Louis Spohr, The Final Judgement

By Clive Brown

Written for the concert Music and the Bible, performed on Nov 2, 2010 at Carnegie Hall.

LOUIS SPOHR (1784–1859)
Die letzen Dinge (“The Final Judgment”) (1827)

Premiere: Kassel, Germany, March 24, 1826

Spohr was at the height of his powers when he wrote Die letzten Dinge in 1825. His European fame as a virtuoso violinist had been increasingly rivaled during the previous decade by the growing reputation of his compositions. By 1822, when he took up the position of Kapellmeister in Kassel, where he was to remain for the rest of his life, he was widely regarded as one of the leading composers of the day. The success of his first nine violin concertos was paralleled by two symphonies, three successful operas—Faust; Zemire und Azor; _

and, most triumphantly, Jessonda—as well as a large quantity of chamber music and Lieder. His first attempt at oratorio, Das jüngste Gericht of 1813, which he judged unsatisfactory, remained in manuscript. More than a decade later, however, he recognized that the time was ripe for him to succeed in this genre, and when Friedrich Rochlitz, founding editor of the leading German music journal of the time, unexpectedly wrote to him in July 1825 to offer the text of Die letzten Dinge, taken from the Book of Revelation, he seized upon the idea.

Rochlitz informed Spohr that if he chose not to set the text he would not offer it to anyone else, commenting, “I know of no one, apart from you, who could effectively enter into the idea so sympathetically and bring to its execution everything that is necessary.” Although Spohr was enthusiastic, he was concerned that the text was too short. In response, Rochlitz pointed out that Spohr could lengthen the work by including a lengthy overture, a substantial introduction to Part 2, and other orchestral sections. He asserted that orchestral music was capable of “allowing the depiction of those innermost feelings that are beyond words,” adding, “you, who along with Beethoven are without a doubt the greatest master of this genre, will assuredly produce the most excellent effects with it.” Convinced not only by Rochlitz’s suggestions, and also his willingness to provide text for a few extra numbers, Spohr began composing the oratorio in October 1825 and finished it in time to perform it with his choral society in Kassel on Good Friday 1826.

Spohr’s treatment of the work sets it aside from other contemporaneous oratorios. He abandoned the practice of writing a succession of separate numbers in favor of the kind of the connected “scenes” which he had used in his most recent opera, Der Berggeist (1824). He also employed his highly individual chromatic harmonic idiom and command of orchestration to enhance the oratorio’s expressive and dramatic aspects. These features were a potent factor in the work’s success. At the Lower-Rhine Musical Festival in May 1826 it made such an impression that a second performance was given there, in aid of the Greek War of Independence; and in England, where it was premiered at the 1830 Norwich Festival as The Last Judgement, it was hailed as “one of the greatest musical productions of the age…in which is embodied every passion, sentiment and feeling” (Harmonicon, 1830, p. 466). It became Spohr’s most enduring masterpiece and continued to be performed long after most of his once admired music had been forgotten. Along with the finest of his other compositions in all the major genres of his time, it has recently emerged from a century of neglect.

Mr. Brown is Professor of Applied Musicology, University of Leeds, and has published widely on 18th- and 19th-century topics, particularly performing practice.