Spohr the composer

From the start of his career, Spohr aspired to be something more than just a violinist who wrote concertos (such as Viotti, Kreutzer, Vieuxtemps or Wieniawski).  So he expanded his compositional scope to include operas, oratorios, cantatas, Lieder, symphonies, chamber music and, especially in the first years of his marriage, works involving the harp.  Gradually he became known as one of the leading composers of his day, particularly for his fine concertos, operatic overtures, oratorios and first two symphonies.   He composed some 290 works in all.  A complete list is to be found in New Grove II, the latest edition of the major dictionary of music, in the detailed entry written by a distinguished member of the Society, Professor Clive Brown of the University of Leeds.

Soon after settling in Kassel, the success of Spohr’s opera Jessonda (1823) and of his oratorio Die letzten Dinge (1826;  known in the English-speaking countries as The Last Judgment) won him a place in the accepted pantheon of “great composers”.   What captured them and enraptured his contemporaries was the richness of the harmony and his command of modulation and chromaticism.   Though the content of his works made him a pioneer of early Romanticism, he generally adhered to classical proportions when it came to form, although his four programme symphonies were something of an innovation.   Later in the nineteenth centuries the classical aspect of his music appeared old-fashioned to those brought up on the headier sounds of Wagner, Liszt and Tchaikovsky, and this led to his abrupt fall from popularity.   Yet his best works stayed in the repertoire until the end of the century;  Jessonda (admired by Brahms and Strauss) continued to be staged in Germany until it was banned by the Nazis because it showed a white European hero marrying an Indian princess.   In Britain The Last Judgment remained a favourite of provincial choral societies until the First World War, when a reaction against things Victorian set in.

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A few works have stayed with us.   The enjoyable Octet and Nonet are often performed by groups who want to programme further items alongside the Beethoven Septet or the Schubert Octet;  the violin concerto no. 8, op. 47 (the one “in the form of a vocal scena”, sometimes called by its German subtitle Gesangsszene) can still tempt virtuosi, as can the four fine clarinet concertos.   Spohr’s Six German Songs for soprano, clarinet and piano continue to feature in recitals.   The slow revival of the rest of his output, now under way, has already uncovered many delightful pieces, most of them available on CD.

Statue of Spohr at Kassel
(click to enlarge)