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8.223638 - RAFF: Symphony No. 6 / Jubel-Overture / Festmarsch
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 fifth of Raff’s numbered symphonies, Lenore, was written in 1872. The next year brought Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 189, a work scored for Raff’s usual orchestra of double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings and sub-titled, portentously, Gelebt, gestrebt, gelitten, gestritten, gestorben, umworben (“Lived, strove, suffered, fought, died, sought after”), although this programmatic suggestion is omitted from the later published score. The opening figure, played pizzicato, introduces an important element in the principal theme, leading through a more lyrical theme, a triplet pattern and a passage treated sequentially in dotted rhythm descending scale figuration to a second subject proper, marked Unpochettino meno mosso. The transitional material all has some place in the development that follows. The strings introduce the B flat major second movement, a simple folk-dance to all appearance, leading to a passage of rapid embroidery from a solo flute, followed by the strings. There is a lyrical E flat section, a Trio. The dance is syncopated by the woodwind and then accompanied by plucked strings. The original key is restored for the slow movement funeral march, introduced by the strings, followed by oboes and horns, joined by the rest of the woodwind. A long-drawn melody appears in the first violins and clarinets, in the key of B flat, and there is a passage of counterpoint, based on a semiquaver subject, through which the rhythm of the march is maintained. The second theme returns in D major, but is replaced by the more solemn mood of the opening, with an air of sinister suspense continued to the end. The last movement opens dramatically, as the strings build up chords of histrionic suggestion, answered by fragments of the important rhythmic figure of the first subject of the opening movement of the symphony. The principal theme of the movement follows, in D major, succeeded by a fine working out of the material here, in a second subject, and in figuration derived from the first movement, all leading to a triumphant conclusion.
Raff’s Jubel-Overtüre may seem somehow familiar to British audiences, based, as it is, on the British national anthem, God save the Queen. Although written shortly after the jubilee of Queen Victoria, it was in fact designed to mark the twenty-fifth year of the reign of Adolf, Duke of Nassau, a reminder that the anthem had been appropriated by a number of German states, among other countries. The melody is treated in a variety of ways, with interesting counterpoint, entrusted at one time to the French horn and at another to piccolo and flute, with a pizzicato accompaniment. Other suitably jubilant material is introduced, with a lyrical theme, before Raff allows himself a fully contrapuntal treatment of the original theme. The lyrical theme reappears in recapitulation before the final coda, which brings the whole anthem into prominence again.
The comic opera Dame Kobold, based by P. Reber on a work by the Spanish playwright Calderón de la Barca, was staged in Weimar in 1870, a year after its completion. The same subject, La dama duende, was later to be used for operas by the conductor-composers Felix Weingartner and Kurt von Wolfurt. Raff’s treatment of the comedy was unkindly described by Liszt as un salmagondis habillement apprêté. The introduction offers a French horn melody, accompanied by plucked strings, answered lyrically by the violins, which take up the theme. The main section of the overture introduces a greater sense of dramatic urgency, while the whole provides a spirited prelude to the comic opera.
Raff’s Festmarsch, Op. 159, displays again his technical skill in orchestration for a relatively conventional complement of instruments. It shows, too, his fluent command of harmonic and melodic idiom, the celebratory element contrasted with more sentimental material that serves as an admirable foil to the principal theme.
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