SPOHR: Violin Concertos Nos. 7 and 12
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Louis Spohr (1784 - 1859)
Violin Concerto No. 7 in E Minor, Op.38
Violin Concerto No. 12 in A, Op.79 (Concertino No. 1)
Great, lengthy, pedantic, sentimental Spohr, was Richard Wagner's verdict on the great composer and violinist who had taken lodgings with his mother in Dresden. Spohr himself was to be more generous to a composer whose work he encouraged, writing to Wagner after performances of The Flying Dutchman to recommend, however, fewer difficult figurations for the strings, less brass, less modulation, and the development of more pleasant-sounding harmonies and melodies, notions that accord well enough with his musical language.
Louis Spohr was born in Brunswick in 1784, the son of a doctor. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Seesen, where Spohr had his first music lessons, with the encouragement of his parents, both keen amateurs. His early promise recognised, he returned to Brunswick, where he studied the violin and general music theory, embarking on an unsuccessful concert tour to Hamburg in 1799. In the same year he was appointed chamber musician to the Duke of Brunswick, on whose generous patronage he was to continue to depend in the following years.
In 1802 Spohr became a pupil of the Mannheim violinist Franz Eck, a musician whose father, a horn-player, had worked with Mozart. Eck toured Germany with his young pupil and went with him to Russia, where Eck was to remain as court violinist until madness led to his return to his brother in Nancy. Spohr mentions in his memoirs that the Eck brothers had both been obliged to leave Munich after amatory complications. The following year Spohr was again in Brunswick, influenced strongly by the performance of Viotti's favourite pupil, the French violinist Pierre Rode, whom he was to imitate in his own playing.
In succeeding years Spohr travelled as a virtuoso, giving concerts with his wife, the harpist Dorette Scheidler, whom he had married in 1806, and developing his abilities as a composer and as a conductor. He spent from 1805 until 1812 as Konzertmeister in Gotha, directed music at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna from 1813 to 1815, and the opera at Frankfurt-am-Main from 1817 until 1819, resigning this last position after disagreement with the management over artistic policy.
In 1821 Spohr was in Dresden. A year later, though the good offices of Weber, he signed a contract as Kapellmeister at Kassel, a position that had been occupied by Heinrich Schütz two hundred years before, and that had been offered to Beethoven when Hesse was under the rule of Napoleon's brother. Spohr was employed by the new Prince-Elector Wilhelm II and later in his long career in Westphalia by the Elector's co-regent and successor Wilhelm III, and succeeded in raising the Kassel opera to a high level of distinction, before his retirement in 1857, staging performances of his own very successful operas and Wagner's music-dramas, and conducting a wide repertoire that included the revived works of J.S.Bach, as well as undertaking concert tours abroad.
During his career Spohr occupied a position of the highest esteem, honoured for his achievements as a violinist, as a composer and as conductor. The first of those rôles was strengthened by the publication in 1831 of his violin method, while his distinguished work as a conductor had brought the early novelty of the use of a baton, something that had caused initial alarm and apprehension among orchestral players accustomed only to occasional direction from the Konzertmeister's violin
bow, a less damaging weapon, or from the keyboard.
As a composer Spohr wrote a number of operas, of which the most successful were Faust (1813), Zemire und Azor (1819) and Jessonda (1823), ten symphonies, a wide variety of chamber music, choral works, songs and virtuoso pieces for violin, and fifteen violin concertos, these last serving as a vehicle for his own synthesis of French style with the legacy of his beloved Mozart, a composer he had idolised since his early lessons with Eck.
The seventh of Spohr's violin concertos, written in 1814, is among the most characteristic, demonstrating a strong dramatic sense, a relatively conservative retention of classical form and a command of the contemporary technical possibilities of the violin. The work opens with an orchestral exposition, introducing the thematic material that is to form the basis of the display of virtuosity that follows the entry of the soloist. The slow movement is a fine example of the lyrical aspect of Spohr's genius, unexpected in its shifts of key. It is capped by a final rondo that is a further example of Spohr's own technical mastery of the violin as a player and as composer.
The twelfth of Spohr's fifteen violins concertos, the first of his three concertinos, was written in 1828. It opens with a movement in which the soloist is allowed a rhapsodic rôle, before the emergence of a snatch of operatic melody. The orchestra introduces the second movement, to which the first has served as a brief prelude, the violin appearing once again as some operatic diva, leading the way to the final Alla polacca, a vigorous dance that still allows technical display as part of what is essentially a simple enough musical structure. The concerto serves as an admirable exercise for the principles of playing to be outlined in the Grand Violin School published three years later.