The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 19th Century: Spohr

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

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, shown on all modern music scores.

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.

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.

Biedermeier period

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

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

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.

 Violin 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:

Symphonic works

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:

  1. Largo-Grave (Bach-Händel’sche Periode, 1720)
  2. Larghetto (Haydn-Mozart’sche Periode, 1780
  3. Scherzo (Beethoven’sche Periode, 1810)
  4. 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)

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:

Chamber music 

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:

  1. Be still my heart
  2. In a lilac bush sat a little bird
  3. Longing: I look into my heart
  1. Cradle Song: All is quiet in sweet peace
  2. The Secret Song: There are secret pains
  3. 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

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:

Violin School

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!

Carry On Conducting: 10 Reasons why musicians need a Maestro

I’m aware this post is a bit on the long side, (I hope you’ll stick with me), mainly because the subject matter is quite in-depth. I opted for a slightly meatier article as I didn’t want to just pay lip service to a profession that requires huge amounts of skill and dedication.

music-conductor-handsCertain conductors are just as famous and revered in their own right as the soloists and orchestras they wave their batons at; with reputations alone that can fill a concert hall. Here are the cream of the crop listed by surname, both past and present, across the alphabet:

Abbado, Alsop, Barbirolli, Barenboim, Beecham, Berlioz, Bernstein, Böhm, Boulez, Boult, Britten, Bülow, Celibidache, Chailly, Davis, Dudamel, Elliot-Gardner, Eschenbach, Furtwängler, Gergiev, Giulini, Hogwood, Haitink, Jansons, Järvi, Karajan, Kleiber, Klemeperer, Levine, Liszt, Maazel, Marriner, Masur, Mendelssohn, Muti, Nikisch, Norrington, Oramo, Ormandy, Ozawa, Pappano, Previn, Rattle, Rostropovich, Salonen, Sargent, Sinopoli, Solti, Stokowski, Szell, Tennstedt, Tilson-Thomas, Toscanini, Wagner…  I could go on forever!

Classical music fans tend to have their preferences. For some it’s their interpretation of a particular work, and for others, nothing less than hero worship. Leopold Stokowski was known for his innovative orchestral arrangements; and his enduring performance in Fantasia for Disney, which brought classical music to a whole decade of youngsters and continues to do so to this day.

Documentary – Stokowski at 88:

Leonard Bernstein’s talks on music educated a swathe of music lovers into understanding the master composers, along with his legendary teaching abilities.

Daniel Barenboim and his close friend, the late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said, jointly created the ground-breaking West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999.  WEDO is a youth orchestra made up of musicians from the Midde East, namely Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Spain, being based in Seville. They are an example to us all through their unity and their music.  I saw them perform Beethoven’s 5th and 6th symphonies at the Royal Albert Hall for the 2012 BBC Proms. It was magical!

In Barenboim’s own words:

“The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn’t. It’s not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I’m not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I’m] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to – and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward died a few years ago – …create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.”

Herbert von Karajan, principle conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for 35 years, was just epic in every sense of the word… But not loved by all: Save us from the resurrection of that old devil

Composer/conductor Jean-Baptise Lully (1632 – 1687) goes down in history as the only conductor to be mortally wounded in the pursuit of his craft.  Death by baton occurred when Lully staked himself in the foot with his long conducting staff during a performance of his Te Deum to mark Louis XIV’s recovery from surgery. The wound became infected, but Lully refused amputation and died of gangrene two months later.

They all had, and have, their special attributes, their individual quirks, that players and listeners either love or loathe.  But regardless of their personalities (which do in part help to cement their reputations), it’s their innate skill to understand the music and bring out the best in their ensembles and orchestras that fascinates us as much as their ferocious expressions when a beat was missed or a note played out of tune.

Documentary – The Art of Conducting – Legendary Conductors of a Golden Era:

Over the years they have been sent up as bumbling idiots presiding over a rabble of musicians… Rowan Atkinson conducting Beethoven never fails to amuse!

In the third chapter of my novel, The Virtuoso, I briefly explore the role of the conductor from the protagonist’s view point (after all, she is married to one!) In my story he is a little unhinged, so I’m making un-reserved apologies now to all conductors: I’m not saying you are all egomaniacs like the character Howard Miller, who is derived solely from my imagination!

Throughout the evening Isabelle observed Howard intently. She had never really seen him in action before, as their schedules hadn’t been conducive to joint collaborations. It was one of the few times his normally furrowed face was free of lines, and just animated. He waved the baton rhythmically, first low by his waist when the music came to a quiet section, and then as the tension built and it came to a crescendo he was more forcible; also using his left arm, raising it, and sometimes shaking it slightly to indicate to the strings that he wanted more volume or intensity. It was certainly a skill that she greatly admired. No matter how good the individual players in an orchestra were, the resulting experience of the audience was also impacted largely by the role of the conductor. He was the sculptor shaping and carving the flow of time and the form of the music, living and breathing the notes with his orchestra. But it was a skill that involved so much more than beating out time. Part of his job was to embody the character of the music, as well as to deeply understand the tempo and phraseology of the work, and how the abilities and ranges of his musicians and their instruments could express the essence of the music in each moment.

