Julius Spengel (2005)

In April 2005, the exploration of the estate of Julius Spengel, in the possession of Brahms-Institut, was concluded with a presentation of a publication on Julius Spengel and his estate: Julius Spengel: Ein Brahms-Freund zwischen Identifikation und Emanzipation. The project was carried out by Christiane Wiesenfeldt.

The material on this Hamburg composer and conductor consists of more than 600 items: 19 musical manuscripts (songs and instrumental works), 48 manuscripts of versions of musical works by other composers (including Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Kirchner), 23 literary manuscripts (including copies of poetry), 314 letters (to Spengel from Gade, Richard Strauss, Pfitzner, or the Brahms circle), 146 letters of family correspondence and 25 important life documents (degrees, certificates, etc.)

In cataloguing the material, each piece was given its own entry, recording formal qualities such as origin, condition, and information on the place and date of emergence. Individuals mentioned in the letters are represented by so-called “master records”, based on the norm data of the personal name databank (Personennamendatei, PND) to the extent available. Users can research the findings at the institute using various indexes on computer. Julius Spengel: Ein Brahms-Freund zwischen Identifikation und Emanzipation contains a detailed index of the estate holdings and an academic treatment of Spengel as a friend of Brahms, conductor, and composer on the basis of the sources available: this book is available for purchase at the shop.

On Julius Spengel
[Christiane Wiesenfeldt]

Julius Spengel (1853–1936) was one of the key musicians in the younger Brahms circle. Like Brahms born in Hamburg, Spengel worked to popularize the work of his friend 20 years his senior in that city, most importantly as conductor of Hamburg’s Cäcilienverein. Spengel, who celebrated his 50th year as a conductor in 1927, was responsible for several Brahms’ premieres, including the motet “O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf” op. 74, No. 2 and “Fest- und Gedenksprüche” op. 109, along with numerous songs and several piano pieces. This friendship was important beyond the professional level of concert performance. Spengel also served as a copyist for Brahms’ manuscripts. Brahms dedicated the song  “Da unten im Tale” op. 97, No. 6 to the musician’s two daughters, and in letters to Spengel frequently stated his high estimation of the younger composer.

The wide range of Spengel’s activities in Hamburg’s musical life was based on extensive studies that he began as young man. After piano and theory instruction under Karl Voigt, the founder of the Hamburger Cäcilienverein, and violin instruction under Ernst Heinrich Kayser, the 14 year old studied for a year at Cologne’s conservatory under Ernst Rudorff, before the next year following his composition and piano teacher for four years of study to Berlin’s Königliche Hochschule (1868–1872).

Instruction under some of the central musical figures of the day, including Brahms’s friend and famous violinist Joseph Joachim and the renowned concert singer Adolf Schulze, could well have been the occasion for Spengel’s first contact with Brahms’ circle and most importantly his music. Before Spengel became conductor of Cäcilienverein, he deepened his studies of counterpoint under Carl Georg Peter Grädener, another friend of Brahms, and took organ instruction from Karl F. Armbrust, a well-known Hamburg music critic and conductor. Spengel’s greatest talents lied in conducting a vocal ensemble, so that the Cäcilienverein, as Brahms once put it, is the only chorus in Hamburg that “is truly excellent, even a capella – and that’s saying quite a lot among the Hanseatics” (Brahms to Franz Wüllner, fall of 1886).

Spengel, who was appointed “royal conductor” in 1902 and “royal professor” in 1906, was also a vocal teacher and organist, concert singer and pianist and editor of numerous works. As a composer, Julius Spengel left less of a mark, as is reflected by the comparatively low number of work manuscripts from his estate. Some song compositions for mixed chorus and the men’s choral pieces op. 12 briefly achieved broader reception. The focus of his compositional work and his numerous arrangements was placed on concert vocal music, especially works for voice or chorus with orchestra, occasionally piano reductions as well.

Spengel’s treatments of classical and contemporary works were so in demand that several renowned publishers decided to make them available to broader audience. Spengel’s importance is especially attested to by the wide range of correspondence that can be found in the estate. The letters, which until now have only been subjected to a rudimentary viewing, touch on various facets of musical life and history of the second half of the nineteenth century. The letters come from the direct circle of musicians, composers, and conductors active internationally, and from other prominent figures of the era. Of special importance here are comments on contemporary figures of musical life that can in some cases complement, if not correct biographical details.

Currently available literature on Julius Spengel:

  • Johannes Brahms an Julius Spengel. Unveröffentlichte Briefe aus den Jahren 1882 –1897, ed. Annemari Spengel (Hamburg, 1959).
  • Doris Braker, Neuerwerbungen des Brahms Archiv, Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg, Jahresarbeit der Hamburger Bibliotheksschule 1965, including descriptions of letters from Spengel.
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