Louis Spohr: Life and Works © Martin Wulfhorst 2006
1. First Period: Youth, First Positions, and First Concert Tours (to 1812)
2. Second Period: Vienna, Frankurt, Travel Years (1813–21)
3. Third Period: The Early Kassel Years (1822–34)
4. Fourth Period: Old Age in Kassel (1835–59)
5. Philosophy and Aesthetics
6. The Ingredients of Spohr's Style: Violin Concerto Op. 2
7. Stylistic Development
8. Reception and Assessment
This essay is based on the author’s publications, in particular:
Louis Spohr's Early Chamber Music (1796– 1812): A Contribution to the History of Nineteenth-Century Genres. 2 vols. Ph.D. dissertation in music (musicology), City University of New York, 1995 (currently withheld from UMI, pending publication as eBook).
"Louis Spohr and the Metronome: a Contribution to Early Nineteenth-Century Performance Practice." Henryk Wieniawski: Composer and Virtuoso in the Musical Culture of the XIX and XX Centuries [Proceedings of the international musicological conference, held in Poznan on 13–14 April 2000], ed. Maciej Jablonski and Danuta Jasinska, Poznan: Rhythmos, 2001, pp. 189–205. ISBN 83-908462-6-8.
ALSO PUBLISHED in: Spohr Journal. The Magazine of the Spohr Society of Great Britain 28 (Winter 2001), pp. 2–13.
"`...His Insight Into the Characters of the Most Diverse Compositions and His Ability to Perform Each in Its Own Spirit:' Louis Spohr and the Modern Concept of Performance." Spohr Journal. The Magazine of the Spohr Society of Great Britain 25 (Winter 1998), pp. 2–10.
ALSO PUBLISHED AS: "Louis Spohr and the Modern Concept of Performance."Journal of the Conductors Guild 18/2 (Summer/Fall 1997, publ. 1999), pp. 66-75.
"Spohr's Instrumental Works: A Preliminary Catalogue." Spohr Journal. The Magazine of the Spohr Society of Great Britain XXIV (Autumn 1997), pp. 9-18
"Spohr - Familie: Louis Spohr, Emilie Spohr [Emilie Zahn], Rosalie Spohr [Rosalie Gräfin von Sauerma]). Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Allgemeine Enzyklopädie der Musik (MGG2). Begr. von Friedrich Blume. 2., neubearb. Ausgabe, hrsg. von Ludwig Finscher. Personenteil. Vol./Bd. 15, col./Sp. 1200-21. ISBN 3-7618-1135-7 / 3-476-41030-7. Kassel etc.: Bärenreiter, Stuttgart: Metzler, 2006.
Louis Spohr baptized Ludewig, born April 5, 1784 in Braunschweig (Brunswick), died Oct. 22, 1859 in Kassel, violin virtuoso, composer, chamber musician, conductor, pedagogue, and musical writer.
1. First Period: Youth, First Positions, and First Concert Tours (to 1812)
Spohr was born as the oldest of seven children of the Braunschweig doctor Karl Heinrich Spohr (1756–1843) and his wife and cousin Juliane Ernestine Luise Henke (1763–1840). In Seesen in the Harz region, where his father was hired as the county physician in December of 1786, Spohr received a comprehensive education based on Enlightenment ideals, with music and art playing important roles. He painted and at age four or five received his first violin lessons from the village school teacher. Soon he was able to join his father, who played flute, and his mother, a competent singer and pianist, in their musical soirees. Their repertoire showed the typical light style of the era (singspiele, Italian arias, virtuosic violin pieces) and inspired the twelve-year-old boy to write his first compositions, the Violin Duets WoO 21 and three numbers for a singspiel WoO 140. Meanwhile he had switched to a more competent violin teacher, a French emigrant by the name of Dufour, and he was allowed to follow his desire to train for a career as a professional musician in Braunschweig.
After half a year in nearby Woltershausen, where his grandfather, a Protestant minister, helped him prepare for his confirmation, Spohr began in 1797 to take violin lessons from a member of the Braunschweig Court Chapel, Gottfried Kunisch. Half a year later he switched to the concertmaster of the Chapel, Charles Louis Maucourt. At the same time he attended St. Catherine's School (Katharinenschule) and gathered musical experiences in the collegium musicum of the prestigious Carolineum school and in various quartet circles.