It was a delicate eco-system she mused: the conductor could have all the mechanics and knowledge at his disposal but without the attribute of being able to physically communicate his feelings evoked by the music to his players, through his meaningful actions of the baton, his arms, his hands, his fingers, eyes and the gestures of his personality, and have them respond accordingly, it would not elevate them all as group to an exalted performance. Most conductors were also proficient or virtuosic on an instrument themselves. These were the attributes that were needed to be a really great conductor.

She had been impressed to learn that Howard could listen to a score as he looked at it, hearing the printed notes in his head before a single note had been played. She knew he was fastidious about preparation and could anticipate where his musicians might make mistakes during a performance.  He had quoted Leonard Bernstein to her on one occasion. ‘Isabelle, conducting is like breathing; the preparation is the inhalation, and the music sounds as exhalation. I have to always be a breath ahead of them.’

What was it that set apart the big names from the ones who didn’t quite make it on to the world stage?  The likes of Karajan, Barenboim and Bernstein who had achieved their iconic status had an intangible magic about their relationships with their respective orchestras. She wasn’t sure if Howard shared their passion, he seemed to exhibit more of a cold ambition.

Respect on both sides was essential, but it had to be more than that. It had to be total commitment. Love for the music created an energy that brought it to life for the audience.

Interestingly, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (named after the eponymous London church where they are based) was created by Sir Neville Marriner in 1959 as a small string ensemble that would perform minus a conductor, but has since evolved to a larger group now with a conductor.

Mendelssohn founded the first tradition of modern conducting based on the concept of precision by using a baton about 150 years ago.

Big Think gives us food for thought:

Maestro we need you!

  1. Co-ordination especially larger orchestras
  2. Understanding complex music
  3. Efficiency
  4. Preparation & Interpretation
  5. Perception of the inner meanings of music
  6. Powers of communication & inspiration
  7. Knowledge of the cultural background of the composer & context of the work
  8. Balance, dynamics, style & tempo
  9. Sculptor of time, not just the beats but the form, the whole phraseology of the work
  10. Intangibles – Conductor & orchestra bound together in the moment, creating a physical response in the listener.

London Symphony Orchestra conducting masterclass:

I love this eloquent extract from Leonard Bernstein as he describes a conductor’s role in his book, The Joy of Music:

“But the conductor must not only make his orchestra play; he must make them want to play. He must exalt them, lift them, start their adrenalin pouring, either through cajoling or demanding or raging. But however he does it, he must make the orchestra love the music as he loves it. It is not so much imposing his will on them like a dictator; it is more like projecting his feelings around him so that they reach the last man in the second violin section. And when this happens – when one hundred men share his feelings, exactly, simultaneously, responding as one to the rise and fall of the music, to each point of arrival and departure, to each little inner pulse- then there is a human identity of feeling that has no equal elsewhere. It is the closest thing I know to love itself.  On the current of love the conductor can communicate at the deepest levels with his players, and ultimately with his audience. He may shout and rant and curse and insult his players at rehearsal- as some of our greatest conductors are famous for doing – but if there is this love, the conductor and his orchestra will remain knit together through it all and function as one.

Well, there is our ideal conductor. And perhaps the chief requirement of all is that he be humble before the composer; that he never interpose himself between the music and the audience; that all his efforts, however strenuous or glamorous, be made in the service of the composer’s meaning- the music itself, which, after all, is the whole reason for the conductor’s existence.”

In some cases the composer himself is the conductor. Nothing new there. But – when his composition skills outweigh his conducting skills and he can’t hear, that’s a brave undertaking indeed!

Beethoven conductingIn conclusion, I am reminded of the words of the soprano Wilhemine Schroder-Devrient in 1822, recalling her experiences of singing the role of Leonore in a revived production of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna, with dear Ludwig himself conducting:

“At that time the Master’s physical ear was already deaf to all tone. With confusion written on his face, with more than earthly enthusiasm in his eye, swinging his baton to and fro with violent motions, he stood in the midst of the playing musicians and did not hear a single note! When he thought they should play piano, he almost crept under the conductor’s desk, and when he wanted a forte, he leaped high into the air with the strangest gestures, uttering the weirdest sounds. With each succeeding number we grew more intimidated, and I felt as though I were gazing at one of Hoffman’s fantastic figures which had popped up before me.  It was unavoidable that the deaf Master should throw singers and orchestra into the greatest confusion and put them entirely off beat until none knew where they were at. Of all this, Beethoven was entirely unconscious, and thus with the utmost difficulty we concluded a rehearsal with which he seemed altogether content, for he laid down his baton with a happy smile.”

The image this passage conveys always brings a smile to my face.