RAFF: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 10 (Rudolf Hentsel/ Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra/ Urs Schneider) (Naxos: 8.555491)
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Joachim Raff (1822-1882)
Symphony No. 10 in F minor, Op. 213, "Zur Herbstzeit" Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 153, "Im Walde"
Musical reputations are fragile. Joachim Raff is now remembered principally as the composer of a Cavatina, a salon piece, and as an assistant to Liszt in Weimar, little more than a foot-note in the history of the symphonic poem. In his own time he enjoyed very considerable renown, justified, it seemed, by a prolific talent and by his distinction as a teacher.
Raff was born in Lachen, near Zürich, in 1822. His father had taken refuge in Switzerland, leaving Württemberg to avoid conscription into the French army. Raffs early education was at Wiesenstetten, in Württemberg, followed by a period of teacher-training at the Jesuit Gymnasium in Schwyz, where he won prizes in Latin, German, and Mathematics. Thereafter he took employment as a schoolmaster, while working hard at his private studies in music. Mendelssohn, whom he had approached, recommended him to the attention of the Leipzig publishers Breitkopf and Härtel, who issued sets of his piano pieces in 1844, the year in which the young composer resolved to try his luck in Zürich.
Raffs contact with Liszt began in 1845, when he walked to Basle to hear the latter play. He then accompanied Liszt on his concert tour, and followed this, through the agency of Liszt, with work in Cologne, in part as a critic and less significantly in a music-shop. He then moved to Stuttgart, where he met Hans von Bülow, who remained a close friend in the years that followed, and Mendelssohn, accepting the latters offer to teach him in Leipzig. Von Bülow, meanwhile, took Raffs Concertstück for piano and orchestra into his repertoire, something that was of material assistance in furthering the composers reputation. The death of Mendelssohn in 1847 allowed Liszt a further exercise of patronage, in securing Raff work in Hamburg as arranger for a music publisher.
In 1850 Raff moved to Weimar, where Liszt was now installed as Music Director Extraordinaire, occupied with the provision of music for the orchestra, and above all with the remarkable series of symphonic poems in which he sought to combine the arts of literature and music. At the Villa Altenburg, where he lodged, later joined by Hans von Bülow, Raff served the master as secretary, copyist and factotum, and must, initially at least, have had a considerable hand in the orchestration of Liszts work. Whether he was as important as he made out to his correspondents is open to question. "I have cleaned up Liszts first Concerto symphonique for him", he claimed in an early letter from Weimar, "and now I must score and copy
Ce quon entend sur la montagne". He declared that the orchestration of Prometheus was his, for the most part, and that he had performed the same service for the symphonic poem Tasso. The violinist Joachim was later to repeat these claims on Raffs behalf.
Clearly Liszt needed assistance, and this Raff could provide. Tasso, for example, had been written in 1849 for the centenary of the birth of Goethe and had been scored by August Conradi. Liszt was dissatisfied, and handed the music to Raff, who in 1851 produced a new version, to which Liszt made various subsequent alterations. Raffs own opera König Alfred was staged in Weimar in the same year, without marked success, although it was given three performances, but the validity of his assertions, at the time and later, on the composition of Liszts orchestral works must remain open to question.
In 1856, tired of a subordinate position in Weimar as one of the group of acolytes that attended on Liszt and unhappy in his relationship with Liszts blue-stocking mistress, the Princess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein, Raff left for Wiesbaden, where König Alfred was performed and where he was able to devote himself to composition, teaching and marriage to Doris Genast, member of a well known Weimar theatre family. The period in Wiesbaden was a productive one. It was followed, in 1877, by appointment as director of the Hoch Conservatorium in Frankfurt, where he succeeded in engaging Clara Schumann as a piano teacher, when the institution opened in 1878, the only woman so employed. Further women were to be appointed two years later, and there was a class for women composers, the first of its kind in Germany. Raff remained in Frankfurt until his death in 1882.
Four of Rafts six operas remained unperformed, but he proved very much more successful with his orchestral works, his chamber music and with an exceptionally large number of piano pieces. The quantity of his work prompted Wagners cynical remark to a correspondent that now he was composing like Raff or Brahms, in other words copiously, since his views on the compositions of the latter, at least, were well known. Raff belongs in one way to the Neo-German school of Wagner and Liszt, at least in the overt programmatic element in eight of his eleven numbered symphonies. In other ways he may seem more academic in his approach, making full use of most available forms and of a strong element of counterpoint in works that are admirably orchestrated for a body of less than Wagnerian proportions. Charges of superficiality and eclecticism can now be rebutted by renewed attention to music that has much to say and is remarkable, if in no other way, for the clear influence it exercised on composers like Richard Strauss.
The third of Rafts eleven symphonies, which bears the title Im Walde (In the Forest), was written in 1869 and won its composer considerable success. In Wiesbaden, where he had settled after leaving Weimar, he was eventually free of immediate material worries and could devote himself largely to his work as a composer. The Wald-Symphonie was one of the most significant results of this period of his life and was regarded for long as his masterpiece. The work is in four movements, included in three parts. The first part, Am Tage (By Day), like the tenth symphony, gives impressions and feelings aroused by the forest. The second part, which includes a slow movement and the counterpart of a Scherzo, moves to evening twilight,
In der Dämmerung, with Träumerei (Dreaming) and a following Tanz der Dryaden (Dance of the Dryads), in the spirit of Mendelssohn. The third part, Nachts (At Night), has a more explicit programme. The stillness of the night is followed by the wild hunt of Teutonic mythology, led by Wotan (Odin) and the wintry Frau Holle. Dawn breaks and the symphony ends in triumph.
The tenth of the symphonies, Zur Herbstzeit
(in Autumn), was written in 1879, after Raffs removal to Frankfurt and at a time when he was occupied with a number of larger scale works. Following tradition in its structure, the symphony declares its programme in its general title and in the descriptive titles of the movements. It forms one of a final group of symphonies depicting the four seasons of the year, No. 8, Frühlingsklänge (Sounds of Spring), No. 9, Im Sommer (in Summer), the present work, and his last symphony, No. 11, Der Winter (Winter). The first movement of Symphony No. 10 sets the mood, with its evocation of a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Phantom drums and double basses introduce the ghostly dance of the second movement, a mysterious waltz dispelled momentarily by a chorale. There follows a sustained elegy for the passing year and a final seasonal hunt, appropriately introduced, but allowing occasional rest from the chase.