When his father was no longer able to support him financially and after a naive attempt to start a concert career in Hamburg failed, fifteen-year-old Spohr auditioned for the Duke of Braunschweig and was hired as a second violinist in the Court Chapel in the Spring of 1799. Instead of continuing the frustrating theory lessons with a local organist he began to study the scores of compositions that he played in the Theater and that left a particularly deep impression on him. After a phase of enthuasiasm for Cherubini's Les deux journées and other French operas of the revolutionary period, Mozart's late operas became his most influential models. For his own performances he composed violin concertos and chamber-music works. His first student was his brother Ferdinand, who was later to follow him to the orchestras in Gotha, Vienna, and Kassel and who would provide piano scores of his compositions.
A scholarship granted by the Duke allowed eighteen-year-old Spohr to accompany the virtuoso Franz Eck on a concert tour via Hamburg to St. Petersburg (his first choice, Pierre Rode, not being available). On this tour from April 1802 to June 1803 Spohr received intense violin training, proved himself as a chamber musician and concertmaster, composed his Violin Concerto Op. 1 as well as two of the Violin Duets Op. 3, and learned the trade of a traveling virtuoso—how to organize public concerts and how to advertise such performances by participating in private "music parties." On the tour to Russia he began a diary, which later served him as a basis for his memoirs (Lebenserinnerungen), and wrote his first report for Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (AMZ).
After his return to Braunschweig in the summer of 1803 he was promoted to the first-violin section of the Court Chapel. Deeply impressed by Pierre Rode's concert on July 14, 1803 in Braunschweig, he sought to acquire the French violin technique and cantabile style of playing and completed the Violin Concertos WoO 10, WoO 12, and Op. 2 in preparation for a concert tour. After exposing several—initially not very receptive—musical circles in Leipzig to Beethoven's Quartets Op. 18, he debuted in Leipzig Gewandhaus on Dec. 10 and 17 with his own compositions and concertos by Rode. These two concerts and the following concerts in Dresden and Berlin catapulted Spohr to the elite of German violin virtuosos and chamber musicians. Rochlitz's rave reviews in Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (no. 7, 1804, col. 201) attracted the attention of the artistic director of the Gotha Court Chapel, which was in need of a concertmaster. After a successful audition Spohr began his tenure on October 1, 1802 at age twenty (having lied about his age).
During the following seven years Gotha offered Spohr an ideal environment for his intellectual and artistic growth. In the enlightened atmosphere of the town he came into contact with many intellectuals and traveling artists. On October 12, 1807 he was accepted into the recently reopened masonic lodge; on October 2, 1809 he was promoted to the second masonic degree (Geselle), and in January 1810, in Berlin, to the degree of master. The documents discovered by the late Philippe Autexier reveal that Spohr embraced masonic values and rituals to a far stronger degree than previously assumed. His teaching methods were deeply influenced by Chr. G. Salzmann, director of a progressive school in the neighboring town of Schnepfenthal which was influenced by the Philanthropinum school in Dessau. Consequently, Spohr provided intensive violin lessons to twenty students whom he taught in Gotha, among them Moritz Hauptmann; he included them in his chamber-music soirees, provided them with opportunities to play in the Court Chapel, and visited factories and mines with them, in order to give them a comprehensive social educaion.
In Gotha Spohr also found personal happiness. After breaking off his engagement to the singer Rosa Alberghi he married Dorette Scheidler, a harpist, on February 2, 1806. The couple had two daughters in 1807 and 1808. Spohr tried out his new compositions with the Court Orchestra, which he raised to a higher artistic level. If previously violin concertos, duets, and quartets had dominated his compositional output, he now showed his ambition to explore all genres:
• He composed the Concert Overture Op. 12 (1806) and his first opera Die Prüfung (1806). These works were followed by two more operas—Alruna (1808) for a planned performance in Weimar and Der Zweikampf (1811) for Hamburg.
• He wrote three major works for the first music festivals in the modern sense, in Frankenhausen and Erfurt: a clarinet concerto (1810) for Simon Hermstedt, who had already commissioned a concerto in 1808, the Symphonie no. 1 (1811) and the oratorio Das jüngste Gericht (1812). During the Music Festival of 1810 Spohr attracted attention with his new conducting techique "with a paper roll, without any noise" (AMZ 12, 751), as did his use of a baton ten years later in London.
What also made the position in Gotha ideal for Spohr were the generous leaves of absence granted to him and his wife by the Duke. This allowed them to tour for months at a time throughout Germany (October 1807 to April 1808, October 1809 to March 1810, October 1812). These tours served to consolidate his reputation as a virtuoso and composer and to considerably augment his salary. Especially successful were the joint concerts with his wife, for which he composed sonatas for harp and violin.
