Before reading up a bit for this post I was aware that Louis Spohr (named Ludwig, but he preferred the French equivalent Louis), was a virtuoso violinist and younger contemporary of Beethoven, widely known for inventing the violin chin rest in 1820. I’m very grateful to him for that; I really don’t enjoy playing my violin without one. It’s a fabulous creation. I can’t imagine how violinists managed during the baroque era!
Portrait of Louis Spohr composing in Kassel c. 1824
He also had the foresight in 1812 to use letters on musical scores as an aid to rehearsal. So he was quite the innovator in many ways. When our conductor at Aylesbury would bark something like: “You made a real hash of the passage between D and E, so let’s go back to D again,” you’d be able to find the place in the music very quickly and easily. I had no idea that this bright idea was down to Louis Spohr.
My copy of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto complete with rehearsal letters, published on all modern music scores.
Louis Spohr: (5 April 1784 – 22 October 1859)
I was pleasantly surprised and impressed to say the least, when I started to discover his many other accomplishments. His musical compositions were largely unknown to me, despite his immense popularity in classical circles during his lifetime. His fame dwindled after his death and only a small portion of his work remains in modern repertoire.
It couldn’t have been easy crafting your notes in the shadow of Mozart and at the same time as the likes of Beethoven, Hummel and Schubert, but to his credit he followed his own path within the parameters of early romanticism.
He was widely known and respected in Europe during the early 19th century as a virtuoso violinist, conductor, teacher and composer. He was probably the most famous violinist in Europe until Paganini arrived on the scene with his own fiery brand of pyrotechnics.
Statue of Louis Spohr in Kassel.
Like his friend Beethoven, he also believed in democratic freedoms and was known to possess a noble character. He was unusually tall for the time, being over six-foot. Unlike Beethoven, who was the epitome of the lonely, tortured artist, Spohr was a family man who enjoyed a happy social life and varied pursuits like swimming, ice-skating, hiking, gardening, as well as considerable skill as a painter.
Whilst Beethoven was creating music that was innovative, immortal and ‘new’ to the ears of early 19th century concert goers, Spohr appears to blend in with the tastes of the zeitgeist, certainly nothing that would upset the apple cart. But when tastes changes, as they invariably do over time, his more traditional music became eclipsed by Beethoven and Schubert.
The so called Biedermeier period (1812 – 1848), saw the rise of the middle class in Europe, paralleling urbanisation and industrialisation, when access to the arts expanded to attract a larger number of people. Biedermeier encompassed literature, music, the visual arts, interior design and architecture.
It seems that Louis Spohr was a product of his era, whereas Beethoven was a musician for all-time. Rather sadly he is sometimes referred to as the ‘forgotten master’.
Liszt at the Piano by Biedermeier painter Josef Danhauser, c. 1840
As I’ve discovered, his music was mostly written in the romantic genre and I was surprised at the many different instruments he wrote for aside from the violin. I believe his music should be more widely heard and performed than it is. He may not be a Mozart or a Beethoven, but his achievements are worthy of admiration.
Louis was born to musical parents; his mother being a talented singer and pianist whilst his father was an amateur flutist. The young Spohr however, despite starting out on the harp, took to the violin. His first tutor was a violinist named Dufour, who saw an opportunity for his pupil to further his musical learning at the Duke of Brunswick’s court. He joined the ducal orchestra aged 15.
Three years later he was sent on a year-long study tour of St Petersburg and Moscow with his tutor, violinist Franz Anton Eck. He also wrote his early compositions during this time.
After Spohr returned to Brunswick the duke allowed him to make a concert tour of northern Germany. An influential music critic, Friedrich Rochlitz happened to be in the audience during his recital in Leipzig in December 1804, and wrote a glowing review of both his virtuosity and his opus 2 violin concerto in D minor. Hence Spohr was promptly catapulted into the pantheon of revered violinists of the early 19th century.
German stamp depicting Louis Spohr from 1959
Spohr became orchestral director at the court of Gotha between 1805-1812 until he landed the job of leader of the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna from 1813-15, where he met Beethoven.
His career progressed as he moved to Frankfurt where he took up the post of Opera Director between 1817-19, and thanks to the recommendation of fellow composer, Carl Maria von Weber, he was appointed Court Kapellmeister at Kassel from 1822 until his death on 22nd October 1859. Incidentally, Kassel was also the place where the Brothers Grimm wrote most of their fairy tales in the early 19th century.
