Loving Spohr

“His singing moves like a white swan across the still waters.”

Hanslick’s review of Joachim’s performance of Spohr’s “Gesangscene” Concerto in Vienna, 1875

Yesterday I came upon a review that sheds light on the popularity of Ludwig Spohr’s violin music, which was the question I was left with after researching the repertoire of violin soloists at the Leipzig Gewandhaus over the nineteenth century. The reception history of Spohr isn’t a topic simply to google or look up on Wikipedia, so how did I happen to stumble upon it? Let’s see…I have been tracking down dates for the Joachim Quartet when they were on the road, and was reading about a trip to Vienna in 1890 that referenced a Neue Freie Presse review. Instead of going directly to the newspaper on ANNO, I assumed the review was by Hanslick, and started paging through one of the vaguely-titled collections of his reviews. It was the wrong book–too early–but I went through the table of contents anyway, and noticed the review of Joachim’s visit to Vienna in 1875.

Hanslick first recalls two previous visits, in 1840 and 1861, then reviews Joachim’s latest performances, with some thoughts about Joachim as a virtuoso compared to the thrilling, unpredictable Liszt or Paganini. These comments lead Hanslick to Spohr. He mentions that earlier there was a Spohr “cult” that practically worshiped the composer, but is now quickly disappearing. For him, hearing his music today brings back memories of his youth. He is struck by how Spohr was a unique voice and a more skilled craftsman than he realized.
The whole review is wonderful, but here is the part about Spohr, picking up from the comparison of Joachim to other virtuosos:


…With Joachim, however, we feel safe, secure; he does not inflict wounds, he heals them, or makes us believe so, as long as he plays. Who does not have this impression when Joachim performs the Adagio from Spohr’s E minor Concerto? How beautifully he unleashes the rapturous sentiment of this elegy and yet holds it together with a strong intellect so that it does not overflow. In such moods, his singing moves like a white swan across the still waters. It was in the Philharmonie-Concerte where Spohr’s Concerto (“Gesangscene”) was performed. What sweet indulgence in the pure, perfectly beautiful tone, what dreamy swaying in that noble, gentle sensibility that is Spohr’s like no other! A rare pleasure in a double sense; for Spohr’s name has long been in gradual extinction and Joachim is one of the few who still remember him. A period of excessive cult of Spohr has been quickly followed by a period of unjust underestimation of this tone poet, who is haughtily tossed aside as “outdated” because he was mannered and formalistic in details. This has the strange consequence that when, after a long time, we once again hear a beautiful Spohr piece, our hearts secretly swell, as if, after years, we were entering the land of our childhood and reliving all the sweet sorrow of youthful days forever associated with Spohr. Perhaps these impressions are part of loving Spohr; to respect him, one need only be a good musician. Spohr is one of the few distinct, unmistakable personalities of modern instrumental music; even if he tends to tell us the same thing over and over, it is always his own thoughts and his own words. If one listens to Spohr under Joachim’s bow, that is, in his purest transfigured mode, one recognizes, moreover, many a previously unnoticed trait of mastery and realizes what elevated the man and still elevates him today alongside more modern music. Thus Spohr is able to draw out the best that we possess: our old thoughts and our young feelings.


Bei Joachim aber fühlen wir uns sicher, geborgen; er schlägt keine Wunden, er heilt sie oder macht es uns doch glauben, so lange er spielt. Wer hat nicht diesen Eindruck, wenn Joachim das Adagio aus Spohrs E-moll-Concert vorträgt? Wie schön entfesselt er die schwärmerische Empfindung dieser Elegie und hält sie doch mit starkem Geist zusammen, daß sie nicht überströme. In solchen Stimmungen zieht sein Gesang wie ein weißer Schwan über den stillen Wasserspiegel. Es war im Philharmonie-Concerte, wo das Spohrsche Concert (“Gesangscene”) zur Aufführung kam. Welch süßes Schwelgen im reinen, vollendet schönen Ton, welch träumerisches Wiegen in jener edlen, sanften Empfindsamkeit, die Spohr wie keinem andern eigen ist! Ein seltener Genuß im zweifachen Sinne; denn Spohrs Name ist seit lange in allmählichem Verschwinden begriffen und Joachim einer der Wenigen, die sein noch gedenken. Auf eine Periode übermäßigen Spohr-Cultus ist im schnellem Rückschlag eine Zeit ungerechter Unterschätzung dieses Tondichters gefolgt, den man hochmüthig als “veraltet” beiseite wirft, weil er in Einzelheiten manierirt und formalistisch war. Das hat die wunderliche Folge, daß, wenn wir nach langer Zeit wieder einmal ein schönes Spohrsches Stück hören, uns heimlich das Herz aufgeht, als beträten wir nach Jahren den Boden unserer Kindheit und lebten das ganze süße Weh der mit Spohr verwachsenen Jugendzeit noch einmal durch. Vielleicht gehören diese Eindrücke dazu, um Spohr zu lieben; um ihn zu ehren, braucht man blos guter Musiker zu sein. Spohr zählt zu den wenigen ausgeprägten, unverkennbaren Individualitäten der modernen Instrumental-Musik; sagt er uns auch oft dasselbe wieder, so sind es doch immer seine eigenen Gedanken und seine eigenen Worte. Hört man Spohr unter dem Bogen Joachims, also in seiner reinsten Verklärung, so erkennt man überdies manchen früher nicht beachteten Zug von Meisterschaft und macht sich klar, was den Mann hochstellte und noch heute neben Modernerem hochstellt. So vermag denn Spohr das Beste hervorzulocken, was wir besitzen: unsere alten Gedanken und unsere jungen Gefühle.

Concerte, Componisten und Virtuosen der letzten fünfzehn Jahre. 1870-1885. Kritiken von Eduard Hanslick , 2nd ed. Berlin: Allgemeiner Verein für Deutsche Literatur, pp. 152-6, here pp. 155-6.

MUSIC IN BERLIN, 1870-1910 (August 8, 2022) Loving Spohr. Retrieved from https://sannapederson.oucreate.com/blog/archives/9236.
"Loving Spohr." MUSIC IN BERLIN, 1870-1910 - August 8, 2022, https://sannapederson.oucreate.com/blog/archives/9236
MUSIC IN BERLIN, 1870-1910 June 13, 2021 Loving Spohr., viewed August 8, 2022,<https://sannapederson.oucreate.com/blog/archives/9236>
MUSIC IN BERLIN, 1870-1910 - Loving Spohr. [Internet]. [Accessed August 8, 2022]. Available from: https://sannapederson.oucreate.com/blog/archives/9236
"Loving Spohr." MUSIC IN BERLIN, 1870-1910 - Accessed August 8, 2022. https://sannapederson.oucreate.com/blog/archives/9236
"Loving Spohr." MUSIC IN BERLIN, 1870-1910 [Online]. Available: https://sannapederson.oucreate.com/blog/archives/9236. [Accessed: August 8, 2022]
From Old Book Illustrations: A Chaussée-d’Antin family.
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