2. Second Period: Vienna, Frankurt, Travel Years (1813–21)
Spohr's second period was shaped by two short theater engagements and extended tours that were to carry his fame beyond the German borders. Led primarily by his ambition to strengthen his reputation as an opera composer, he accepted in February of 1813 a position as kapellmeister and orchestra director (de facto as a concertmaster with obligation to conduct) at Theater an der Wien—a position offered to him during a tour. Settling down and benefiting from the new artistic environment initially added to Spohr's personal happiness and inspired his compositional activities. He and his wife no longer had to leave their daughters to go on tour (their happiness was overshadowed, though, by the death of a two-days-old in 1814); Spohr came into close contact with Beethoven and other Viennese artists; through a generous commission by the entrepreneur Tost he was able to devote himself to composing chamber-music works (quartets, quintets, nonet, octet); and he found time to embark on two large-scale compositional projects, his opera Faust (1813) and the cantata Das befreite Deutschland (1814).
But over the course of time his playing apparently deteriorated from extensive orchestral playing, and above all, he seems to have become the victim of theater intrigues. As a consequence, the Cantata was not performed until 1815 at the Frankenhausen Music Festival, and the premiere of Faust had to take place ouside of Vienna: the opera received its first, very successful performance in Prague on September 1, 1816 under Weber's baton.
After a highly acclaimed performance of his Violin Concerto Op. 38 Spohr left Vienna in March of 1815 and went on a two-year tour with his wife. His performances in South Germany, Switzerland, and Italy (particularly with the Gesangszene Violin Concerto composed specifically for Italian audiences) established his international reputation but the financial insecurity and fluctuations posed a burden on him and his family.
For this reason (and because his wife was pregnant with their third daughter) he accepted in December of 1817 the position offered to him as opera and music director of the Municipal Theater (Stadttheater) in Frankfurt/Main. Initially his new environment seemed ideal. Spohr's efforts to improve the playing level of the orchestra were generally acknowledged, his public quartet concerts with his permanent quartet (performing Op. 45 and other quartets) were very successful, and the artistic director of the Theater, von Ihlée, provided him with a very effective libretto for a fairytale opera Zemire und Azor (a version of "The Beauty and the Beast"). But soon tensions with the orchestra arose, and the austerity policy of the shareholders running the Theater prevented him from realizing his plans. After the successful premiere of Zemire he left Frankfurt in September of 1819, with a contract of the London Philharmonic Society in his pocket. His London performances of his violin concertos and the newly composed Second Symphony in March and June of 1820 provided the foundation for his fame in England. His performances in Paris in the end of 1820 and beginning of 1821, in contrast, did not bring him the acclaim he was hoping for.
Having composed enigmatic canons and polyphonic artefices as early as 1817, his acquaintance with Thibaut, an expert in Italian music of the Renaissance and early Baroque, inspired him to compose his a-cappella Mass Op. 54 in 1821. In the same year Spohr and his family settled temporarily in Dresden, primarily to allow his two older daughters to study singing with J.A. Miecksch and partially to recover from the stress of the tours. When Weber turned down the vacant position as Court Kapellmeister in Kassel and recommended Spohr, the latter applied and began his contract in January of 1822 under very favorable working and financial conditions and a generous policy for leaves of absence.
3. Third Period: The Early Kassel Years (1822–34)
By means of intense rehearsals with singers and orchestra Spohr quickly brought the Kassel opera house to a high level. He adopted a progressive repertoire, with up to 40 new productions from Mozart to Meyerbeer in a single season. During his third period he composed four operas: Jessonda (1823), his only opera that remained in the international repertoire until the end of the century; Der Berggeist (1824); Pietro von Abano (1827); and Der Alchymist (1830). For the subscription concerts of the Court Chapel he composed his Third Symphony as well as his Fourth Symphony "Die Weihe der Töne," which became his most successful symphony during the 19th century. On the one hand, Spohr reduced his public appearances as a soloist and consequently composed less virtuosic works. But on the other hand, the chamber-music soirees at his home attracted many traveling artists and inspired him to compose 16 quartets, 2 quintets, and 3 double quartets. His ties to the Kassel St. Cecilia Society (Cäcilienverein), which he helped found in 1822, resulted in a number of choral works, among them the two oratorios Die letzten Dinge (1826) and Des Heilands letzte Stunden (1834).In the fifth decade of his life his fame was at its zenith, and he received numerous invitations to conduct music festivals, opera performances, and concerts outside of Kassel.
