Thursday, July 24, 2014

Spohr - Violin Concerto No. 8 In A Minor 'In modo di scena cantante'

Although few of his compositions are played today, Louis Spohr was a well respected and highly regarded violinist, conductor and composer in the early 19th century.  He wrote nearly 300 works in all musical genres but what reputation he still has is founded on his works for clarinet and orchestra and the violin concertos.

From 1803 to 1844 Spohr wrote 18 concertos for violin, of which only one is played with spring regularity, the Violin Concerto No. 8 In A Minor.  The subtitle of the concerto is Italian and translates as In the form of an operatic scene. Spohr was a contemporary of Paganini who tried to steer the concerto form away from the glitter and artificial technical display that was overtaking the form early in the century. While Paganini's Violin Concertos were not merely empty display pieces, Paganini did write his share of bravura passages for the soloist in them, thus Spohr made a conscious effort to counter the tendency other violinist composer's had to emulate Paganini. In his later concertos he attempted to create profound and memorable works by other means than empty display.

The 8th Concerto was written for a specific audience in mind, as Spohr was about to embark on a tour of Italy. He made the assumption that since Italy was the land of opera, it would be difficult to keep the attention of the Italian audiences with a more conventional concerto. He wrote the work as if the violin were a singer, and also kept the orchestral accompaniment uncomplicated as he had heard the orchestras in Italy were not as proficient as in France or Germany. The work was premiered at La Scala in Milan, and as Spohr wrote in his autobiography:
Uncertainty about how my playing and my compositions would please the Italians left me somewhat anxious … but with the first measures I noted that the audience was receptive. My anxiety disappeared, and I played without inhibition.
The concerto is in three main sections that are played without a break:

Recitative - Allegro molto - The work begins with a statement by the orchestra which is answered by an operatic-like recitative by the soloist.  The soloist continues to answer statements by the orchestra in this first section until a short transition leads directly to the next section.

Adagio - Recitative: Andante -  The orchestra plays preliminary material that is followed by the soloist's aria that is lightly accompanied. A contrasting section consists of a quickening of the tempo as the soloist plays in the low register of the violin. The aria returns and its closing leads to another recitative for the soloist. The final section follows without a break.

Allegro moderato - A full blooded theme is first presented by the orchestra. A short section of counterpoint leads to other thematic material for the orchestra. The soloist enters with the first theme, after which the second theme that consists of passage work for the soloist is played. The soloist and orchestra explore new thematic material until a recapitulation begins, after which a fragment of the first theme leads to a cadenza for the soloist.  The concerto's loose ends are tied up by the orchestra in a short ending.

Spohr was an important transitional composer who had one foot in the Classical era and the other in the Romantic era. The quite novel and nontraditional form that Spohr used in the 8th violin concerto influenced many later composers. Spohr seems to have been a very happy family man, far removed from the Romantic notion of the suffering artist.  He had a general curiosity about many things and at one time was one of the most popular composers and performers in Europe.

The time in which he lived was a time of upheaval in the arts as well as society. The European Revolutions of 1848 were a direct result of those upheavals, and along with his other interests Spohr was also a liberal believer in democracy and wasn't afraid to voice his disagreement with the repression and brutality that was common in his time.  The fact that he was physically a large man may have helped him be open with his thoughts. In an era when any man six feet tall was considered large, Spohr was six foot six and had large athletic hands that made the violin look small. This no doubt also helped him in his career as a conductor. The sight of him towering over the orchestra when he was on the podium must have been impressive.

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