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ClassicsOnline Home » SPOHR, L.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 12 - Nos. 33 and 35 (Moscow Dima Quartet)
A great violinist in his own right, Louis Spohr was accepted during his lifetime as one of the most important violinist-composers of early German Romanticism. His quartets, which span more than fifty years of his creative career, combine technical brilliance with loftier musical aims. Written at a particularly trying and eventful time in Spohr’s life, No. 33 includes an intensely felt Adagio molto, one of the finest slow movements in the whole of his output. No. 35 realised Spohr’s aim to compose a quartet which returned to the classical ideals of Haydn and Mozart, while retaining many features of his own individual style. The Potpourri in G major was the twenty-year-old composer’s first work for string quartet, written when Spohr was just setting out to make his name as a violin virtuoso.S
By David Denton
Louis Spohr (1784-1859)
Quartet No. 33 in G major, Op. 146 (November 1851)
Quartet No. 35 in E flat major, Op. 155 (Autumn 1856)
Potpourri in G major, Op. 5 (Summer 1804)
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. 33 in G major, Op. 146, was completed in November 1851 just before the thirtieth anniversary of Spohr's appointment as Kapellmeister in Kassel at a particularly trying and depressing time in his life. The composer had welcomed and openly supported the revolution of 1848 but by 1851 the forces of repression had triumphed with Prussian and Bavarian troops in Kassel to reinforce the crackdown. Spohr's princely employer had resented his world famous kapellmeister's revolutionary enthusiasm and now the Electoral Prince felt entrenched enough to pay him back.
When Spohr applied for his annual leave in the summer of 1851, purely a pro forma matter as it was enshrined in his contract of employment, the Prince's routine permission was not forthcoming. Spohr lodged a protest and left for his summer holidays anyway but on his return was ordered to account for his 'illegal absence' from his post. He was eventually fined a quarter of his annual salary and lost a court case he brought against this verdict in which the chief justice committed perjury. It was against the background of these events after his return from holiday that Spohr worked on his G major Quartet and perhaps the intensity of his feelings about his treatment found expression through this work and especially in its Adagio molto, one of the finest slow movements in the whole of his output.
The smooth start to the quartet's opening Allegro belies the general mood of the whole composition which covers a wide emotional spectrum. This first subject group contains two main motifs and it is the second of these, a rising staccato sequence with a trilling figure, which comes to the fore. Chromatic inner parts unsettle the music and later modulations to distant keys maintain this impression. The brief second subject is concluded with a sequential quaver pattern which joins with the staccato / trill motif in dominating the lengthy development. This is bisected by a short "false recapitulation" while the real recapitulation is altered only with minor nuances and the Allegro ends quietly with two pizzicato chords. These pizzicati continue as a two-bar prelude in the C minor Adagio molto where the first violin sings out on the G string a beautiful and touchingly intimate lament which encompasses painful sighs as if a soul is wrung with grief. A warmer contrasting section in A flat major – one of Spohr's favourite keys – maintains the song-like atmosphere and this part is briefly alluded to again as the movement draws to a pianissimo close. With the Scherzo, Presto in 2/4, comes a complete contrast as it scurries along with a jocular touch and mainly subdued dynamics. There is a lyrical Trio in C major with a time change to 6/4 before both Scherzo and Trio come round again and once more we have a quiet ending. The finale, Molto allegro, begins in a stormy G minor with a two-note figure which also starts the second subject. The mood can be considered as a more active parallel to the passive lament of the slow movement and only the eloquent second subject halts the onward drive briefly before the music moves into the development which covers all of the main material. After the recapitulation begins in G minor, the tonality finds its way to the major but in the final bars, after fortissimo chords, there is a diminuendo to pianissimo so that all four movements end with this mood of resignation.
After completing his Six Songs, Op. 154, in August 1856, Spohr decided to write a new quartet with which to open his annual winter series of chamber music evenings. According to the chapters added by his family to the composer's autobiography which cover his final few years 'this new composition was considered extremely fresh and charming by both performers and listeners, yet he himself was so little satisfied with it that, after repeated alterations which were rejected as soon as made, he laid aside the whole quartet as a failure' as he did with a further quartet. But as late as December 1857 Spohr seems to have had a high opinion of this Quartet No. 35 in E flat major, Op. 155, along with its successor, No. 36 in G minor, Op. 157, 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 he sadly laid it aside for ever. In addition, 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 the final revised version of his Quartet No. 35 has some justification in the composer's own verdict of December 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: 'The quartet Op. 155 possesses so many merits in its transparency and more natural language that, in my opinion, it surpasses its predecessor in overall merit. It is surely no mark of disrespect to disregard his wishes concerning it, especially as these quartets [Op. 155 and Op. 157] represent a new phase and their quality is equal, if not superior, to that of his other late quartets.'
Shortly before composing Op. 155, Spohr had expressed a wish to write a quartet which returned to the classical ideals of Haydn and Mozart. This is the new phase mentioned by Glenewinkel but the quartet is not a mere neo-classical pastiche as Spohr retains many features of his own individual style, especially in melody and harmony. In terms of structure and texture, however, Spohr does come close to his classical model. The principle of the equal weighting of all four instruments is adhered to and very few virtuosic flourishes are to be found.
The original version of this work was in G minor and opened with a syncopated theme; the second movement was a Scherzo marked Allegro moderato; then came an Andantino in B flat major and finally an Allegro in G major. For his revision, Spohr wrote a new E flat major motif with which to open the first movement and the original syncopated theme became a shortened bridge to the second subject. The main argument of the movement is formed by a constant rivalry between the restless syncopated theme and the firm march rhythm of the second subject which dominates the development section. The new first subject is briefly alluded to in the recapitulation and in the coda but the work's original key of G minor makes its presence felt throughout and considerably disturbs the tonal unity.
The new version continues with the quartet's original third movement now in second place, still in B flat major and containing the new superscription Romanze. Glenewinkel suggests that its 'touchingly simple tune has a gentle charm and miraculous serenity.' The changes from the first version are here of a secondary nature. The Scherzo is now placed third and its title changed to Menuetto with the tempo Moderato; its waltz-like character anyway places it on the borderline between the two designations. It retains its original key of G major and again revisions are not very extensive. The finale is transposed to E flat major, its original Allegro tempo is now qualified as Allegro non troppo and in this movement Spohr's revisions are more thorough. The material is the same but noticeably differently arranged. Glenewinkel sums up the finale like this: 'The work on the motifs of the theme (sequence, transpositions, strettos and imitations) takes up the whole movement; it is done with such mastery that the listener never tires of it, and an impression of freshness remains.' Certainly, the 72-year-old composer displays almost youthful high spirits in this sparkling finale.
The Potpourri in G major, Op. 5, comes from the opposite end of Spohr's career half a century earlier when he was just setting out to make his name as a violin virtuoso. It dates from the summer of 1804 and, in fact, was the twenty-year-old composer's first work for string quartet though it is cast in the texture of the then fashionable quatuor brillant with a virtuoso solo violin part and a simple accompaniment for string trio. The theme comes from Pierre Gaveaux's one-act opera Le petit matelot ou le mariage impromptu of 1796. Spohr also introduces a minuet to provide a contrasting section and both themes are subjected to technically impressive and demanding variations to demonstrate the range of virtuosity of the young Spohr. One facet of Spohr's musical personality which stayed with him throughout his long composing career can be found in the closing bars: after the expected fireworks, there is a fade-out for a quiet conclusion.
Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain
Those interested in the Spohr Society should contact The Secretary, 123 Mount View Road, Sheffield S8 8PJ, UK or e-mail: chtutt @ yahoo.co.uk.
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