Spohr was born in the North German city of Brunswick (Braunschweig) on April 5th
1784. As a boy he showed talent for the violin, and when he was 15 he joined the
ducal orchestra. By the age of 18 he had reached the stage at which the Duke of
Brunswick considered him ready for further development. He was therefore sent on
a year-long study tour with the violin virtuoso Franz Anton Eck (1774-1804), taking
in various centres on the way to St. Petersburg, then the Russian capital. It was
at this time that Spohr wrote his first mature compositions – some violin duets,
followed by his first violin concerto (op. 1). After his return home, the Duke
granted him leave to make a concert tour of North Germany, and Spohr shot to overnight
fame in Germany after a concert in Leipzig in December 1804 had received a rave review
from the influential critic Friedrich Rochlitz – not only for his violin-playing
but also for his violin concerto in D minor (op. 2).
Spohr now set out on a success curve which took him as Konzertmeister (orchestral
director) to the court of Gotha (1805-12) and then to Vienna as leader of the orchestra
at the Theater an der Wien (1813-15), where he became friendly with Beethoven. He
subsequently became opera director at Frankfurt am Main (1817-19) and finally, on
the recommendation of Weber who had declined the post, Court Kapellmeister at Kassel
(1822-59), where he died on October 22nd 1859.
He also found time for numerous concert tours with his beautiful wife, the distinguished
harp virtuoso Dorette (Dorothea) Scheidler, most notably to Italy (1816-17), England
(1820) and Paris (1821). After 28 years of marriage Dorette died in 1834, and two
years later Spohr married Marianne Pfeiffer, an accomplished pianist.
Spohr’s birthplace in Brunswick
Left A page from the autograph score of Spohr’s early oratorio Das jüngste Gericht (1812); note the rehearsal mark (a letter A) in the bottom margin at the end of the second bar.
In later years Spohr scaled down his public appearances as a soloist, but his renown
as a conductor led to many invitations to take charge of music festivals, including
the grandiose one marking the unveiling of the Beethoven Monument in Bonn in 1845.
He enjoyed further visits to England in 1839, 1843, 1847, 1852 and 1853. In addition,
he found time to train some 200 violinists, conductors and composers.
As a conductor Spohr championed many of the best composers of his time, even when
(as in the cases of Weber and the mature Beethoven) he was not totally in sympathy
with their style. His own idol and ideal was Mozart, and like his hero he was a
committed Freemason. His repertoire extended from Handel to Beethoven, especially
the latter’s symphonies (including the Ninth), concertos and quartets, Fidelio and
the Missa Solemnis. He also championed Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser
and furthered the revival of earlier masterpieces such as Bach’s St. Matthew Passion
after its re-introduction in 1829 by Zelter and Mendelssohn; Spohr was a founder-member
of the Bach Gesellschaft in 1850, the centenary year of Bach’s death.
Later in his career he added works by Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz and Liszt to his
repertoire, and he was only prevented from staging Lohengrin because the Kassel court
disapproved of Wagner and his participation in the 1848 revolution.
Spohr the innovator
Spohr was one of music’s great travellers. His journeys are recounted in his entertaining
and informative autobiography (Selbstbiographie, published 1860-61). He compiled
an influential violin tutor, invented the chin-rest, was one of the pioneers of conducting
with the baton, and as early as 1812 hit on the idea of putting letters in a score
as an aid to rehearsals. So when a conductor taps his baton at rehearsal and says
to the orchestra “Back to Letter F, please”, we are witnessing two of Spohr’s innovations!