During his career and at the height of his popularity Spohr travelled to England on five separate occasions, and was named in an aria from Act 2 of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Opera, The Mikado.
Spohr was a prolific composer of many genres: violin concertos, symphonies, clarinet concertos, harp and chamber music, lieder, cantatas, oratorios and operas. I’ve selected a few pieces from each genre to give an overview of his style and talents. He composed a total of 290 works.
Although he wrote eighteen violin concertos, six violin sonatas and various duos for violin and harp he did not set out to write purely for the violin in the same way that Viotti, Kreutzer, Vieutemps or Wieniawski did.
Of particular note is his Violin Concerto No. 8 in A minor, Op. 47 ‘In modo d’un scena cantate’ that just sings in the most mournful, lyrical melody when performed by the incomparable Jascha Heifetz:
Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 2 by Christiane Edinger and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra:
‘Duo für 2 Violinen’ with David and Igor Oistrakh:
Violin Concerto No. 7 in E minor, Op. 38 (3rd movement) with Takako Nishizaki, Libor Pesek and the Bratislava Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra:
Sonata in D Major for Violin and Harp, with Sophie Langdon and Hugh Webb:
Duo for Violin and Viola in E minor, Op. 13 with Antje Weithaas and Tabea Zimmermann:
Sonata for Violin and Harp in C minor, a delightful recital by Jean-Jaques Kantorow and Susanna Mildonian:
Concertante No. 1 in G Major, WoO 13 for Violin, Harp and Orchestra (Adagio) with Ursula Holliger, Hansheinz Schneeberger and English Chamber Orchestra:
Concertante No. 2 in E minor, WoO 14 for Violin, Harp and Orchestra, (3rd movement) performed by English Chamber Orchestra, Ursula Holliger and Christoph Poppen under the baton of Heinz Holliger:
Like Beethoven, Louis Spohr has nine symphonies to his name, and a tenth unfinished!
His Symphony No. 4 in F Major, Op. 86 ‘Die Weihe der Töne’ (The Consecration of Sound), was based on the poems of the same name by Carl Pfeiffer.
Overview from Naxos:
The first movement opens with a slow introduction, illustrating the profound silence before the creation of sound. The Allegro that follows, in traditional sonata form, includes the gentle sound of the breeze and woodwind bird-song, before the storm that forms the central section of the movement, to die out in the distance in the final bars. The second movement demonstrates the function of music as lullaby, dance and serenade, the last with a solo cello. All three finally combine in a conductor’s nightmare of varying bar-lines and tempi.
The third movement shows the role of music as an inspiration to courage, here with a narrative element. Soldiers depart for battle, while in a central trio section those remaining behind express their anxiety, followed by the victorious return of the marching troops and the song of thanksgiving. The final movement buries the dead, to the sound of the chorale ‘Begrabt den Leib’, leading to ultimate consolation in tears.
Here is a recording by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and Alfred Walter:
Symphony No. 6 in G Major, Op.116 ‘Historical Symphony in the style and taste of four different periods’ composed in 1840, performance by Concertgebouw Amsterdam and Ton Koopman:
- Largo-Grave (Bach-Händel’sche Periode, 1720)
- Larghetto (Haydn-Mozart’sche Periode, 1780
- Scherzo (Beethoven’sche Periode, 1810)
- Allegro vivace (Allerneueste Periode, 1840)
Symphony No. 9 Op. 143 ‘The Seasons’ performed by Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra under Alfred Walter:
Harp and clarinet works
Spohr wrote a significant number of works for, and including the harp, which is entirely understandable as his first wife, Dorette Scheidler, was a renowned harp virtuoso. They were married for 28 years until her death in 1834.
Dorette Spohr, née Scheidler (1787-1834)
Fantasie for Harp in C Major, Op. 35 with Lena-Maria Buchberger:
Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 26 (3rd movement) with Paul Meyer and the OCL:
Clarinet Concerto No. 2 in E-Flat Major, Op. 57 with Julian Bliss:
Clarinet Concerto No. 4 WoO 20, ‘Rondo al espagnol’ with Paul Meyer and Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne:
Among his output of chamber music are 36 string quartets, 7 string quintets, a string sextet and 5 piano trios. Probably the most performed in modern repertoire are the Nonet and the Octet, for your listening pleasure below.
