A Musical Friendship: The Story of Spohr and Hermstedt

It is quite often for artists to have muses who inspire their greatness and drive their creativity. For many composers, these muses have come in the form of performers who they admired and wrote pieces specifically for. In the case of the romantic-era German composer Louis Spohr, he wrote all four of his clarinet concertos for the clarinetist Johann Simon Hermstedt, who became a life-long musical partner and friend. He described in his memoir how when he met Hermstedt and the clarinetist requested he write a concerto for him “I gladly assented, as from the immense execution, together with the brilliancy of tone, and purity of intonation possessed by Hermstedt, I felt at full liberty to give the reins to my fancy”. In fact, Spohr was so inspired by Hermstedt that he finished Clarinet Concerto 1 in C minor in just a few weeks, and it was premiered the next year to critical acclaim.

Excerpt from page 124 of Louis Spohr’s Autobiography, published in 1865, translated from German (A mistranslation on line 4 should say “Concerto in C-Minor”, not “Concerto in C-Minor”)

Despite Spohr’s admiration for Hermstedt and the clarinet, he was himself was a violinist, and therefore did not have full knowledge of the technical limitations of the clarinet. In contrast to most other western classical instruments, the clarinet did not begin to come into its modern form until about 1690–1700, when Johann Christoph Denner took ideas from recorder-like instruments and created what is seen know as the first clarinet, shown below. While this instrument was fairly versatile in the right hands, it only had a few keys, meaning playing more technical passages was very difficult. To combat this, Hermstedt worked in the early 1800s with instrument maker Heinrich Gresner to get an eleven-key clarinet, also shown below. As you can see, this clarinet has several more keys on it, which facilitate easier technical playing. While I could not find a picture of the exact instrument that Hermstedt played at the premier, the timeline of him working with Gresner indicates that he played an 11-key clarinet similar to the one shown below at the premiere.

The Denner Clarinet, created sometime between 1690 and 1700
A Gresner 11-Key clarinet created around 1800 (doesn’t have the original mouthpiece)

After the premiere in 1809, Hermstedt continued to search for ways to improve the clarinet in order to play Spohr’s compositions more effectively. In 1821, he worked with Johann Streitwolf to make a 14-key clarinet that added further trill keys, facilitating easier playing. While I couldn’t find a picture of the exact instrument that Hermstedt played, I found a picture of a clarinet that Streiwolf created in 1835, which is likely similar to the one he made for Hermstedt. As stated earlier, Spohr went on to write three more pieces for Hermstedt, and they built a lifelong friendship that also created musical change. In the program notes to the first published score of his Clarinet Concerto 1 in C Minor, Spohr admits that he wrote his first clarinet concerto without knowledge of the weaknesses of the clarinet. However, “Mr. Hermstedt, far from asking me to make changes, sought rather to perfect his instrument, and by constant application, soon attained such mastery that his clarinet produced no more jarring, muffled or uncertain notes. In subsequent compositions for him I was able, therefore, to give free rein to my pen and had no need to fear that anything might be impossible to him”. It is clear from this passage that the friendship and respect that Spohr and Hermstedt shared is what drove Herstemndt to seek out a better clarinet, setting in motion the development of the modern clarinet and making musical history.

A Streitwolf clarinet, created in 1835

When Spohr’s Clarinet Concerto 1 in C minor premiered, it was met with widespread acclaim of both its composition and Herstmedt’s playing. One review, published in the musical journal Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung read “As no composition whatever existed in which this excellent artist could display all the superiority of his playing, Herr Concertmeister Spohr of Gotha has written one for him; and, setting aside this special purpose, it belongs to the most spirited and beautiful music which this justly famous master has ever written”. Spohr’s three other clarinet concertos went on to bring great success not just to him, but also to Hermstedt. In his memoir, Spohr even claimed that “Hermstedt achieved so much success in his artistic tours (of Spohr’s concertos), that it may be affirmed he is chiefly indebted to that for his fame”. While this may be an exaggeration, it is clear that the partnership and friendship between the two men brought them both much success, as well as creating beautiful musical works that drove the clarinet to innovate. The story of Spohr and Hermstedt is at its heart one about friendship, about a clarinetist who believed in his friend’s vision so much that he changed the future of his instrument.

I played this piece last semester, which is how I discovered the fascinating history surrounding it. Below is my recording of the first movement of Spohr’s Clarinet Concerto 1 in C Minor.