Faustby Louis Spohr; Johathan Stracey;Jessondaby Louis Spohr;Pietro von Abanoby Louis Spohr

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  • Faust by Louis Spohr; Johathan Stracey; Jessonda by Louis Spohr; Pietro von Abano by LouisSpohrReview by: John DaverioNotes, Second Series, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Mar., 1991), pp. 937-940Published by: Music Library AssociationStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/941932 .Accessed: 14/06/2014 03:32

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  • MUSIC REVIEWS EDITED BY FRANCES BARULICH

    Louis Spohr. Faust. Intro. by Clive Brown; edition and editorial mat- ters by Johathan Stracey. (Selected Works of Louis Spohr, 1.) New York: Garland Publishing, 1990. [Intro. material, pp. xvii; libretto in Ger., pp. xix-lix; score, 482 p., cloth. ISBN 0-8240-1500-2 (acid-free paper). $155.00.]

    Louis Spohr. Jessonda. Intro. by Clive Brown. (Selected Works of Louis Spohr, 2.) New York: Garland Publishing, 1988. [Intro., pp. v-xiv; fac- sim. score, 273 p., cloth. ISBN 0-8240-1501-0 (acid-free paper). $85.00.]

    Louis Spohr. Pietro von Abano. Intro. by Clive Brown. (Selected Works of Louis Spohr, 3.) New York: Garland Publishing, 1988. [Intro., pp. v-xi; libretto in Ger., pp. 1-28; facsim. score, [513] p., cloth. ISBN 0- 8240-1502-9 (acid-free paper). $130.00.]

    The music of Louis Spohr makes for a fascinating case study in Rezeptionsges- chichte. Hailed at the 1824 Leipzig pre- miere of his opera Jessonda as "the true master of German art," Spohr had already been consigned to an equivocal position in the pantheon of great composers, as both epigone and innovator, even before his death in 1859. And by 1866, when Eduard Hanslick noted with regret the almost total disappearance of Spohr's music from the concert hall, he seems to have lost a place altogether. The brief upsurge of interest occasioned by the 1884 centenary of his birth dissipated quickly. In the first half of our century, Edward Dent summed up his achievements with the flippant assertion that his whole life had been "one perpetual vi- olin concerto" (The Rise of Romantic Opera [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976; lectures delivered at Cornell Univer- sity, 1937-38], 148). It is a sad tale, espe- cially in the light of Spohr's seriousness of purpose, his contributions to practically all of the major early nineteenth-century gen- res, and the undisputedly high level of his craftsmanship. Yet there are reasons for today's generally indifferent attitude to Spohr's music. Perhaps we have less tol- erance than did the nineteenth century for a representative of Biedermeier culture less

    intent on reformulating tradition, as Brahms did, than on preserving it. Kapellmeister- musik, an apt designation for much of Spohr's instrumental music and a perfectly legitimate category in his day, has not fared well in ours.

    In no other genre is this situation more regrettable than in opera, the sphere in which Spohr fashioned works of real power and historical significance. Indeed, opera was central to Spohr's output, yet of his ten dramatic works, which were composed be- tween 1806 (Die Priifung) and 1844 (Die Kreuzfahrer)-the period bounded by Beet- hoven's Fidelio and Wagner's Tannhduser- and which included examples of rescue opera (Jessonda), Mdrchenoper (Der Berggeist, 1825), and Schaueroper (Pietro von Abano, 1827), only Jessonda remained in the rep- ertoire of German theaters by World War I. Since then, the operas have suffered al- most total neglect. A recent issue of the Bielefelder Katalog (Jg. 38/1, 1990) lists one recording of the Faust Overture and two of the Jessonda Overture; Paul Katow's 1984 discography (in Hartmut Becker and Rai- ner Krempien, Louis Spohr: Festschrift und Ausstellungskatalog zum 200. Geburtstag [Kas- sel: Wenderoth, 1984], 138-40) makes ref- erence to recordings of a single aria from Faust and a Romance from Zemire und Azor.

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  • NOTES, March 1991

    The state of affairs with editions is little better. Although piano-vocal scores were generally published soon after an opera's premiere and reissued several times there- after, Spohr's have been long out of print. Until recently only Jessonda was available in full score in an 1881 Peters edition pre- pared by Gustav Kogel and published largely at Brahms's instigation.