During this period he devoted himself more to teaching, which also resulted in his Violin Method (Violinschule, 1833). From all over the world students came to him to receive a comprehensive education. The so-called "Kassel School" included outstanding virtuosos and concertmasters (Ferdinand David, August Kömpel, Jean Joseph Bott, Hubert Ries, Carl Louis Bargheer), well-known composers (Norbert Burgmüller, Hugo Stähle, Karl Friedrich Curschmann), and influential figures of 19th-century music life (Gottfried Herrmann in Lübeck, Ureli Corelli Hill in New York, and Frederik Pacius in Helsinki).
Toward the end of Spohr's third period, however, in addition to increasing health problems, the worsening political situation dampened his creativity. He felt the impact of the increasingly repressive political atmosphere—which did not benefit from the 1830 Revolution and the new constitution—and the Court Theater was closed down in 1832–33 in the aftermath of the Revolution.
4. Fourth Period: Old Age in Kassel (1835–59)
The last twenty-five years of Spohr's life were shaped by severe blows of fate, conflicts with his employer, declining creative energy, and the increasing feeling to belong to a past era. A series of tragic deaths in his family and circle of friends began with the passing of his friend and librettist Karl Pfeiffer; it was followed by the death of his brother Ferdinand in the same year, the death of his wife Dorette in 1834, the death of her sister, who had lived with them, in 1835, and the death of his youngest daughter in 1838.
The political atmosphere in Kassel became more and more unbearable for Spohr, who throughout his life showed the self-confident attitude of the enlightened middle class toward the aristocracy. He placed great hopes in the political changes of 1848 (his Sextet Op. 140 was inspired by the "glorious people's revolution") and he attended with great enthusiasm the meetings of the Parliament in St. Paul Church in Frankfurt. But soon there were new repressive actions against the citizens of Kassel, and Spohr felt it was sheer harassment that the Prince Elector did not allow him to realize or participate in important projects—a music festival initiated by him in Kassel in 1837, a performance of the St. Matthew Passion (which he had first performed in 1832) in 1842, a visit to the Music Festival in Norwich in 1842 where his commissioned oratorio Der Fall Babylons was to be premiered, a visit to the Music Festival in Vienna in 1846, and a performance of Wagner's Tannhäuser in Kassel, which was not allowed to take place until 1851. The tension escalated in 1851 when Spohr, following long practice, went on his holidays without explicit permission. He received a reprimand and a high fine, against which he litigated without success. Out of consideration for his second wife Marianne, whom he had married on January 31, 1836, and for her relatives in Kassel, however, he did not accept the position of director of the Prague Conservatory offered to him in 1843. In 1850 he wrote: "if I were not too old I would emigrate to the free United States of America" (Homburg 1964, 564).
Though since the middle of the 1830s Spohr felt his creative energy decrease more and more he did not reduce his compositional output during his last period—partially because he was the sole supporter of the family of his deceased brother, his oldest daughter, and other family members and therefore did not want to turn down his publishers' lucrative offers. His composing depended more and more on outside stimuli: his second wife brought him to compose a number of piano chamber works and the Double Symphony no. 7 and provided him with the libretto for his last opera Die Kreuzfahrer (1844), which received not more than a succès d'estime.
What raised his spirits again and again were his sucesses outside of Kassel and the admiration he received from younger composers. His tours through Germany and to England were true triumphs, and rulers and institutions at home and abroad showered him with awards and honorary memberships. Though there was increasing criticism of his stylistic stagnation and though many considered him an "Altmeister" (a revered musical dinosaur or a representative of a past era), his idyllic home in Kassel became the pilgrimage destination for violinists and composers from all Western countries. Like many other young musicians, Johannes Brahms too traveled to Kassel to meet Spohr in August of 1858 (Boeck 1998, 97). What contributed to Spohr's reputation was that he efficiently and generously supported many young composers, among them Wagner—although he was quite critical of the general stylistic and violinistic development: he caricatured Berlioz's compositional style and Ole Bull's playing style in the "Historical" Symphony no. 6 and in the Violin Concerto no. 17 Sonst und Jetzt.
In 1857 he was pensioned against his own will and had to reduce his playing after breaking his left arm. Two years later he died from infirmity. His burial was attended by the entire population of Kassel.
