Louis Spohr (1784-1859)
Complete String Quintets 2
Louis Spohr was accepted during his lifetime as one of themost important composers of early German Romanticism whose career encompassedthe period from Beethoven's Op. 18 string quartets to Wagner's Tristan andwhose compositions covered all the major genres of that era. Today's revival ofinterest in Spohr was originally fuelled by the chamber music, especially theNonet in F major, Op. 31, Octet in E major, Op. 32 and Piano and Wind Quintetin C minor, Op. 52. It was music for strings, however, which dominated Spohr'schamber output; 36 quartets, seven quintets, a sextet and four double-quartets.Spohr was involved in chamber music all his life -- some violin duos composed in1796 when he was a twelve-year-old in Brunswick still survive and his last completedlarge-scale work was his 36th string quartet dating from the summer of 1857.From the time of his appointment as Kapellmeister in Kassel in 1822 (for life,but he was pensioned off in December 1857) until the year before his deathSpohr organized an annual winter quartet circle at which all the classicalmasterpieces were performed as well as his own works and those of once popularcomposers such as Fesca, Onslow and Andreas Romberg. As additional stringplayers were easily available from among his many pupils or the court orchestrahe was also able to compose quintets to add some variety to the programmes andit was during this period of his life that his last five string quintets werewritten (1826, 1834, 1838, 1845 and 1850), whereas the first two arose muchearlier, during Spohr's time as orchestral director at the Theater an der Wienin Vienna from 1813 to 1815. All of Spohr's quintets follow the model of thoseof his great idol, Mozart, in using a second viola.
In his memoirs Spohr tells us something about his quartetparties: \I established here [in Kassel in 1823] a quartet circle at which, inturn with some other families who were lovers of music, we gave three quartetsevery week, and concluded the evenings with a frugal supper. At first the quartetconsisted of [Adolf] Wiele [1794-1845], solo violinist and subsequentlyconcertmeister of our court orchestra, of my brother Ferdinand [1792-1831], whotook the viola, and of our excellent cellist [Nikolaus] Hasemann [1788-1842].But as by degrees, both in the orchestra and in this small circle, death madesome vacancies, others were obliged to be substituted in their place, and thensome time was always required until we obtained once more the old customaryensemble again. In 1831 my brother was first snatched from us, then Wiele, andat last Hasemann [the 74-year-old Spohr's memory is faulty here; Hasemannpredeceased Wiele]; but their places were again filled by new members of ourcourt orchestra, so that the quartet parties, which took place only in thewinter months, never ceased entirely, and I myself up to quite recently played two quartets in each of them."
The Quintet in B minor dates from April 1826, when Spohr wasenjoying the fruits of his first years in Kassel. His opera Jessonda (1822),his first double-quartet (1823) and his oratorio Die letzten Dinge (1826) hadestablished his position among the leading composers of the day and he wasrevelling in the opportunities his Kassel post gave him. As he wrote to afriend in 1828: "Heaven be praised, as the father of a family and an artist Iam in a very fortunate position and have never yet become acquainted withlasting regrets that gnaw at the heart. My work in my official post is so inaccordance with my wishes, as I could not have found in any other German town".The quintet marks a return to instrumental composition after the sustainedinvolvement in opera (Der Berggeist, 1824), incidental music (Macbeth, 1825)and his oratorio, and it stands out as one of his finest chamber works. Thelegend of Spohr as "soft and sentimental" does an injustice to the wide rangeof his music but it is idle to deny that it is a component of his artisticpersonality and this quintet displays that side at its best.
The B minor tonality reflects that of the tragically stormyoverture to Macbeth but here we start with a note of wistful pathos, ratherakin to that at the opening of Schubert's contemporaneous A minor StringQuartet. The second subject is a variant of the first but in a less flowingmood while intervening passagework paints flecks of gold amid the subdued huesof the main material. As usual with Spohr, these bravura sections areunderpinned by thematic links with the rest of the movement; nor are theyconfined to the first violin. The cellist especially gets a good share of thevirtuosity in a part written for Hasemann, the cellist of Spohr's Kasselorchestra, who was an outstanding performer. The outgoing, virile side of Spohrcomes to the fore in the dynamic D major scherzo while the B minor trio is abeautiful contrast in 6/4 time with the first violin having a memorable role inballad mode. The Adagio, in G major, is in Spohr's favourite hymn-like mood,intense nobility which continues the note of optimism introduced in thescherzo. The barcarole-style finale, however, brings back the wistful longingand despite episodes in the major key, the movement returns to B minor with aquintessentially Romantic dying fall in the closing bars.
If the B minor Quintet comes from a happy period in Spohr'slife, by the time of the Quintet in A minor (1833-34) the shadows had begun toclose in. The two quintets are an excellent demonstration of the fact thatcomposers are not slaves to the emotion of the day, for while the A minor alsoopens with that note of pathos so prevalent in its predecessor, its wholedirection is towards a more optimistic frame of mind. The turning point inSpohr's relationship with Kassel followed the revolutionary year of 1830. In1831 Spohr suffered two big personal losses -- the deaths of his younger brotherand artistic colleague, Ferdinand, and of his friend, librettist andfellow-democrat Carl Pfeiffer. When the revolutionary fervour reached Germany,Spohr's excitement at what appeared to be the dawn of a democratic, united countrywas endless. But the forces of repression fought back and in Kassel, wherepromises of a constitution had been made, autocratic rule soon renewed itsgrip. Alongside these blows, the unstable political situation led to artisticeconomies which struck directly at Spohr's own interests; opera performanceswere cancelled, attempts were made to disband Spohr's orchestra and, when theElector abdicated and his son ruled as Regent, Spohr found the high-handed,arbitrary interference of the son far more annoying than the father's. To capit all, Spohr's beloved wife, Dorette, was worryingly ill and was to die inNovember, 1834.
The A minor Quintet is a confident assertion of the will toface up to life's problems. Already, in the first movement, after the melancholynote of the first subject, the second main theme is much firmer anddiatonically based. It frequently interjects its resolve into the musicalargument although the coda resignedly fades out in the minor. The Larghetto, inF major, is a lyrical interlude with a contrasting section in D flat major,which injects a greater liveliness enhanced by its rhythmic complications. Theminuet is one of a type in which Spohr specialised -- with a rather menacingminor key march-like tread. Here, instead of the expected relaxation of aconventional trio, we have a fleeting scherzo in the major key which dashesalong at three times the pace of the minuet. After the two sections have beenrepeated, the violins have the scherzo material in the coda while the other instrumentsstay with the minuet. The finale is a driving Presto in which all three mainthematic str