University Musical Encyclopedia/Great Composers: A Series of Biographical Studies/Louis Spohr
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"The first singer on the violin that ever appeared." Such was the judgment which the Italian critics declared when one of the truest of tone poets first drew his bow to speak to, and kindle the emotions of, an audience in Italy. This was Ludwig, or as he calls himself in his "Autobiography," Louis Spohr. Great as a composer, great as a violinist, and beloved as a man, he won the laurels of a master, and gained a place among illustrious musicians.
He was born at Brunswick, Germany, April 5, 1784. Both his parents were musical; his father, a physician, being an excellent flautist, while his mother possessed remarkable talent as a pianiste and singer. The boy had so long been teasing his father for a violin, that when he was six years old he presented him with his first instrument. It was never out of his hands, and he would wander about the house with it, endeavoring to play some of his favorite melodies.
Young Spohr received his first lesson on the violin from Dufour, an excellent amateur musician, who had settled at Seesen, in which town the Spohr family at that time resided. The progress the boy made fairly astonished Dufour, and induced him to ask the parents to allow the boy to devote himself entirely to music. This was agreed to, and the little fellow was delighted. His progress was wonderful. He remained under the care of Dufour until he was about twelve years old, when, at his master's suggestion, he was sent to Brunswick, that he might there enjoy the advantage of better instruction. For this purpose he was placed under Kunisch, an excellent teacher of the violin, and under Hartung for harmony and counterpoint. Hartung soon died, and Spohr received no more theory lessons from anyone. What he learned after this was from his own diligent study of scores of the great masters.
Spohr, now fourteen years old, was already an excellent solo-player; and his father was of opinion that he should now be maintaining himself; so accordingly the youth set out for Hamburg to try his fortunes there. His bright hopes were soon dissipated, and, with the little money remaining from that which his father had given him at starting, he sent his violin and other things on before him, while he, weary and footsore, trudged back to Brunswick. There he hit upon the idea of petitioning the Duke of Brunswick, who as he knew was a good amateur violinist. His petition was favorably received, and the Duke arranged a concert at the palace, at which Spohr was to play. Upon hearing him, the Duke was much pleased, and immediately secured for him a post in the orchestra. In 1802 the Duke placed Spohr under the care of Francis Eck, one of the finest violinists then living.
Shortly after, this master and pupil set off on an artistic tour, visiting, among other cities, Hamburg, Strelitz, Riga, and St. Petersburg; in all of which Spohr's fine playing won the admiration both of musicians and the public. In July, 1803, he returned to his native town. During his travels he had not only wonderfully improved in his playing, but he had also made good progress as a composer, having published a concerto for the violin, and some duets, which had attracted much attention. Upon his return to Brunswick, therefore, he took the first opportunity of arranging a concert, so that his friends might see the progress he had made. The concert took place, and the Duke was so pleased that he appointed him first violinist in the court orchestra.
Soon after this Spohr made a tour to Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin, where he charmed all who heard him, and gained fresh laurels as a composer, by producing his D minor and E minor concertos. In the spring of 1805 he had returned from this journey; but hardly had he settled down again before he received a letter inviting him to compete for the directorship of the ducal orchestra at Gotha, which had become vacant. Spohr was successful, and was duly introduced to his new duties.
At the house of Madame Scheidler, one of the court singers at Gotha, Spohr made the acquaintance of this lady's daughter, Dorette, an expressive and beautiful player upon the harp, whom he married in 1806. For many years his wife appeared with him in all his concerts, and for her he wrote a number of sonatas for violin and some solo pieces. An opera, "Alruna" (1808), was the most important of his writings at this period, which, although he allowed it to disappear, possessed much that was good.
October, 1809, found Spohr and his wife again leaving home—this time for a journey to Russia. However, they had only proceeded as far as Breslau when Spohr received a letter from the court chamberlain inviting them to return, and soon they were again in the court orchestra at Gotha. Here they remained for some time, during which Spohr was chiefly engaged in composition. Among the works of this time may be mentioned "Der Zweikampf mit der Geliebten," "Das jüngste Gericht," first performed at the festival held at Erfurt in 1812, in honor of Napoleon's birthday; a symphony, and some sonatas for the harp and violin.
