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ClassicsOnline Home » SPOHR, L.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 13 - Nos. 9 and 17 (Moscow Philharmonic Concertino String Quartet)
Louis Spohr’s string quartets combined the Classical finesse of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven with the early Romantic innovations of the Quatuor brilliant, in which the virtuosic first violin enjoys particular prominence. Popular with contemporary audiences and influential during the first half of the 19th century, these suavely imaginative chamber works are now once more becoming appreciated for their originality, emotional light and shade, and historical importance. This volume features the Moscow Philharmonic Concertino Quartet, which also plays on Volumes 10 (8.225306) and 11 (8.225307).
By David Denton
Louis Spohr (1784–1859):
Quartet No. 9 in F minor, Op. 29, No. 3 • Quartet No. 17 in G major, Op. 58, 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.]
The quartets recorded here were the first works Spohr wrote at two important turning points in his life. The F minor was composed in Vienna where Spohr spent two-and-a-half years which were crucial ones in his development and the G major dates from his move to Kassel, the city where he lived for his final 37 years until his death.
When the composer arrived in Vienna late in 1812 his plan was to establish his reputation there as a violin virtuoso before moving on to give concerts in Prague but his playing so impressed Count Palffy, proprietor of the Theater an der Wien, that Spohr was offered and accepted a contract as solo player and orchestral leader there at three times the salary he was then earning as Music Director in Gotha. Shortly afterwards, Spohr was visited by Johann Tost, the former Esterházy violinist for whom Haydn wrote his ‘Tost’ quartets. Tost had married a rich widow and set himself up in business as well as becoming a patron of music. He wished Spohr to compose chamber works at an agreed fee, the manuscripts to be kept by Tost and performances to be put on only in his presence so that he would be invited to Vienna’s major musical salons where he hoped to meet important business contacts, then after three years he would return the compositions to Spohr who would be free to sell them to publishers.
Spohr agreed, charging thirty ducats for a quartet, 35 for a quintet and going progressively higher for larger ensembles. He had already started work on the F minor quartet, so when he completed it in spring 1813 he handed it over to Tost along with an earlier unpublished quartet he had brought with him to Vienna and the two works were soon performed with Tost present. Later more pieces were written for Tost including two of Spohr’s most enduring, the Nonet and Octet for wind and strings.
In fact, Spohr came out of the bargain in a healthier state than Tost, who went bankrupt at the start of 1815 and therefore then had to return the eight chamber works which had been composed for him. As they had become so well known from their frequent performances in Viennese salons Spohr had no difficulty in selling them to publishers and making a substantial profit. Incidentally, the F minor quartet was published as the third work in the Op. 29 set along with two written later during Spohr’s stay in Vienna so, though it was the ninth in order of publication, it was actually his seventh chronologically.
The Quartet in F minor has one of the most imposing openings to any Spohr quartet and this first Allegro theme appears in double guise, a dolce, more lyrical version in A flat major with a simpler accompaniment succeeding the strong start. A melody in triplets forms the second main theme and Spohr’s credentials as a violin virtuoso are displayed in semiquaver passage-work then, in the development, this passage-work dominates and spreads through the other three parts. This movement is an excellent example of the way Spohr integrated such virtuoso sections into the overall structure. The Scherzo in F minor is fugal while the Trio offers an F major contrast with a strongly tuneful country dance over pizzicato support. A serenely beautiful Adagio in D flat major shows Mozart’s influence on Spohr while the Allegro finale starts off like a moto perpetuo in semiquavers but a bouncing second subject intervenes. In the recapitulation F major is established but eventually F minor returns as the semiquavers die away for a pianissimo conclusion.
Between Vienna and Kassel Spohr spent three years in charge of the Frankfurt opera (1817–19), otherwise he made several important concert tours which included visits to Italy (1816–17), London (1820) and Paris (1821). Then, in order to give his daughters a more settled education, he moved to Dresden, where he composed the first two string quartets of his Op. 58 set and renewed his old friendship with the composer Carl Maria von Weber, who was director of the opera there.
In early December 1821 Weber was invited to take over as Kapellmeister in Kassel but, as he was fully satisfied with his Dresden post, he offered instead to recommend Spohr for the position. Spohr therefore visited Kassel, was asked to name his own terms and negotiated a satisfactory contract with his appointment as Kapellmeister for life at an annual salary of two thousand thalers along with complete artistic direction of the city’s court opera house together with an annual summer leave of two months.
Spohr took up his new post early in 1822 and completed the set of quartets he had begun in Dresden, putting the finishing touches to the Quartet in G major, Op. 58, No. 3, in March. It is a quirky—almost maverick—quartet without a proper slow movement. The opening Allegro is a kaleidoscopic piece which dispenses with the conventional exposition repeat and features a 6/8 ‘hunting rhythm’ main theme contrasting with a broad, singing melody as well as an important rhythmic motif which comes to the fore in the development. Next comes a rather attractive and cheeky Menuetto in E flat major with a C minor Trio whose triplet theme is wrong-footed by bars in 2/4 time interpolated into the basic 3/4. Spohr then starts what appears to be a brooding G minor Adagio molto slow movement but a jaunty scherzando Allegro butts in and the two tempi are interlocked until the end with the slow music the final victor.
Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain
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