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The critics' view of Raff

 

 

August Manns
August Manns

Raff's English premiere

Despite his growing fame in Germany, Raff's music does not seem to have been heard in England, 'Das Land ohne Musik' as it was famously dubbed by one hostile German observer, until 1870. The first of Raff's work's heard there were two movements from his First Suite for Orchestra op.101, which August Manns (1827-1907), the conductor of the hugely popular concerts at the Crystal Palace, programmed at a concert there on 26 February 1870. The German born Manns had by then acquired an enviable reputation since taking over the Crystal Palace concerts in 1855, painstakingly building up the orchestra into a first class ensemble and quickly introducing English audiences to modern European composers. His modern programming challenged the staid, traditional tastes of his audiences but his performance standards were praised, and by the time he exposed his English listeners to their first taste of Raff he had established the south London site as the capital's principal venue for classical music.

Raff's Suite had been composed seven years earlier and incorporated two movements from his discarded first attempt at a symphony, dating back to the mid 1850s. Manns was very aware of the musical trends in Germany and so would have known of the composer's sudden rise to prominence. Judging by the press reports, though, he clearly felt the need to feel his way in introducing Raff to London audiences, making it clear in his programme note that these two movements were a taster for the whole Suite. If it was liked, he would programme the whole Suite. The reaction of the musical press cannot have been encouraging.

The Pall Mall Gazette wrote: "An adagietto and scherzo from Raff's Suite in C were in the programme or the first time. Joachim Raff, who, we are assured, 'has a certain fame on the Continent, and is in every respect a composer of our day' — a doubtful compliment by-the-bye — belongs to the class Mr. Manns delights to patronise. He produces much of an 'advanced' German kind, and varies this occupation by writing in defence of his faith, and of its prophet, Wagner. The wonder is, therefore, that Mr. Manns did not turn the light of Raff upon us long ago. But, judging from the movements played on Saturday, the loss arising from Raff's absence has not been serious. True, there are features in his music of such merit as belongs to occasional tunefulness, and to a picturesque use of the orchestra. But these are neutralised by other features of an opposite sort. Herr Raff seems one of those men who so rarely lay hold of a melody that, having done so, they immediately get all they can out of it by putting it to the 'question.' There is an example in the adagietto, where pretty if not original themes are tortured to an insupportable degree. Again, both movements display an almost feverish anxiety to be original, which in the absence of adequate power only leads to 'great cry and little wool.' The ostentatious challenge to attention of the scherzo, for example, is to the actual result what the gorgeous 'canwas' of Mr. Magsman's show was to Chops and his fellow-phenomena. Mr. Manns hopes to introduce the whole work; but how far this feeling is shared by others remains very doubtful."

The critic of the prestigious journal The Musical World was only slightly more positive: "The two movements from Raff's Suite also failed to excite enthusiasm, although the adagietto is sometimes pretty, and the scherzo always so 'very original' — we quote M A. M. — as to be curious. Herr Raff's knowledge of the orchestra evidently serves him well, and he is not afraid to go far out of the beaten path after ideas. But good colouring of strange figures does not command instant appreciation, and we wait farther experience."

The Musical World's later compendium review of the whole series of Crystal Palace concerts was more acerbic: "At the next concert a by no means satisfactory performance of Beethoven's only oratorio, Christus am Oelberge (the Mount of Olives), was preceded, by an affectedly, so-called, 'adagietto' followed by a scherzo, from an orchestral Suite by Herr Joseph Joachim Raff — as rampant a specimen of 'Young Germany' as Herr Rubinstein himself. Mr. Manns, in the programme, attempts to make out a case for Herr J. J. Raff, as he had previously attempted to make out a case for Herr Rubinstein. He tells us that Herr Raff's Suite 'is in no way an imitation of the ancient Suite' - which we can readily believe; but that his 'adagietto and scherzo breathe entirely the spirit of our time' — to which we can only reply, so much the worse for our time. Further, Mr. Manns hopes to be able to 'introduce the whole work in a future series of Saturday Concerts, should the result of today's performance be satisfactory;' but, as the result was not at all 'satisfactory,' we are moved to say, emphatically, to the zealous conductor — don't."

Raff was at least now noticed, even if it was only to be lumped together with other composers of his generation as producing works inferior to those of the Englishman Sterndale Bennett. The Pall Mall Gazette, reviewing a performance of Bennett's G minor Symphony at the next Crystal Palace Saturday concert on 5 March 1870, wrote: "The symphony was that written by Dr. Sterndale Bennett for the Philharmonic Society, and first heard at a concert given in June, 1864. Mr. Manns, as he himself assures us, introduced 'this beautiful work' with great satisfaction; but we certainly do not find in his assurance any explanation of the reason why it has not been played before. That such a symphony 'by the most distinguished living English composer' has lain neglected, while inferior works by Volkmann, Raff, Gade, Reinecke, and others, have had a hearing, may well require explanation."

Just over a month later, on 19 April 1870, Raff's Piano Trio No.2 was played at a chamber concert. The Musical World's critic was no kinder, but at least Raff was not alone in attracting his opprobrium: "Young Germany had an innings on Tuesday evening, under the auspices of Herr Coenen. Seldom does Young Germany get such a chance in uncongenial old England. True, it flourishes a little under the glass roof at Sydenham, but the process there is a forcing one, like that which goes on under glass roofs generally. On Tuesday, Young Germany had a fair field and no favour. With what results ? Weariness in the first place; further than which we need not go. Herr Raff's trio in G wearied; Herr Max Bruch's quartet wearied; and Herr Grädner'a quintet wearied. There may have been degrees of badness, but all were bad - a very Sahara of musical sterility, 'a dry and thirsty land, wherein was no water.' And this is Young Germany! From it may Heaven protect us."

Another magazine, The Musician, was just as damning: "Three 'Chamber Concerts of Modern Music' are in progress under the direction of Mr. W. Coenen. The composers who filled the first evening were Raff, Max Bruch, and Carl Grädener. Neither the trio by the first-named — notwithstanding his reputed sympathy with Wagner, — the quartet by the second — a pupil of the thoroughly conservative Hiller, — nor the quintet of the last-named — of whom we know nothing, — showed any remarkable traits of eccentricity, extravagance, or indeed of originality. If these concerts are intended to be propagandist, the selection, might be better considered."

Whilst Raff never attained in the UK the heights of popularity which he did in Germany or the USA, he did go on to achieve success there in the years that followed. In 1870, however, his reputation was that of a modernist Wagnerian whose music was not to the Mendelssohn ian tastes of the country's concert going public. The Musical World's parting shot in 1870 was another sideswipe: "Herr Joachim Raff has finished a new opera, Dame Kobold, which is to be produced at Weimar. Let us hope that Herr Raff is a better hand at operatic music than at music for the orchestra and the chamber." It was the sensational English premiere of the Lenore Symphony in 1874 which would reverse this view.

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