Spohr Violin and Viola Duo o

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Spohr Violin and Viola Duo op. 13
This violin and viola duo, published in Leipzig in 1808, is the earliest work studied and performed as part of this project. It was included, rather in the manner of the op. 67 no. 1 violin duo, as one of the fruits of the regular meetings I had with Clive Brown as part of the fellowship administration. It provided me with the opportunity to play the viola in at least one item of the project works archive.

As with all of the Spohr works examined in the project (here using the first edition with Spohr’s own bowings and fingerings) many of the difficulties in preparing an appropriate performance in accordance with the evidence available are absent. Whilst Spohr’s markings are by no means comprehensive, certainly on a technical level, he indicates quite clearly fingerings and bowings of an artistic character and we attempted to put these into practice as closely as possible, with a few additions and amendments for practical reasons. In all cases, pencilled annotations, which have been preserved in the scanned images of the edition included as part of the work files here, do not contradict or change the substance of Spohr’s writing and seek to preserve his artistic outlook as laid out in this first edition.

Spohr’s markings provide a clear and relatively unambiguous scheme for expressive performance bearing in mind his definitions of ‘fine’ style, as laid out in his Violinschule:
‘A correct style or Delivery requires: perfect intonation, exact division of the notes in a bar, according to their duration, a strict observance of time, of light and of shade, & also of the different kinds of bowing, slurs, doubleturns, shakes &c.

A fine style or delivery besides the preceding, requires the following technical expedients 1st, the finer shades of the management of the bow, as regards the character of tone; viz strong, even, rough, soft, fluty or, in the accentuation and separation of Musical phrases 2nd The artificial shifts which are not used merely on account of any easier mode of playing, but for expression and tone, to which belongs also, the gliding from one note to another, and the changing of the finger on the same tone; 3rd The tremolo in its four degrees. 4th. The increasing of time in furious, impetuous, and passionate passages, as well as the retarding of such as have a tender, doleful, or melancholy character.

But all these means of expression lead to a fine style or delivery only, when good taste watches over their application, and when the soul of the performer guides the bow and animates the finger. When, therefore, the Scholar is so far advanced, as in some measure to command the mechanism of playing, it will then be time to cultivate his taste and to awaken his sensibility. The best way is to let him often hear good Music and distinguished singers and performers, pointing out to him the beauty of the composition as well as the method used by the Singer or Performer to heighten the expression and give effect to the piece.’1
Spohr’s markings indicate quite clearly his use of expressive fingering (inviting the portamento) whilst his markings of Rode’s 7th and his own 9th violin concertos with vibrato signs indicate quite clearly his highly selective use of this device, which we attempted to emulate. In terms of phrasing and bowing, we took his long slurs at face value in this repertoire (since Spohr was a violinist-composer and one can assume that he had a full technical understanding of the implications of long slurs). In this duo, this includes one of Spohr’s particular devices, which can also be found in much material of this period connected closely (as Spohr himself was) to Viotti’s style of playing. This is in the form of the staccato, examples occurring in this piece in the violin part at bar 24 of the slow movement, in both parts in the first movement (at a steady pace, as at bar 23 of the first movement, on a ritardando) or more strikingly at a rapid tempo in the violin part of the finale, as at bars 97-8. In his Violinschule, Spohr writes:
‘The Staccato is made with the upper half of the up-bow, more than that it must not reach, even if twenty, thirty or more notes are to be played in one bow. You should therefore accustom yourself from the beginning to use as little bow as possible, i.e. only as much as is actually required for the clear intonation of tones. The pushing on of the bow is done with a steady fore and back-arm, and solely with the wrist. Every note obtains as much pressure with the first finger of the right hand, as to lay the whole width of the hair on the string. For the distinct separation of the tones, the bow is lifted after every push, but not so much as to cause the edges of the hair to rise off the string.’2
In terms of tempo rubato, tempo flexibility and other related matters, we have been economical with our approach here, bearing in mind Spohr’s comments as preface to the edition of the 9th concerto as published in the Violinschule:
‘The time in each part of this Concerto remains unchanged. The compositions of the Author seldom require the time to be increased, or decreased, to heighten the expression. Generally, only such compositions demand it which are not composed in one form, or imagined in equal measure of time. The Scholar should rarely, and with moderation, if his feeling should induce him to do it, use the means of expression already mentioned, as by any alteration in the measure of time, the whole character of the composition might be destroyed.’3
It would be well however, to point out that this is a little ambiguous. Spohr here seems to be describing unscripted changes of tempo (as has become a performance tradition in the G minor section of the first movement of Beethoven’s violin concerto, for example). It need not preclude the use of tempo rubato, although our application of it, here and elsewhere in this project, is mainly in terms of allowing a dislocation of melodic and accompanimental time, as well as small contrametric uses and agogic accents. These kinds of tempo manipulations are consistent certainly with the testimony of relevant early recordings which, even in the strictest of the styles of playing of the time evident in this so-called ‘classical’ German school, rarely ever approach the quasi-metronomic tempi of many modern interpretations. Here as elsewhere though a great distinction must be made between small-scale tempo changes and the kinds of showy and extreme changes that characterised Wagner’s performance and that of his followers4 which has very little relevance to any of the works studied and recorded in this project.

1 L. Spohr, Violinschule (Vienna, 1833, trans. C. Rudolphus, London, 1843), 179-180

2 Spohr, 119.

3 Spohr, 202.

4 See D. Milsom, ‘Style and Sonority in Wagner String Performance’ in The Wagner Journal Volume 3 No 2 (London, 2009), 9 and D. Milsom, Theory and Practice in Late Nineteenth Century Violin Performance 1850-1900 (Aldershot, 2003), 156.

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