The critics' view of Raff









Philip Henry Goepp Philip Henry Goepp

Goepp on Raff's symphonies

Philip Henry Goepp's three volumes describing and analysing the most significant symphonies then in the American concert repertoire were published at the turn of the 20th. century and were widely read at the time. Goepp (1864-1936) was a Philadelphia teacher and composer whose flowery turn of phrase, fancifully poetic imagery and quirky syntax make for awkward reading today. Typical of this is his explanation of his purpose in the "Prefatory" (foreword): "to find the mystery of the symphonies, - not here, nor there, but of the ideal type; to see what tonal meaning really means, and, quite as clearly, what it does not mean. The quaint confusion ever will intrude that only is definite that finds a term in common speech."

Goepp's style and ability attracted criticism when Symphonies And Their Meaning was published. The famous critic and writer HL Mencken wrote of Goepp that "his three volumes on the symphonic repertoire leave twice as much to be said as they say" and described his style as "pedantic and irritating". Reviewing the second volume on 28 March 1903, the New York Times critic wrote of Goepp's aim that it was: "an extremely ambitious one. Only a man of large knowledge and profound insight with a temperament at once musical and controlled by poetic feeling as well as by healthy good sense, is competent to fulfil it.

"That he has succeeded as well as he has is highly to Mr Goepp's credit. Sometimes it seems as if he had not the large sweep of knowledge and the breadth of view necessary; sometimes his interpretations are bordering on the fantastic, and altogether too often his mode of expression is strained: sometimes it seems "précieux", sometimes his meaning is a little difficult to perceive. Yet there remains much of good sense, much keen analysis, and much that will stimulate the fancy."

Whatever his shortcomings as a writer on music, Goepp was clearly a Raff enthusiast. In the chapter devoted to Mendelssohn and Raff, three of the four works are his: the Im Walde, Lenore and Der Winter symphonies. In all he devotes forty pages to their description and provides generous musical examples. Each description is available in full here.

In introducing the chapter, Goepp compares the success of Raff's programme symphonies with Beethoven's "Pastoral": "In various guises we see the symphony limited by labels. In Beethoven's "Pastoral" is a frank realism; actual nature-sounds are a part of the scheme. On the other hand, in Schumann's "Rhine" Symphony, the title is merely suggested. ... It is quite possible, where the greatest may fail in experiment, that a lesser may find the secret. Indeed, some forms seem best suited to a gentler flight of muse. Within a narrow scope it is true that the lesser form needs the lesser poet. Versatility is not a symptom of highest genius. Thus in the strange career of the symphony does it come about that in the limited field, where the feeling is narrowed to the sphere of some familiar idea, a Raff succeeded though a Beethoven failed. There is no doubt that the true symphony is a very different poetry from the entitled, which makes much of its appeal by the mere trick of association. The former must stand or fall purely on the strength of its own content. Where pure music is the direct message, the other is diluted. The lesser is far the easier, leaning, as on a crutch, on the constant suggestion of the subject, as opera on its text. Yet there is no ground for its disparaging. There is no reason why music should not, in lower flight, hover about the special themes of folk-lore, with narrower, more defined scope of feeling."

Later he goes on: "Raff's genius lies happily within the extremes of programme music; how he may be said to have solved its problems successfully as to symphonies, achieving here what Mendelssohn reached only in the overture. Indeed, without the symphonies of Raff, it might be held, for lack of supporting examples, that the true symphony cannot be burdened with a special title. More happily than Beethoven in his Sixth Symphony, Raff found the right relation of subject and utterance in the main by a predominance of the mood over mere description. The graphic aim was not pre-eminent, merely the suggestive. The two may approach each other so near as to be well-nigh indistinguishable. But the right attitude of the composer is clear, can never be actual delineation, but merely an utterance of the feelings aroused by the subject, whatever it be. As in negative and positive of a picture, there may be the closest correspondence of mood and or event, even in detail. And yet a true musical poem is never more than an utterance of feeling."

In discussing the Im Walde Symphony, Goepp comes close to accusing Wagner of borrowing from Raff: "The poetic design fits perfectly with the traditional order of symphonic movement and rhythm, and this harmony is a symbol of the fine touch with which Raff uttered his special sense of nature, of the great outer elements of life. His tonal schemes, with all their novel warmth of color and harmony and their objective realism, do not fail of a masterly grasp of the art in its highest reaches, of profound polyphony and of complete breadth of formal design. Indeed, there is no doubt that some of the melodic, harmonic, and chromatic manner that is all attributed to Wagner is quite distinctively Raff's own; that with him it is allied with a true mastery of the art, independent of dramatic illustration; that it is the sensational quality of Wagner's style, his constant reiteration of the same idea on the largest dramatic scale (lacking the economy of highest art), helped, too, by the attraction of visible story, that has stamped his name unduly upon much of modern musical discovery, of which he was not the only pioneer. This symphony of Raff was finished seven years before the first hearing of the Nibelungen Cycle."

His discussion of the Lenore Symphony is comparatively short, but he nonetheless describes it as: "One of the greatest flowers of the species 'programme music'" and he describes the slow movement as: "a more complete deepening of a perfect bliss." At the beginning of his lengthy description of Der Winter he again makes his view of Raff's merits clear: "Convincing, and it seems classic pieces of programme music are Raff's symphonies. It may be set down as generally admitted that they are not descriptive. They help in their own way to settle the nice boundaries of entitled music." The first movement is: "fragrant with the breath of early winter, with its blended tremor and delight". The second movement's lack of a title doesn't prevent Goepp from providing it was a programme: "A ballad we are sure it is, with cheerful beginning and terrible haps, ending somehow in heaven." The slow third movement prompts the opinion: "Raff's melodies have a strongly human quality, fragrant of folk or legend poetry, and this is one of the most glorious of them all. The whole symphony was worth writing alone for this tune."

Goepp's writing style is convoluted and mannered and his insistence on finding poetic significance in every musical turn of phrase is very much of its time, but there is no denying the sincerity of his enthusiasm for these three Raff symphonies or his appreciation of Raff's standing as a composer.

You can read each of Goepp's descriptions in full, complete with examples from the score of each work.

Symphony No.3 Im Walde
read Goepp on Im Walde Read Goepp's description (goep_1.pdf 397KB)

Symphony No.5 Lenore
Lenore Read Goepp's description (goep_2.pdf 485KB)

Symphony No.11 Der Winter
read Goepp on Der Winter Read Goepp's description (goep_3.pdf 475KB)

[Symphonies and Their Meaning: Second Series by Philip H Goepp was published by the JB Lippincot Company of Philadelphia in 1902]

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