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The critics' view of Raff

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Henderson William Henderson

Henderson's view of Raff

William James Henderson (1855-1937) was perhaps the most respected of American writers on music at the turn of the 20th. century. As well as publishing several books about music aimed at the general reader, he was the music critic of first the New York Times and then the New York Sun newspapers. In 1891 the J.B. Millet Company of Boston published the handsome multi-volume "Famous Composers and their Works", which comprised extensive essays on many composers by respected American musicians, amongst them Henderson. It was edited by the composer John Knowles Paine, the conductor Theodor Thomas and the well known New York teacher Karl Klauser. Henderson's six page survey of Raff's career, music and reputation begins Volume III. After a generally accurate and interestingly anecdotal survey of Raff's life and a listing of his major works, Henderson moves onto into a balanced assessment of the value of Raff's music:

"It may, perhaps, be unfortunate for Raff's fame that his dramatic works are unknown in this country, though it is indisputable that none of them has achieved high repute in German. It is probable, although we in America know far less about the music of this gifted man than the Germans do, the estimate of his abilities generally accepted on this side of the Atlantic is a wise one. He is regarded as a composer who, possessing exceptional fecundity of melodic invention and rare mastery of orchestral tone-color, sought to impose upon music a definiteness of expression somewhat beyond its power. This eagerness to delineate in detail a chain of feelings or impressions led Raff into diffuseness of style and to frequent sacrifices of those formal elaborations which are regarded as essential to the construction of artistic music. He has been generally thought to lack self-criticism and a want of restraint resulting therefrom; but it has always seemed to the present writer that Raff's errors were not in the direction of criticism, but of fundamental belief. In other words he let the beautiful vision of a genus of pictorial programme music which is to be more expressive than speech run away with his reason. The preface to his "In the Fatherland" symphony clearly exhibits his idea of the possibilities of music.

"Now it is neither necessary nor expedient to repeat here any of the familiar discussion as to the expressive power of music. The most serious thinkers about the art, even when they disagree in details, are generally of the opinion that music can express only the broader emotions, and requires text to make clear the cause of the feelings. We are able to get great pleasure, and at times genuine emotional exaltation from the music of Raff provided we are willing to approach it in the only fair spirit in which programme music can be approached —that of willingness to accept the composer's premises. The first movement of the " Fatherland" symphony has strength and aspiration, and we have only to accept Raff's explanation that he is singing of Germany to enter into the heart of his composition. In the same way we are obliged to approach the "Lenore," the "Im Walde" and his other symphonies. The grisly story of Burger's Lenore is told in detail in the finale of the symphony, but in order to follow the music we need the poem. Having that, we perceive the aptness and peculiar fitness of the composer's rhythmic and melodic fancies. Nothing could have a more stimulating effect upon the imagination — once the key to the secret is possessed—than the inexorable persistence of the groups of a quaver and two semi-quavers by which the infernal flight of the lovers is indicated. If perchance we find an instrumental representation of a gallop not new (it having been invented by Claudio Monteverde in the beginning of the seventeenth century) we can at any rate get all the effect designed by Raff in his wood-wind shrieks of the nightbirds and his trombone hymn for the dead.

"He has achieved a greater fidelity of feeling and a subtler realism of tones, however, in his " lm Walde," which is generally looked upon as his masterpiece. The first movement is intended to bring to the hearer's mind the woods in the sunlit beauty of noon. The second reveals them to us in the suggestive shadow of twilight. In the third movement the composer entertains us with an airy and delicate dance of Dryads, a woodland scherzo in deed and in truth. ln the fourth and last movement we have a musical embodiment of the familiar German legend of the Wild Huntsman. A gentle fugal thought pictures the repose of the woods. Suddenly the rhythm of the galloping hunt is heard, as it were, in the distance. Nearer and nearer it comes, till the whole orchestra thunders with its riotous fury. It dies away in the distance, returns and dies away again. Then comes the glory of sunrise. This symphony makes less demands in the way of preparation than many of Raff's other works. The single suggestion that he is painting the forest and that there is a wild hunt is all that the imagination needs to give it complete enjoyment of this work. Freedom of form is a natural result of the kind of composition in which Raff excelled and his ability to write quickly and with little effort prevented his feeling the necessity of working out his compositions with the care and science of the classical school. One gets much less intellectual satisfaction, therefore, out of Raff's work than out of Schumann's, who was his precursor, and still less than out of Mozart's. But the ear and the imagination are delighted by the clear intelligibility of his melodic ideas, their unfailing poetic sentiment and musical grace. It is these qualities of his themes, together with the splendid colors in which his orchestral palette is so rich, that have given to his symphonic works their wide popularity, and have made the name of Raff recognized as that of one of the really gifted followers of the romantic school founded by Schumann and Schubert. In the general outline his symphonies follow the laws of the earlier masters, notably in the distribution of the movements. His separate movements, however, are not always built according to the old rules, his finales being notably free and irregular. It can only be said, then, in concluding this brief estimate of his symphonic writing, that his works in the large orchestral form are admirable examples of that class of modern composition in which structural skill and scientific development are sacrificed to warmth of sentiment and opulence of color. In a word, they belong to what may be called the impressionist school of music.

"Lest it be supposed that Raff was deficient in musical learning, let us note that his chamber music, always melodious and graceful, frequently displays profound mastery of the resources of his art. His sextet in G minor, opus 178, deserves especial mention because it is one of his most carefully written productions. It is written for two violins, two violas and two 'cellos in six real parts, and every trick of canon and imitation is introduced. One commentator enthusiastically describes it as "a veritable triumph of counterpoint." In his treatment of the first subject of his " In the Fatherland " symphony, too, he writes a canon in augmentation and double augmentation that would have delighted the eye of Bach himself. Dr. Franz Gehring, of Vienna, in his article on Raff in Grove's " Dictionary of Music" calls attention to the interesting fact that "in the pianoforte concerto in C minor (opus 185) in each movement all the subjects are in double counterpoint with one another, yet this is one of Raff's freshest and most melodious works." The composer's piano music is very popular, and some of it, notably the variations on an original theme (opus 179) and most of the suites, is remarkable for its fertility of resource as well as for the composer's usual readiness for the production of new melodies. His songs are equally rich in tunefulness and many of them have attained the rare distinction of becoming the common property of the German people.

"Raff may not deserve a seat among the Titans of music. Yet his originality, his grace of thought and his oriental gorgeousness of utterance lift him above the level of mediocrity and stamp him as a man possessed of rare and valuable gifts. His larger works show every evidence of artistic earnestness, and had he been less imbued with impressionistic ideas and more free from the burdens of poverty, he might have attained perfection of art."

[Famous Composers and their Works Vol.III, edited by Paine, Thomas & Klauser was published by J.B. Millet Company of Boston in 1891]

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