5. Philosophy and Aesthetics
Key terms of Spohr's philosophy were "being active," "striving," "raising," and "ennobling" ("wirken," "streben," "heben," "veredeln," Spohr 1860/I, 31, 34, 1861/II, 404). Led by the maxims of Enlightenment philosophers, masons, and Philanthropinists, he believed in man's obligation to educate and perfect himself and his environment. Spohr's desire to serve society by ceaselessely fighting for progressive ideals brought him to work in a number of professional functions—in permanent positions at courts and theaters as well as in the capacities of self-employed artist and pedagogue. This is how he became one of the seminal figures in German musical life in the first half of the 19th century.
As a violinist he adopted and further developed the virtuosic technique and expressive playing style of the French school and became the main representative of the German Romantic school. As a chamber musician he championed a novel concept of performance which advocated faithfulness to the composition (Werktreue) and required the player to convey the composer's intentions (Wulfhorst 1997–98). Depending on whether he played Mozart, Beethoven, or Rode, in the words of Rochlitz, "he was different, just as they are different" (AMZ 7, Dec. 26, 1804, col. 203). With great acumen Rochlitz praised twenty-year old Spohr for this ability: "his insight into the spirit of the most diverse compositions and his art to perform each in its proper spirit render him a true artist." In Spohr's aesthetics, serving the composer meant for the artist to execute the notated score diligently ("correct performance") and, beyond that, "to animate what he performs with his spirit so that the listener may perceive and feel sympathetically the composer's intentions" ("beautiful performance," Violin Method, p. 246). His belief in faithful performance brought him to embrace the newly invented metronome and even to ask musicians to consider that violinists of the Baroque era had used different instruments than those played in the early 19th century (Malibran 1850, 207–8). Spohr taught these principles as well as his playing technique to his more than 200 violin students—representatives of the "Kasseler Schule."
As a conductor Spohr established high standards for perfection and rehearsing; further, he promoted the social security of his musicians by means of the Kassel Support Fund for Pensioned Orchestral Musicians and Their Widows (Kasseler Unterstützungsfond für pensionierte Orchestermitglieder und deren Witwen). As the artistic director of large-scale music festivals, he influenced the budding middle-class music culture. As a musical writer, he united the quest for enlightenment with the growing self-confidence of the middle class, which he transferred to the position of the artist.
Finally, Spohr was one of the last significant composers who contributed to all important vocal and instrumental genres of his age. These works—unlike the works of many Romantic composers—were deliberately tailored to the musical institutions of the era: solo concertos, other orchestral works, and virtuosic compositions were tailored to public concerts; chamber music and songs, to the "music party"; oratorios, to the music festival; choral music, to the choral associations; operas, to the system of court and municipal theaters. This close connection—today often associated with the term "Biedermeier"—did not necessarily mean that Spohr compromised his ideals in order to cater to his audience's taste. On the contrary, his quest for "ennobling" led him to use, especially in virtuosic genres, sophisticated composition which in retrospect appear progressive and "early Romantic."
6. The Ingredients of Spohr's Style: Violin Concerto Op. 2
A key work for this stylistic synthesis was the Violin Concerto Op. 2 that Spohr composed at age twenty in 1804 (see the musical examples).
1. In the sections following the two themes (mm. 77 and 106) copious passagework offers the soloist an opportunity to display his virtuosic technique—fast runs, chordal arpeggiations, trill chains, double stops, and different strokes.
2. Spohr's penchant for "grandeur," emphasized by contemporary critics, manifests itself in the moderato pace, dramatic outbreaks, and the march rhythms of the French Revolutionary period (m. 1), described by Finscher as "chivalresque" (MGG1/12, col. 1583).
3. Spohr's cantabile playing style shapes not only the second theme (m. 95) but also the soloist's opening theme (m. 61)—exactly as it shapes the flourishes of his famous adagios and the recitatives of his Concertos Op. 28 and Op. 47. His inspirations included florid Italian opera arias as well as Rode's playing and Mozart's melodic writing (compare mm. 61–62 to K. 520).
4. The serious, "effusive and melancholy" ("schwärmerisch-melancholisch") tone, which his contemporaries considered a main characteristic of his style, results from the continuous, resignative melodic descents that follow every ascent (mm. 61–62, 63–64), from the predilection for the minor mode, and especially from the harmonic vocabulary: appoggiaturas (mm. 63, 65, 96) and chromaticism. What contemporaries considered specifically "Spohrish" was the combination of low-level chromaticism over pedals, inspired by Cherubini (mm. 8 and 129), as well as the frequent expressive chords partially resulting from this voice-leading—augmented sixth chords (mm. 8, 129, 137, 142), diminished-seventh chords (mm. 135 and 141), and even bolder harmonies, which extend to anticipations of the Tristan chords, e.g., in the Quartet Op. 4/1.
