Thursday, February 25, 2010

Spohr's Symphony No. 6 Op. 116

Although long forgotten, Louis Spohr was a prolific musician in his time, highly revered as a composer, violinist, conductor, and teacher. As a composer, Spohr maintained a close connection to his teaching and playing, similar to piano composers Chopin and Liszt (Kolneder). He wrote in many genres but favored his own instrument; his large output for the violin includes fifteen concertos and numerous chamber pieces. Spohr also wrote a treatise, Violinschule, which had a profound impact on how the violin was taught and played (Eddy). His non-violin works include four clarinet concertos, several operas and oratorios, a relatively small amount of piano music, and ten symphonies. Spohr’s Symphony No. 6 Op. 116 (Historical) was written in 1839, 2 years after his highly acclaimed Symphony No. 5. The four-movement work contains a wide variety of characters, tempos, and moods, each representing a different stylistic era. The first movement is a Largo – Grave in the style of Bach and Handel (1720), the second movement is a Larghetto in the style of Haydn and Mozart (1780), the third movement is a Scherzo in the style of Beethoven (1810), and the final movement is an Allegro vivace in the “new” style (1840). He sought to create a musical timeline, showcasing the development of music from the Baroque through the music of his time. Theoretically, his idea was innovative; in real life it was a disappointment.

The work begins with a stately “tip of the hat” to two prominent Baroque era composers, Bach and Handel, showing his knowledge of the primary stylistic features of both. To represent Bach, Spohr includes fugue, imitation, and extensive development of ideas. He also explores beautiful melodic material in the style of Handel. Although the movement is rich in aspects of Baroque composition, those aspects are heavily romanticized. There is no question for the listener about the origins of the piece, it is clearly not written by a composer from 1720. The second movement, intended to emulate Haydn and Mozart, is full of late 18th century trademarks. Beautiful arpeggiated melodic passages flow throughout the movement. Spohr also creates a strong sense of harmonic push and pull typical of this era of music. Disappointingly, as the movement lingers on the melody becomes mundane and unlikely dissonances begin to slip in. The third movement is dedicated entirely to Beethoven and features an increased contrast in dynamics and stylistic features. Spohr includes numerous Beethoven-like manipulations of melodic material. The listener can also feel the continuous build to the end. For the final movement Spohr attempts to satirize a modern compositional style of his time, Grand Opera. The movement is quirky and joking, showing an unmistakable resemblance to the music of opera composers like Rossini and Auber. Through this composition, Spohr shows his feelings toward past and current music.

Despite the success of his other works, Spohr’s Symphony No. 6 was never well received, a fact attributed to issues surrounding the fourth movement. For the “new” style, Spohr wanted to make a joke about the quality of French opera music being produced at the time. The problem was that many of his audience members enjoyed this style of opera and did not find his joke funny. The movement was heavily criticized and its reputation destroyed immediately. In fact, it was so poorly received that the audience of the work’s London premier actually hissed (Powell). Even Spohr’s good friend Felix Mendelssohn diplomatically suggested that Spohr should have included some of his original work instead of the mocking finale (Brown).

Listening to Spohr’s music, I found it appealing but not revolutionary. Even though the piece was written for a full orchestra, he seemed to favor the strings, especially the violins. I also felt the symphony was overly repetitive and at times lacked a flow of new musical material. Spohr was clearly a talented musician and a well-trained composer but he did not have his colleagues’ creative genius. As a result, his fall from fame is simple to trace. What I find fascinating about this work is the unique window to the past it provides for the listener. The way Spohr wrote each movement provides us with information about how he viewed different composers and styles. He pays homage to great composers of the Baroque era (Bach and Handel) in one movement and to great composers of the Classical era (Haydn and Mozart) in the next. He then gives Beethoven his own movement, showing how highly Beethoven was respected at the time. Spohr commits his last movement to poking fun at the “newest” style of music, which he clearly viewed as inferior to the other three. Interestingly, the opinions that he expressed in his music almost two centuries ago still prevail today.

Two main factors keep this piece out of the Canon of Western Music: the works original perception and the reaction of today’s listener. Unfortunately, most listeners were against this piece form the beginning. Spohr made a critical mistake by underestimating the controversy the fourth movement of his work would create. The mocking tone of the final movement offended audience members causing the piece to lose support while it was still new. Modern listeners aren’t as concerned with this aspect of the piece as they are with others. Today, performances and recordings of the music of composers such as Bach and Mozart are abundant. So if someone wants to hear their music, they have ample opportunity. In Spohr’s time this was less common. The way he copied the style of older composers would have been more interesting to listeners at the time than now. In today’s society his music sounds like a knock-off. If people are going to listen to Bach, they want the real thing. This makes Spohr’s Symphony No. 6 less noteworthy to modern listeners. Both of these aspects factor heavily into why this piece is not more commonly heard.

Spohr’s Symphony No. 6 (Historical) was an intriguing idea that did not turn out as planned. Controversy destroyed the work when it premiered and mediocrity has kept it from gaining prestige today. The one advantage the piece has is its ability to freeze history. One composer’s views on the music before and during his time are documented in this work. I agree that it should not be part of the canon. When compared to standard compositions from this time period, musically it doesn’t hold up; however, as a part of history, Spohr’s Symphony No. 6 is truly unique.

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