About this Recording
8.223455 - RAFF: Symphony No. 5, 'Lenore'
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Joachim Raff (1822–1882)
Symphony No. 5 in E Major, Op. 177, “Lenore” • Overture: “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”, Op. 127


Musical reputations are fragile. Joachim Raff is still remembered principally as the composer of a Cavatina, a salon piece, and as an assistant to Liszt in Weimar, little more than a footnote 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. Raff’s early education was, however, in Württemberg, followed by a period of training as a teacher at the Jesuit Gymnasium in Schwyz, where he won prizes in Latin, German and Mathematics. Thereafter he took employment as a school-master, 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.

Raff’s contact with Liszt began in 1845, when he walked to Basel 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, a musician who remained a close friend in the years that followed, and renewed his connection with Mendelssohn, accepting the latter’s offer to teach him in Leipzig. Von Bülow, meanwhile, took Raff’s Concertstück for Piano and Orchestra into his repertoire, something that was of material assistance in furthering the composer’s reputation. The death of Mendelssohn in 1847 allowed Liszt a further exercise of patronage in securing Raff’s work in Hamburg as an arranger for a music-publisher.

In 1850 Raff moved to Weimar, where Liszt was now installed as Music Director Extraordinary, 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, to be joined shortly 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 Liszt’s orchestral compositions. Whether he was as important as he made out to his correspondents is open to question. “I have cleaned up Liszt’s first Concerto Symphonique for him”, he claimed in an early letter from Weimar, “and now I must score and copy Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne”. He declared the orchestration of Prometheus to be 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 Raff’s 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. Raff’s 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 Raff’s claimed share of Liszt’s work is open to question.

In 1856, tired of a subordinate position at Weimar as one of a group of acolytes that attended on Liszt and unhappy in his relationship with Liszt’s 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 Raff’s six operas remained unperformed, but he proved very much more successful with his orchestral works, chamber music and with an exceptionally large number of piano pieces. The quantity of his work prompted Wagner’s 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 overtly programmatic element in nine of his eleven numbered symphonies. In other ways he may well seem more academic in 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 first of Raff’s eleven numbered symphonies, An das Vaterland, was completed in 1861 and was awarded the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde prize. Symphony No. 5 in E major, Op. 177, was completed in 1872 and published the following year. Raff’s division of the work into three Abteilung (sections) does not coincide here with the four movements, two of which form the first section of the symphony, under the title Liebesglück, the happiness of love. The first movement Allegro is in broadly classical form, its exuberant first subject contrasted with the more lyrical second, with suggestions of the tragedy to come. An A flat major Andante quasi larghetto completes the first section. The movement is introduced by the strings, the melody poignantly echoed by the French horn, which then pursues its own operatic theme. A dramatic G sharp minor passage moves into the intense lyricism of a secondary theme, now heard a semitone higher, in E major, before the return of the opening theme, now played by the flutes.

The second part of the symphony has the title Trennung, “Parting”, continuing the implied events that precede those of Bürger’s poem Lenore, on which the symphony is based. The third movement opens as a C major March, with a contrasting minor continuation. This is followed by an F major section, the first violins doubled by the French horns in the march theme. The return of the first march theme leads to an agitated C minor passage in which violins and cellos plead one with the other, before the march again intervenes, disappearing gradually into the distance, as the soldiers march away.

It is the third section of the symphony, the fourth movement Allegro, Wiedervereinigung im Tode, “Reunion in Death”, that is based directly on Bürger’s Kunstballade Lenore in music that follows much of the poetic narrative. Göttfried August Bürger was associated with the group of poets that formed the Göttinger Hainbund and in 1773 wrote his famous poem Lenore, published the following year in the Göttinger Musenalmanach. Based on the Scottish ballad Sweet William’s Ghost, Bürger’s poem tells of the grief of Lenore for her lover Wilhelm, killed in the Seven Years’ War. The girl turns against God in her despair, but at night the sound of a horse is heard outside (“Und außen, horch! ging’s trapp trapp trapp, Ais wie von Roßeshufen”) and Wilhelm calls her down to him. She joins him and the couple ride away together through the night, through the countryside, meeting a funeral procession now bidden to the wedding-feast. The dead ride fast, and the figure before her asks again if she fears the dead, but “Doch lass die Toten”, she replies, “Let the dead be!” On they ride, past the gibbet and through a gate into the graveyard, as dawn approaches, and suddenly the horseman’s uniform drops away, piece by piece, his head becomes a skull, his body a skeleton, with hour-glass and scythe. The poem and the symphony end with the moral, proclaimed by the spirits that had followed the couple, that men must be patient in adversity: “Geduld! Geduld! Wenn’s Herz auch bricht! Mit Gott im Himmel hadre nicht!” (“Patience! Patience! Even if your heart breaks! Do not quarrel with God in Heaven! ”)

Raff’s Overture Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, Opus 127, was written in 1865 and dedicated to Hans von Bülow. It is described as an overture for a drama of the Thirty Years War. The work opens ominously, its slow introduction, Andante religioso, starting with a soft drum-roll, accompanied by muted double basses, before the contrapuntal entry of the first violins, followed by cellos, second violins and violas in turn. The familiar notes of Martin Luther’s most famous hymn appear first in the woodwind, to be joined by other instruments of the orchestra, before the succeeding Allegro eroico, marked non troppo vivo, ma vigoroso. This faster section, changing from the earlier D major to D minor, with its sharply rhythmic string figure, is punctuated by the loud intervention of the wind instruments, introducing music in tripartite sonata-form, derived from the chorale of the title. A passage for solo cello, accompanied only by sustained viola chords, leads to a final Andante, where the lower strings announce again Luther’s famous melody. The overture ends in victory with a final grandiose and triumphant Allegro.

Keith Anderson

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