Contrary to frequent criticism, linear chromaticism guides the higher-level tonal structure as well: in the second orchestral section, a partially chromatic descent in the bass—enharmonically from F (m. 123) to E-sharp (m. 141)—leads from F major to B minor (musical example).
5. Spohr's short, compressed variant of the sonata form combines the harmonic characteristics of a development section and the thematic structure of a recapitulation into a single section:
• first half of the movement (exposition): first theme in D minor (mm. 1 and 61), second theme im F major (m. 95)
• second half of the movement: development-like transition (m. 123), first theme in B minor (m. 151), second theme in D major (m. 185).
In the opening movements of other works young Spohr even integrated the introduction into the "recapitulation." Such structural plans—unorthodox if measured against the repertoire of forms established by Viennese Classical composers—are as typical for Spohr's early style as are the limited overall dimensions of his instrumental works. In some compositions he even did away entirely with a middle movement or combined elements of a slow movement and finale into the second movement.
6. If young Spohr did not yet adopt the specific formal schemes of Viennese Classicism, from the very beginning he adopted its structural principles. Whereas many contemporaries simply juxtaposed melody and passagework in their virtuosic works, he welded both elements into an organic unit, shaped by the interplay of contrast (at the surface level) and unity (in the underlying substance, as evident from the circled pitches in the musical examples). Instead of building passagework out of commonplace material, Spohr relied on motivic processes to integrate virtuosic elements into the structure (mm. 77 and 163). The comparison with other first-period compositions demonstrates that such motivic relations are neither exceptional nor coincidental.
7. At a closer look even the soloist's expansive cantilena (m. 61), which seems to contrast with the angular tutti theme (m. 1), is revealed as an artful development of the same melodic substance (circled pitches). In other works by Spohr this kind of thematic transformation even transcends the limits of individual movements and foreshadows the cyclic forms of late Romantic composers.
Thus Spohr's Concerto Op. 2 exemplifies how Spohr sought to "ennoble" virtuosic genres and at the same time strove for a synthesis of "sensation" and "reason" ("Empfindung" and "Vernunft")—exactly as laid down in the libretto to his first opera Die Prüfung, which may be considered his aesthetic manifesto. With this solution he met the taste of his educated audiences, who as Rochlitz stated, "did not prefer any other violin concerto [to Op. 2]—not in terms of invention, soul, and attraction nor in terms of strictness and thoroughness" (AMZ 7, Dec. 26, 1804, col. 202).
7. Stylistic Development
Looking at Spohr's Concerto Op. 2 one might have expected the creative experiments with various stylistic ingredients to continue throughout his long career as a composer. Yet if one compares the concertos and chamber works he composed 30, 40, or 50 years later with the Concerto of the twenty-year-old, one encounters the same stylistic elements that appeared original and forward-looking in 1804—sometimes even almost identical rhythmical, melodic, or harmonic patterns. Simultaneously Spohr tended to abandon some of the unorthodox structural experiments of his younger years.
So far musicians and scholars pointed to Spohr's limited or declining creativity as an explanation for the slight or lacking stylistic development and for his evolution from an experiment-loving pioneer of a novel style to a conservative composer prone to self-copying. This hypothesis seemed to be supported by some of Spohr's own written remarks about his waning creative energy. Yet what triggered his peculiar development was probably as much deliberate self-limitation, based on Spohr's aesthetics. His concept of "ennobling the spirit" (1968/I, 28), which he saw as the artist's mission, led to four problems:
1. Spohr's idea of "ennobling the spirit" was intimately tied to the middle-class work ethics and the artist's quest for social recognition: increasingly Spohr showed himself disappointed when audiences failed to notice some of his sophisticated craft. He did not strive to hide the artfulness of his compositional technique and make it appear natural and simple (like some Romantic composers). The motivic processes, which in Op. 2 are still camouflaged to the extent that they have been overlooked, more and more moved to the surface level in his later oeuvre—they tended to become ostentatious and academic.
