The critics' view of Raff












Philip Hale
Philip Hale

Philip Hale's biographical sketch

Philip Hale (1854-1934) was a distinguished American music critic. He was born in in Norwich, Vermont and attended Yale, leaving the university to practice law, whilst also studying piano and playing the organ in a church. In 1882 he abandoned law altogether in favour of music, and studied in Munich with Rheinberger and in Paris with Guilmant, before returning to the USA where he worked as an organist and conductor. Hale began writing musical criticism in 1890, working for several Boston newspapers. He was the music critic of the prestigious Boston Herald from 1903 until his death. From 1901 he also wrote the programme notes for the Boston Symphony Orchestra performances. Hale was noted for his trenchant opinions, and in particular he was an implacably negative critic of Brahms' music. However, he was among the severest critics of the music of Johannes Brahms.

In 1896, before he became well know as a critic, Hale wrote a biographical sketch of Raff which acted as a foreword for two volumes of Raff's piano music, published by the New York form of G. Shirmer. Hale briefly (and in places inaccurately) summarised Raff's life and career, before turning to the value of Raff's music:

"Joseph Joachim Raff was born at Lachen on the Lake of Zürich, May 27, 1822. His father, from Wiesenstetten in Württemberg, was a teacher and an organist, who did not give special attention to the musical development of his son. The boy was bookish, and at the age of seven he could translate Homer. He played the organ; he also sang. He studied at the Institute at Wiesenstetten, then at the Jesuit Lyceum at Schwyz, where he took prizes in Latin and Mathematics. Too poor to pursue a University course, he was a tutor at St. Gallen, and he afterwards taught at Rapperswyl. About the age of twenty, he began to hanker after a musical life. In the fall of 1842, in Switzerland, he met Mendelssohn. Greatly was he encouraged thereby, so that his opus 1 was published in January, 1843. Other works followed; and favorable reviews of them fixed his determination to be a musician in spite of the Opposition of his parents. Liszt met Raff in Switzerland in 1845 and invited him to go on a concert tour, which ended at Cologne. Raff remained in Cologne and again met Mendelssohn, who asked him to go to Leipzig and study with him. Just as preparations were making, Mendelssohn died. Liszt gave Raff a letter to Mechetti, a Viennese publisher. Misfortune was Raff's faithful friend, for while he was on the way to Vienna, Mechetti died. Then, living in Stuttgart, he met von Bülow, who helped him in many ways for many years. In 1850 we find Raff at Weimar, where he tarried six years. Here he wrote some of his best piano-suites, and here he fell in love with an actress, Dora Genast; he followed her to Wiesbaden in 1856, where he taught the piano, and he composed furiously; he married his sweetheart in 1859 and by her he had one daughter. In 1863 he took the prize offered by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna for the best symphony— it is Symphony No. 1, "An das Vaterland" — and he was soon thereafter enabled to give more time to thoughtful, discriminating composition. He staid at Wiesbaden until 1877, when he became director of the new Conservatory of Music at Frankfort-on-Maine. Here he taught composition and composed until 1882, when he died of heart-disease on the night of June 24-25.

"Raff was a man of more than ordinary general learning. When Berlioz, ignorant of German, was at Weimar, Raff addressed him, the guest at a formal dinner, in Latin. He wrote articles for the Cäcilia and the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. His pamphlet, "Die Wagnerfrage" (1854), excited much attention.

"As a man he was modest, amiable, high-toned. Never a pianist of distinction, he for years gave piano-lessons cheerfully at a ridiculously low price. He suffered artistically and physically from poverty; but if chill penury repressed his noble rage, it did not freeze the genial current of his soul. He was of simple tastes, and he was not shrewd in business. All they that knew him, loved him.

"Raff was a singularly productive composer. He wrote 6 operas, two of which saw the footlights; an oratorio, cantatas, music for the church; 11 symphonies, 4 suites and 9 overtures for orchestra; chamber-music, songs, 'cello-pieces; 2 concertos and 5 sonatas for the violin. His first 46 opus-numbers — there are over 200 in all — are exclusively solo-pieces for the piano; and for the piano with orchestra he wrote an "Ode to Spring ", op.76; a concerto in C minor, op.185, and a suite in E flat, op.200. And of all his works, the one that will finally keep his name alive is the symphony "Im Walde", which was composed in 1869.

"Raff was a romanticist with a purpose; this purpose was to use music as a definite expression of the concrete as well as the abstract. His belief was antipodal to that of Walt Whitman: "All music is what awakens from you when you are reminded by the instruments". His theories and beliefs are to be found in the preface to "An das Vaterland", and the symphony regarded from the standpoint of the preface is an "Inquire Within" for all you wish to know of German character; a Baedeker for German emotions; a musical stereopticon; a pantomime with curtain falling on the apotheosis of Germania. And yet, can symphonic music be thus topographical, historical, political, ethnological and anthropological ? Is the finale of the Lenore symphony a moving panorama to any one who does not know Bürger's poem? If the hearer of such program-music has the printed explanation, he can then, if he is so inclined, dilate with the proper, and the only suitable, emotion. In the "Im Walde" symphony Raff does not so particularize in his demands on the attention. Forest scenes and even the thought of the forest may easily suggest the music that you are afterward not surprised to hear in concert. 'Tis largely association of ideas. Given October and a forest, and you very likely think of the winded horn and men in suits of Lincoln-green; or when you hear a merry flourish of horns you may possibly say "October".

"Intense romantic feeling, spontaneous melody, unusual contrapuntal ease, a vivid sense of color: these are the characteristics of Raff's best music. Alas, it was so easy and so necessary for him to write much! Poverty spurred him over leagues of commonplace. There are often genteel platitudes, pinchbeck brilliancy. Or the composer is like unto a man who, having exhausted his stock of conventional compliments, hat in hand shifts in his chair and will not see the door. Nor is that which is cheap and common in his music to be found only in the pile of paraphrases for the piano. In more serious works triviality is often found side by side with cunning contrapuntal devices. It is true that he embellished and revised some of his earlier piano-pieces, but much that is intrinsically unworthy of him survives him.

"For these slips and errors, for his remarkable fecundity, Raff has been abused roundly by those who realized the genuine talent of the man and did not know the disheartening obstacles against which he struggled. Thus Pougin, usually a sane, acute, sympathetic critic, cannot understand why Raff should show such inequality, or why he did not obey the Horatian maxim. It would have been more heroic if Raff had starved for Art's sake; but in this case we should not have been able to enjoy some of his finest work.
No pianist can afford to ignore a judicious selection of Raff's piano pieces. While eminent virtuosos have not disdained them, the great majority of the pieces are within the reach of every well-grounded pianist. In elegance and suave melody this music is attractive. There are often passages of romantic feeling, and even in unexpected places are there proofs of the technical skill of the composer."

[Joachim Raff: Selected Pieces for the Pianoforte in two Volumes (volumes 369 & 370 of the series Shirmer's Library of Musical Classics) was published by G. Shirmer, New York in 1896]

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