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Louis Spohr (1784-1859)

Composer

From the start of his career, Spohr aspired to be something more than just a violinist who wrote concertos (such as Viotti, Kreutzer, Rode, Paganini, de Beriot, Vieuxtemps, Ernst or Wieniawski) and expanded his compositional scope to include opera, oratorio, cantata, lieder, symphony, chamber music and, especially in the first years of his marriage, works involving the harp. Gradually he took a place among the leading composers of his day, particularly for his fine concertos, overtures and first two symphonies.

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Soon after settling in Kassel the success of his opera Jessonda in 1823 and his oratorio Die letzten Dinge (The Last Judgment) in 1826 won him a place in the accepted pantheon of 'great composers'. Spohr's importance for his contemporaries and what captured them and enraptured them was his richness of harmony and command of modulation and chromaticism. While the content of his works made him a pioneer of early Romanticism (along with Weber), he generally adhered to classical proportions when it came to form, although his four 'programme' symphonies helped to establish this genre. Later in the nineteenth century this classical side of his personality appeared old-fashioned to those brought up on the heady sounds of Wagner, Tchaikovsky or Strauss, and led to his relegation from his former high status. But his best works stayed in the repertoire throughout the century while Jessonda was still staged at intervals in Germany, (it was admired by Brahms and Strauss, among others) until it was banned by the Nazis because it showed a European hero marrying an Indian princess. In Great Britain The Last Judgment remained a favourite of provincial choral societies until the First World War when a reaction against things Victorian set in. A few works have stayed with us – the enjoyable Nonet and Octet are often performed by groups who want to programme items alongside the Beethoven Septet or the Schubert Octet, the Eighth Violin Concerto, Op 47, the one 'in the form of a vocal scena', can still tempt virtuosi; as can the four fine clarinet concertos. However, the slow revival of the rest of his output is only now under way but is already uncovering many delightful pieces.

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