2. Spohr adopted the Enlightenment maxim that a concrete ideal of aesthetic perfection can be reached and replicated by means of systematic pursuit and sufficient practice. Every compositional challenge triggered an initial phase of intense experimentation and search for perfection, documented in numerous drafts and sketches that have been mostly ignored by scholars. Yet after finding a satisfactory solution, Spohr simply copied this conception in his subsequent works in the same genre or vein (Hauptmann 1871/II, 27). This explains the recurring movement types (e.g., the finales alla polacca or with dotted rhythms in 2/4) and the abundance of stereotypical melodic and harmonic figures. This also explains why generally the works of Spohr's first two periods and more specifically, the initial works in each genre show a higher degree of originality than the later ones—with the path to an ideal solution being longer in compositionally more demanding and developed genres. Except for a few highly creative individual works, the innovations and experiments in Spohr's later oeuvre were limited to "expansions of artistic forms" (Spohr 1968/II, 134):
• He expanded the symphony into a symphony for two orchestras (no. 7), the symphonie concertante into a quartet concerto (Op. 131), the quartet into the quintet, sextet, and double quartet, and the lied into the song cycle with clarinet, violin, or four-hand accompaniment.
• He developed new genres (e.g., a piano sonatina with voice Op. 138), new programmatic ideas ("Travel Sonata" Op. 96, Symphony no. 4 "The Consecration of Sounds," and Symphony no. 9 "The Seasons"), and new ideological concepts ("Historical" Symphony no. 6, Violin Concerto no. 17 "Then and Now").
3. Spohr's definition of "noble" shifted with time. In the beginning he adopted and developed "noble" stylistic means that appear innovative and progressive in retrospect: Cherubini's and Mozart's chromaticism, Rode's grand and cantabile melodic style, and forms outside the repertoire of Viennese Classicism. By experimenting with identifying motives and through-composition (Faust) he became one of the most progressive German opera composers. Analogously, he eagerly embraced the most progressive playing style of the period, the style of the French violin school (represented by Viotti, Rode, Kreutzer, Baillot) as well as numerous innovations (Tourte bow, conducting baton, metronome), and he made innovations of his own (e.g, a traveling coach and a chin rest).
Yet just as he soon toned down and moderated his playing style, characterized initially by an extreme expressive range and vast fluctuations in tempo and criticized by Reichardt as overly licentious, he switched from pre-Romantic and early Romantic models and stylistic elements to those associated with Classicism. Instead of further developing compressed sonata forms or two-movement patterns he increasingly adopted Classical sonata form and the three-movement and four-movement designs of Viennese Classicism. Simultaneously he extended the dimensions of the individual movements beyond what their substance could sustain, and in his pursuit of unity of form he reduced the development sections in their function to mere paraphrases of the exposition and recapitulation. Similarly, he reduced the wide variety of original short forms that abound in his early oeuvre (combining elements of variation cycle, rondo, paraphrase-potpourri, and rhapsodic fantasia [Wulfhorst 1995]) to a single standard form—the ABA form of the salon pieces of his two last periods. His quest for homogeneity of material and roundness of form led, on all levels from the individual phrase to the overall form, to monotony and lack of contrast and tension.
Further, his desire to ban from his compositions anything that was not "noble" resulted in an increasing restriction of his expressive realm. The refreshing variety of characters in his early works gave way to a dominating overly anemic or "elegiac" mood, criticized by his contemporaries. Spohr's predilection for "sophisticated" ("gewählt") harmonies led to monotonous chromaticism. Such tendencies were accompanied if not strengthened by his increasingly elitist aesthetics, manifest in disparaging remarks about musicians who composed for the "large crowd" ("großer Haufen"). Though Spohr conducted exemplary performances of Beethoven's orchestral works, though the Egmont Overture moved him to tears, and though he became an early champion of Wagner's music, he criticized Beethoven for his lack of "aesthetic education and sense for the beautiful" (1968/I, 180) and made similar verdicts other composers such as Wagner, Weber, or Meyerbeer.
4. Finally, the principle of "ennobling" could only function in certain genres. Spohr succeeded in transforming genres from the lower aesthetic spectrum that were associated with the galant, virtuosic style of the era, by "ennobling" or "raising" them with sophisticated compositional means, as contemporary critics noticed with admiration (AMZ 1812, cols. 722 and 820). In this manner he created what may be called a "third path"—an alternative to shallow virtuosity as well as to the uncompromising aesthetics of Beethoven's middle-period and late-period works. In these lower genres—virtuosic concerto, string duet, bravura variations, potpourri, harp music—he created works that belong among the best music created by the generation between Mozart and Mendelssohn. He achieved similar success in his early Goethe lieder as well as in his second and third oratorios.
