Tuesday, April 05, 2011

More Spohr and Several Years Ago

(This is a revised and expanded post, originally from 2007, reposted here in honor of Spohr's 227th Birthday Anniversary, today.)

The other night I was tooling around through Google, looking for something else and found a reference to Spohr’s 10th Symphony. Suddenly I was back in the library at Eastman almost 40 years ago, when I was browsing through the old-fashioned card-catalogue and found a manuscript copy of Ludwig Spohr’s 10th Symphony.

There was a bit of trivia that immediately played through my mind: how many composers, other than Beethoven, completed only nine symphonies and died?

Bruckner doesn’t count because he didn’t complete his ninth (though there is that awkward Symphony No. 0). But Mahler would, basically, and so would Dvorak, once you got all the earlier symphonies published and renumbered. And Ralph Vaughan Williams, too. Schubert’s a little tricky since he didn’t really finish the “Unfinished,” did he? And if you’re going to count that one, then what about all the other unfinished symphonies he never finished, either? Not to mention the fact there really is no Symphony No. 7 in the official catalogue.

Oh yeah, and Ludwig Spohr.

Most people have never heard of Ludwig Spohr – or Louis Spohr as he’s often known. For some reason, he styled himself with a French first name though Beethoven often signed himself “Luigi Beethoven” and you don’t see people jumping up and down arguing we should call him Luigi, not Ludwig... but I digress.

In his day, Ludwig Spohr was an important violinist, conductor and composer. Until Paganini came along, Spohr was the most famous violinist on the concert circuit and he did a great deal to advance violin technique in the early 19th Century. He also became one of the first actual conductors. Following the demise of the ever-present continuo harpsichord, most orchestras by the early 19th Century were “led” by the first violinist or concertmaster (in England, even today, that position is still called “Leader”) who would set the tempo and threw important cues while playing at the head of the violin section, sometimes using the violin bow almost like a baton when he wasn’t playing. Spohr shocked his fellow musicians when in 1820 he put the violin aside and pulled a stick of wood from his coat pocket, placed his music stand facing the orchestra and proceeded to wave this... this baton around. He also championed a lot of new music – particularly Wagner. Even though he didn’t particularly care for “Lohengrin,” Spohr thought it was important that it be heard.

He also didn’t seem to have a handle on Beethoven, at least the later music. He played some of the Late Quartets which were mystifying to players and audiences alike when they were still new (one could argue, still today) but one time, realizing, as he put it, his “accompanists” didn’t quite grasp the piece, he decided they should substitute one of his own, more easily accessible quartets instead. True, the standard quartet approach was a principal violin part with the “accompaniment” of three other string players, but that was hardly the concept behind most of Beethoven’s quartets to begin with. The important thing was, though, that Spohr at least played them – you can’t say that about everyone, back then.

As a composer, Spohr’s style is often considered out-moded, belonging to a now easily derided period called “Biedermeier” with its middle-class, amateur-oriented, non-inflammatory values in music, poetry, literature, architecture, even furniture design. His personal attitude considered Mozart the pinnacle of perfection and while he might have been more adventuresome than some of his contemporaries, his harmonic digressions are more of the “purple patch” variety than anything “organic” like Beethoven or Wagner.

Of course, compared to Beethoven or Wagner, we might think something like this of little consequence. But in those days, Beethoven was the avant-garde composer, the purveyor of modern music who annoyed, to a certain extent, the status-quo. Spohr, on the other hand, was more popular and considered by many to be better. It was not a time when audiences – or composers – were concerned about posterity: it was the entertainment value of the here and now that was more important. This was why, for all his genius at writing songs and with masterpiece after masterpiece of chamber music and at least two of those symphonies (or to be more specific, one and a half of those symphonies), Schubert’s big dream was to make it big in the opera house: that’s where the most gratifying reputations and profits were being made, not in the concert halls.

When Beethoven was struggling with his Late Period and Schubert was trying to break into the business, Spohr ruled the roost.

So why don’t we hear any of his music today?

He wrote what was probably considered “nice” music, not “great” music that appealed to the comfort level of his audience – “Biedermeier” is nothing if not “nice” – and when tastes changed, fickle audiences quickly jumped on somebody else’s bandwagon. Do you think the contestants of (and I can’t believe I’m mentioning this program in my blog) “American Idol” are really concerned about posterity?

