Famous German operatic composer, of the romantic school, one of the most eminent of German conductors and a noted master of the violin. He was born in Brunswick; the son of a physician, who removed to Seesen in 1786. Spohr came of an artistic and musical family, his father being a good amateur flute-player and his mother a talented singer and pianist, and from them and the rector of the village school he received his earliest instruction in music. At the age of five he began the study of the violin with Riemenschneider. He also studied with Dufour, a French emigrant, who persuaded his parents to allow him to study at Brunswick with Kunisch. Later he became a pupil of the leader of the orchestra, Maucourt. He composed constantly, at fourteen having a concerto to his credit. Spohr was admitted to the orchestra of the Duke and through his influence accompanied Franz Eck, the violinist, to St. Petersburg, remaining there eighteen months, practising and composing. In 1803 Spohr re-entered the ducal orchestra, and the following year made his first tour, visiting Berlin, Leipsic and Dresden, and arousing the greatest enthusiasm as a virtuoso and composer wherever he appeared. At Gotha he was appointed leader of the Duke's band, and in that city met and married Dorette Scheidler, the harpist making tours with her from 1807 to 1809. In the latter ear he conducted the first music festival ever given in Germany, held at Frankenhausen, and after several successful concerts in Vienna, in 1812 he was made leader of the Theatre an der Wien. He resigned this post three years later to conduct a second festival at Frankenhausen, made a tour of Italy, playing at Rome with Paganini, then appeared in Holland, and in 1817 became operatic conductor at Frankfort. His opera, Faust, written for Vienna, but not given there because of disagreements with the director, was performed at Frankfort in 1818 with the most striking success. In 1819 and the following year he visited England with his wife, appearing at several Philharmonic concerts and bringing out two symphonies, besides conducting the Philharmonic Orchestra concerts with a baton, which was a method then entirely novel in England. On his return journey Spohr gave concerts in Paris and finally settled in Dresden; but in 1821, having been offered a life appointment as Court conductor at Cassel, he took up his duties at that place the following year, and remained in that city until his death in 1859. He won in that post great fame as a conductor and reached his zenith as a composer with the opera, Jessonda, produced in 1823; the oratorio, Die letzten Dinge, given in 1826, and his grand symphony, Die Weihe der Tone (The Power of Sound), in 1832. In 1857 he was retired on a pension. He broke his left arm the following year, so was incapacitated for further playing. In 1834 his first wife died and two years later Spohr married the sister of his late friend, Pfeiffer. In 1845 he divided with Liszt the conductorship of the festival for the inauguration of the Beethoven monument and also officiated as conductor at the great musical festivals in Düsseldorf, Nordhausen, Bonn and Norwich, England. For a long time Spohr continued to exert a strong influence upon German music and was in great demand as leader and conductor.
He ranks as a composer just below the greatest representatives of German music, some of whom, as Weber and Beethoven, he did not appreciate, although he was among the first to recognize Wagner's great dramatic genius and was instrumental in bringing out The Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser, in spite of the greatest opposition from the court, and tried to produce Lohengrin. As an operatic composer Spohr equaled any German of his time. Among his best works in this form are Der Zweikampf; Jessonda, Zemire and Azor; and Faust, the last being his most popular. His last opera was Die Kreuzfahrer, given in 1845 at Cassel. He composed besides a dramatic cantata; a mass; psalms; hymns; part-songs for mixed and male voices; nine symphonies; eight overtures; fifteen violin concertos, which are regarded as classics of violin literature, and all of which were in later years edited by Spohr's pupil, Ferdinand David; beside numerous works for violin; string quartets; quintets; and finally in 1831 his great Violin School. His greatest works in symphony form were The Power of Sound, The Seasons, and the one entitled, The Earthly and the Divine in Human Life. At Cassel Spohr was the attractive center of a respectful group of pupils and admirers and was highly esteemed by both as man and musician. On the twentyfifth anniversary of his establishment in Cassel he was given a fete, when Jessonda was given a grand performance with a notable cast and the composer given the freedom of the city and crowned with laurel. Spohr retained his active habits until the end of his life. In character he was noble, hating all frivolity and artificiality and was noted for his untiring industry. He was rather retiring and reserved in manner, so that he did not make friends very easily; but he was most kind and sympathetic toward other less fortunate artists. In appearance he was tall and imposing, with great dignity of bearing. As a composer Spohr was not for the masses, but for the thoughtful and intellectual, and this kept him from ever becoming popular. He was one of the greatest violin virtuosos the world has ever known. He very early in his career formed a style of playing all his own, liking not at all the lighter, freer style of bowing that Paganini introduced. As a teacher he was most successful, and many of his pupils afterward distinguished themselves.