Program Notes

Louis Spohr (1784-1859) had already achieved note as a touring violinist by the time he settled down for a stint as musical director in the city of Gotha (1802-12) and began sharpening his skills as a conductor and composer. While there, he married Dorette Scheidler, a virtuoso harpist, and the two often appeared in duo-recitals. He left to move to Vienna, where for two years he served as music director at the prestigious Theater an der Wien. He made it his business to seek out Beethoven, whom he befriended. As a conductor, Spohr would go on to champion some of Beethoven’s scores, though mostly his earlier pieces. Later Beethoven, he confessed, remained a mystery to him. Beethoven’s only recorded comment on Spohr’s music comes from a reminiscence penned by Karl Gottfried Freudenberg, an organist who visited Beethoven in 1826 and asked his opinions about various composers. Of Spohr, Beethoven said, “He is too rich in dissonances, pleasure in his music is marred by his chromatic melody.” In fact, Spohr’s style was widely viewed as recherché, which (some said) prevented him from being embraced by the public even more enthusiastically than he was.

Later appointments took him to Frankfurt, Dresden, and finally Kassel, where he introduced several of his own major works, contributed to the Bach revival by leading five performances of the Saint Matthew Passion, and made the case for Wagner by conducting productions of Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser. But those accomplishments lay in the future when Spohr composed his Nonet, in 1813. It calls for the largest ensemble of all the entries in Spohr’s vast catalogue of chamber music, which also includes five piano trios, thirty-six string quartets, seven string quintets, a string sextet, and a septet and octet for mixed strings and winds.

The Nonet rose from unusual circumstances. In Vienna there lived a gentleman named Johann Tost. He had once been the principal second violinist in Haydn’s orchestra at the Esterházy Court, but he left the musical profession to pursue various business schemes. He prospered in business, earning a good deal of money as a fabric importer and salesman, and he continued his involvement in music as a devoted amateur and a commissioner of new scores. One day Tost approached Spohr with a bizarre contract: in return for a very substantial payment of cash, Spohr would turn over the rights to performances of whatever chamber music he would compose in Vienna over a three-year period. Tost would sponsor musical evenings in which the pieces would be performed, but he would hold onto the scores and parts just to make sure the works wouldn’t be heard when he wasn’t around. Tost hoped that his musical soirées would attract potential business contacts. Apparently they did, and not just in Vienna; Tost took Spohr’s pieces along on business trips and set up performances in other cities, too.

In his memoirs, Spohr describes the impetus behind the Nonet:

I asked him [Tost] which art form he would prefer this time. My artistic patron thought for a while and then answered a nonet, written in concertante style for four string instruments—violin, viola, cello, and double bass—and the five most noble wind instruments—flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon—in such a way that each instrument would be heard in accordance with its essential character, and yet a task that was as interesting as it was thankful….I was spurred on by the challenge, gladly agreed, and immediately set to work.

There is no question that Spohr succeeded in stressing “the essential character” of each of his instruments, not to mention combining them so as to provide an utterly captivating half-hour of music. The Nonet is cast in four movements: a sunny opening Allegro (with an imitative minor-mode section providing amusing contrast midway); a Scherzo with two very different trios (the first employing the solo violin for a carefree Ländler, the second pushing the wind instruments into the spotlight); a rich, densely harmonized Adagio; and a buoyant Finale.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is the longtime Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats.

(April 2019)

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