> RAFF Symphony No 1 [RW]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Joachim RAFF (1822-1882)
Symphony No.1 in D major To the Fatherland (1861)
Rhenish Philharmonic Orchestra/Samuel Friedman
Rec. details?
NAXOS 8.555411 [65.00?]

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Joachim Raff is now remembered principally as the composer of a cavatina, a salon piece, and as an assistant to Liszt. In his own time he enjoyed a high reputation as both teacher and orchestrator, well justified by demonstrating a prolific talent as this symphony demonstrates. It will help to know the background of this forgotten composer.

Raff was born in Lachen, near Zurich, in 1822 when his father had taken refuge in Switzerland, leaving his native Württemberg to avoid conscription into the French army. Raff's early education was at Wiesenstetten, in Württemberg, followed by a period of teacher training at the Jesuit Gymnasium in Schwyz, where he won prizes in Latin, German, and Mathematics. He took employment as a schoolmaster, while working at his private studies in music. He approached Mendelssohn, who recommended him to the Leipzig publishers, Breitkopf and Härtel. They issued sets of his piano pieces in 1844, the year in which the young composer resolved to try his luck in Zurich.

An association with Liszt began in 1845, when he walked to Basle to hear the latter play. He later accompanied Liszt on his concert tour then followed this, with Liszt’s help, with work in Cologne –as a critic and, less significantly, working in a music shop. He then moved to Stuttgart, where he met Mendelssohn who agreed to teach him in Leipzig. After Mendelssohn’s death in 1847, Liszt secured Raff work in Hamburg as an arranger for a music publisher. In 1850 he moved to Weimar, where Liszt was now installed as Music Director Extraordinary. Raff was occupied with the provision of music materials for the orchestra, and above all with Liszt's remarkable series of symphonic poems. At the Villa Altenburg, where Raff lodged, he served the master as secretary, copyist and factotum, and must, initially at least, have had a considerable hand in the orchestration of Liszt's work. 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 that the orchestration of Prometheus was 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 some 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 his assertions at the time and later on the composition of Liszt's orchestral works must remain doubtful. In 1856, 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. Raff remained in Frankfurt until his death in 1882.

Keith Anderson’s tell us that 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 output 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. In other ways he may seem more academic in his 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. This information is taken from Keith Anderson’s notes.

The Symphony No. 1 in D major, Opus 96. carries the title ‘To the Fatherland', was started in 1859, and completed two years later. In the first movement, Allegro, Raff takes a highly sophisticated subject in depicting certain elements of the German characteristics – from initial optimism to depth of thought, decency and pride of endurance. After a blast of Wagnerian chords the work opens brightly with passages of rushing strings and more intermittent powerful chords on the horns. A formal development with strong contrapuntal elements follows with melody lines having string and wind textures reminiscent of Mendelssohn. The string playing is crisp and holds one’s attention from the outset.

The Scherzo gives a vision of a hunting scene with horns and forest backdrop after which a change of pace opens into a ‘folksong’ passage to portray the meadows and countryside and country folk who work there. A splendid rhythmic vitality engages the listener and although the movement becomes more lyrical and the energetic rhythm is initially lost the hunting rhythm reappears as the chase passes. The slow movement, Larghetto, opens with a bold romantic theme, which relaxes to portray a different, softer and more lyrical mood. This is intended to characterise the family and stability of home life. It is developed contrapuntally with reference to elements of the previous movements. The Allegro drammatico is stirringly patriotic and makes use of the song, Was ist des deutschen Vaterland, as a cry for national unity. Swirling strings set the mood from the start until we break out into the song-march: orchestration behind the theme could be that of early Wagner. The movement is developed with good craftsmanship. The final Larghetto sostenuto brings a feeling of sadness concerning the troubles of the whole of Germany. Pulsating drum-rolls open the sombre minor key movement. This clearly portrays the war-weary marching men who later begin to dream of the pleasant times ahead. After a third of this long 18 minute movement the weariness is shaken off and brighter more energetic passages with enjoyable themes become prominent to round off this symphony - a work remarkably unified in structure, thematic material and orchestral texture. It may sound flippant to suggest, but on the second hearing I was struck again by two motifs and certain characteristics of orchestration which strongly remind one of Sullivan’s Yeomen overture (finale of fifth movement). [Noticing the Leipzig link with his music being sold in a Leipzig publisher’s shop, it could be that the student Sullivan studied published Raff piano music and if the Conservatorium had the symphony’s full score, that also.]

The recording is excellent and the orchestra, under Samuel Friedman, play with dynamic enthusiasm. The acoustics are warm and full with good balance between sections. The disc is accompanied by interesting notes by Keith Anderson, with the written accent put more on Raff’s career. We should commend the policy of Naxos/Marco Polo for bringing out so much forgotten material disgracefully ignored by the mainstream record companies and broadcasting. Not only is a high proportion of the Naxos repertoire not found elsewhere in the catalogue but we are brought some good and at times excellent performances of these works. There is a lot still to unearth; long may this tradition continue.

Raymond J Walker

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