Spohr’s Third Symphony

I’m a fan of Louis Spohr, a nineteenth-century composer who was famous in his time but is obscure today. Recordings of many of his works are available, but he’s rarely heard in concert halls. I don’t expect anything I write here will create a Spohr revival, but offering some notes on his works will at least make them available on the Internet for others who might be interested. I may do an occasional blog post highlighting his works, and to start things off, I’ll write here about his Third Symphony.

Spohr published nine symphonies, and he wrote and withdrew a Tenth Symphony, which survives but generally isn’t considered part of his canon. His inspiration declined in the latter part of his life, and I find his Third, Fourth, and Fifth symphonies to be his best ones. For this post I’ll give some brief “program notes” on my favorite, the Third in C minor. The recording I have is by the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra, available as an MP3 download or CD from Classics Online.

The first movement is in sonata form with a dark slow introduction, with nice use of pianissimo horns toward the end. The main body is in 6/8 time, starting in an agitated C minor. With the shift to E-flat for the second theme, things brighten up, with the woodwinds tossing around a dancing figure that answering the strings. Instead of a development section, we have a reprise of the introduction, now at the Allegro tempo. In the recapitulation there isn’t a lot of change; the second theme is in C major. The coda gets darker again, with a bit of the receding-storm sound that’s characteristic of Spohr, but C major prevails at the end.

The second movement is a quiet piece in 9/8 time in F major. The basses put in a bit of doubt with a repeated ascending minor scale and the horns contribute warning notes, but they’re pushed aside by the broad second theme. This is followed by a melancholy discussion between the strings and woodwinds. In parts of this movement Spohr uses the winds in a way that puts me in mind of Dvořák.

We’re roused from the quiet ending by the scherzo, which brings back all the agitation from the first movement. It transitions smoothly into the lighter trio, where the flute keeps coming back with a syncopated tune. The first part returns as expected and ends with a firm cadence in C minor.

The last movement opens with a figure that’s reminiscent of the finale of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. It starts off in unison, but we quickly find we’re in C major. A syncopated descending scale soon appears, and both of these motifs are combined in the second theme, which lifts the music’s spirits still higher. For the development, Spohr builds a short but spirited fugue on the opening motif. There aren’t any surprises in the reprise, and the coda carries the piece to a joyful finish.

This is music that should be heard more than it is.

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