The composition of string quartets ran as a continuous thread throughout Spohr?s life. He wrote his first, Op. 4, at about the age of twenty, and more than fifty years later his last completed large-scale work was his String Quartet No. 36, Op. 157. This varied body of works constitutes a significant contribution to the quartet literature of the first half of the nineteenth century; it contains abundant examples of the harmonic and melodic features and the experiments in form and metre that fascinated his contemporaries.
At the time of Spohr?s birth in 1784, Haydn?s innovative Op. 33 quartets had been published for only two years, and Mozart, inspired by their masterly handling of the medium, was still working on his six quartets dedicated to Haydn. Over the next few years Mozart produced his last quartets, while Haydn rose to new heights in the series of works that began with Op. 50 in 1787, and in 1801 Beethoven published his six Op. 18 quartets. During Spohr?s formative years as student and Kammermusicus in Brunswick, he came to know and love this repertoire of chamber music which he played, along with works by lesser contemporaries, at frequent quartet parties. It was to have a lasting impression on his own approach to quartet writing. His devotion to Mozart, in particular, was to remain intense throughout his life, and he retained a lively admiration for Haydn. Despite his often quoted criticisms of Beethoven?s later works he was, in fact, among the earliest champions of the Op. 18 quartets in northern Germany and performed them within a very short time of their publication; indeed, on his concert tour of 1804 his advocacy of these quartets put him at odds with some notable musicians. In Berlin the celebrated cellist and composer Bernhard Romberg, after complimenting him on his performance of one of them, remarked disparagingly, ?But my dear Spohr, how can you bear to play such absurd stuff??
Spohr?s activity as a virtuoso violinist, however, also brought him into direct contact with a radically different kind of quartet which was profoundly to influence his approach to the medium: this was the socalled Quatuor brillant or Solo-Quartett. Since the piano was not yet the universal accompaniment instrument it later became, many violinist-composers wrote pieces with string accompaniment to provide them with a repertoire in which they could display their technical brilliance at soirées and other occasions when an orchestra was not available. The Quatuor brillant, a kind of chamber concerto, was a natural outcome of this. During Spohr?s early concert tours, when Beethoven?s quartets failed to interest his audience, he could always count on rousing their enthusiasm with a performance of the Quartet in E flat major, Op. 11 (1804) by the much admired French violinist Pierre Rode, which, though not published with the title quatuor brillant, was an important precursor of the genre.
The influence both of the Viennese classics and of virtuoso violin music is clearly evident in Spohr?s own works for string quartet. The virtuoso tradition is emphasized in two potpourris and two sets of variations with string trio accompaniment, composed during the years 1804 to 1808, and in his eight virtuoso quartets, written between 1806 and 1835. His first Quatuor brillant, Op. 11, which he described in a letter to his publisher, Kühnel, as ?of the Rode type?, was followed by five more which were published with the same title. These are in three movements, without a minuet or scherzo, after the pattern of Rode?s prototypes. A seventh, Op. 30, was similarly designated on the autograph score despite its four movements, and Op. 27 too, though it was published as Grand quatuor, is in the same tradition, being referred to in Spohr?s autobiography as a Solo-Quartett. But Spohr clearly recognised the essential difference between the Solo- Quartett and the ?true? quartet, and in his other 28 quartets the emphasis is on dialogue among the instruments. Though difficult, even virtuoso, passages are often given to the first violin and sometimes to the other instruments, these are skilfully integrated into the general design so that the main focus is on a conversational working out of motifs. For Spohr technical brilliance was always at the service of loftier musical aims, and, on the whole, his quartets achieve a notably successful synthesis of the classical and virtuoso polarities in his musical nature.
[Clive Brown is an internationally recognised authority on the music of Spohr and the author of Louis Spohr: A Critical Biography. Cambridge University Press, 1984.]
Spohr composed his set of three string quartets Op. 82 in the winter of 1828/29 towards the end of his seventh year as Kapellmeister in Kassel. Following the completion of his opera Pietro von Abano in August 1827 Spohr concentrated on a lengthy involvement with instrumental music which included some of his finest works such as the Double Quartet No. 2, Op. 77, the Symphony No. 3, Op. 78, the Violin Concertino No. 1, Op. 79, and the Clarinet Concerto No. 4, WoO.20. He began work on the Op. 82 quartets in October 1828 and completed the second quartet, No. 24 in G major, in November. It is generally a good-natured, lively work which turns aside to ponder deeper matters in the slow movement. In the opening Allegro Spohr constructs his two main themes from the same core motif though each has a completely different character and continuation. The broad, noble theme of the beautiful Adagio in B minor with its eloquent lament is present throughout, appearing on the cello in conjunction with the secondary material. The whole movement is built entirely from these elements with no extraneous matter at all. Instead of the traditional scherzo or minuet, Spohr substitutes an Alla Polacca in E minor whose stately polonaise pomp and circumstance is enriched with touches of violin virtuosity in its E major trio. The catchy, bustling Finale, which wittily handles three main themes, is almost orchestral in effect; indeed, Mendelssohn?s injunction to performers of his renowned Octet could well apply here: ?This piece must be played by all of the instruments in a symphonic style; the pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more clearly emphasized than is customary in works of this character?. At the end the music seems ready to die away but after a brief pause there is an assertive final flourish.
In the third quartet of the set, No. 25 in A minor dating from February 1829, Spohr turns the mood of its predecessor inside out. This time seriousness is the business of the outer movements while the two inner ones are more relaxed and tuneful. The first Allegro works with only one theme, following precedents set by some of Haydn?s quartets; in the words of Vaughan Williams when he followed a Haydn model in one of his symphonies: ?What is good for the master is good for the man?. The elegiac tone of the theme lessens with a change of mode from minor to major and less intensity which alone marks the traditional second subject area. Virtuoso flourishes are completely absent in one of Spohr?s most tautly built movements. In the F major Andante Spohr plays games with the performers; the time signature is marked to be an alternation of 4/8 and 3/8, and this gives a piquant, attractive rhythmic touch to the progress of the music with complications growing when the triplet secondary theme is later played above the main melody. To the listener, though, it all sounds so simple and serenade-like. Then comes an outstanding Scherzo in A minor featuring a sturdy dance rhythm which includes a richly melodic trio in A major of a folk-like character and, unlike many scherzos, there is much development of the material in this movement. The Finale is cunningly constructed to produce a rhapsodic impression but it is based on a straightforward sonata form without a development section. There is a lengthy slow introduction, Andante, which sets up a brooding atmosphere and contains the germinal motif of the movement presented in fugato style. This opening Andante section returns in place of the development as well as at the end. Semi-quaver passagework which ebbs and flows between the sections together with a second subject in longer notes which has the effect of seeming to broaden the tempo build up the rhapsodic mood as the music ranges with complete freedom from the constraints of its underlying classical form. Sonorous chords die away in the final bars to emphasize the basically serious mood of the quartet with its tinge of sadness and conclude a movement which gives the lie to the old legend that Spohr is a formally conservative composer.
Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain