About this Recording
8.223506 - RAFF: Symphony No. 7 / Concert Overture, Op. 123

Joachim Raff (1822–1882)
Symphony No. 7 in B Flat Major, Op. 201, “In den Alpen” • Concert Overture, Op. 123


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 Gonradi. 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.

Raff completed his seventh symphony in 1875 and it was first performed in Wiesbaden on 30 December in the same year. The symphony, In the Alps, makes use of themes he had heard in his childhood in Switzerland. The work was not well received in Germany, with critics now tending to condemn perceived defects in his work as a result of “Vielschreiberei”, writing too much. These aspersions on his ability as a composer, apparently because of his fecundity, brought additional doubts and anxieties at a time when he was troubled by the recent death of his mother in Ravensburg.

Symphony No. 7 in B flat major, Opus 201, is scored for full orchestra, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and trumpets, four horns, three trombones, timpani and triangle, and strings. It is a descriptive work, evoking the Swiss Alps of Raff’s early years, and the first movement, Wanderung im Hochgebirge, “Wandering in the High Mountains”, starts with impressive grandeur, then turning in its slow introduction to suggestions of the natural beauty of the landscape, as the horns echo each other. The music is dominated by a familiar melody that returns to end the introduction and will be heard again. The principal theme of the Allegro appears first in the bassoon, followed by the flute. A gentler Alpine melody is entrusted to the horn, followed by the oboe, and this and other thematic material is developed with all the craft at Raff’s disposal, with much use of sequence, before the re-appearance of the principal subject in recapitulation, followed by the themes of the second subject group and a fugal treatment of the main theme of the introduction. The second movement, In der Herberge, “In the Inn”, opens in G minor with a gently lilting theme introduced by the strings, joined by bassoons, with a yodelling cello melody in accompaniment, as the music swells into a major key German dance. There is a modulation into C major and a romantic melody introduced by the violas. Clarinets and flutes sport on the slopes in a cheerful E flat, before the return of the G minor theme of the opening, moving forward to a happier triumphant G major before a G minor coda. There follows a slow movement, Am See, “On the Lake”, with a tranquil C major theme given to violas and bassoon, before emerging from the depths with flutes, oboes and horns adding to the picture, to which the timpani add an occasional menacing dimension. The symphony ends with Beim Schwingfest; Abschied, “At the Festival; Departure”. The Schwingfest is a peculiarly Swiss sport for festival days. Here contestants try to throw each other, using the left hand, with the right hand in the belt. The music represents the sport with cheerful lightheartedness. The first theme is followed by a clod-hopping heavy-footed measure from the bass instruments. The dotted rhythms of a fiercer G minor episode usher in contrapuntal treatment of earlier themes, reminiscences even of the opening of the symphony, before a triumphant and very Swiss conclusion to a work that is further testimony to the technical proficiency of Raff and to his creativity as a symphonist.

Raff completed his F major Concert Overture in 1862 and published it with a dedication to Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Constantin zu Hohenzollern-Hechingen in respectful gratitude. At this period Raff was very much in Wagner’s circle at Biebrich, and his sister-in-law, Emilie Genast, gave the first performance of Wagner’s settings of poems by his beloved Mathilde Wesendonck in the year of the Concert Overture. The work is scored for the usual full orchestra and opens, as overtures should, with a strong call to the listener’s attention, followed by a gentler theme, developed before a more energetic section that continues the material of the opening into a lyrical subsidiary theme. The later treatment of the themes includes contrapuntal display, with the whole overture an example of the composer’s assured technique in handling the orchestra and in the creation of a convincing, unified and effective structure from his material.

Keith Anderson

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