Anyway, I started by telling you about his 10th Symphony. I checked the score in the Eastman library – it was in the manuscript collection and you couldn’t sign it out – and sure enough, it was a hand-written ink copy (not printed) with editor’s and conductor’s markings in red and blue pencil of a “Symphony No. 10 in E-flat by Louis Spohr.” Is this a discovery, does anybody else know about this?

Paging through his autobiography which was written near the end of his life, he mentions two works that never saw the light of day: one more symphony and one more string quartet, both suppressed because they didn’t meet the standards, he felt, of their predecessors – I can’t remember the exact flowery (and very Biedermeier) wording he had used. Comparing photocopies and reproductions of his own handwriting and musical manuscripts as I could find, it became clear this particular symphony score was not Spohr’s original manuscript but maybe that of a copyist’s getting it ready for a performance.

Somewhere I found a reference to one of the movements having been performed in a private concert in Germany in the 1920s and one movement of this particular manuscript had more thorough markings than the rest of the symphony. So yes, it was no secret, musicologically speaking, and may even have been performed before, in part or in whole. I was very curious – not so much about the music but why the composer deemed it “not worthy to stand at the end of the fine long procession of its predecessors” (as I remember his comment) and also why those predecessors were no longer considered worth maintaining in the repertoire.

This symphony was composed in 1857, two years before his death. By rejecting this symphony (and its contemporaneous string quartets), Spohr was clearly feeling the doldrums of reduced creativity, having “passed it” in modern parlance. Perhaps in the symphony his return to earlier, more classical models was a way to get around his lack of inventiveness as he aged (he was 73, after all) but it may also have back-fired, since it would certainly be unable to stand comparison with the advances in Romantic style that one can follow from his earliest symphonies (the 3rd, for instance, was composed a year after Beethoven died) to his 9th (completed in 1850, the year Wagner premiered Lohengrin).

Checking his biography (though I no longer have access to a copy of his Autobiography), it seems in 1857 Spohr was “pensioned off against his wishes” (forced into retirement) by his employer, the Elector in Kassel. Then, that winter, he fell and broke his arm which brought an end to his violin playing (though he still conducted a performance of Jessonda in Prague in 1858 – not coincidentally, perhaps, while Wagner was in the midst of composing Tristan. Spohr died the following year, 1859, at the age of 75.

Meanwhile, back at Eastman in the mid-1970s, I located scores of several of Spohr’s symphonies in the library plus some chamber music as well as vocal scores of his most popular operas, Faust and Jessonda. It was while plowing through Jessonda that I discovered something that made me just sit there and go “wow” with suitably dropped jaw.

If you’re a music student or an afficionado, you’ve probably heard of the “Tristan Chord” from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. The chord is basically considered one of the most important starting points for the development of late-19th Century harmony and it’s basically a pile-up of embellishing tones resolving, ultimately, to a dominant 7th chord. The opera was composed between 1857 and 1859.

Here is the opening of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde:

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...

Eventually, this curiosity turned into a concert. My particular doctoral program (technically a DMA in composition with an emphasis on performance rather than a PhD with an emphasis on research) required a recital program in addition to a concert of my compositions. Now, I was nowhere near having the talent (or the courage) to try a piano recital so they said I could conduct a chamber orchestra. And that’s how Spohr’s 10th got its first complete performance in Rochester (if not anywhere else).

It was in April 1974 that Eastman’s First and Only SpohrFest took place at the Cutler Union Building. It opened in the parlor, the piano in front of an ornate fireplace, with me accompanying a friend of mine singing Jessonda’s aria, complete with the so-called “Tristan Chord.” Then I conducted an Octet Spohr had composed for a tour of England (he incorporated variations on “The Harmonious Blacksmith” as a tribute, thinking it was an English folk-song and not a piece by Handel - I actually had to shoosh the audience at one point because they started to giggle at the presumed triteness of one passage). It was not necessary for these musicians to be conducted (it is, after all, chamber music), it just gave me something to do and also saved some rehearsal time since none of them were familiar even with his much better known Nonet.

