Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies: No. 4 in F,
op. 86, “Die Weihe der Töne;”
No. 5 in c,
Howard Griffiths, cond; North German RSO Hannover
CPO 777745 (SACD: 76: 14)
In 1832, Spohr found himself at somewhat loose ends, when Prince Friedrich Wilhelm replaced his father as Elector at the court of Kassel. Running low on funds to support the
musical establishment over which Spohr presided, Wilhelm was forced to downsize the orchestra and curtail the larger projects the court had previously sponsored. Spohr was now partially furloughed, so with no commission in hand, he toyed with the idea of composing a cantata based on the text of a poem,
Die Weihe der Töne
, by Carl Pfeiffer. But Spohr abandoned his original plan and came up with a new and novel one in its place. He would make the new work a symphony, the likes of which had never been composed before; and to it he gave the title,
The Consecreation of Sounds: Characteristic Tone-Painting in the Form of a Symphony.
Precedent existed, of course, in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony for a symphonic work in which the movements are meant to depict scene settings and natural phenomena, and in Berlioz’s
, which has a narrative program that tells a story, but Spohr’s idea was a bit different. He envisioned a kind of multi-media work in which Pfeiffer’s poem would be printed and handed out to the audience, and recited aloud before the start of the music.
Spohr’s Fourth Symphony may thus be the earliest example of a true tone poem, albeit one structured as a four-movement symphony, and possibly the progenitor of all future works which combine music and a narrator—for example, César Franck’s
, Richard Strauss’s
A Soldier’s Tale
Peter and the Wolf
, and so on. You might even add Saint-Saëns’s
The Carnival of the Animals
to this list, except that the composer had nothing to do with Ogden Nash’s ditties that were added almost 30 years after the composer’s death.
CPO has printed the text to the poem, but, unfortunately, only in the original German with no English translation. However, based on the title,
The Consecration of Sounds
, I wondered if the poem might be something along the lines of John Dryden’s verses which Handel set to music in his
Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day
, or to quote a phrase coined by Schumann, “eulogizing music with music.”
Happening upon a fuller description of the work on the Internet than is given in the album note, along with a complete English translation, I soon discovered that that is exactly what Pfeiffer’s poem, though in much expanded form and couched in the language of flowery Romantic metaphor, is about. For example, the poet’s description of “Nature Before the Creation of Tone,” reads, “Solitary lay the fields in the flower-splendor of spring; amid the silent forms wandered Man through the night, following only his wild impulse.” A line or two later: “Then the eternal Kindness wished to announce itself and breathed Sound into the breast of Man!” Later still, in a section titled “Cradle Song,” the poet writes of tones penetrating the little heart suckling at its mother’s breast, and how, “swiftly from the brow, the befogged spirit grows serene.” Thus, music, God’s gift to Nature and Man, orders the cosmos, comforts the babe in arms, and soothes the savage beast. I’m quite sure that Handel would not have found such purple poetry suitable for an ode, but the same theme of music as a higher power serves as the basis for both Dryden and Pfeiffer’s eulogizing of the sacred Muse.
Now, if you didn’t know any of this, would you discern it from listening to Spohr’s Fourth Symphony? It’s highly improbable, for in virtually every case of so-called program or representational music, it’s only when we’re made aware in advance of what the piece is meant to depict that the power of suggestion triggers the intended mental imagery.
What you will hear in Spohr’s Fourth Symphony is a fairly Classically structured early Romantic symphony in a conventional fast-slow-scherzo-fast layout. Deviating slightly from the norm, the Scherzo is a fast-paced, march-like movement in a rapid 4/4 (possibly cut time) that’s almost equal in length and weight to the first movement. Also perhaps a bit unusual for a German symphony of this date—though understandable, given Spohr’s effort to produce music of a depictive nature—are the colorful orchestration and spotlighting of individual instruments in numerous, extended solos. But if you were to ask, “Does the whole thing hang together and work as a coherent, logically developed musical argument, independent of its literary associations?” I’d have to say no. The novelty of the work made it very popular at the time, and it was acclaimed a masterpiece. You’re free to judge for yourselves.
Five years passed before Spohr again took up his pen to write a symphony. This time, the incentive came in the form of a commission in 1837 from the organizers of Vienna’s Concerts Spirituels, and this time Spohr responded with a normal four-movement, non-programmatic score, which, pointedly, was praised by the critics as a work that was “completely self-contained and cut from whole cloth.” To the average concert-goer, however, the earlier Fourth Symphony gave him something more tangible to relate to, and was therefore more appealing; and so Spohr’s Fifth Symphony faded into near oblivion following its first performance. Too bad, really, for it’s a more soundly constructed work, one which acknowledges Spohr’s awareness of cyclic form, while simultaneously adopting an approach to melody, harmony, and style that exhibits a close cousinly relationship to Mendelssohn. Listening to Spohr’s Fifth Symphony, it becomes easier to understand why he was held in such high regard in his lifetime, and was judged to have inherited the mantle of Beethoven.
In 1838, Spohr was invited to provide the Overture to Karl Birnbaum’s play
. According to the album note, three other Kassel composers were engaged to provide additional incidental music. The Overture wasn’t published until 1874.
Howard Griffiths and CPO
competing against Howard Shelley and Hyperion to see which conductor and label would complete its cycle of Spohr’s symphonies first. I emphasize the past tense because the race was won by Shelley and Hyperion when they crossed the finish line in 2012 with their release of the symphonies Nos. 7 and 9. Those are the same two symphonies that Griffiths and CPO have yet to produce in order to complete their survey.
I’ll confess that I’ve heard only one of Shelley’s Spohr CDs. It was the first to come out, and it contained the symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, plus the
Grand Concert Overture
. So, unfortunately, I can’t compare Shelley’s 4 and 5 to this new 4 and 5 from Griffiths and CPO. But I have been collecting Griffiths’s cycle, so I can compare his 1 and 2 to Shelley’s 1 and 2. In a nutshell, the differences—mainly in orchestral execution and recording, rather than in matters of interpretation—are of such a minor degree as to conclude that if you already have one you don’t need the other, unless you consider the music important enough, and you are so enchanted by it, that you feel the necessity to have it in multiple versions. My sense is that Griffiths’s Hannover North German Radio forces are a bit more polished in their performances and perhaps a bit more conversant with Spohr’s German Romantic vernacular than are Shelley’s Italian Swiss Orchestra players; and, at least on Shelley’s First and Second symphonies disc, Hyperion’s sound isn’t quite as focused as it is on Griffiths’s CPO disc containing the First Symphony.
So, if you’ve not yet sampled either of these two cycles, I would lean towards Griffiths, which obviously means that this penultimate release in his survey of Spohr’s symphonies gets my recommendation.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 5 in C minor, Op. 102 by Louis Spohr
North German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1837; Kassel, Germany
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