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 symhonies 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.
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 (see Newsletter link).