About this Recording
8.223529 - RAFF: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 11

Joachim Raff (1822–1882)
Symphony No. 4 in G Minor, Op. 167 • Symphony No. 11 in A Minor, Op. 214


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 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. 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 Conservatoriurn 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. This was followed by a second symphony in 1866 and a third, Im Walde, in 1869. The Symphony No. 4 in G minor, Opus 167, was completed in 1871, a work that, like the Second Symphony, has no programmatic element. It is scored for a characteristic orchestra with pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings. The precisely constructed first movement of the G minor Symphony is dominated by the opening figure of the first subject, contrasted with a lighter hearted second subject entrusted to the woodwind. The second movement is a Scherzo and trio that suggests a Mendelssohn, weightier with middle age, but nevertheless retaining technical mastery of the orchestral means available. This is followed by a slow movement that recalls Beethoven in solemn mood, sometimes overtly, before moving into more openly romantic territory. The theme that started the symphony introduces the last movement, leading, by way of a brief cello recitative, to a lively oboe theme and a vigorous text-book finale, with a very proper admixture of counterpoint and optimism.

The last of Raff’s symphonies, No. 11 in A minor, Der Winter, was left unfinished at the time of his death, and was later prepared for publication by Max Erdmannsdörfer. The symphony is scored for an orchestra of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, with four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle and strings. The first movement suggests, in accordance with its programmatic title Der erste Schnee, “The First Snow”, the cold of winter, the delight that snow can bring, as well as its harsher aspect, with hints at times of Russian temperatures. A folk-song-like melody opens the A major second movement. The storms of winter intervene, only partly dispelled by the first appearance of the trumpets. The F major slow movement is spent, very properly, at the fireside, as the plucked strings accompany a melody played by the bassoon, soon joined by horn, then oboe and clarinet, as the music swells. The last movement Karneval opens in a firm A major, a call to celebration, followed by a contrapuntal start to the movement proper, the double basses answered by cellos, violas and second violins in turn, before the entry of the woodwind and music that, as it unfolds, brings a lively procession of characters in cheerful celebration.

Keith Anderson

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