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Louis Spohr, self-portrait

In June, Louis Spohr arrived unexpectedly in Leipzig for a rendezvous with Wagner.  Spohr, remembered today principally as a violinist, was at that time regarded as a composer already enshrined in the musical pantheon — in J. W. Davison’s words (1843): “a witness to his own admission into the realms of classical immortality. His writings take their station among the master-pieces of Bach, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber and Cherubini. They have long enjoyed that distinction and nothing can now remove them from the rock upon which they are fixed … their influence will survive until art is on its death-bed.” [i] Alas for Spohr, tempus vincit omnia.

“Spohr was of Herculean stature,” wrote Edward Speyer. “This and his erect figure, his dignified and manly bearing, made his appearance extraordinarily impressive.” He was certainly an imposing figure to Joseph, who was introduced to him at an evening of chamber music at Hauptmann’s (Johann Sebastian Bach’s former apartment in the Thomasschule). [1] In the course of the evening Mendelssohn, Spohr and Julius Rietz read Mendelssohn’s C minor Trio, dedicated to Spohr, after which they played a trio that Spohr had dedicated to Mendelssohn. Before beginning Mendelssohn’s Scherzo, Spohr asked the composer what tempo he had in mind. “Mendelssohn replied, in an amiably obliging way, ‘Let’s just begin. Whatever tempo you take will be the right one.’ When it came time to play Spohr’s trio, Mendelssohn wished to know how fast Spohr wanted to take the first movement. ‘Na so!’ cried Spohr, ‘eins, zwei, drei, vier,’ beating the quarters for the composer of the Midsummer Night’s Dream with his bow, as if he were instructing a student at the Conservatorium.” [ii]

The next day, Wagner hosted a supper at Brockhaus’s home, after which, Spohr recounts in the third person, the evening was spent “most delightfully at Mendelssohn’s, who did his utmost to entertain and please Spohr.” “This family has for me something very idealistic about them, they present a combination of inward and external features, and withal so much beautiful domestic happiness, that one seldom sees the like of in actual life. In their establishment and whole manner of living there is so much unassuming modesty amid all the obvious luxury and wealth around them, that one cannot but feel at one’s ease. […] [Mendelssohn] himself played a most extremely difficult and highly characteristic composition of his own, called ‘Siebenzehn ernste Variationen’ [Variations sérieuses, Op. 54], with immense effect; then followed two of Spohr’s quartets — among them the newest (the 30th.) — on which occasion Mendelssohn and Wagner read from the score with countenances expressive of their delight. Besides these, the wife of doctor Frege [2] sang some of Spohr’s songs, which Mendelssohn accompanied beautifully; and in this manner the hours passed rapidly and delightfully with alternate music and lively conversation, till midnight drew on unobserved, and at length gave impressive warning to break up.” [iii]

Mendelssohn hastily improvised a Gewandhaus concert in Spohr’s honor, to be given before a specially invited audience. The program, which took place on the evening of the 25th, consisted entirely of Spohr’s own works: the Overture to Faust, an aria from Jessonda (Frl. Mayer), the Violin Concerto No. 7 in e minor (Joachim), songs with piano and clarinet accompaniment (Mme. Frege), and the Symphony No. 4 in F Major “Weihe der Töne.” Mendelssohn conducted and played the piano. Joseph at first protested that he was unready to play, but Mendelssohn insisted, saying “Joachim, you must be part of it — you are our Pentecostal ox that is to be sacrificed today!” [iv] No doubt unaware of Joseph’s self-professed lack of preparation, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung reported: “the 16-year-old [sic] Joachim played the concerto with the technical polish of a man. Only in the expression did one sense that that deeper life experience, with its bitter pains and exalted joys, as art likes to portray them, and as the master has actually included them in this work, has not yet passed through his naïve, youthful breast, and left its mark. One could almost wish for this talented boy that destiny would soon work a little — not too much — mischief with him. This cannot be spared him, if, in the future, he wishes to awaken, not just admiration, but also the compassion of his listeners.” [v] Spohr, in his Autobiography, however, notes, again in the third person, that the “Grand violin concerto” was “played to Spohr’s complete satisfaction by the wonderful boy Joachim.” [vi]

Spohr was surprised and delighted by the concert. “In this manner up to the last moment was Mendelssohn’s thoughtful and kind attention evinced to Spohr,” he writes, and tells us that the following morning, taking leave at the railway station, Mendelssohn was “the last of all, who, as the train at first proceeded slowly, ran for a considerable distance by the side of the carriage, until he could no longer keep up with it, and his kindly beaming eyes were the last that left their expression on the minds of the travellers from Leipzig, little anticipating indeed that it was to be their last meeting on this side of the grave!” [vii]

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Louis Spohr


[1] “It was an antique room with panelled wainscotting,” wrote Hauptmann’s student John Francis Barnett, “and it did not seem as if it had undergone any material change since the time that Bach occupied it. In a corner near the window was a German stove, which, to me, looked very unlike a stove, compared with our English fireplaces. In fact it had the appearance of a large model tower in white porcelain, reaching almost to the ceiling. By the wall, opposite the window, was an upright piano, and at the side of the room, near the door, stood a secretaire. […] A pretty canary was flying about the room, and perched sometimes upon [Hauptmann’s] shoulder.” [Barnett/REMINISCENCES, p. 33.]

[2] Livia Frege.

[i] Musical World, Vol. 18 (1843), p.259, quoted in Clive Brown: “Louis Spohr,” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed October 5, 2006), http://www.grovemusic.com

[ii] Moser/JOACHIM 1908 I, p. 69.

[iii] Spohr/AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Vol. 2, pp. 277-278.

[iv] Moser/JOACHIM 1908, p. 69ff.

[v] Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, Vol. 48, No. 27 (July 8, 1846), pp. 457-459.

[vi] Spohr/AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Vol. 2, p. 278.