In the autumn of 1812 Spohr and his wife went to Vienna, where they met with good success. While there Spohr was offered the directorship of the Theater an der Wien, at a salary three times the amount of that which he was receiving at Gotha. This offer he accepted and settled in Vienna.
In the midst of his new duties Spohr gave to the world two important works—his opera "Faust" and the cantata "Das befreite Deutschland" (The Liberation of Germany). "Faust" was composed for the Theater an der Wien, but was never performed till Weber brought it out at Prague in 1816. The cantata, which was written to celebrate the return of the army that had liberated Germany, did not get a hearing till 1815, on the anniversary of the battle of Leipzig.
The year 1815 brought with it a change in Spohr's arrangements. There had been a rupture between him and Count Palffy, the proprietor of the Theater an der Wien, which ended in their canceling their agreement. Now free, he decided on making a long journey, visiting Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. On March 18th Spohr, with his beloved Dorette and young family, bade adieu to Vienna.
It was late in the year 1817 before they returned from this long artistic tour, and on their way home Spohr received a letter inviting him to accept the post of director of the opera and music of the Frankfort Theater. He did so, and for nearly two years labored zealously to improve his new orchestra. "Zemire and Azor" was the most important work he produced during this period. The opera was first performed at the Frankfort Theater in April, 1819, under the composer's direction, and met with a most favorable reception. When it was produced at Covent Garden Theater, London, in 1831, it created a great stir in musical circles, and was the subject of much discussion. All were agreed that it had "melody in the richest profusion," but the prevailing opinion was that it was too "scientific."
While at Frankfort, Spohr received an invitation from the Philharmonic Society to come to London for the season of 1820, and appear at one of their concerts. Early in that year he and Dorette were in London, where he appeared at one of the society's concerts, playing a cantabile scena of his own composition, and also one of his quartets. While in London he composed his D flat symphony *Op. 49), which was interpreted for the first time by the orchestra of the Philharmonic Society at their concert of April 10, 1820, its composer wielding the baton. Most of the papers had something to say of the splendid new symphony and its brilliant performance. In London also Spohr gave a benefit concert, which proved quite advantageous to him.
With the London season over, Spohr visited several cities, giving successful concerts, and early in December, 1820, he was in Paris, where he made the acquaintance of eminent musicians.
On January 20, 1821, he made his début before a Parisian audience. The concert was given in the Grand Opera House, "and," says Spohr, "the satisfaction of the audience was unmistakably expressed by loud applause and shouts of 'bravo!'" This was the only concert he gave during this stay in Paris. He turned to his "dear Fatherland," and at Dresden busied himself with the composition of a ten-part vocal mass and a clarinet concerto in F minor.
On New Year's day of 1822 Spohr was in Cassel, where became director of the orchestra of the Court Theater. At a grand dinner, amid songs, speeches, and toasts, Spohr was introduced to his new orchestra, to which he remained so brilliant and useful an ornament for over thirty years. Here his opera "Jessonda" was first performed July 28, 1823. The work was successful, and soon found a home on all the stages of Germany.
The oratorio "Die letzen Dinge" (The Last Judgment) came with the year 1826. On Good Friday of that year the Lutheran church of Cassel presented a most impressive appearance. It was evening. The sacred edifice was lighted up, and overhead hung an enormous cross covered with silver foil, from which were suspended hundreds of lighted lamps, shedding a brilliant ray of light upon the many hundreds of persons who filled the church. Here was heard, for the first time, Spohr's "Last Judgment." What must have been the thoughts of the congregation, as in the "solemn stillness" which Spohr says prevailed, and in the light of that emblem of Calvary overhead, they awaited the solemn narrative! The performance was faultless, and the fame of the "The Last Judgment" soon spread through Europe.
