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The critics' view of Raff

 

 

Walter William Cobbett
William Cobbett

 

 

 

 

 

Charles Ainslie Barry
Charles Barry

 

 

 

 

 

 

John South Shedlock
John Shedlock

The English critics

Walter William Cobbett (1847-1937) was a successful businessman, enthusiastic musical patron and a distinguished amateur violinist. In 1929/30 he published the respected Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music. As editor, he wrote a personal comment to round out its entry on Raff: "I have an ancient edition by me of Raff's sonatas for piano and violin, upon which the following lines are scrawled, on the front page by a bygone enthusiast: 'Armer Raff! Deine Schönheiten versteht fast Niemand. Ich bleibe immer dein fester Verehrer!' (Poor Raff! Though few they loveliness can see, thou hast one steadfast worshipper in me!)."

"These words echo to some extent my own feelings with regard to accomplished musicians of the past, whose works are threatened with oblivion. I am an admirer, though not a worshipper, of Raff, whose reputation has always suffered through his deplorable lack of the faculty of self-criticism. He composed at rare intervals music which alternates between extreme brilliance and sentimental tenderness, but he also poured out incessantly masses of pot-boilers with which, unfortunately, his name is only too often associated. I would not willingly be without his sonatas for piano and violin; they are not severely classical, but they are delightfully written for the violin. (After all, we fiddlers must be allowed sometimes to revel in the purely violinistic element)."

"A great virtuoso, Pablo Sarasate, spoke to me with enthusiasm of Raff's music, which he played very frequently, and it is certain that whenever he introduced into his programmes such works as the sonatas, the suite, and the Fée d'amour, he was rapturously applauded by the public. Solo violinists would not find their audiences unsympathetic if they revived the memory of Raff by an occasional performance of pieces written by one who was, after all, a master musician, with real insight into the inner life of the violin."

Charles Ainslie Barry (1830-1915) was a composer of hymns and songs, and wrote musical analysis and programme notes. In 1875, he joined John Shedlock in writing a series of articles in the Monthly Musical Record, analysing the first six of Raff's symphonies. About the Symphony No.2 he wrote: "We have no hesitation ... in stating it as our conviction that this second symphony of Raff's will, on its coming to a hearing in England, prove as acceptable to the general listener on account of its pleasingly tuneful and genial character, as unquestionably it will be admired by musicians for its clever and thoroughly musicianly construction."

He goes on to praise "Raff's skill in apparently developing an entire movement from a short phrase founded upon the major triad or natural notes of the horn ... In the present instance we are loth to believe that it was merely happy accident that the first subject of the movement before us turned out to be capable of treatment in canon, and are, therefore, inclined to think rather that it was designed with this end in view; and that accordingly the fullest credit is due to its author for its discovery." He records "feelings of admiration for Raff's powers of continuity ... without a suspicion of diffuseness" and is gratified that "Raff, never at a loss, starts afresh with further examples of the richness of his powers of development". The finale of the work, in Barry's opinion "concludes in a brilliant and highly satisfactory manner".

He also thought highly of the Symphony No.3 Im Walde: "Of the many eminent composers, including Schumann, Sterndale Bennett, Stephen Heller etc, who have recorded their impressions of the woods, there is probably none who has approached his subject in a more poetical vein, with more seriousness of purpose, or with more completeness than Joachim Raff." He wrote that the piece's opening was "like a declaration that our author has no intention of treating his subject in a commonplace and conventional manner, but with all the power of a genuine poet". "The beauty and natural treatment of the [first three movements] will be apparent to all", but Barry the Victorian churchman had some misgivings about the introduction of the pagan god Wotan and his wild hunt into the finale, whilst at the same time recognising the appropriateness of the imagery to German audiences.

His long analysis of the Symphony No.5 Lenore credits Raff with "extreme ingenuity". The second movement is: "a movement for which, on account of its passionate love-longing and love-satisfied character, it would be difficult to find a parallel", beginning with with "so charming a theme for the string quartett". The third movement has a "remarkably spirited character" and a trio with "a passionate and agitated character ... though full of a foreboding of evil, [it] may perhaps be regarded as representative of Wilhelm's and Lenore's last sad farewell in this life". The concluding chorale is a "grand harmonious burst, but still pianissimo, from the full orchestra, in a manner which aptly illustrates the hymn of the spirits with which the poem closes".

Barry's colleague John South Shedlock (1843-1919), was an English musical writer, author of a definitive translation into English of Beethoven's letters, and of a definitive study of the Piano Sonata.

Shedlock clearly adopted a more critical stance towards Raff than Barry. In his Introduction to the Symphony No.1 An das Vaterland, he wrote: "The Symphony from beginning to end shows great power, immense fertility of resource, thorough command of all scientific combinations and orchestral effects; but we cannot help feeling that the scientific element predominates considerably over that of the creative. Again, the influence of Beethoven and Mendelssohn is apparent in many places but there is quite enough of Raff for it to be called a decidedly organic composition."

Nailing his anti-Lisztian colours to the mast, Shedlock is provoked by the work's fourth movement to opine: "Development by metamorphosis is one of the idiosyncrasies of the music of the future, and we should be very cautious in passing summary judgment on any novelty introduced by a genuine school of artists. Without, therefore, dogmatising of the subject, we cannot but express a doubt as to whether, in spite of all its ingenuity, there is any real musical advance in such a method of treatment".

Moving on to the Symphony No.4, he praises the development section of its first movement for: "the successful blending together of creative and scientific elements, and the careful observance of the laws of contrast and gradation in every detail of rhythm and modulation, [which] combine to produce a most pleasing, interesting, as well as ingenious piece of workmanship." His praise of the scherzo, however, is rather fainter: "If not particularly remarkable as regards conception of idea, [it] will doubtless please; for the themes are simple, and the orchestration light and graceful. There are no brusque modulations, disturbing rhythms, or mysterious thematic combinations."

He is also lukewarm in his attitude towards the Symphony No.6, in whose enigmatic subtitle he detects a tribute to Schubert's life. "In the allegro before us there is an immense quantity of material, much of which seems to have been created principally with a view to forming canons and combinations ... they should be used, not as an end, but as a means ... It is a fine display of Raff's thorough command over all the intricacies of counterpoint, canon, and fugue, and of his masterly power of thematic treatment; and in these days of emotional music, we may perhaps rejoice to see such an exhibition of scholastic learning, even if administered in rather too powerful doses". The second movement is, though, "somewhat laboured" whilst "the fourth movement is certainly brilliant, and (popularly speaking) effective, but the themes are lacking in interest, and many of the passages are laboured and wearisome in effect."

[Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music was published in two volumes by Oxford University Press in 1930, and a revised edition was published in 1963. Barry and Shedlock's articles analysing the first six of Raff's symphonies were published in the Monthly Musical Record between April and November 1875]

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