The history of reception offers few cases more extreme than that of Louis Spohr. Hailed by many contemporaries as the greatest composer next to Beethoven, he came to be regarded as a marginal figure after his death, until the revival of his concertos and chamber works in the period after the second World War led to a thorough re-evaluation of his work. Unfortunately, though, the reception of his more than one hundred Lieder has been little affected by the developments of the last decades. Commonly they are still dismissed as occasional works of a violinist-cum-composer and as mannered products of Biedermeier sentimentality. Though this may be true for some of his late songs, the body of Lieder from the first fifty years of his life, recorded here for the first time in its entirety, breathes a completely different spirit. The four Lieder collections and two individual Lieder which originated during his early years in Gotha, during his "travel years," and during the first portion of his Kassel period, constitute a valuable part of early nineteenth-century song literature.
When Spohr tried himself at the Lied in late adolescence and his early twenties, he brought to the genre all the qualifications a good song composer needs, except experience in keyboard writing: great love for singing and vocal music, an educated literary taste, highly developed sensitivity to poetry, and the willingness to venture into new stylistic territory for the sake of emotional portrayal.
Spohr grew up in a family where singing played an important role. As a child he heard his mother, a student of an Italian-trained Kapellmeister, practise virtuoso arias, and he participated in his parents" performances of German Singspiele. One of his first compositional attempts was a Singspiel, and in his adolescence he apparently wrote songs with harp accompaniment and Lieder, which are now lost. The operas of Cherubini and Mozart left a deep impression on the young musician, and he proved his expertise in operatic style by writing out embellishments for an Italian soprano to whom he was at one point engaged.
The selection of poems for spohr"s first extant set of songs, Opus 25, composed in 1809 in Gotha, possibly for his mother-in-law, for whom he also wrote the vocally demanding Scene WoO 75, already demonstrated some sense of literary quality. Along with texts by anonymous and lesser writers, E. Gross and A. Geyer, and a poem by an official at the Gotha Court, C.E.C. Goechhausen, he chose two Goethe texts. They include the famous Gretchen from Faust I, which had been published only in the year before, and which Schubert set five years later. If this choice might be dismissed as a strategy of the composer to win the poet"s approval for a staged production of his opera Alruna (1808) in Weimar, the text sources for his next two sets, Opus 37 and Opus 41, first drafted in 1815 while Spohr and his family stayed in Carolath in silesia as guests of a Duke, confirm that he made deliberate efforts to select Lied texts of substantial quality. Three of the twelve songs are based on poems of Goethe, as is the individual song Nachgefiihl, WoO 91, (Memories of Feelings of the Past), composed four years later. Drawing upon the sizeable poetry collection owned by the Duke"s sister-in-law, Spohr picked further poems by representatives of early romanticism, J.G. von salis-seewis, F. Kind, the Freischiitz librettist, and F. de la Motte-Fouque, in addition to texts by some minor and amateur poets, H. Schmidt, Buri, C. von W., and M. Kartscher, an employee at the Carolath Court. Into the last category belongs also J.L.F. Deinhardstein, the author of Lied des verlassenen Miidchens, WoO 90, (The Abandoned Girl"s Song), which spohr had set in the previous year during his stay in Vienna. The poems in spohr"s fourth set, Opus 72, composed in Kassel in 1826, reveal a new tendency: for three of the six songs he utilised texts by protagonists of full-fledged romanticism, Tieck and Uhland. By setting a gazel, a form of Persian love poetry, in Opus 72/3, Spohr showed himself in line with the early nineteenth-century fashion of "orientalizing" literature. Amalia, the author of Opus 72/5, was possibly identical with the dedicatee, Amalie von sybel, wife of a government official in Düsseldorf, at whose house Spohr stayed a few months before composing the set.
The most striking tendency evident in Spohr"s early and middle-period Lieder is his apparent attempt to transcend the limited repertoire of stylistic means traditionally associated with song composition. Always guided by his sensitivity to the words and to the mood, he strove to transform the Lied from a minor compositional category with predominantly social character into a substantial romantic genre with autonomous qualities. His claim that the songs in Opp. 25, 37, and 41 were "very different in form and other essential traits from those of all earlier composers" is somewhat exaggerated but contains a grain of truth, for the gamut of structural patterns and expressional characters reaches far beyond the songs of Zelter and other representatives of the Berlin Lieder School. The Lieder in Spohr"s first four sets range from simple strophic structures representing a single mood, in folk-like idiom and with modest accompaniments, to complex through-composed designs, portraying contrasting feelings or an emotional development, with textures in forward- looking chromatic harmony, expansive lyrical lines, dramatic accents, and declamatory, recitative-like sections. The latter require an operatically-trained voice with a large scope of dynamics and colours (it helps to remember that the operatic roles of the dedicatee of Opus 25, Caroline von Heygendorff, nee Jagemann, included Donna Anna in Mozart"s Don Giovanni).