    Therefore, Garland's publication of three of the operas in full score-Faust, a criti- cally edited manuscript score by Jonathan Stracey; Jessonda, a reprint of the 1881 Pe- ters edition; and Pietro von Abano, a facsim- ile of Spohr's autograph/conducting score- answers a real need. These publications form part of a ten-volume series, under the general editorship of Clive Brown (author of Louis Spohr: a critical biography [Cam- bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984]), intended to give a representative cross-sec- tion of the composer's oeuvre. Of the three volumes, Pietro von Abano is the most inter- esting from a bibliographic point of view because it presents a facsimile of the single extant autograph for a mature Spohr op- era, all the others having presumably been destroyed in the Allied bombing of the Kassel Staatstheater in 1943; Brown pro- vides a useful transcription of Spohr's au-

    tograph text and stage directions for those unable to decipher the German Gothic script in the manuscript. Stracey's edition of Faust conflates the 1813 and 1818 Singspiel ver- sions of the opera and its 1852 remodeling with orchestrally accompanied recitatives for

    performance at Covent Garden's Royal Italian Opera. In the Introductions to each volume Brown has also supplied thought- ful historical commentaries, culled from his

    Spohr biography. A few editorial short-

    comings somewhat limit the usefulness of the scores, however. Stracey's edition, oddly enough, does not include any of the stage directions; for these one must consult the 1814 Vienna libretto of J. C. Bernard re-

    produced in facsimile at the beginning of the volume. And although he notes that there are serious divergences among the

    principal sources (an 1843/44 manuscript copy of the earlier version of the opera by Spohr's pupil H. M. Schletterer, Spohr's autograph of the 1852 recitatives, and the 1854 Peters vocal score), it is unclear if his Critical Notes, with fewer than a dozen ci- tations, include them all. The Jessonda and Pietro von Abano volumes contain no critical

    apparatus at all, yet it would be helpful to know in more detail of the differences be- tween printed score and autograph on the one hand, and nineteenth-century vocal scores on the other. These reservations aside, the availability of three of Spohr's most significant stageworks in score will, one hopes, facilitate a renewed evaluation of the composer's place in the history of Roman- tic opera. As Brown has frequently pointed out, the time for a reassessment is long overdue.

    Critical appraisals of Spohr's operatic ac- complishments have tended to place him in the line extending from Carl Maria von Weber and Heinrich Marschner to Richard Wagner, to view his works, in other words, from the angle of music drama. Ernest Biicken, for instance, quoted a passage in the Jessonda act 1 Finale (Peters score, pp. 78-79) whose declamatory vocal writ- ing and chromatic side-slips seem to fore- shadow Wagner (in Die Musik des 19. Jahr- hunderts bis zur Moderne; Handbuch der Musikwissenschaft [Wildpark-Potsdam: Aka- demische Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion, 1929], 87-88); while Hans Redlich, in an essay titled "Wagnerian Elements in Pre- Wagnerian Opera" (Essays Presented to Egon Wellesz, ed. by Jack Westrup [Oxford: Clar- endon Press, 1966], 152-53), noted the similarity between the introductory orches- tral passage to Jessonda's recitative "O Schwester" (act 1, No. 6, mm. 1-4) and the opening of the Tristan act 1 Einleitung. In his New Grove article on Spohr, Martin Weyer likewise stresses Spohr's influence on Wagner, and Brown (in both his Spohr biography and the Garland series intro- ductions) makes much of Spohr's use of leitmotifs and experiments with durchkom-

    poniert opera. This seems to me a question- able line to take not only because Spohr will necessarily come up short when judged by criteria appropriate for music drama but also because he operated within a funda- mentally different aesthetic of opera. If the nineteenth century witnessed a shift from an aesthetic built on the Beautiful (i.e., the typical or nobly simple) to one that prized the Characteristic (or idiosyncratic), then a studied account of Spohr's dramaturgy must proceed from the premise that he adhered to the former category.

