The critics' view of Raff










Edward Burlingame Hill
Edward Burlingame Hill

Hill reviews Raff's music

Edward Burlingame Hill (1872-1960) was an American composer and writer on music. He studied in Boston with Chadwick and Paine and in Paris with Widor before returning to Boston, first as a private teacher and then, in 1908, on the faculty of Harvard University, where he retired as professor in 1940. Amongst his pupils were Elliott Carter, Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thomson. His own music, which includes three symphonies, shows the influence of the impressionism to which he was no doubt exposed whilst in France.

Hill summarised his view of Raff in The Art of Music vol.III, published in the USA in 1915: "Raff was in some ways an important man. His extraordinary and extremely fruitful talent was subjected to the changing influences of the neo-classic and the late romantic school. If the Mendelssohnian model led him to emphasize the formalistic elements in his work, he soon realized that perfect form was only a means and not an end. That emotion, mood, and expression were not to be subordinated to it he learned from Liszt. Hence his works, descriptive in character as their titles imply, show the conflict between form and content which had already become a problem with Berlioz. His symphonies, now purely descriptive (a development starting with the pastoral symphony of Beethoven), now dramatic (with Berlioz's Fantastique as the model), are mildly programmistic and colorful, but have neither the sweep of imagination of Berlioz nor the daring brilliance of Liszt.

"At any rate Raff had considerable influence upon others — Edward Macdowell among them. He 'proved,' as it were, the methods of the new German school along mediocre lines. He was a pioneer and not a mere camp follower as most of his contemporaries."

Fourteen years earlier, Hill had been more generous in his assessment of Raff and in particular his Im Walde and Lenore symphonies whilst writing on programme music in a 1901 issue of Music, a monthly magazine published in Chicago:

"Joachim Raff may be taken as one of the best types of this modern development of program-music. Raff occupies a peculiar position among modern composers. Grove's Dictionary says of him that 'he is far above second-rate composers, yet a conscientious critic must hesitate to place him in the front rank.' Raff was miserably poor and had to support himself by writing 'pot-boilers.' In this way he developed his natural talent for melodic invention to a remarkable pitch: still his standards and his purity of style could not but he coarsened by such ignoble drudgery as he went through. However, as Raff grew older and became more independent he wrote more and more in larger forms, always striving towards a lofty ideal. But he never overcame the influence of his earlier period, and his music always remained a curious mixture of cheapness and purity of style. However, amongst his orchestral works there are two Symphonies which deserve mention, as they illustrate his principles with regard to program-music.

"In the Symphonies 'Lenore' and 'Im Walde' we find a new development in program-music, which, after the analogy of a similar style in painting, I have called Impressionism. This may seem at first rather an ambiguous and not especially distinctive term, but I think it expresses the peculiar quality of this program-music better than any other. Program-music hitherto has only attempted to describe the emotions and situations of the program. 'Impressionistic' program-music goes farther still; it illustrates the program always from the point of view of the listener. It describes all the more vividly by connoting his emotions. By this foreshadowing of the result of the piece, the intensity of the impression as a whole is much increased. Raff is very careful in his choice of subjects; he never attempts anything that is beyond the reach of music to describe. In consequence, he steers clear of the errors made by Berlioz; at the same time he makes frequent use of realism. Nevertheless, in addition, Raff was much influenced by the romanticism of Mendelssohn and Schumann, while he had strong sympathies with the dramatic realist, Wagner. Yet, in spite of the many-sidedness of his musical character, Raff is decidedly individual in his program-music.

"His Symphony 'Lenore' is based on Burger's ballad, although the direct illustration of the ballad does not begin until the last movement. In the first movements Raff describes the struggles, the final meeting and parting between Lenore and her lover. The situations are skilfully exaggerated by hinting at the emotions of the listener. In the last movement, where the grisly ride with the bridegroom Death is described, Raff very skilfully takes up the realistic palette. The horrors of the awful ride, the horse's gallop, the shrill shrieks of the Miscene birds of night, the ghostly hymn for the dead, are all vividly suggested. In 'Im Walde' we find much the same conditions and results obtained in a more peaceful way. The slow movement, descriptive of the hum of insects and the rustling of leaves, is very vividly realistic. In the last movement the - 'Wild Hunt' and Frau Holle figure. Here we have almost identically the same 'Wild Hunt' of 'Die Freischütz.'"

Going on to discuss the music of Edward Macdowell in the same article Hill felt the American to be Raff's superior: "In saying that Macdowell is an ardent disciple of Raff, as regards program music, I explain thoroughly his tendencies in that direction. Nevertheless, after showing the influence of Raff for a time, he has since branched out in a direction thoroughly his own. Macdowell's program music surpasses Raff's in the particularly poetic character of his subjects and the artistic treatment of them. He has, too, more refinement; his music is better music than Raff's was, and, in addition, extremely picturesque and original. In his symphonic poem, Launcelot and Elaine, we see traces of Raff's methods, both in the composition and use of the orchestra. In the course of the first half the 'gallop figure' and the 'tournament fanfare' are suggestive in a general way of Raff's style, and towards the end there are devices of orchestration, which also are characteristic of Raff, and yet one would without hesitation pronounce the music to be steadily original and above all of an exceedingly 'impressionistic' poetic quality. In 'Hamlet' and 'Ophelia' (two companion tone poems) we find the same general treatment and scope of expression. In the fragments from the Rolandslied, 'Die Saracenen' and 'Die schoene Alda' we find that Macdowell has shaken off any noticeable adherence to Raff's influence, and has decidedly individualized both his program music methods and his orchestration.

"The first movement [of Macdowell's Suite op.41], 'In a Haunted Forest,' is the logical outcome of the development from 'Die Freischütz' and Raff's 'Im Walde' Symphony, with more subtle imagination and more individual orchestral technique. There is no attempt at direct realism, but the mood of the 'haunted forest' is so persuasive that the listener's emotions are aroused with infinitely subtler effect."

[The Art of Music vol.3, was published by The National Society of Music in 1915 and the August/September issue of Music vol.XX, was published in Chicago in 1901]

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