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Julius Spengel

A Friend of Brahms Between Identification and Emancipation

Those entering the vestibule of Villa Brahms encounter a seated miniature of Brahms: a model by sculptor Reinhold Feldhoff (1865–1919) made at the instigation of Julius Spengel (1853–1936). This detail alone reflects the great commitment that Spengel showed for Brahms after his death. As conductor of Hamburg’s Cäcilienverein, he conducted several premieres of Brahms’ works, organized the first commemorative events, and was a member of the committee founded to support the erection of a Brahms monument.

The publication Julius Spengel: Ein Brahms-Freund zwischen Identifikation und Emanzipation (A Brahms Friend between Identification and Emancipation), which emerged in parallel to the computer supported indexing of the partial estate containing 600 items, focuses on Spengel beyond his important role in terms of Brahms reception. In an extensive essay, Spengel is both honored for his work as a composer and as a musician and conductor. In addition, the publication contains a detailed catalogue of his estate and works.

The file includes music manuscripts of arrangements of works by other composers from the musical world at the time that were very highly valued and popular (including works by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Kirchner), copies of poems, 460 letters (to Spengel e.g. from Gade, Richard Strauss, Pfitzner, the Brahms circle) and certificates and other documents. Spengel’s widely ranging correspondence demonstrates his importance within musical life in the second half of the nineteenth century. The letters touch upon wide-ranging facets of the period and contain numerous valuable details on prominent contemporaries.

In April 2005, the cataloguing and preparation of the estate of Julius Spengel at the collection of the Brahms-Institut culminated in the presentation of a publication on Spengel and the estate itself: Julius Spengel: Ein Brahms-Freund zwischen Identifikation und Emanzipation. This project was completed by Christiane Wiesenfeldt.

The files on this Hamburg composer and conductor include more than 600 pieces, 19 music manuscripts (songs and instrumental works), 48 manuscripts of arrangements of musical works by other composers (e.g. Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Kirchner), 23 literary manuscripts (including copies of poems), 314 letters from others (e.g. from Gade, Richard Strauss, Pfitzner, Brahms circle), 146 family letters and 25 life documents (testimonials, certificates, etc.).

With cataloguing, each piece was given its own data set including formal characteristics such as origin, state of preservation, and date of emergence. People mentioned in the letters are also represented with so-called master record, the registration of which is based on the normed name file to the extent that they exist. For users, the catalogue results are accessible at the institute on various computer stations. The catalogue Julius Spengel: Ein Brahms-Freund zwischen Identifikation und Emanzipation contains a detailed catalogue of the estate and a scientific treatise on Spengel as a Brahms friend, conductor and composer on the basis of the sources available in the estate.

Background on Julius Spengel

Julius Spengel (1853–1936) was one of the central musicians in Brahms’ circle. Born in Hamburg like Brahms, Spengel worked in the Hanseatic city to help promote the work of his friend who was twenty years his senior. He did a great deal to popularize Brahms’ oeuvre, especially as conductor of Hamburg’s Cäcilienverein. Thanks to Spengel, who in 1927 celebrated his fiftieth jubilee year as conductor, several Brahms premieres took place (including the motet »O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf« op. 74, Nr. 2 and the Fest- und Gedenksprüche op. 109, in addition numerous songs and several piano pieces).

The fact that Spengel also worked as copyist of Brahms manuscripts, while Brahms dedicated to the two Spengel daughters the song »Da unten im Tale«, op. 97, Nr. 6, and in the extant letters repeatedly expressed his high estimation of the younger composer, documents the importance of this friendship far beyond pure concert business.

Spengel’s lifetime of work in Hamburg’s musical world was based on extensive studies that he already began in young years. After piano and theory instruction under Karl Voigt, the founder of Hamburg’s Cäcilienverein, and violin instruction under Ernst Heinrich Kayser, the fourteen-year-old studied for a year at Cologne’s Conservatory under Ernst Rudorff. The next year he followed his composition and piano teacher to Berlin for four years of study at the Königliche Hochschule (1868–1872).

Instruction from several key musicians of the period, including the Brahms friend and famous violinist Joseph Joachim and the renowned concert singer Adolf Schulze, was the occasion for first contacts with the Brahms circle and especially his music. Before Spengel became musical director of the Cäcilienverein in 1878, he studied counterpoint under Carl Georg Peter Grädener, another trusted friend of Brahms, and took organ instruction from Karl F. Armbrust, a famous Hamburg music critic and conductor. Spengel’s greatest talent developed in conducting vocal ensembles, so that the Cäcilienverein, as Brahms once put it, was the only association that was »truly excellent, also in singing a capella, which among the Hanseatics is quite something« (to Franz Wüllner in the fall of 1886).

In addition, Spengel, who was named royal music director in 1902 and royal professor in 1906, was a vocal instructor, concert singer, and pianist, and arranged numerous works. As a composer, Julius Spengel was less prominent, which is emphasized by the comparably small number of nineteen work manuscripts from his estate. Several song compositions for mixed chorus and male chorus opus 12 briefly achieved a certain level of fame. His compositions and numerous arrangements focused on vocal music for concert use, in particular works for voice and chorus with orchestra, sometimes piano scores.

Spengel’s arrangements of classical and contemporary works were so in demand that several prominent publishers wanted to publish them in order to make them available to a wider audience. Spengel’s importance can be measured especially clearly in light of the wide-ranging correspondence in the estate. The letters, which up until now have only been subject to rudimentary examination, touch on several facets of musical life and history from the second half of the nineteenth century. The letters come from internationally active musicians, composers, and conductors, as well as from other prominent figures of the period. Especially important are the comments on contemporary figures from musical life, which in individual cases might, if not correct, at least complement biographical details.

Literature on Julius Spengel currently accessible:

  • Johannes Brahms an Julius Spengel. Unveröffentlichte Briefe aus den Jahren 1882 –1897 zusammengestellt und erläutert von Annemari Spengel, Hamburg 1959.
  • Doris Braker: Neuerwerbungen des Brahms-Archiv, Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg, Jahresarbeit der Hamburger Bibliotheksschule 1965, darin Beschreibungen von Briefen an Brahms von Spengel u. A..

Project Title:
Julius Spengel
A Friend of Brahms Between Identification and Emancipation

Project Completion: 2005

Project Lead:
Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Sandberger

Project Team Members:
Dr. Christiane Wiesenfeldt