Louis Spohr - The Inventor
Have you ever heard of Louis Spohr?
If you are an average concert-goer, you probably haven’t as he is one of the ‘forgotten masters’. But if you are a violinist, you have probably played at least one of his 18 violin concertos.
Louis Spohr was a German violinist, composer and conductor. His best known violin concerto is the Concerto no.8 in A minor 'in the form of a vocal scene', written in one movement. It is in the style of an operatic aria and was recorded by Jascha Heifetz, among others. Spohr was a famous violinist in his day and a key figure in the development of modern violin playing. In about 1820 he invented the violin chinrest, thus freeing the violinist's left hand. Spohr also wrote the Violinschule (Violin School), in which he noted advances in violin technique, such as spiccato.
As a conductor, Spohr also made innovations which continue to be used in the modern orchestra today. He was the first major conductor to use a baton. Until then, conducting was usually done by the concertmaster's violin bow or the cembalist. This caused considerable alarm among players of the Philharmonic Society in London in 1820, who were not quite sure what Spohr had in store for them, waving about with this 'stick'! In addition, Spohr invented rehearsal letters in sheet music which mark certain starting points in the music. So, today conductors ask the orchestral players to start playing from a certain letter instead of the whole piece, which both saves time and makes rehearsing easier.
Spohr was born in the small town of Braunschweig, Germany, in 1784. Both his parents being musicians, he began his violin studies at an early age. He progressed quite rapidly, making his first European concert tour when he was only 15. The tour, however, proved a financial disaster. Luckily, Spohr was offered a position at the Duke of Brunswick's court, where he met the well-known violinist Franz Eck. After restructuring Spohr's technique, Eck took him on a European tour which established Spohr's reputation. From then on, Spohr's career led him to important positions such as conductor at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, Austria and opera director in Frankfurt. While working as a concertmaster in Gotha, Spohr met his future wife, the virtuoso harpist Dorette Scheidler. They performed together as a violin and harp duo. In devotion to his wife, Spohr composed his ensemble music with harp, as well as a Sonata for violin and harp. They were happily married until Dorette's death at the early age of 47. Spohr's final position was at the court of Kassel, Germany, where he married again. Spohr's last years were not happy ones professionally. Spohr's employer, the Elector of Hesse, refused to grant him leave of absence. Spohr left anyway, but his salary was cut and eventually, he was pensioned off. That same year, Spohr broke his arm, leaving him unable to playthe violin for the rest of his life.
Spohr was a prolific composer and wrote music in all genres: symphonies, chamber music, oratorios, concertos, operas...One of his operas, Jessonda, had a controversial subject: the issue of a widow burning in India. It was performed well into the 20th century and was banned by the Nazis. Spohr often claimed that he had learned compostition mostly by studying the scores of Mozart. His works reflect the gracious elegance of Classicism but also reflect Romanticism and influenced later, more famous composers such as Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Mahler, Strauss, Bruckner. Spohr's clarinet concertos are still an important part of the clarinetist's repertoire.
Spohr was hugely popular in his lifetime, audiences loved both his playing and his compositions. Among his admirers were Queen Victoria, Goethe, The Brothers Grimm, Napoleon, Beethoven, Alexander von Humboldt...Spohr is mentioned in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado in a song! Spohr was said to be a generous, warm-hearted person and also a skilful painter and chess player. His autobiography (1865) reveals his personality and makes entertaining reading. He was an active Freemason, like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.