The one end of the scale is marked by strophic songs of great melodic simplicity with unassuming piano parts. Though Spohr professed to lack "any talent for writing folk-songs," the lyricism of the once very popular Wiegenlied, Op.25/1 (Cradle Song), shows an attractive folk-like simplicity, perfectly suited to its sentiment. Lied des verlassenen Miidchens, WoO 90, (The Abandoned Girl"s Song), another strictly strophic piece, displays Spohr"s melancholic lyricism at its best, as do the Schottisch Lied Op. 25/2, (Scottish Song), and Geteilte Liebe Op. 37/4, (Love Separated). Even the strophic songs in lilting 6/8 and 9/8, which became stereotypical in Spohr"s late compositions, show genuine feeling. A beautiful example is Fruhlingsglaube Op. 72/1, (Spring"s Credo).
Next come songs which combine some conventional elements with innovative traits. In several pieces the individual stanzas, especially the final ones, are set apart by melodic variants or different accompaniments. In the Schlaflied Op. 72/6, (Slumber Song), the beautiful lyricism of the strophic voice part, representing the peaceful state of the slumbering girl, contrasts with changing accompaniments imitating the sounds of nature, the rustling leaves and brook, and the humming of the bees. Each stanza of Liebesschwiirmerei Op. 37/5, (Love"s Phantasy), consists of two contrasting sections, illustrating the conflicting emotions: hopefulness (major mode, fast tempo, energetic rhythm) versus despair (minor mode, slow tempo, smoother rhythmic contours). Similarly, in Opus 41/5 two almost identical stanzas in the minor mode portray desparate longing, whereas the last stanza, in major, with sweeping melodic lines, represents the delirious rapture of Der erste Kufi, (The First Kiss). Though the voice lines in the four stanzas of Zigeunerlied, Op. 25/5, (Gypsy Song), differ only slightly, the melodic writing shows an original, gripping, romantic character, foreshadowing the Witches" Scene in spohr"s Faust (1814), as Paul Katow pointed out. According to the score it is to be performed "hurried, with a muted, frightened voice." spohr"s setting of Gretchen, Op. 25/3, based on a three-fold refrain (My peace is gone), unites simplicity with emotional intensity. Gretchen"s changing emotions, portrayed by means of contrasting dynamics and tempos, emerge from the expressional markings in the score: "Slow and melancholic.. fast and full of longing... slower... first tempo... with increasing passion... with power... melancholic." Without ever sacrificing his expansive lyricism, Spohr went even farther in shaping the flexible, recitative-like declamation in Mignon, Op. 37/1: in each of the three strophes the metre changes six times.
In addition to strophic and modified strophic Lieder, Spohr wrote complex through-composed songs, influenced by the operatic scene. In Die Stimme der Nacht, Op. 37/3, (The Night"s Voice), a continuous, lilting accompaniment integrates a free, flexible structure, which follows the changing moods of the poetry, from the portrayal of the peaceful atmosphere of a sunset to deep desperation, represented with melancholic lyricism and dramatic leaps. This Lied already foreshadows the passionate quality of the third to the fifth songs in Opus 72, which mark the apex of spohr"s early lied composition. In Ghasel, Op. 72/3, (Gazel), within a rhythmically homogeneous context, the composer shapes each phrase so it follows the natural speech accents and emotional contour of the text. The mood of Beruhigung, Op. 72/4, (Finding Peace), develops from despair to yearning for death. An Rosa Maria, Op. 72/5, (To Rosa Maria), is a passionate love song, with strong dynamic contrasts, set to a lilting yet flexible accompaniment.
The last-mentioned group of songs shows Spohr at his best: whereas some of his purely lyrical Lieder run the danger of sounding static and mannered, he is most successful where he can combine genuinely felt, expansive lyricism with grandeur, drama, and fire, and it is just this combination of qualities which brought his contemporaries to admire his early romanticism and which may bring his songs again the popularity they deserve.