Fesca as well as earlier examples by Franz Krommer which must have provided the spur for him to attempt to emulate them. However, none of the quartets by these composers has survived in the repertoire so that mixed mode works of this sort are unknown to present chamber music audiences.
The Quartet No. 26 in E flat major, Op. 83, is the fifth and penultimate of Spohr’s three-movement quatuors brillants, dating from August 1829. With this work the composer seems almost to be preparing for work on his Violin School which he began soon afterwards. The soloist undertakes the complete gamut of violin technique with a wide range of bowings, figurations, double stops, ornamentation, staccato and legato control, cantabile expressivity and so on. The first movement, Allegro moderato, follows the example of the previous brillant quartet, No. 19 in A major, Op. 68, by using condensed sonata form which omits the first subject from the recapitulation though it makes a brief reappearance towards the close, while the deeply expressive second subject is in the unusual key of D flat major.
In the intense Adagio where the key signature is B major, the accompanying trio have far more to do than usual as they introduce again and again a dotted rhythmical motif extracted from a brief passage by the soloist whose virtuosity does not overshadow the seriousness which pervades the movement. Also, in the catchy Alla polacca finale, the three supporting instruments have frequently to interject the basic polonaise rhythm and there are actually two very brief moments when the second violin exchanges a phrase with the soloist!
Spohr’s six quatuors brillants have sometimes been criticized for lacking the musical interplay of the true quartet but whereas Spohr designed his works in the latter style for performance in chamber music concerts alongside the central classical repertoire, his brillant quartets were composed for a more public arena. Spohr took them with him on concert tours and played them in programmes which also featured vocal and orchestral items. For instance, during his visit to London in 1820 he played the Quatuor brillant in E major, Op. 43, at a Philharmonic Society concert where it shared the billing with such works as Haydn’s Symphony No. 95 in C minor, Ferdinand Ries’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, a Mozart piano concerto, overtures by Beethoven and Cherubini and three arias.
In the Violin School, Spohr explained that such quartets ‘are intended to give the solo player an opportunity to display his virtuosity in small circles’. He also demanded a distinction between the style of performance of a brillant and a standard quartet, stating that his comments on playing a concerto should also apply to these (apart from reducing the violin tone in a smaller room) whereas in regular quartets, the first violin should not dominate exclusively; a solo player should put aside his own particular performance style and accommodate himself to the character of the music with the aim of putting across the idea and spirit of the composition.
Spohr composed the Variations in A major, Op. 8, early in his career when he was making his name as a violin virtuoso. The work was completed in the latter part of 1805 about the time that the 21 year old composer had just taken up the post of Music Director at the enlightened court of Gotha, the youngest musician to hold such an appointment in the whole of Germany. Spohr had discovered that when he introduced Beethoven’s recent Op. 18 string 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.
This set of variations is such a work with the first violin treated as a soloist while the other three instruments provide a simple accompaniment as in a quatuor brillant. But even in such a slight piece, Spohr does not allow his compositional standards to drop. The theme ends with a little refrain which recurs at the close of three of the four variations. In the minor key variation, however, Spohr replaces this refrain with the closing bars of his A minor Adagio introduction, thus subtly knitting the whole work together.
In a letter to his publisher Spohr said that this and a companion set of variations, Op. 6, were on themes of Haydn but the works involved have never been identified. Perhaps Spohr took the themes from some of the many spurious works attributed to Haydn by publishers at the time. After all, that is exactly what Brahms did in his famous Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56.
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