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Louis Spohr (1784-1859): Music for violin and harp
Louis Spohr won an enormous reputation during the nineteenth century as a composer, violin virtuoso, conductor and teacher. He was also known for his upright, noble character, as a man of convinced liberal and democratic beliefs who was not afraid of speaking out against the autocracy which flourished in the small German principalities of the time. His contemporaries, indeed, also saw this upright character translated into physical terms, as Spohr was around 6ft 6in tall. He was one of musics great travellers, wrote an entertaining and informative autobiography, compiled an influential violin tutor, invented the violin chin-rest, was one of the pioneers of baton conducting and devised the method of putting letters in a score as an aid to rehearsals. Spohr was born in Braunschweig (Brunswick) in North Germany on 5th April, 1784, and as a boy showed talent for the violin. When he was fifteen he joined the ducal orchestra and by 1802 had reached a stage at which the Duke considered him ready to go on a year-long study tour with the virtuoso Franz Anton Eck (1774-1804), ending in the then Russian capital, St Petersburg. A year after his return home, he was granted leave to go on a concert tour and won overnight fame after a concert in Leipzig in December 1804, which received an ecstatic review from the influential critic Friedrich Rochlitz.
Spohr now set out on a successful career that took him to the position of music director to the court of Gotha (1805-12), orchestral leader at Viennas Theater an der Wien, where he became friendly with Beethoven (1813-15), opera director at Frankfurt (1817-19) and finally, Hofkapellmeister at Kassel (1822-57), where he died on 22nd October, 1859. He also found time for numerous concert tours, including Italy (1816-17), England (1820) and Paris (1821). In later years he reduced the number of his public appearances as a violinist but continued to conduct important music festivals, including the inauguration of the Beethoven Monument in Bonn in 1845 and further engagements in England in 1839, 1843, 1847, 1852 and 1853. He also trained some two hundred violinists, conductors and composers and altogether was the antithesis of the lonely, tormented artist. He loved parties, was a gifted painter, an enthusiastic rose grower, a keen swimmer, skater and hiker, played chess, billiards, dominoes, whist and ball games. As a conductor Spohr championed many of the best composers of his time, even when he was not totally in sympathy with their style (Spohrs own idol and ideal was Mozart and, like his hero, Spohr was a committed Freemason).
Spohrs importance for his contemporaries as a composer and what captured them and enraptured them was his richness of harmony and command of modulation and chromaticism. While the content of his works made him a pioneer of early Romanticism, together with Weber, he generally adhered to classical proportions when it came to form. Later, this classical side of his personality appeared old-fashioned to those brought up on the heady sounds of Wagner, Tchaikovsky or Strauss and led to his relegation from his former high status. His best works, however, stayed in the repertory throughout the nineteenth century, while his opera Jessonda, admired by Brahms and Richard Strauss, among others, was still staged in Germany until it was banned by the Nazis because it showed a European hero in love with an Indian princess.
When Spohr was appointed music director in Gotha in August 1805 he had just turned 21 and was, as he said in his Autobiography, from his earliest youth very susceptible to female beauty. Here, he soon fell head over heels in love with the eighteen-year-old Dorette Scheidler, daughter of one of the court singers, Susanna Scheidler. Dorette was a brilliant harpist and an accomplished pianist, who also spoke French and Italian fluently. In pursuing his courtship, Spohr brought his musical skills into play, first composing a concert aria for the mother and then the Sonata in C minor for violin and harp, thus ensuring that he was able to meet Dorette regularly at rehearsal. Eventually the sonata was ready for performance and Spohr tells how this led to his proposal. With some timidity I ventured to ask whether I might fetch Dorette in the carriage and felt extreme delight when her mother instantly consented. Thus alone for the first time with the beloved girl, I felt the impulse to make a full confession of my feelings towards her; but my courage failed me, and the carriage drew up before I had been able to utter a syllable. As I held out my hand to her to alight, I felt by the tremor of hers how great had also been her emotion. This gave me new courage and I had almost plumped out with my declaration of love upon the very stairs had not the door of the reception salon been thrown open at the same moment. That evening we played with an inspiration and a sympathy of feeling that not only carried us wholly away but so electrified the company also that all rose spontaneously and overwhelmed us with their praise. The Duchess whispered something in Dorettes ear which brought blushes to her cheek. I interpreted this as favourable to me and now on the drive home I at length found courage to say: "Shall we thus play together for life?" Bursting into tears, she sank into my arms; the compact for life was sealed!
The wedding took place on 2nd February,1806 and Spohr soon set to work to discover more about the potentialities of the harp, the first fruits of his studies being evident in the Sonata in B flat major, Opus 16. There was, however, still one important technical problem to overcome; if the violin was to sound at its best it meant writing in keys which were the worst possible for the harp, where the higher tension often caused strings to break. Spohr goes on to explain how he (and presumably Dorette) devised an ingenious method of overcoming this difficulty. The harp would be tuned a semi-tone lower than concert pitch and the part written in a flat key. The lower tuning would result in less tension on the strings and in flat keys fewer pedals would be brought into play. The violin part would be written a semi-tone lower than the harp part, in a sharp key. Thus a harp part in E flat would match a violin part in D. So Spohr gained his more brilliant sound for the violin and, for the harp, strings would less frequently break. Henceforth Spohr wrote most of his duo harp works in the keys of E flat (or D) and A flat (or G). The Sonata Concertante, published much later as Opus 113, was the first work in which he applied this method.
The development of Spohrs technique can be heard in our three sonatas. The Sonata in C minor hovers stylistically between the classicism of Haydn and Mozart and Spohrs own spicier musical language. There are two movements, each of which is prefaced by a slow introduction which contains material to be used in the faster sections. In the second movement, the slow music returns just before the close, which seems to end emphatically with two loud chords, only to be followed by three final soft ones; quiet endings to works were to become a Spohr fingerprint in the future. As he was feeling his way with the harp writing, the sonata is of only moderate difficulty compared with the later works.
The Sonata in B flat major expands to three full-scale movements and the violin, which is in the same flat key as the harp, is almost discreet with its emphasis on lyricism and sustained notes, allowing the harp to indulge in a wealth of virtuoso display with glittering runs and broken chord accompaniments, breaking away from the piano style of the Sonata in C minor. The first movement is in a fully developed sonata form, while the Adagio is notable for the considerable ornamentation and filigree decoration of the harp part and Spohrs wholly personal use of harmony. The catchy Rondo finale opens with a toccata-like moto perpetuo for the harp.
With the Sonata Concertante, Opus 113, the two instruments are on equal terms. The harp writing is fully developed, idiomatic and perfectly integrated with the now brilliant violin part. The work follows the pattern and proportions of Opus 16 with the beautiful Adagio demonstrating why Paganini called Spohr the most outstanding singer on the violin.
Spohr, however, was not content to stand still. He now looked to incorporate his innovations into wider-ranging work, composing a couple of concertos for violin, harp and orchestra, and revising another sonata composed in 1806 as a Trio by adding a cello part. Yet, after all, he was disappointed with the outcome. I found that any accompaniment only disturbed our deeply felt mutual ensemble, he wrote. He was surely over-critical in rejecting these works, as the delightful Trio in E minor shows, its highpoint being the attractive central variation movement.
Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain.
If you have enjoyed this recording and would like to find out more about the Spohr Society, write to: The Secretary, Spohr Society of Great Britain, 123 Mount View Road, Sheffield S8 8PJ, United Kingdom. (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)