It is by no means a large work, containing in all but twenty-three numbers. All who have heard it must ever remember such inspirations as the opening chorus, "Praise the Lord our God," or "Destruction is fallen on Babylon," and "Great and wonderful," with its joyous "Hallelujah," two more of its finest choruses. Nor is the duet for soprano and tenor, "Lord, remember my affliction," or the air and chorus, "Holy, holy, holy," less charming. The oratorio is replete with such gems as these, and its many beauties combine to make it worthy of an honorable place among great works of its class.
Spohr was now assiduous at composition. After "Die letzen Dinge" came the B flat minor quintet, some quartets for strings, his third symphony—the C minor—the opera "Pietro von Abano," till we come to the opera "Der Alchymist," first performed in Cassel July 28, 1830, where it was received with the greatest enthusiasm. With the year 1832 came another great work, the symphony "Die Weihe der Töne" (The Consecration of Sound), a composition which, some critics declare, would of itself have secured for Spohr a lasting fame. His "Violin School," finished in 1831, had remained a standard work of instruction for advanced students.
In the year 1834 a sad calamity overtook him—the death of his beloved wife, who succumbed to a fever on the 20th of November. Dorette's illness and death had interrupted Spohr's work upon his new oratorio, "Des Heilands letze Stunden" (Calvary), and it was some time before he felt fit to resume his labors; but at length the work was finished, and on Good Friday, 1835, the oratorio was first publicly performed. "The thought," says Spohr, "that my wife did not live to listen to its first performance, sensibly lessened the satisfaction I felt at this, my most successful work." It was first heard in England at the Norwich Festival of 1839, and the success it then achieved was enormous, in spite of much opposition hurled at it from the Norwich pulpits on account of its libretto.
Two lonesome years had barely passed when Spohr began to long for another partner. This he found in the sister of his deceased friend Pfeiffer; and on January 3, 1836, their wedding took place. Soon after this, accompanied by his wife, more than twenty years younger than himself, he made a long journey, visiting many cities, in all of which he and his young wife, a brilliant pianist, were received with great rejoicings. In 1839 he gave to the world a work he had planned during this journey. This was another splendid orchestral composition—the "Historical" symphony, illustrating, in its first movement, the music and character of the Bach-Handel period, 1720; in its adagio, the Haydn-Mozart period, 1780; and in its scherzo movement, the Beethoven period, 1810; while the concluding movement is devoted to illustrating the style and taste of playing at the time when the symphony was composed, 1838–39. The fame of it soon spread throughout Europe.
A pressing invitation from Professor Taylor brought Spohr again to England, to conduct the Norwich Festival of 1839; after which he returned to his home at Cassel, and set to work up a new oratorio—"The Fall of Babylon." This was completed in time for the Norwich Festival of 1842, but unfortunately Spohr could not obtain permission from his employer—the Elector of Hesse—to visit England to conduct its performance. The work was produced, nevertheless, under Professor Taylor's direction, when it met with a most satisfactory reception. The following year gave the Londoners an opportunity of hearing "Babylon" under the composer's direction—first at the Hanover Square Rooms, and shortly after at Exeter Hall, by the Sacred Harmonic Society. Spohr was greeted with extraordinary enthusiasm.
After this Spohr left London, crowds of people assembling to witness his departure. He arrived safely at his house at Cassel, with his thoughts busy about a new opera, "Die Kreuzfahrer" (The Crusaders), which was first performed on New Year's day, 1845. It was afterward presented in Berlin, but had no lasting success.
For Spohr the year 1847 opened brightly—it being the twenty-fifth anniversary of his connection with the Court Theater of Cassel; and a festival had long been talked about to celebrate the event; but, alas! it was also the year when his beloved friend, Felix Mendelssohn, closed his eyes forever. Spohr had returned from a happy visit to England when he received the sad tidings, In the midst of his grief, Spohr and his colleagues prepared a grand musical festival in memory of their departed friend, as the best tribute of affection they could pay to one whom they loved and admired so much.
