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ClassicsOnline Home » SPOHR, L.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 17 - Nos. 10 and 18 (Moscow Philharmonic Concertino String Quartet)
The composition of string quartets ran as a continuous thread throughout Louis Spohr’s life, and he used the Quartet No. 10 in A major as his ‘parade horse’, playing it frequently in the Viennese salons to show off his skills both as a violinist and composer to audiences accustomed to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Its first violin part matches the bravura display of the Quatuor brillant No. 3, written as Spohr planned to resume life as a touring virtuoso after resigning from his post in charge of the Frankfurt Opera. The Variations, Op. 6 see the soloist covering a wide range of ideas derived from a theme said to be by Haydn. This is the final volume in the Marco Polo complete Spohr String Quartets edition.
Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
Quartet No. 10 in A major, Op. 30 • Variations in D minor, Op. 6 • Quartet No. 18 in B minor, Op. 61 (Quatuor brillant No. 3)
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 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; translated by Wolfram Boder as Louis Spohr: Eine kritische Biographie, Merseburger Verlag, Kassel, 2009.
The Quartet No. 10 in A major, Op. 30, was composed in May 1814 during Spohr’s years in Vienna when he was orchestral leader at the Theater an der Wien, and it slots into the midst of a sequence of his best-known works; on one side the opera Faust and the Nonet in F, Op. 31, on the other the Seventh Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 38 [Naxos 8.555101], the Octet in E, Op. 32 and the E flat String Quartet, Op. 29, No. 1, on the name ‘Spohr’—in music through ‘S’ for the German Es (E flat), ‘po’ for the dynamic mark piano, ‘h’ which is German for B natural and ‘r’ for a .
Spohr referred to this A major quartet as his ‘parade horse’ as he played it frequently in the Viennese salons and in it he attempted the difficult task of, on the one hand, showing off his skills as a violin virtuoso while on the other demonstrating that he was a composer capable of approaching the level of the great Viennese classics, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Spohr was very much aware of these twin challenges for, recalling in his memoirs his arrival in the city in 1812, he said: ‘Vienna was at that time indisputably the capital of the musical world. The two greatest composers and reformers of musical taste, Haydn and Mozart, had lived there, and there produced their masterpieces…The worthy successor of these art heroes, Beethoven, still resided there, and was now in the zenith of his fame, and in the full strength of his creative power. In Vienna, therefore, the highest standard for art creation was set up, and to please there—was to prove oneself a master. I felt my heart beat as we drove over the Danube bridge and thought of my approaching debut. My anxiety was yet more increased by the thought that I should have to compete with the greatest violinist of the day; for in Prague I had heard that Rode had just returned from Russia and was expected in Vienna.’
The first violin part of the quartet therefore matches the difficulty of those in his quatuors brillants, though the work was published simply as ‘Quartet No. 10’. The three other instruments have much more to do than in a conventional quatuor brillant and in formal matters the piece follows that of a ‘true’ quartet with four movements, a minuet in third position and a finale which, with its two contrasted but interlocking sections, goes far beyond the simple rondo of the quatuor brillant. Indeed, Clive Brown has noted that in seeking to give weight to the accompaniment Spohr strives for almost orchestral textures at times.
The warm and sweetly melodic opening theme, Allegro, gives way to a brief taste of the violin fireworks to come before the second subject arrives, constructed in an unusual manner as it starts with a long held note on the violin above an ostinato-like accompaniment. More virtuoso passage work ensues and continues in the development section above some colourful harmonies. When the second subject returns in the recapitulation, the roles of the instruments are reversed with the first violin having the accompaniment and the cello taking over the theme.
The start of the Adagio in F major seems to be inspired by the slow movement of the E flat quartet, K. 428, by Spohr’s great hero, Mozart. However, this intimate, simple theme eventually leads to rich coloratura passages on the first violin and there is a catchy little figuration which starts to pervade the whole texture and returns to wind things down at the end. The Menuetto Allegretto, which turns to A minor, features a rising motif spanning two octaves which is shared by all four instruments in true quartet style. In contrast, the A major Trio brings forward the first violin with a folk song-like tune in thirds while the accompanists imitate a guitar with pizzicato chords which produces the impression of a serenade. After the repeat of the Menuetto, Spohr breaks with tradition by also repeating the whole of the Trio which brings the movement to a close.
A 38-bar introduction to the finale, Moderato in A major, leads us into a romantic wonderland. Above a peaceful chord, the first violin sings out a rhapsodic, beautiful melody, full of warm feeling. After a pause, the Vivace in A minor seems about to race away in a flurry of semiquavers by the solo violin, only for a few bars of fugato to intervene. The Moderato introduction returns twice at full length but the Vivace has the last word, before settling on a deep forte chord which dies away in the final bar.
The Variations in D minor, Op. 6, were written early in Spohr’s career when he was making his name as a violin virtuoso. The work was completed in the New Year of 1806 a few months after the 21-year-old composer had taken up the post of Music Director at the court of Gotha. 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. However, as Martin Wulfhorst has pointed out in his study of Spohr’s early chamber music, after a short introduction in D major, the composer does not indulge in stereotyped figurations for the soloist but covers a range of ideas including dotted, rising triads, sextuplets with broken octaves played staccato, a cantilène on the G string with a change of register and finally a reminiscence of the second variation but marked risoluto. The D minor theme itself ends with a little refrain in D major and Spohr retains this with its major tonality after each variation, though it is differently scored on its first three appearances before closing the work simply in its original unadorned form. In a letter to his publisher Spohr said that this and a companion set of variations, Op. 8, 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.
For a comparison of Quartet No. 10 with a real quatuor brillant we can turn to the final work on this recording, Quartet No. 18 in B minor, Op. 61, which Spohr wrote in the summer of 1819 when he was set to throw up his post in charge of the Frankfurt opera. His resignation was a matter of principle over attempted interference in his artistic policy by the penny-pinching chairman of the theatre’s board who wanted a more down-market repertoire. Spohr already had under his belt a lucrative contract as violin soloist with London’s Philharmonic Society for the spring of 1820 so the dominance of bravura display in this quartet can be put down to his plan to resume his life as a touring virtuoso.
The elegaic, broad melody of the opening Allegro moderato shows the influence of Spohr’s early model Rode, who pioneered the quatuor brillant. This first theme is then repeated by the soloist dolce in a deeper register, lying below the accompanying second violin and viola which produces a piquant effect and it is this particular setting which launches the recapitulation, leading to repetition of the theme in its original higher register; in other words, reversing the procedure of the work’s opening section. The second subject retains the mood of the opening melody and is accompanied by a repeated trilling motif on the cello which is then picked up and expanded by the soloist. Eventually, the music moves to B major for the last section of this Allegro moderato.
In the A flat Adagio the noble, cantabile main theme is soon decorated with coloratura material and is followed by a more dramatic contrasting section. Finally, the six-bar coda moves away from brilliance to feature a short canon. The B major finale, Allegretto, is in rondo form though not so marked in the score and has a light, dancing main tune while the movement is especially rich in ‘show-off’ passages for the soloist, including episodes in testing double stops.
It should be noted that both of the quartets on this recording were published out of their chronological sequence so that No. 10 was actually the eighth in order of composition, coming before both Op. 29, Nos. 1 and 2 though after Op. 29, No.3, while No. 18 was the fifteenth, ahead of the three quartets of Op. 58.
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