Ensemble 360

Crucible Playhouse, Sheffield
Thursday 30 November 2023, 7.15pm

£14 UC, PIP & DLA
£5 Students & Under 35s

Past Event

SPOHR Nonet (25’)
SCHUBERT Octet (42’) 

Two triumphant pieces of large-scale chamber music that showcase the range and breadth of our resident group, Ensemble 360.  

Schubert’s hugely entertaining Octet with its jaunty, memorable tunes and high drama is matched in spirit by Spohr’s Nonet, a piece the ensemble recorded to great acclaim on a disc praised for revealing the inventiveness and “cultured spirit” of the piece with “perfect elegance and ease” (The Guardian). 


SPOHR Louis, Nonet Op.31

Scherzo. Allegro  
Finale. Vivace 


In 1813, Louis Spohr moved to Vienna where he became leader of the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien. Haydn’s friend and erstwhile patron Johann Tost gave Spohr an open-ended commission to compose as much chamber music as he liked, and the result was a remarkable group of works including five quartets, two quintets, the Octet and the present Nonet. The Nonet is scored for violin, viola, cello bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn and Tost particularly asked Spohr to bring out the individual colour and character of each instrument. Spohr does just that, and in a tightly controlled structure. 


One of the most remarkable features of the Nonet is the close integration of its thematic material: the first four notes of the Allegro dominate the whole of the first movement, and the same motif recurs in the Adagio and, more fleetingly, in the Finale. The Scherzo (in D minor) is permeated by a different rising motif heard right at the start of the movement, and the two Trios provide contrast both in key (D major and B flat) and instrumental textures. The originality of Spohr’s music has been rediscovered in recent years, and his impact on the composers of his own time was immense. The Victorian composer and musicologist Sir George Macfarren wrote that ‘few, if any composers have exercised such influence on their contemporaries.’ 


© Nigel Simeone 

SCHUBERT Franz, Octet

Adagio–Allegro–Più allegro 
Allegro vivace–Trio–Allegro vivace 
Andante–variations. Un poco più mosso–Più lento 
Menuetto. Allegretto–Trio–Menuetto–Coda 
Andante molto–Allegro–Andante molto–Allegro molto 

Schubert wrote no chamber music between 1821 and 1823, but made up for this hiatus in 1824 with three extraordinary masterpieces: the String Quartets in A minor and D minor (Death and the Maiden) and the Octet. He was commissioned to write the Octet by Count Ferdinand Troyer, a clarinettist who was also chief steward to Archduke Rudolf. Troyer asked Schubert to compose a work that could stand alongside Beethoven’s Septet, an immensely popular piece at the time. To Beethoven’s ensemble of clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass, Schubert added a second violin, giving himself the scope to explore sonorities that had almost orchestral possibilities. There are close similarities between the two works: both are in six movements, with the same key relationships between the movements, with a set of variations at the centre, and with both a Minuet and a Scherzo. But while Beethoven’s Septet was conceived as a kind of large-scale divertimento, Schubert’s Octet is more ambitious in scale and has a much greater (and more serious) expressive range. 


Schubert completed the work on 1 March 1824. It was first performed privately at Troyer’s home (in Vienna’s Graben) soon afterwards and the first public performance was given in the Musikverein by an ensemble led by the great violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh on 16 April 1827. When the work was eventually published in 1851 it was shorn of the fourth and fifth movements and but it appeared complete in the Collected Edition in 1889. 


The emotional range of the Octet is extraordinary for a work that appears, on the surface at least, to be quite benign. After the expansive but closely argued first movement, the sublime and tender clarinet melody that opens the slow movement has echoes of the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony (1822). The exuberant Scherzo, full of Schubert’s favourite dotted rhythms, is a complete contrast, though one that contains some surprising excursions into remote keys. The central variations are on a theme from Schubert’s early Singspiel Die Freunde von Salamanka (1815), the charming duet for Laura and Diego, ‘Gelagert unter’m hellen Dach der Bäume’ (‘Lying under the bright canopy of trees’) and the leisurely set of variations muse on aspects of the theme with unhurried inventiveness. The Minuet is markedly more relaxed than the Scherzo and contains some of the subtlest instrumental colouring in the whole work. The finale begins with stormy tremolos and a mood of foreboding that is seemingly dispelled when the main Allegro arrives, though in the course of this long movement there are more episodes of high drama (including a surprise return of the turbulent introductory music), until the exhilarating close – bringing to an end a work that 20th century composer Hans Gál described as ‘a romantic landscape whose delights are  numberless’. 


© Nigel Simeone