More Spohr

Rehearsing the first movement of the Spohr sextet. Gentle, warm music that perhaps doesn’t have the depth of Brahms but its texture bears a striking similarity in parts to the music of Richard Strauss – the lyricism, the shifts of key, the fluttering trills. http://www.divertimento.uk.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/YouCut_20220429_064323060.mp4   There is a lot of trilling to do in Spohr.  They are a characteristic part of his music, for sure.  He was a well known and influential violin teacher and articulating trills was a skill that was very much a part of his method.  What is particularly challenging for the performer is the way he incorporates trills in runs of fast notes that are already tricky enough without having to add extra twiddles! But we enjoy it all the same, keeping our fingers nimble and ready for action. Here is an example of the trilling going on between first violin and viola in that same movement: http://www.divertimento.uk.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Twiddles.mp3   And from the slow movement, less trilling, more collective enjoyment in the melodic sweep and contrasting rhythmic decisiveness. http://www.divertimento.uk.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/YouCut_20220429_065623745.mp4   As mentioned in a previous blog post, one of Spohr’s innovations was in providing rehearsal letters in the music to make it easier for musicians to rehearse the music together, so that they could go beyond such practicalities and engage with more profound issues such as phrasing and interpretation.  I wonder what Spohr would have made of the deep philosophical discussion going on here: (you may need to turn up your volume to hear our voices.) http://www.divertimento.uk.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/YouCut_20220429_071537860.mp4...

Music of the heart

Compared to many artists and musicians – Berlioz for example, or Mozart, or van Gogh – we know very little about the inner life of Johannes Brahms.   He took great pains to dispose of any trail that would give anything away, even requesting of friends that they destroy evidence of correspondence from him.   What we are left with is his music, which is surely as confessional as any words written in a letter, and tells us so much about him.  Surely he was complicit in this manner of self-revelation. “If there is anyone here I have not offended, I apologise”, he said when leaving a party.  Amusing as it is, it shows how single minded he was.  (That such irascibility may have been the result of sleep apnoea is by the by.) By the time that Brahms composed his Op 18 string sextet in 1860, aged 37, he had written a large amount of music, including, it is believed, twenty string quartets.  Most of this he had destroyed in a determined striving for what he thought was worthwhile, particularly in relation to the iconic musical forbears he so revered. So this sextet was written, surprisingly, before his first official string quartet, Op 51 No 1.  He needed time to find a way to form his own statement and response to the acknowledged supreme writers of quartet music – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.  Although he learnt the violin when he was young, his primary instrument was the piano, and he was a piano teacher in the early part of his career.  One of his pupils, Minna Völckers, recalled: ‘Between...

Four plus two = Spohr

John Braga writes: The string sextet is quite a rare animal.  Neither Mozart nor Haydn nor Beethoven nor Schubert nor Mendelssohn ever composed one. You wait for ages for a string sextet, then two come along at once! Divertimento String Quartet plus friends will be playing Spohr’s only sextet, written in 1848 and Brahms’s sextet no. 1 written in 1860.  So, two mid-nineteenth-century works. Brahms is of course a major composer, and very popular today.  Spohr is not a well-known name to most people, so I want to start by giving some brief details of the man, his life and his legacy. Louis Spohr was born in Brunswick, North Germany in 1784.  To put this date in context, In Vienna Mozart was aged 28 and sadly had only 7 more years to live.  Haydn was in full flow in Esterhazy, aged 52, and would live another 25 years.  Beethoven was a lad of 14 living in Bonn. Spohr showed early musical ability and was taken on by the Duke of Brunswick as a violin player in his orchestra at the age of 15.  From that time on to the end of his long life he was able to earn a living as a player, conductor and composer.  Unlike Mozart and Schubert he never had to starve in a garret.  He married an 18-year-old harpist, Dorette Scheidler, in 1806 and they remained happily married until her death 28 years later.  He composed 10 symphonies, several operas, 18 violin concertos, 4 clarinet concertos, many songs, 36 string quartets and a very successful octet and nonet.  At the height of his fame...

