The critics' view of Raff



Otto Lessmann
Otto Lessmann

Lessmann's assessment of Raff's piano music

In 1879 a Professor at the Berlin Conservatory, Karl Friedrich Weitzmann (1808-1880), published his Geschichte des Clavierspiels und der Clavierlitteratur (History of piano playing and piano literature), a broad survey of piano music, its composers and interpreters. The book was well received and was republished in 1899. This edition was translated into English and published in New York. As Weitzmann had died shortly after the first edition came out, it fell to his colleague Otto Lessmann (1844-1918) to revise and extend the second edition, which was substantially enlarged to include new works and composers who had emerged in the intervening twenty years.

Lessmann was born in Magdeburg, but moved to Berlin in 1862 to study piano with Hans von Bülow and compost ion with Friedrich Kiel. In the aftermath of the Franco Prussian war, Lessmann was appointed in 1871 to teach music at an institution founded by the German Empress with the initial aim of educating the orphaned daughters of officers killed in the conflict, a position he held for the rest of his life. A respected critic and composer of lieder, piano and organ music, in 1881 he became the editor of the prestigious musical journal Allgemeinen Musikzeitung.

In the second edition of Geschichte des Clavierspiels, Lessman updated the section covering Raff, Brahms and Rubinstein, all of whom had died since Weitzmann's had published his original entry. Comparing the three composers, he writes: "These three masters elevated themselves to the culminating point of their productivity, not by pianoforte works alone, but also in particular by larger sacred, dramatic, and Symphonic compositions. These larger works are among the finest of modern times; a selection from their pianoforte compositions has for a considerable period adorned the racks of our foremost pianists."

Turning to Raff himself, he adds: "Joachim Raff (b. on May 27, 1822, in Lachen on the Lake of Zurich, d. June 24/25, 1882, at Frankfort) made no name as a pianoforte virtuoso, yet his works in this category always show the most convenient piano-style, and all display a teeming imagination and thorough musical science, intelligently employed in a free and unconstrained way. For a time he dwelt near Liszt in Weimar, then settled in Wiesbaden, and in 1877 was appointed to the directorship of the Hoch Conservatory at Frankfort-on-the-Main. His diversified piano-pieces are for the most part, both in regard to conception and execution, accessible not merely to the grasp and powers of a virtuoso, but to any pianist of ability.

"Attractive grace and freshness are exhaled, for example, by Raff's Frühlingsboten, 12 piano-pieces, op.55 (Leipzig, J. Schuberth & Co.). The first piece, Winterruhe, bears us to the sociable hearth of a cozy room, where we listen to the tender converse of a happy couple. In the second piece Spring is ushered in with all his songful messengers and fragrant flower-bells, repeating more and more urgently the cry: 'Die Fenster auf, die Herzen auf!' (The Windows ope, your hearts ope wide). In No.3 we hear an earnest chorale in the Dorico mode; then follows a warmer, livelier movement, wherein the theme of 'the Oath' bears a warning part as canto fermo. No.4, with its animated rhythms and exciting suspensions and deceptive progressions, constantly increases our feeling of 'Unrest'; in No.5 a sweetly caressing melody seeks to bring about a 'Reconciliation' between the resentful lovers, but No.6 renews the quarrel, gathering up its threads in a lively fugue. Like happily and artistically treated character-pieces are also found in the second half of the work, which contains very interesting figuration.

"With equally loving care are also wrought the piano-pieces of the following collections: Album lyrique, op.17 (J. Schuberth & Co.); Schweizerweisen, op.60 in 9 books (ditto); 12 Romances en forme d'Etudes, op.8, Breitkopf & Härtel; Angelens letzter Tag im Kloster, a cycle of epico-lyric fragments for Pianoforte, op.27, Leipzig, Kistner. Of his other pianoforte works we mention several books of finely wrought Suites, published in Winterthur by Rieter-Biedermann, and in Leipzig by Peters; Scherzo, op.3, Breitkopf & Härtel; 4 Galops brillants, op.5 ditto; Morceau instr, Fantaisie et Variations brillantes, op.6, ditto; Impromptu, op.9, ditto; Capricietto, op.40, Kistner; Romanze, op.41, ditto. The works following require the skill of a virtuoso: Hommage au Neoromantisme, grand Capriccio, op.10, Breitkopf & Härtel; Sonate avec fugue in Eb-minor, op.14, ditto; Capriccio, op.64; Three pianoforte soli, Ballade, Scherzo, and Metamorphosen, op.74 (dedicated to Hans v. Bülow), J. Schuberth & Co.; and Chant de l'Ondin, grande Etüde de l'Arpeggio-Tremolando, op.83, Leipzig, Peters;- whereas the charming 12 Piano-pieces of the set op.75 (Leipzig, Kistner), are dedicated 'to little hands'.

"Raff shows himself a master of the broader forms in his five grand Sonatas with Violin, op.59, 73, 78, 128, and 129 [Sic. Lessmann is in error: the Violin Sonatas are opp.73, 78, 128, 129 and 145); also in the Trio, op. 102, and the Quintet with Strings. op.107 (all publ. by J. Schuberth & Co.), and in the two Quartets with Strings, op. 202, two books (Leipzig, Siegel). We must also mention the 12 Morceaux à 4 mains, op.82, separate or in 2 sets; 3 Sonatillen, op.99; Deux Caprices de concert, op.111 (all Leipzig, J. Schuberth & Co.); Erinnerung an Venedig, op.187, 6 books; Reisebilder for 4 hands, op.160, 10 books (both publ. by Siegel, Leipzig); Vom Rhein, op.134 (Fr. Kistner); Am Giessbach, op.88; La Gitana, op.110 (Rieter-Biedermann); Polka de la Reine, op.95 (C. F. Peters), Orientales, op.175, 8 books Leipzig, Rob. Forberp). — Most of the earlier works here named have been revised and polished by Raff himself, so that we now possess them in carefully finished form."

Lessmann concludes his review of Raff's piano music with a postscript which is explicitly signed with his initials: "As a composer Raff developed uncommon activity, which even among his opponents earned him the name of a copious writer. While it cannot be denied, that among his works many are found (especially among the minor ones for pianoforte) which hardly awakened, far less survived a passing interest, we must on the other hand take note of the fact, that Raff created many more works of enduring value, in which he ranks with the foremost composers of our time. To these belong many of his 11 Symphonies and his Overtures. For Pianoforte and Orchestra he wrote 1 Concerto in C-minor, op. 185, 1 Suite in Eb, op.200, and the Ode au Printemps, op.76, the Tageszeiten for Pianoforte, Chorus, and Orchestra, op.209. Of his later works we note 1 'Cello Sonata, op.183, 1 Chaconne, op. 150, and 1 Fantasia, op.207a for 2 Pianofortes. O. L."

[Geschichte des Clavierspiels und der Clavierlitteratur pub.1879 by J.G. Cotta'schen Buchhandlung, Stuttgart. 2nd. edition 1899. English edition reprinted by Da Capo Press, New York in 1969]

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