Independence
Breakthrough

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Piano Trio No.1
Score of the Piano Trio No.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orchestral Suite No.1
Score of the
Orchestral Suite No.1

Wiesbaden: Breakthrough

Raff had begun work on his Symphony An das Vaterland (To the Fatherland) in the late Summer of 1859 and most of his compositional effort in the following year was devoted to it. Indeed, his only other works from 1860 are the three short piano pieces opp.92-94 Capriccio, Dans la Nacelle and Impromptu-Valse, all of which eventually became favourites in salons and recital halls. Like his 1854 E minor symphony, An das Vaterland had five movements but it was an altogether more ambitious piece. Lasting well over an hour, it was written to a programme of Raff's devising. This illustrated various aspects of the German character linked with the then current aspiration for national unity and was underpinned by thematic links between some of the movements. Its gargantuan scale, patriotic programme and cutting edge harmonic and thematic content put it at the forefront of symphonic thinking at the time.

Although An das Vaterland does not appear to have been written as a "prize" symphony, Raff took advantage of a competition organised by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna in Summer 1861 and submitted his unperformed symphony. Along with those of 31 other hopefuls, it was submitted to the judgment of such musical luminaries as Hiller, Ignaz Lachner, Reinecke and Volkmann and was awarded First Prize. Brahms and Cornelius attended the rehearsals for its first performance and the premiere itself at Vienna's Musikvereinsaal on 22 February 1862 was an enormous success, aided by the publication of the symphony's programme in the newspapers the day before. The applause continued throughout the performance and, as Raff wrote home to his wife Doris, after the finale there was "again a storm of applause: and barely had my name been declared, when a friendly tumult began and couldn't be controlled until I finally made my appearance." During the rest of his stay in the Austrian capital he was fêted: he was greeted with "with long applause" when he attended a rehearsal at the Singakademie and was treated to a soirée given over to his chamber music in the Haslingersaal "to honour the presence of the composer", where he was again applauded profusely.

It was no doubt a source of great regret for Raff that his father Joseph, who had always been so critical of his son's musical career, did not live to see it fully blossom. He had died in 1861 in his native Württemberg, whence he and the his remaining family had returned from Switzerland upon his retirement.

Although Raff's reputation had gradually been growing since his break from Liszt and move to Wiesbaden, it was the winning of the Vienna prize in 1862 which propelled him to prominence and, once there, he began to produce a series of works for the next decade and a half which would confirm his suddenly acquired status as one of Germany's foremost composers. In 1861, before the prize was awarded, he had already written another of his most popular works: the Piano Trio No.1. Although it had to wait another four years before it was published, it then rapidly became a public favourite, to the extent that Raff later bewailed the fate of his other three trios, saying that he "felt sorrow for my three neglected 'trio children' because the number one is performed again and again". The salon piece for piano La Polka de la Reine also achieved great success, although it perhaps did little to enhance its composer's reputation. Similar light piano works finished in the year were Le Galop and the Fantaisie-Polonaise, whilst the Cinq Eglogues were in more serious vein. The Trois Sonatilles were proof of his experimental streak. These three mini piano sonatas of three, four and three movements respectively were well received and Raff was encouraged enough by their reception subsequently to arrange them both for piano four hands and for violin and piano.

The excitements of 1862 meant that his compositional activity was restricted. He finished the Concert Overture, the first of a series of celebratory orchestral works which he was to write over the next few years. Dedicated to various German rulers (in this case Prince Friedrich of Hohenzollern-Hechingen) they are dismissed by Helene Raff in her biography "since they add little to the artistic physiognomy of their creator", but they are all solidly constructed, well orchestrated and melodically interesting. They demonstrate that Raff, even in his "occasional" pieces, was in a different compositional league to the legion of well trained kapellmeisters who dutifully churned out such works.

The major work finished in 1862 was the Piano Quintet, which he found a difficult creation, writing to his wife: “Permit me to say, that my powers themselves are growing with this undertaking and that is necessary, for it is more difficult to compose than a symphony or a string quartet and I understand well why even Beethoven didn’t put a hand to it and why nothing has been accomplished in this form since the Schumann quintet”. He had to wait until his old employer Schuberth published it in 1864 and it didn't receive its first recorded performance until the following year but, once it became known, its popularity was assured. Hans von Bülow wrote: "I cannot but admit that your quintet is your best, and the most remarkable work in the field of chamber music since Beethoven" and Raff himself always thought it amongst the best of his compositions.

For a few months during 1862 Joachim and Doris Raff played host, guide and nursemaid to Richard Wagner, who was staying in the Wiesbaden suburb of Biberich to be near his publisher Schott, who was based in the city of Mainz, just across the Rhine. Both Helene Raff's record of the visit, and Wagner's self-serving account in his autobiography make it clear that for the Raffs there was as much awkwardness and inconvenience as pleasure in the experience. Raff only ever met Wagner once again.

The great event of 1863 came early in the year. The Leipzig publishing house Kahnt had announced in November 1862 a contest for a choral work and Raff's response was to compose over the next two months Deutschlands Auferstehung (Germany's Resurrection), described as a Festival Cantata for men's voices and orchestra celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the victory of the German people in the battle of Leipzig (against Napoleon). Kahnt published the work in 1864. This tremendous success not only further embellished Raff's reputation but it also seems to have given him the confidence to devote more time to composition, 1863 was to prove a much more productive year than either of its predecessors.

Throughout the final couple of years in Weimar and his early years in Wiesbaden he had been working on a series of part songs for men's choirs - the Liedertafel and Männergesangverein which proliferated throughout Germany during the the nineteenth century. By 1863 he had composed twenty songs and grouped them into two sets of ten ready for publication. Despite his burgeoning reputation, he still had to wait another two years for the first set of Zen Bespangle fur Manner (Ten Songs for Men's Choir) op.97 to be published by Kahnt in 1865. They were followed by the second set, op.122, in 1867.

Another maturing song collection, completed in 1863, had a much greater impact. The collection of 30 songs comprising Sanges-Frühling (Spring Songs) had also been built up since 1855. They were not in any sense a song cycle and stretched in style from the simple, joyfully short Kein Sorg' um den Weg (No worries along the Way) to his atmospheric setting of Heine's Lorelei and the lengthy dramatic scene Hochzeitsnacht (Wedding Night - a setting of Eichendorff’s ballad), but all had some relevance to Spring. Once they were published, in 1864 by Schuberth, the collection enjoyed huge popularity and, as the critic Franz Gehring wrote, it "deserves notice for its wealth of fine melodies, some of which have become national property".

Raff was still not financially secure enough that he could afford to eschew the market for piano pieces for the salon and this year saw a further four flow from his ready pen: the Salterello, Rêverie-Nocturne and La Gitana opp.108-110, together with a rather more substantial Hungarian Rhapsody. A much more significant work was his Second Piano Trio, written before publication of the first and ultimately proving almost as popular. It is symptomatic of Raff's growing confidence that he chose to ignore his usual caution and went ahead and wrote a second work before the first was even performed, let alone published. The G major Trio was published shortly after its predecessor in 1865.

1863 saw Raff's return to large-scale orchestral composition with the completion of his Suite for orchestra No.1. Only Franz Lachner had written orchestral suites before this early example by Raff, which he dedicated to the Grand Duke of Baden, who had such a high regard for Raff's music that had placed his court orchestra "for now and hereafter" at the composer's disposal! The Suite's five movements are not amongst his most successful works and are mainly of interest now because the final pair, a Scherzo and a March, were salvaged by Raff from his earliest Symphony, composed in Wiesbaden in 1854, with which he was presumably by then dissatisfied. The Suite, unlike those which followed it, had no programme and was premiered by Kalliwoda early in 1864 in Karlsruhe.

At the age of 41 it had taken Raff 19 years to achieve overnight success but, by the end of 1863, the successive prize awards for An das Vaterland and Deutschlands Auferstehung had catapulted him into the first rank of German composers, a position which he consolidated over the next ten years so that his fame would continue throughout his lifetime.

[The source for this article is the fifth chapter of Helene Raff's 1925 biography of her father]

© 1999-2017 Mark Thomas. All rights reserved.