Although virtually unknown to general audiences, the musical legacy of German composer, conductor and violinist Ludwig Spohr (1784-1859) is far-reaching indeed. Little of his own music survives in the general repertoire, but he is remembered as one of the preeminent conductors of the first half of the nineteenth century and as a seminal figure in the development of modern violin playing. Also, in addition to having invented both the violin chin-rest and rehearsal numbers/letters for printed music, he was the first major conductor to use a baton.
Born in northern Germany in 1784, Spohr showed early talent for the violin, and by age 15 he was a member of the ducal orchestra at Braunschweig. At 18 he was sent by the Duke for a year of study with well-known violinist Franz Anton Eck, at the end of which time Spohr was considered ripe for a concert tour of his own. By 1805 the young virtuoso had become something of a sensation throughout Germany, where audiences adored both Spohr's playing and his compositions. Between 1805 and his death in 1859, Spohr served in a number of court positions throughout Germany and Austria. He was the leader of the orchestra at Gotha from 1805-1812, leader of the orchestra at Theater an der Wien in Vienna from 1813-1815, director of the Frankfurt Opera from 1817-1819, and Hofkapellmeister at the city of Kassel from 1822 to 1857. He also remained a prominent figure on the international music scene, making no fewer than six tours of England throughout the years.
Over six and a half feet tall, Spohr must have been an imposing figure on the podium. His conducting repertoire was vast, including such then irregularities as J.S. Bach and Handel. A strong believer in new music, Spohr had a great impact on the careers of such progressive composers as Wagner and Berlioz. Spohr was one of the first to conduct Der fliegende Holländer (1842) and Tannhäuser (1853), though Spohr himself never fully accepted their musical aesthetic. Spohr's compositions never completely abandoned the blueprint of the Viennese masters; to the end he maintained that Mozart was the perfect composer. While his operas, such as Jessonda (1823), were popular during his lifetime, they have since disappeared from opera houses. Only a few of his works, notably the Eighth Violin Concerto -- a striking work in the form of an operatic scene -- and the four clarinet concertos are heard today. However, there were some signs of a growing interest in his chamber and orchestral music in the late twentieth century. Throughout his life Spohr was famous for being as generous and warm a person as he was profound a musician. He maintained an active interest in politics and was considered a skillful painter and chess player.