Yet in the upper echelons of the spectrum of genres the principle of "raising" could not function: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven had already lifted the quartet and the symphony to the highest possible level. In these genres Spohr limited himself—except for some programmatic experiments—to imbuing the Classical or Classicizing form with new expression and instrumental colors. This was successful in the Third Symphony, several quartets (Op. 45, 58, 74), the Quintet Op. 69, the Sextet, and the Double Quartets, all of which avoid rhythmical monotony and excessive lengths. Yet in spite of his contrapuntal art (manifest also in his canons and fugues), a number of his 36 quartets suffer from one-dimensional motivic processes that do not sufficiently benefit from the polyphonic possibilities of the genre. In fact, these works represent a hybrid species between the Classical "worked" ("gearbeitet") quartet and the quatuor brillant–-a violin concerto with string-trio accompaniment representing an ideal vehicle for a traveling virtuoso (Spohr himself contributed six works to this genre).
In the field of opera too Spohr, led by his quest for "ennobling," had only limited success. As noted by Hauptmann and Weber, he lacked the sense for dramatic effectiveness, the sense for what he called "the common" or "the elementary." Further, some of his operas suffered from the weakness of their librettos and some of his vocal parts from overly instrumental writing. Though Spohr made important contributions to the development of German Romantic opera, with through-composed structures, identifying motives, and progressive harmonies, his operas soon lost their place in the repertoire. It remains to be seen if the isolated recent attempts to revive his most significant opera, Faust, his most popular opera, Jessonda, and his fairy-tale opera, Zemire, will lead to a renaissance of his oeuvre on international stages.
8. Reception and Assessment
Spohr's aesthetic maxims and the resulting stylistic development is a main reason for the extremely fluctuating reception curve and the controversial assessements. After Beethoven's death many German and English audiences considered him the greatest living composer. Between the last two decades of his life and the beginning of the 20th century his reputation gradually fell to its lowest point, a development accelerated by the wide dissemination of his (weaker) late compositions. Though violinists and harpists continued to perform his works, his music was gradually relegated to a marginal position on concert and opera stages. Even the cultural politicians of the Third Reich did not dare to praise Spohr as a great German composer who could have taken Mendelssohn's place. (There is some evidence that his masonic beliefs and democratic convictions may have contribued to this decision.)
The second half of the 20th century saw a true Spohr renaissance, which, however, was more or less restricted to the wold of recordings and hardly affected the repertoire on concert and opera stages. The rediscovery of Spohr's oeuvre was strongly supported, in part even initiated by Internationale Louis Spohr Gesellschaft in Kassel (ILSG , as well by its British chapter, the now defunctSpohr Society.
As model performances of Spoh's violin works by Heifetz, Shumsky, Oistrakh, Zukerman, and Perlman have demonstrated, the lasting succcess of his music strongly depends on those qualities that Spohr's contemporaries admired in his playing and that prevent the often criticized "anemic" impression: brisk tempos, energy, grandeur, cantabile style, and flexible, intense expression. It remains one of the great missed opportunities in the reception of Spohr's violin music that plans to have Oscar Shumsky record all of his violin concertos were never realized. Few other violinists could have brought the same required technical and musical qualities to the task.
As extreme as the reception curve has been, as diverse are the historical placements and assessements that have resulted from overemphasizing selected aspects of Spohr's life and works. Spohr has been associated with a plethora of labels: epigonism, mannerism, Mozartism, Classicizing style (Klassizismus), Biedermeier, early Romanticism. Some historians admitted their inability to classify his "Janus-faced" character.
Many scholars born in the 19th century were still familiar with Spohr's music and were able to properly identify Spohr's influence, as Ernst Kurth did, for instance, by revealing the links that led from his chromaticism to the harmonic language of Wagner's Tristan. But 20th century scholars have generally lacked this knowledge and have consequently attributed many stylistic influences to any composer but Spohr. It is to be hoped that increased familiarity with Spohr's music will lead to scholars to give him his proper place in the history of 19th century form, harmony, and orchestration, as well as in the history of many genres. In spite of the path-breaking research of Glenewinkel, Goethel, and others, what is needed for a well-founded assessment are comprehensive studies of individual work categories, an authoritative biography (which goes beyond paraphrasing his memoirs and considers in particular his extensive correpondence), and the systematic investigation of his influence.
Louis Spohr (1784–1859) © Martin Wulfhorst 2006