The critics' view of Raff



Louis Adolphe Coerne

Coerne's judgement on Raff

Like Edward Burlighame Hill, the American composer, academic and writer Louis Adolphe Coerne (1870-1922) was a pupil at Harvard of John Knowles Piane at Harvard and also studied in Europe. He returned to teach at Harvard but later moved to Connecticut College in New London. Although now virtually unknown, Coerne was also a successful composer in his day, being performed in Europe as well as extensively in the USA. He wrote four operas, some large scale choral works and several orchestral works, including the symphonic poem Excalibur.

In the introduction to Coerne's 1908 book The Evolution of Modern Orchestration, the eminent New York music critic Henry Krehbiel describe's the volume's genesis: "Dr. Coerne, the author of this book, is an American composer bom in Newark, N. J., who has achieved the distinction of having an opera of his writing performed in a European opera-house. His Zenobia was brought forward in Bremen on December 1, 1905. It was the first instance of the performance in Europe of a grand opera composed by a native of the United States. The score of this opera and the subject-matter of this book were accepted as a thesis by Harvard University which conferred the degree of Ph. D. on the author in June, 1905. It was the first time that the university bestowed the degree for special work in music."

Coerne begins his book's tenth chapter "The Classical Romanticists" with a short review of Raff's contribution to the art of orchestration: "The representatives of classical romanticism are Raff, Rubinstein, Goldmark, Brahms, Bruch, Rheinberger. The influence that Raff and Brahms had upon orchestration requires especial consideration. Rubinstein will be referred to again in connection with Russian composers. And a brief analysis will be sufficient to discover the respective characteristics that distinguish Goldmark's highly colored orchestration, that of Bruch in accompaniment to noble choral works, and Rheinberger's conservative yet finished instrumentation for sacred composition.

"To begin with Raff, it is by no means easy to determine the precise value of his compositions. Masterpieces must be arraigned side by side with works of decided inferiority. He adapted Beethoven's calorific polyphony together with the charmingly picturesque style of Weber, but did not approach his eminent contemporary, Brahms, either in depth of thought or in originality of ideas. He was, however, superior to Brahms as an orchestral colorist. Encouraged by the sympathy and practical help of such men as Mendelssohn, Liszt, von Bülow, he became in his younger days a sturdy advocate of the modern German tendencies, and even wrote a pamphlet entitled Die Wagnerfrage; but in spite of his affiliation with the Weimar coterie, Raff eventually developed into a composer more especially of chamber music and symphonies. Im Walde and Lenore are the best known of the orchestral works, indeed, the first named is without doubt his most important production. Raff was essentially a romanticist; what is more, he went so far as to write descriptive program music. Nevertheless, his style bears but little relation to that of Wagner or Liszt; it displays, in fact, a decided reserve in that he employed traditional forms and Beethoven's symphonic orchestra. Notwithstanding Raff's descriptive faculties, his works betray unquestionable lyric tendencies. Occasional approach to the salon style is also in evidence, nor do the larger works reveal that breadth of style and invariable loftiness of purpose that signalize those of Beethoven and Brahms. He possessed great facility, but this very attribute endangered the quality of his conceptions and was conducive to carelessness and loss of fine feeling.

"Striking insignia of absolutely original scoring are not conspicuous, although the entire character of the orchestration gives evidence of fertile imagination and sound judgment. Some of Wagner's full and rich effects found their way also into Raff's symphonic pages. The latter was particularly happy in the use of horns, wrote almost exclusively for valve-horns and valve-trumpets, and established a precedent by selecting those in F for regular practice.

"In view of the fact that Raff's style is a compound of classicism and romanticism, together with yet more advanced tendencies so far as the "program" element is concerned, his title as pioneer of the classical-romanticists has been applied with good judgment. The succeeding luminaries of this school revealed similar tendencies." Despite this endorsement of Raff as the founder of "classical romanticism", Coerne concludes that "Brahms stands forth in his solitary grandeur ... Towering above his fellow classical-romanticists, he attained the exaltation of his fame by a path they could not tread."

[The Evolution of Modern Orchestration by Louis Adolphe Coerne, was published by Macmillan of New York in 1908]

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