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8.223630 - RAFF: Symphony No. 2 / Macbeth / Romeo and Juliet
Joachim Raff (1822–1882)
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’onentend 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 not entirely clear.
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, his 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. The second, the Symphony in C major, Opus 140, was written in 1869 and is scored for piccolo and double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings. It opens in almost pastoral mood, with a first subject entrusted to clarinets and violas and then by horns, while the first violins add their own embellishments in rapider figuration. This material is developed in a transition that leads to a second subject, heard first in the strings. The central development is followed by a recapitulation and a final coda that allows the principal subject to re-appear in strength.
The slow movement, in E flat major, starts with a deeply felt principal theme, a hymn heard from first violins and horns, before being handed to a solo oboe. A secondary theme is followed by a contrapuntal central section, based on minor key material that bears a strong resemblance to the Kyrie of Mozart’s Requiem. The secondary theme serves as a transition to the returning principal theme, leading to a dynamic climax and a whispered conclusion. The G minor Scherzo carries more weight than Mendelssohn, although Raff’s melodic and harmonic style sometimes suggests his example. The texture is lightened for the Trio, where attention is on the woodwind, followed by a more overtly romantic A flat major passage and a transition that allows the return of the Scherzo once more. The last movement opens in grandiose style, its slow introduction serving as a harmonic bridge to the following Allegro con spirito, a demonstration, if any were needed, of Raff’s technical proficiency and a convincing conclusion to the whole work.
In 1879 Raff composed four Shakespearean overtures. The third of these, Romeo and Juliet, suggests elements of the tragedy, the feud between Montagues and Capulets, the ill-starred lovers, and a final resolution of the conflict, more appropriate musically than dramatically. The Macbeth overture has suggestions of the witches, fresh from a Berlioz sabbath, and curiously eerie passages of chromaticism, contrapuntally treated, while a more positive element seems to suggest Malcolm and the forces of good, finally ushered in by side-drum and trumpets, set against the tyrant and usurper of the title and ensuring his final defeat. These two overtures were first revised and edited for publication by Raff’s distinguished American pupil Edward MacDowell.
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