Intermezzo at 1:00 this Week: The Symphonies of Louis Spohr

On Friday, April 5th it will be the 240th birthday of the violinist and composer Louis Spohr.

Tune in to the 1pm hour all this week to hear the odd-numbered symphonies of Spohr.

Highly respected by his contemporaries, (He was friends with Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber) Spohr wrote ten Symphonies, ten Operas, eighteen violin concertos, four clarinet concertos, and a vast array of chamber music.

Monday: April 1: Symphony no 1 in E flat, op 20 (1811)

Premiered in Gotha on 25 April 1811, and performed once again in Leipzig in May of that same year, Spohr’s Symphony no. 1 caused a sensation with audiences. The great writer E.T.A. Hoffman wrote in the highly influential music journal the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitiung “The composer whose first symphony is written in such a manner as the present one raises the greatest and most beautiful hopes.”

Spohr himself with very happy with the way the symphony turned out. He said after the first performance that symphony “pleased him greatly.”

At times sounding like late Beethoven and at other times Mozart, this symphony very much shows the influence of Spohr’s symphonic predecessors. The third movement scherzo sounds like it could have come out of a late Haydn Symphony.

Tuesday April, 2: Symphony no 3 in C minor, op78 (1828)

By the time Spohr got around to writing his third symphony, he had established himself among the first rank of composers of the era. His first 2 symphonies, his early violin concertos, various chamber music and his opera Faust established his fame throughout Europe.

Spohr had taken on the position of Music Director in Kassel in 1822. A position he would hold for the rest of his life. He was happily married and had three daughters. It was also around this time that he would turn his attentions away from being a virtuoso violinist; which he was, to becoming a recognised composer.

The Symphony no 3 is a very rich, romantic flavored symphony. The orchestration is denser and the musical tastes of the time are much more prevalent. If you had not heard the symphony before you might mistake it for Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn would actually champion Spohr’s third. He would conduct it with his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on a couple of occasions.

Wednesday, April 3: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 102 (1837)

Commissioned by the Viennese Concerts Spirituels, the Symphony no 5 was premiered in Vienna in 1838.

The key of c minor is an interesting choice for this symphony. Beethoven saw and heard C minor as being a stormy and somewhat dark key. Spohr, around the time he was working on the fifth symphony, had suffered a loss that would affect him for the rest of his life; the death of his wife Dorette in 1834.  Spohr would marry for a second time in, but he never fully got over her loss. The choice of the key of C minor was used as a vehicle for his own personal grief. It was also a way of paying homage to Beethoven whose own fifth symphony is also in C minor.

It as if Spohr was pouring out his inner most feelings when he working on the C minor Symphony. The symphony is highly expressive throughout.

The first movement is actually a reworking of a concert overture he had written called The Daughter of the Air.  In particular, it is the second movement, with its musical sighs throughput that really show the dark head space Spohr was in. He even uses three trombones to add to the gravity of the orchestration. The symphony concludes with a stormy finale that show Spohr’s expertise at handling counterpoint.

Thursday, April 4: Symphony No. 7 in C major "The earthly and divine in human life", Op 121 (1841)

Spohr’s seventh Symphony was inspired by a holiday he took in Switzerland in the summer of 1841. The grandeur and beauty of the Swiss countryside, gave Spohr the idea to compose a symphony that actually made use of two orchestras; the orchestras representing the principles of the earthly and divine characteristics of the human heart.

The first orchestra was scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, two violins, viola, cello and double bass. This small chamber orchestra would represent the divine. A full sized orchestra would be used to represent the earthly side of mankind.

The symphony is in just three movements titled:

  1. The world of Childhood: Introduction: Adagio-Allegretto
  2. The Age of Passion: larghetto—Allegro Moderato
  3. Final victory of the divine: Presto—Adagio.

On the title page of the symphony Spohr provided a poem that was written by his second wife Marianne:

1. The  World of Childhood
The child in innocence dreams on, nor feels
How near him still Temptation steals;
Drawn unsuspecting to its sweet control,
There is not yet gloom in his pure soul.)

2. The Age of Passion
But in the heart’s most holy springs of feeling
Soon all the passions mingle their wild strife;
Then swerves man from his high goal and, reeling,
Pursues the world—forgets the “Eternal Life”.)

3. Final Triumph of the Heavenly
But will this slavery of earth forever
Hold the free spirit in ignoble chains?
O no! His Genius* watches—warns— and will deliver;
He wins! and heavenly rest rewards his pains!)

Friday, April 5: Symphony No. 9 in B minor "The Seasons", Op. 143 (1850)

Written in 1850, Spohr chose to write a symphony where each one of the four movement s represents a season.

The idea for the ninth came to Spohr after a bad fall he suffered during the winter of 1850. Spohr had slipped on some ice, and suffered a serious concussion. While he was recuperating in bed, he came up with some of the themes for the symphony. Once he was recovered, he immersed himself in the project.

The symphony is written for a large orchestra including four horns, three trombones, and tuba. It is in two parts, winter and spring (1st and 2nd  movement) making up Part 1 and summer and fall (3rd and 4th movement) making up Part 2.

The choice to start the symphony in the depths of winter seems to have come from Spohr’s personal misfortune on the ice.

Overshadowed by his contemporaries Schubert, Mendelsohn and Schumann, Spohr’s symphonies have slipped into obscurity.  However, while Spohr was alive his symphonies frequently made appearances on concert programs throughout Europe. Indeed, he was considered to be on the same level of his more well-known colleagues throughout the 19th century.

Tune in at 1pm all this week to hear 5 fantastic examples of why his symphonies should be heard and performed more frequently!