Louis Spohr

Louis Spohr was a German composer, conductor, and violinist of the Romantic era. A composer of great variety, he wrote a large volume of works in styles ranging from Classical to Program Music. A contemporary of Ludwig van Beethoven, Spohr was active during a period of change as the Classical era was morphing into the Romantic era. Quite the influential figure, he mentored a young Felix Mendelssohn, helping shape the compositional style of the next generation. Though never elevated to “A-list” status in terms of lasting popularity, Spohr’s contributions to the orchestral community had an impact that lasts to this day.

Born Ludwig Spohr in the city of Braunschweig in 1784, both of his parents were musicians. His mother, Juliane, was a singer and pianist, while his father, Karl, played the flute. Beginning violin lessons at an early age, the boy’s instructor quickly recognized his natural ability and convinced his parents to send him to Brunswick to receive a more in depth musical education. Though Spohr’s playing flourished, becoming a technical virtuoso, he confessed he learned composition mostly by studying the scores of Mozart independently.

At the age of 15, Spohr embarked on an ill-fated tour of continental Europe that left him financially strapped. Monetary assistance was granted by the Duke of Brunswick in exchange for a performance before the court. Quite taken with the young man’s ability, the Duke offered him a position among his stable of musicians, which included prominent violinist Franz Eck in its ranks. Eck wholly restructured Spohr’s technique and took him across Europe for live performances. This time, he caused a sensation and his reputation was on the rise. He finally began receiving recognition for his compositions, publishing his first violin concerto in 1803.

In 1805, Spohr was appointed concertmaster for the court of Gotha, a position he would maintain for seven years. During this time, he met 18 year old Dorette Scheidler, one of the first virtuoso harpists of the 19th century. Smitten, he composed Sonata in C Minor for Violin and Harp in a thinly veiled effort to woo her during rehearsals. The piece’s premiere was a great success, and during the carriage ride home, Dorette accepted his proposal of marriage. With his wife as a muse, Spohr’s music was among the first to incorporate the harp into an orchestral setting. The couple toured throughout Europe with much acclaim as a duo from 1816 through 1821. Ultimately, she gave up her career as a performer, to focus on raising their family and they enjoyed a happy marriage until her sudden death at the age of 47.

Throughout much of his career, Spohr demonstrated great leadership with orchestras across German speaking Europe. For nearly three years, he was the conductor at the legendary Theatre an der Wein in Vienna whose history includes the premiers of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and a number of Beethoven symphonies. Spohr’s tenure at Theatre an der Wein was followed by a stint as opera director in Frankfurt where he was able to finally bring his highly regarded opera, Faust, to the public five years after it was completed. He accepted his longest and final position in 1822 as Kapellmeister in the court of Kassel. In 1836, the 51 year old widower married his second wife, Marianne Pfeiffer, 22 years his junior.

As a composer, Spohr left behind a diverse selection of material, producing nearly 300 works overall, which were lauded for their use of harmony, modulation, and chromaticism. In addition to nine symphonies, Spohr’s sixteen violin concertos were the most written by any composer in the first half of the 19th century. His four clarinet concertos, all written for virtuoso Johann Simon Hermstedt, are still an important part of the modern clarinetist’s repertoire. His 1823 opera Jessonda briefly elevated Spohr’s status among the elite composers of his time. (He was even namedropped in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.) Unfortunately, as the years went on, Romantic music was gaining prominence, and many of his works, such as operas Faust and Zemire und Azor were considered out of style. Jessonda managed to keep an audience for over a century until it was ultimately banned by Nazi Germany due to its depiction of an interracial relationship.

Though Spohr’s music is not well known today, his creativity led to many changes that are now part of the everyday use in the modern orchestra. As a highly regarded violinist, he is responsible for inventing the instrument’s chinrest, freeing up the violinist’s left hand, leading to increased complexity in music. Rehearsing his Symphony No. 2 in D minor, Op. 49 with the Philharmonic Society of London in 1820, Spohr conducted the orchestra with a baton. This was a first, and a standard that continues to this day, as conducting was usually done by the cembalist or the concertmaster’s violin bow. He also established the use of rehearsal letters in the musical scores to indicate specific starting points within in the music, thereby simplifying the rehearsal process.

Though his personal style, as diverse as it is, was firmly rooted in the traditional sounds of Vienna, Spohr championed the new styles of emerging composers. He was among the first to conduct Wanger’s Tannhäuser and The Flying Dutchman. However, in 1857, his career as Kapellmiester in Kassel was cut short after a dispute regarding a leave of absence. While still receiving a pension, he was dealt another blow when he broke his arm, leaving him unable to play the violin for the rest of his life. He passed away two years later at the age of 75.

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