Octet in E Major, Op.32 with the Vienna Octet:
Nonet for Wind Quintet and Strings in F Major, Op. 31 with the Consortium Classicum Conducted by Dieter Klöcker:
Piano Trio No. 2 in F Major, Op. 123 with the Hartley Trio :
Concerto for String Quartet & Orchestra Op. 131 (1st movement), composed in Kassel during the last three months of 1845, performed here by Leipziger Streichquartett, Leipziger Kammerorchester and Sebastian Weigle:
Six German Songs
Spohr’s Six German Songs for Soprano, Piano and Clarinet, Op. 103 are a delightful indulgence of his romantic side! These lovely performances are by Helen Donath, Klaus Donath and Dieter Kloecker:
- Be still my heart
- In a lilac bush sat a little bird
- Longing: I look into my heart
- Cradle Song: All is quiet in sweet peace
- The Secret Song: There are secret pains
- Awakening : Why do you stand and ponder
Of the ten operas Sphor composed the two most popular are Jessonda and Faust.
Jessonda was written in 1822 to the libretto by Eduard Gehe, based on Lemiere’s novel, La veuve de Malabar. Under Spohr’s baton it was first performed on 28th July 1823 in Kassel, and tells the story of an Indian princess (Jessonda), who is condemned to burn on her husband’s funeral pyre; as was the custom for a widow of a recently departed Rajah. She is ultimately spared by a young Brahmin (Nadori) and eventually rescued by the Portuguese General she was in love with (Tristan d’Acunha). It was popular in 19th and 20th century repertoire until it was banned by the Nazis.
Overture to Jessonda:
Jessonda – Selected highlights with Gerd Albrecht leading the Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Chorus and Julia Varady and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the main roles:
The Tristan Chord
So, the big question is, did Wagner take inspiration from Spohr to create his famous chord?
I might ignite some controversy here!
The Tristan Chord in Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner from Wikipedia.
Much has been made of the Tristan Chord in the opening bars of Wagner’s beautiful, romantic opera, Tristan und Isolde; but composer and musician Dr. Dick Strawser, who was quite taken with aspects of Jessonda noticed the following:
Now, what I found in the vocal score of Spohr’s Jessonda – opening the main character’s entrance aria – was an almost identical passage: the same key, the same 6/8 meter and (as I recall) the same rhythms but, more importantly, virtually all the same pitches but one – the next-to-last note in Spohr is a C-natural, an “upper-neighbor” embellishment, where Wagner’s A-sharp is a chromatic passing tone.
Spohr composed his opera in 1823.
Yet no one calls it “The Jessonda Chord.” Nor does anyone accuse Wagner of plagiarism, either.
Was Jessonda so forgotten 25 years later that Wagner could steal this, even subconsciously, without anyone noticing? Hmmmm…
Wagner aficionado Stephen Fry:
A beautiful aria ‘Ich bin allein’ from Act Two of Faust:
Spohr the conductor
Louis Spohr was one of the first musicians to use a baton when conducting. Imagine the orchestra’s surprise when their leader, instead of using his bow, put his violin down, took a wooden stick out of his pocket, got up and turned the music stand to face the orchestra where he proceeded to wave it about in time with the music.
Later in his musical career after he had scaled back his violin performance schedule, his reputation as an eminent conductor meant that he continued to receive many invitations to music festivals and various events, including the unveiling of Beethoven’s statue in Bonn in 1845.
He championed Wagner’s music and also played Beethoven’s late quartets, even though it seems he was as baffled by them as audiences were at the time. He also played with Beethoven during rehearsals of the Piano Trio No. 1 in D Major, Op. 70 ‘The Ghost’ in 1808, commenting on how Beethoven, almost devoid of his earlier technical abilities, hammered away on the ivories and that his piano was out of tune, but he must have made allowances for Ludwig’s hearing loss.
A wonderful recording of ‘The Ghost’ with Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Pre and Pinchas Zukerman:
Spohr made many valuable contributions to violin technique in the early 19th century and was a proponent of the Mannheim School. He taught around 200 pupils during his career. If I ever find myself in Kassel I’ll be sure to visit his museum there!