And then we moved across the hall to a large open space set up for the chamber orchestra, about 30-35 musicians in all, and there I conducted Spohr’s 10th, having hand-copied the score and all the parts myself. (There is an additional funny tale to tell since the first rehearsal took place on the afternoon of Good Friday and I had my qualifying Oral Exam for the DMA that morning, but I’ll save that for another time.)

I don’t think anyone, myself included, jumped up and down with excitement at the discovery of a neglected masterpiece or even an unjustly neglected genius in its composer. The audience was for the most part appreciative of the context, hearing music – first of all, not in a concert hall setting but in something closer to the idea of a house-concert with a nice sized music room like the Mendelssohns had in Berlin around the same time – that for one reason or another Time has not been kind to. But yet it’s not that it’s “bad” which is so terribly subjective a response: it’s just that it no longer speaks to us the way Beethoven or Mendelssohn or any number of other composers from that era still do today. And yet Spohr was one of the great composers – well, popular composers – of his day.

So it was amusing to run across this on-line while googling:

- - - - -
'His nine symphonies (a tenth was left unfinished, but was brought to completion by Eugene Minor and premiered by the Bergen Youth Orchestra) show a progress from the classical style of his predecessors to the programme music of the ninth symphony, Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons).'
- - - - -

The Bergen Youth Orchestra gave the 10th its “world premier [sic]" in 1998 but then there would be no reason for them to know I had done it in an otherwise undocumented private performance (more or less) 24 years earlier. I also don’t know in what state the original manuscript might have been in – since my score (by another hand) could have been someone’s attempt to complete the work, it’s possible Spohr abandoned it before finishing it. It had been my assumption he had withdrawn it which would imply it had been completed, copied and probably performed (or at least read through), possibly even published before he decided otherwise.

Whatever state the symphony had been left in, I assume from the handwriting the score I was working from would have been copied by some contemporary of Spohr’s rather than a more modern calligraphic style. If the red and blue pencil markings in the slow movement were intended for that 1920s performance, there seemed to be a difference in the handwriting to indicate one was, say, mid-19th Century and the other one early-20th.

But I don’t have a copy of the original manuscript from Eastman’s Sibley Library: it was bound and in fairly delicate shape, so there was no question of photocopying it. I made my own copy by hand, spending hours sitting in the Sibley Listening Room and I was not particularly concerned about musicological details such as which was the copyist’s markings and which were the red or blue pencil markings… Checking my own hand-written copy, now, I notice I indicated these penciled-in markings were by someone named Sauer and now I vaguely recall there was an inscription in the manuscript indicating its use in that 1920s performance. Unfortunately, I didn't write that down.

And I don’t have a recording of the performance to prove anything, for that matter, just my copy of the score and (somewhere) the parts.

After this post appeared originally on a previous blog of mine, I heard from Eugene Minor who was going to send me a photocopy of the manuscript he had worked from which was Spohr’s calligraphy. Unfortunately, I never received this. He also said that it was being (or had already been) recorded.

A more recent e-mail from a reader at the Spohr Society of Great Britain – which led to my reposting the information, here – informs me there are now two competing recordings of Spohr’s 10th. The earlier one (paired with the 3rd), conducted by Howard Griffiths on the CPO label with the NDR Radio Philharmonic of Hannover, was originally released in the fall of 2007, six months after my original post.

The other was released just this past February on the Hyperion label, paired with the 8th, with Howard Shelley conducting what used to be called L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande but now goes by Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana.

The question, I suppose, is not so much have we resurrected an important masterpiece, saving it from oblivion, but helping to place the music that we do know and regard as masterpieces in some kind of historical context, letting us know what else was out there at the time, forgotten or not, what other people were composing or listening to and which was often highly thought of. After all, not everybody who gets to ride the Fame Bus makes it to the end of the line: sic transit gloria mundi...

- Dick Strawser


  1. Btw an edition does exist of the symphony now published in 2006 ((c) 2005) by Ries&Erler, edited by Bert Hagels...

  2. I was there for the SpohrFest and remember it well. I was at Eastman only one year, relocated to NTSU (now UNT) in fall 1974. Very interesting concert.