    A few examples from Faust, Spohr's first mature opera, will clarify these points. Al- though Brown identifies three leitmotifs-

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  • Music Reviews

    "Hell," "Love," and "Faust"-none is truly distinctive as a melodic entity. Indeed, the lower half-step appoggiaturas of the "Hell" motive are omnipresent (almost to the point of mannerism) in Spohr's melodies taken as a whole; the "Love" motive also amounts to little more than conventional figuration: a sigh motive with upbeat, it is largely in- distinguishable from a variety of similar patterns that pervade Spohr's composi- tions. Nor can we speak of a "motivic web," even though Weber, in his 1816 review of the opera, claimed that "A few melodies, felicitously and aptly devised, weave like delicate threads through the whole, and hold it together artistically" (Writings on Music, trans. Martin Cooper, ed. John Warrack [Cambridge: Cambridge Univer- sity Press, 1981], 193); we must wait for the middle of the opera for the "Faust" motive (act 2, No. 15), again a figurational pattern with little motivic profile, which only re- surfaces once (in the 1852 recitative to No. 19, mm. 70ff.). The elements of Spohr's dramaturgy will emerge better from a con- sideration of the opening scene of act 2 (where Mephistopheles summons up the witch Sycorax, who provides the love po- tion that will make Faust irresistible to Ku- nigunde). Here a composer might proceed in one of two ways, either by writing music that strives for dramatic realism or by em- phasizing the balletic qualities of the scene; Spohr opted for the second alternative. The scene is held together by the rondo-like re- currence of a thematic complex made up of two elements: a drone supporting an ob- sessively repeated clarinet figure and a stretch of 2/8 scherzando music of Men- delssohnian lightness. In that the complex, with little change in character, supplies the backdrop for a number of divergent situ- ations (the opening dance for the witches, the approach of Faust and Mephistoph- eles, Sycorax's offering of the potion to Faust, the closing entreaties of the amo- rously charged witches), it is difficult to speak of musico-dramatic realism. Rather, the associative fluidity of the music makes the scene into a kind of dream sequence. Likewise, the scene's formal rounding-off indicates that Spohr conceived it, like most of his large-scale ensembles, as a tableau- a perfectly legitimate operatic category and one of Spohr's favorites.

    In Jessonda the tableau takes on an even more significant role. Here too it is prob-

    ably an error to view the opera's through- composition as a proto-Wagnerian trait, for as Anna Amalie Abert has argued ("We- bers 'Euryanthe' und Spohrs 'Jessonda' als grosse Opern," Festschrift Walter Wiora [Kassel: Barenreiter, 1967], 436-39), Spohr still maintained a sharp distinction between action-forwarding accompanied recitatives and reflective arias and ensembles. At the same time, it is unfair to criticize Spohr, as Wagner did (in "Spohr's Jessonda at Leip- zig" [1874]), for his failure to coordinate stage action and music and for his "lyric dalliance." Spohr was less concerned with the kind of dramatic naturalism for which Weber strove in portions of his Euryanthe (and which Wagner realized some time later) than with an aesthetic that viewed opera as a spectacle for the projection of emotions. As he put it in his "Aufruf an deutschen Komponisten" (Allgemeine musikalische Zei- tung 24 [1823]: 461-62), an opera text should provide for "beautiful decorations and costumes as well as splendid proces- sions for the gratification of the eye," and in addition allow the composer opportu- nities for "the painting of almost all human passions." In accordance with this prescrip- tion, the dramaturgy of Jessonda hinges on the contrast between massive choral, processional, and dance scenes, and mo- ments of lyric introspection for the prin- cipal characters. The music for the opera's impressive tableaux (especially those in- volving the Indians, Brahmins, and Bay- aderes) is given its own tonal, metric, and orchestrational profile; much of it is con- ceived in Eb, 6/8 meter, with trombones and Janissary instruments featured in the orchestra. But the choral music functions mainly as a foil for the more intimate scenes. Thus, the Recitative and Aria, No. 7 ("Als in mitternacht 'ger Stunde"), where Jes- sonda bemoans the fate of her lost love, is set in sharp relief by the surrounding crowd scenes; its impact is even further height- ened by Spohr's reversal of the traditional cantabile-allegro scheme of the virtuoso aria, and a tonal plan moving from E minor in the Recitative, through G minor and Ab in the aria. The dramatic principle at work here has little to do with seamless conti- nuity, but rather with the registering of shocks: in the aria, through the fast/slow juxtaposition and the expressive half-step shift which brings a close in the Neapolitan region; and from a broader perspective,

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  • NOTES, March 1991 NOTES, March 1991

    through the contrast between ceremonial chorus and introverted sol...

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