The year 1850 is an important one, for it gave birth to another symphony by Spohr, "The Seasons," in which the succession of Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter is faithfully depicted. This was followed by Spohr's seventh quintet, in G minor, and string quartet—the 32d—and a series of pieces for the violin and piano; till, in 1852, he fell to work remodeling his "Faust." On July 15 "Faust" was successfully given in London, the composer conducting.
Spohr went again to London for the 1853 season, to conduct some of the New Philharmonic Society's concerts. This proved to be his last visit to England. He returned home and spent the next few years at Cassel, pursuing his court duties, and composing some new works. The masterly septet for piano, strings and wind instruments, another violin quartet, and three duets for the violin were among his compositions up to the year 1855; and, notwithstanding that Spohr was now over seventy years of age, they are as charmingly fresh and original in character as are his earlier compositions.
But he lived to see the day when he could not give expression to the fancies and beautiful forms which occupied his brain. In 1857 he put his pen to his 34th quartet, but, alas! upon completion, it did not satisfy him. Again he tried it, but sorrowfully desired it never to be made public. The same with his tenth symphony. After he had heard it performed by his Cassel orchestra, it was condemned. In the same year he was pensioned off, much against his will. Nor was this all. He had the misfortune to fall and break his left arm, and never again did it recover its strength and elasticity so that he could play his beloved violin. His health began to trouble him, and he was getting weary of life now that he could do so little.
Two years passed thus, with but one important incident—his last composition. In October, 1858, at the request of many friends, he set a song of Goethe's to music, and the long-silent piano in the room was once again unexpectedly heard throughout the house. This fragment was all it was needed for—the usual stillness returned, never to be broken again by Spohr.
In the spring of 1859 he journeyed to Meiningen, to direct a concert. A colossal bust of Spohr was placed upon the stage, surrounded and overhung with branches of palm and laurel. The conductor's desk also had been tastefully decorated by fair hands with ingenious devices and garlands of flowers. The house, filled to overflowing, awaited in breathless suspense the appearance of the master. "He comes!" was whispered through the spacious house, and a burst of welcome greeted the honored man from the assembled thousands. This was the last time he wielded the conductor's baton.
He returned to Cassel, and passed his time in reading, or in visiting the theaters and concerts. On the evening of October 16 he went to bed hoping for a good night's rest. He awoke to weak either to get up or to eat, and asked that his wife should sit on the bed beside him. He took her hand and kissed it tenderly. He remained for some days with his life slowly ebbing away, surrounded by his family and those most dear to him, till, on the evening of October 22, 1859, he passed away.
Thus closed the long life of a man and an artist who had to the full developed the great talents and powers given him; who through a long career lived up to the ideal he had conceived in youth; in whom private character and artistic activity correspond to a rare degree. His "Autobiography" bears the strongest possible testimony to his rare manly straightforwardness and sincerity in word and deed, and to the childlike purity of mind which he preserved from early youth to latest age. According to his lights he ever stood up for the dignity of his art, with the same unflinching independence of character with which he claimed, not without personal risk, the rights of a free citizen.
Spohr certainly was a born musician, second only to the very greatest musical masters in true musical instinct; in power of concentration and work hardly inferior to any. But the range of his talent was not wide; he never seems to have been able to step out of a given circle of ideas and sentiments, and when he tried to enlarge his sphere, it was only to get hold of the outer shell of things, which he at once proceeded to fill with the old familiar substance. He never left the circle of his individuality, but drew everything within it. At the same time it must be confessed that he left much outside of that circle. To his violin concertos—and among them especially to the 7th, 8th, and 9th—must be assigned the first place among his works. They are only surpassed by those of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and are probably destined to live longer than any other of his works. They are not likely to disappear soon from the repertoires of the best violinists.
As a man Spohr was universally respected, although owing to a certain reserve in his character and a decided aversion to talking, he has not rarely been reproached with coldness and brusqueness of manner. At the same time, he gained and kept through a long life certain intimate friendships and in many instances showed great kindness to brother artists. That this was not incompatible with an extraordinary sense of his own value and importance is evident in every page of his "Autobiography," which is a most interesting and amusing work.