The sound of life

It is safe to assume that when John Dowland – whose poignant ‘Flow My Tears’, in an arrangement for string quartet, we are playing in our forthcoming concerts – took up his post as lutenist and composer at the court of Christian IV of Denmark in 1598, he travelled by ship from London to Copenhagen.  In a way, ports such as Copenhagen were the equivalent of modern day airports, making the world seem a smaller place. In finding connections to distant shores in our current concert programme it is clearer than ever that ‘no man is an island’, to quote John Donne (a direct contemporary of Dowland.)  Carl Nielsen, born on the Danish island of Funen in 1865 would have been very aware from a very young age of Copenhagen’s pivotal position in maritime connections to the wider world.  Nielsen said that ‘I do not enjoy composing music if I continue to do it in the same way.’  His music is certainly very stimulating to play.  To say that it is an unpredictable ride might suggest that it is difficult to listen to or hold together coherently in performance but somehow he knows how to make it all work.  As a violinist himself (in the Royal Danish Orchestra for a while) he had an inside knowledge of string playing and gained considerably from playing many pieces that stimulated his imagination. He wrote his second string quartet in F minor mostly while he was spending time in Germany on a scholarship after he had officially finished his musical studies at the Copenhagen Conservatory.  He relished the input gained at Leipzig,...

A distant shore

The contemporary composer Caroline Shaw lives on the east coast of the USA, in New York – a faraway shore from Topsham in Devon but as was mentioned in the previous blog post the trading connections between Devon and America are historically longstanding.  This map shows the trading links – in particular the route to Newfoundland with its fishing riches. As we will see, the connections across the sea are greater than a map can show. Shaw was born in North Carolina, studied Suzuki violin with her mother and subsequently developed as much of an interest in singing as violin playing, although she has said that she has a particularly close affinity with the string quartet as she fell in love with the genre when she formed a quartet with friends at school.  She has very diverse musical interests and has collaborated with musicians in a number of different genres.  She is not easily pigeonholed. One of the characteristics of Shaw’s writing is how she embraces older musical forms and weaves the old into the new, but without it being obvious or derivative.  She uses it as a spark for her musical imagination.  In this sense she is writing in a great tradition of course, along with many other illustrious composers. Entr’acte, which we are playing, is a response to the minuet and trio of Haydn’s Op 77 No 2 quartet.  In programming Entr’acte with chamber music by Dowland and Locke written long before Haydn established the string quartet as a genre to be reckoned with, it feels right that Haydn’s significance is implicitly acknowledged, especially as we then...

A composer in ordinary

In our next programme we will be starting with music written long before the advent of the string quartet as we know it.  The viol consort music of the early English baroque period in particular has a very strong affinity with the concept of the string quartet – four equal parts interacting and ‘talking’ together.  It seems that as long as there have been chambers (as opposed to big halls), there has been chamber music. Let me take you up the Exe estuary. Topsham, Devon, in 1788, bustling with life and trade. Topsham was a key port with strong trading connections to places as far away as The Netherlands to the East and Newfoundland to the West.  A century and a half before this picture was painted a boy chorister at nearby Exeter Cathedral brazenly inscribed his name in the stone structure of the organ loft. It is not known why he used this spelling.  Maybe he was worried that the correct spelling, Matthew Locke, would have taken him too long to scratch in the stone; he might have got caught vandalising the building and have been severely punished.  One wonders what he was doing in the organ loft anyway.  I suppose he must have had to pump the bellows occasionally. Locke’s tutor at Exeter would have been Edward Gibbons, brother of Orlando Gibbons.  This curious little piece ‘What Strikes the Clocke?’  by Edward Gibbons, originally for three viols but here played on recorders, shows that instrumental chamber music had a place even at that time.     After his time as a chorister Locke broadened his vision considerably, travelling to...