Another life story, set in almost the same period as that of the marquise de la Rochejaquelein, but as different as it’s possible to imagine. Spohr was performing and composing in the German states throughout the period of the Napoleonic invasion, but war and politics impinge hardly at all. ‘As the autumn [of 1806] drew near, a twofold obstacle presented itself to the execution of my cherished projects [an artistic tour of the German states]. The war between Prussia and France threatened to break out. … Then, one day, with blushing cheek and beaming eyes, my little wife imparted to me that towards the end of winter she looked forward to a mother’s joys.’ A couple of impediments of equal stature, it would appear. Later on, command performances for the French Emperor are superseded almost overnight by cantatas glorifying ‘the liberation of Germany’, aka the restoration by the Congress of Vienna of (on the whole) appallingly oppressive and reactionary Electors and Grand Dukes to their respective tiny states.
The book is itself a bit of an oddity. It was published in English in 1865 (six years after Spohr’s death) in two volumes (bound in one book in our version), and is not exactly a credit to the production values of Messrs Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts and Green – it is full of typos, and the promised appendix containing musical examples doesn’t seem to have happened. Moreover, all proper names are italicised, and this (for me at any rate) makes the actual reading of the book a very jerky affair – I’m far too conditioned to the use of italics for emphasis…
But the content is also odd, and unbalanced: it consists of an incomplete autobiography, supplemented by very detailed journal extracts for some periods (such as his extensive tour of Italy) and more sketchy ones for others; things go downhill quite rapidly at page 210 of the second volume: ‘Here [summer, 1838], unfortunately, Spohr’s own narrative of his life closes for ever!’ The remaining 130 pages are pure hagiography, as his (second) wife’s notes and diary entries are built into a narrative of almost non-stop triumph until the beatific death-bed scene.
I’m probably being unkind to the man – who is (I believe) little remembered in the UK except for his Nonet, op. 31 of 1813, scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, and for the famous incident (recorded here in gruesome detail) involving a wayside inn, a loaf of bread, a wayward breadknife, and his left forefinger. (Fear not, gentle reader, he DID recover to play the violin again!) I made the fatal mistake of believing the (anonymous) translator’s preface: ‘Modest and unassuming at the commencement of his career, Spohr continued so till the end…’ Well, not on the evidence of the ensuing book, which though it frequently shows a laudable impatience with his own work and a wish to revise and improve, is nevertheless larded with long extracts from adulatory reviews, and contains a great deal of harsh criticism of other composers and performers. The violin virtuosi Paganini and Ole Bull, for example, are found wanting in both technique and taste, and indeed the whole of Italy and its musicians are a major disappointment. The cities don’t live up to his expectations, culled from assiduous reading beforehand, and the musicians are terrible, both the composers (he has especial animus against Rossini) and the performers.
On the plus side, he worshipped Mozart, and was a friend of Beethoven: there is a heartrending yet comical description of the deaf composer trying to conduct one of his own works. Spohr clearly didn’t ‘get’ the 9th Symphony, but he championed the late quartets at a time when the musical public was completely baffled by them. He admired Mendelssohn (though he had the strange complaint about St Paul that it was too like Handel) and Schumann, and in both cases the esteem seems to have been mutual. He took on the task of familiarizing himself with the score of The Flying Dutchman, and conducted a performance at Kassel: when he wrote to Wagner about it he got back in return an overwhelmingly enthusiastic letter of thanks, which included an acknowledgement of the correctness of the omissions Spohr had thought fit to make. He also succeeded in staging Tannhäuser (though the Elector of Hesse, who had the veto over performances, took a lot of persuading), but revealed in a letter to a friend that it was only real, deep familiarity with the music that had reconciled him to what he first heard as ‘horrifying’ sounds: ‘It is astonishing what the human ear will by degrees become accustomed to!’
Spohr’s own operas and oratorios, greatly admired in their day, seem to have dropped out of the repertoire fairly rapidly after his death (though I notice a recording of Der Alchymist issued in 2009, and the symphonies and a lot of the chamber music are currently available). He was hugely popular in England, and visited London and Norwich to conduct and play in his own works. There’s a nice story about ecclesiastical opposition in Norwich: an anti-cantata sermon was preached in the cathedral in his presence the day before he was about to conduct one of his own, but as he spoke no English, he just sat and smiled amiably throughout – and the cantata next day (in the town hall) was a huge success. (Clearly, the Norwich clergy had changed their opinions by the time Jenny Lind came to stay.)
So, I think there is hugely more in this work to enjoy and to learn from than to be irritated by: lots of fascinating detail about the social as well as the musical life of the period. It would have been good to know more about Spohr’s dearly loved first wife, herself a professional harpist: he wrote a large number of pieces for violin and harp which they performed together. (The manner of selecting his second wife, a decent interval after Dorette’s death, is pragmatic in the extreme.) It’s made me curious to hear some more of the music: but whether a Spohr revival (as hoped for by the readers and writers of the ‘Unsung Composers’ website) is likely, remains to be seen.