Louis Spohr

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Nonet in F Major, Op.31

For Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon

Louis Spohr (1784-1859) is still relatively well-known. He was one of the foremost musicians of the 19th century, a renowned concert violinist and an important teacher, composer and conductor. His Nonet in F Major, Op.31 for Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon is the first of its type and the question arises as to how it was he came to compose a work for such an unusual ensemble. In his autobiography, Spohr described the circumstances which led to the nonet’s composition:


“Word had hardly gotten around Vienna that I was to settle there when one morning a distinguished visitor presented himself: a Herr Johann von Tost, manufacturer and passionate music lover. (Tost is remembered today, if at all, for commissioning two sets of string quartets from Haydn, Opp. 54 and 55) He began a hymn of praise about my talent as a composer, and expressed the wish that, for a suitable emolument, everything that I should write in Vienna be reckoned as his property for a period of three years. Then he added, ‘Your works may be performed as often as possible, but the score must be borrowed from me for each occasion and performed only in my presence.’ I was to think it over and myself determine the fee for each type of composition. With this he presented his card and took his leave. I attempted in vain to fathom the motive of this proposal, and I finally decided to question him directly. First, however, I made some inquiries about him, and determined that he was a rich man and a great lover of music who never missed a public concert. This was reassuring, and I decided to accept his proposal. As fee, I set 30 ducats for a quartet, 35 for a quintet and so forth. When I asked him just what he proposed to do with my works, he was reluctant to answer, but finally said, ‘I have two objectives. First, I want to be invited to the musicales where your pieces will be played, and therefore I must have them in my possession. Secondly, I hope that on my business trips the possession of such treasures will bring me the acquaintanceship of music lovers who, in turn, may be useful to me in my business.’ While all this did not make much sense to me, I found it most pleasantly flattering, and I had no further reservations. Tost accepted the fees that I had set, and further agreed to pay upon delivery. The appropriate documents were drawn up and signed accordingly. (Tost apparently went to some effort and expense in helping Spohr and his family in their move to Vienna. He even went so far as to purchase furniture for Spohr’s new flat.) “Thus we found ourselves in possession of an elegant and tasteful establishment, which no other artist family in the city could match,” However, even with Tost’s financial help, Spohr had incurred considerable expenses in his move and he was in need of funds to pay off these debts. Therefore, as soon as he settled in “I bethought myself of my obligation to Tost, and asked him what he would like. He thought for a moment and decided for a nonet, made up of four strings plus flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn, to be written in such a way that each instrument would appear in its true character. I was much attracted by the difficulty of the assignment and went right to work. This was the origin of the famous Nonet...I finished the work in short order and delivered it to Tost. It was played at one of the first musicales of the new season and aroused such enthusiasm that it was repeated frequently in the course of that same season. Tost appeared each time with the score and parts under his arm, set them out on the music stands himself, and gathered them up again after the performance. He was as pleased by the applause as if he himself had been the composer.”

Larius J. Ussi writing in The Chamber Music Journal writes of the Nonet, "In discussing the Spohr nonet, like most works, it is well to keep in mind the period from which it dates. 1813 was a transitional period. It represented the closing years of the so-called Vienna Classical era and the newly emerging style of the Romantic. The first thing one notices is, despite the fact that the winds outnumber the strings, the quality of the writing is such that the string parts can always be heard. Though written on a grand scale, (and indeed Spohr called it a Grand Nonetto), there is, as might be expected, no introduction. It begins immediately with an Allegro whose main theme is presented by the violin and repeated by the winds. This motif constantly reappears throughout the movement in various guises and comes to dominate it entirely. The second movement is somber somewhat mysterious sounding Scherzo. There are two trios. The first trio is given over to the violin with a pizzicato accompaniment in the other strings. It resembles a Ländler of the sort Mozart often used. In the canonic more serious second trio, the lead is given to the winds. A soulful and beautiful Adagio serves as the third movement. Boisterous, celebratory and appealing is the main theme to the wonderful Vivace finale. The music trips along with infectious high spirits of the sort Schubert was to create in many of his best chamber works. The powerful imagination which Spohr displays, especially here, but also throughout the earlier movements, with regard to his use of the instruments to create a multitude of tone colors, is but one of many reasons why this work can be considered a masterpiece. It is certainly one of the very best pieces of chamber music he wrote."


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