SPOHR: String Quintet No. 7 / String Sextet, Op. 140 / Potpourri
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Louis Spohr (1784-1859): The Complete String Quintets, Volume Four
Quintet No. 7 in G minor, Op. 144 Sextet in C major, Op. 140 Potpourri, Op. 22
Louis Spohr was accepted during his lifetime as one ofthe most important composers of early GermanRomanticism whose compositions covered all the majorgenres of that era. He was born in Brunswick where hebecame a teenage member of the court orchestra anddeveloped into the leading German violinist of his day.
He held major conducting posts in Gotha (1805-12),Vienna (1813-15), Frankfurt (1817-19) and finallyKassel (1822-57). In between, he found time fornumerous concert tours including St Petersburg, Italy,England (six times) and Paris. As a conductor he hadmuch to do with establishing the regular use of thebaton and he was also a renowned teacher, trainingsome two hundred violinists, conductors andcomposers.
Spohr's music is a mixture of Romantic (harmony,instrumental texture) and Classical (formal design)tendencies and this latter side of his musical personalityplayed a part in his later fall from popularity as it musthave appeared old-fashioned to those brought up on theheady sounds of Wagner, Tchaikovsky and RichardStrauss.
The Potpourri, Op. 22, is scored for five stringinstruments (solo violin and string quartet) andtherefore makes an appropriate and attractive appendixto the Naxos set of Spohr's string quintets. It dates from1807 when the 23-year-old Spohr doubled up as atouring violin virtuoso and orchestral director at theprincely court of Gotha. For his tours Spohr composednot only violin concertos and shorter pieces withorchestra but also works suitable for salons or smallercentres where orchestras were not available. The workremained a favourite of the composer for many yearsand he later prepared an orchestral version which heplayed in London in 1820 and Paris in 1821. After aslow introduction in which Spohr's expressive style isdisplayed to the full, a Russian folk-tune is introducedfollowed by three decorative variations. A modulatorypassage leads to the second tune; none other than L?á cidarem la mano from Don Giovanni by Spohr's greathero Mozart. There are variations on this before theRussian tune returns for the coda.
Between the composition of his Sixth String Quintet(Naxos 8.555967) in 1845 and the Seventh in October-November 1850, Spohr wrote his single String Sextet, inC major, Op. 140, (March-April 1848) so it is fitting toinclude it in this volume as we conclude our survey ofhis seven string quintets, especially as it is one of hisfinest works. Spohr was the first composer of note sinceBoccherini in 1776 to tackle this combination of twoviolins, two violas and two cellos and his essay sparkedoff renewed interest in the medium, leading to the twomasterpieces of Brahms with a number of otherimportant composers soon following the example of thetwo German masters.
To some extent both the Sextet and the Quintet arecoloured by Spohr's reaction to the 1848 revolutionwhich looked as if it might bring about a united,democratic Germany which the composer had so longawaited; the Sextet in the immediate euphoricexpectation of fulfilled hopes and the Quintet at themore depressing period when the forces of repressionwere regaining the upper hand. Indeed, there wassomething of a family tradition that the Sextetexpressed Spohr's feeling of exultation over the eventsof 1848. According to the chapters they appended toSpohr's Autobiography: \In 1848, shortly after theoutbreak of the revolution in France, Spohr, somewhatunder the influence of ideas of liberty etc. composed hisSextet ... on making entry of which in the list of hiscompositions, he appended the words 'Written in Marchand April, at the time of the glorious people's revolutionfor the liberty, unity and greatness of Germany'. Andthis composition, so rich in fresh melodies and trulyethereal harmonies than almost any other work by him,gives eloquent proof of his exalted mental state, for itrises joyfully above the storms of the present to presagethe emergence of peace, hope and purest harmony thathe visualised would soon blossom out of momentarystrife." In fact, Spohr nowhere recorded any specificprogramme for this Sextet though others have attemptedto discern one. Hans Glenewinkel, in his important1912 study of Spohr's chamber music, remarks that thetrilling motif which appears frequently throughout thefirst movement is "an expression of joy, sometimesrestrained, sometimes bursting impetuously out" whilethe "elegiac undercurrent" in the coda suggests "aprophetic vision that the spirit of freedom will befettered again in sleep and dreams before its definitiverelease." Glenewinkel also points out that Spohr choseto emulate Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in theinterlinking of Scherzo and Finale, and the merepresence of Beethoven's Fifth in this context suggeststhat the ideal of political freedom inspiring the Sextet isnot invalid.
The Sextet's warm and expansive opening theme,Allegro moderato, points ahead to Brahms and thisopening movement is unified by the trilling motif whichappears again and again with the various themes.
A subsidiary trilling figure plays a prominent part in thedevelopment in which elements from both main themesmetamorphose into a new melody. The Larghetto inF major features a hymn-like solemnity and an effectivecontrast comes from the secondary material with itsrhythmic kick. The earnest Scherzo, Moderato inA minor, alternates with a wonderfully sonorousA major section marked con grazia in which Spohrwrites for the first violin and first cello in octaves. Aftera pause, the rising octave from the start of the Scherzolaunches the joyful C major finale, Presto. Thesecondary trilling figure which featured in the firstmovement's development is now integrated in thefinale's main theme. The Scherzo and its A majorsection are repeated before the finale bursts in againonly for the Scherzo to make a surprise return for thecoda; then a few bars Prestissimo bring the Sextet to aeuphoric conclusion.
Despite Spohr's immediate enthusiasm for theevents of 1848 it was not long before the reactionariesfought back and by the end of 1849 they had regainedcontrol. During that year Spohr rejected an invitation toperform in Breslau which was then under martial law,stating: "I would find myself unable to breathe, let aloneto make music". He finally made the visit in the summerof 1850 after martial law had been lifted and played theSextet (perhaps thereby affirming his continuing beliefin the principles of the revolution). A Breslau newspaperreported: "...that, at his present age  he plays withall the fire and energy of a young man and surmountsthe greatest difficulties with amazing vigour andauthority, is simply phenomenal; it has never happenedbefore!" However, the ruling prince in Kassel, FriedrichWilhelm, had not forgotten 1848. He had been forced togrant a constitution, saw the new German national flagflying in his capital and appeared in public wearing thenational cockade in his hat. Even more galling was thefact that he had to listen to his own Kapellmeister Spohrconducting revolutionary songs and, the final insult, feltobliged to request Spohr to perform a popular patrioticsong. During 1850, though, his autocratic authority wasre-imposed as martial law was declared in Septemberwhile in December, a few weeks after Spohr hadcompleted the Seventh Quintet in G minor, op. 144,Prussian soldiers numbering four thousand marchedinto Kassel to support the crackdown. Writing to afriend, Spohr was now in despair: "Our position isdesperate! The cowardice of the Prussian Governmenthas robbed us and the whole of Germany of the freedomwe have won, and unfortunately there is no hope thatthis generation will see a second and, let us hope,successful rising of the German nation. If I were not tooold, I would now emigrat