The critics' view of Raff




Daniel Gregory Mason
Daniel Gregory Mason





Masters in Music Masters in Music
June 1903

Daniel Gregory Mason

The American composer and academic Daniel Gregory Mason (1873-1953) studied under John Knowles Paine and George Chadwick. At first specialising in writing on music, he became a lecturer at Columbia University in 1905 and, over the next 35 years, rose to a professorship and head of the music department there. Once his academic career had begun, he returned to composition and eventually completed three symphonies, together with a sizeable output of vocal, chamber and piano music. Mason came from a distinguished line of musicians; his uncle was Raff's friend, contemporary and fellow member of Liszt's circle, William Mason. In 1903 Daniel Mason edited a short series of monthly magazines called Masters in Music, each issue of which was devoted to a separate composer. The issue on Raff, vol.1 part 6, appeared in June 1903. In its 47 pages, Mason printed lengthy musical examples and interspersed his own account of Raff's life and an assessment of his music's worth with excerpts from the writings of Henderson, Shedlock and Gehring also published on this website. By the start of the 20th. century Raff's reputation had reached its nadir and Mason's own comprehensive hatchet job gives a good idea of how Raff was regarded by the musical intelligentsia of his time.

After describing Raff's life and career, Mason launches into an assessment of Raff's character and of his value as a musician. He adopts a loftily sneering tone for his sweeping and largely negative generalisations, most of which are quite unsupported by any evidence. The reader might reasonably wonder if, as Mason clearly believes, Raff was such a poor exponent of his art, why was he included in Masters in Music in the first place?

"With his spectacles, closely clipped hair, mustache, and imperial, Raff looked more like a man of science or affairs than an artist. His eyes, however, somewhat wide apart, revealed imagination, and his general expression was acute and intelligent.... In character, Raff was a rather peculiar combination of intelligence and unreason. He had a subtle, analytical mind, sharpened by his early training as a Jesuit, and yet he did not always use it very effectively as a guiding influence in his life. For one so intelligent, he was singularly uncertain of himself, and unable to stamp his life and work with any one definite quality. His music, which of course reveals his character more fully and clearly than anything else, is full of cleverness, of intellectual finesse, of personal feeling and color even; and yet exceedingly indefinite in purpose and miscellaneous in style. Despite all its skill in counterpoint, harmony, and orchestration, — in all those processes, that is, which depend on mere mental ability and industry, — it is lacking in sureness of purpose, largeness of conception, and clear individuality. It is the work of a man whose equipment is greater than his impulse. It is too facile, too fluent and unstudied, to give the impression of power and self-control. Raff speaks generally like a garrulous master of rhetoric rather than like a man whose words are few and weighty.

"The impression of keen but uncritical intelligence which we thus gather from his music is reinforced when we turn to his life. All his cleverness seemed to evaporate in conversation and impulsive action rather than to condense into common sense and wise self-guidance. He must have been a fascinating companion, with his whimsical fancy and his ingenuity in argument; but he was unable to manage the simplest business affairs, and was constantly in difficulties.

"One who knew him [presumably Mason's uncle, William] tells an amusing story of a morning spent by Raff and his friends in sampling wines in Weimar. Raff, under the stimulating influence of the wine, put forth all his powers of logic, all his ingenious and fine-spun sophistries, to convince a traveling wine-merchant that his work was mere play, that it profited society nothing, and that, in a word, he was an idler. He pointed out to him that he should adopt some worthy occupation (like composing music, for example) in which one used one's mind, one's intelligence, one's higher powers. Fired by his own eloquence, he quite worried out the wine-merchant's good nature, and might have been involved in a quarrel if his friends had not diverted his intellectual energy into other channels.

"Raff had thought much more deeply than most musicians on the fundamental facts and laws of his art; he was a thorough master of musical science. Consulted once by Dr. William Mason about certain questions of harmony, as they were taking a morning walk in the park, he quickly drew on the path with his stick a simple diagram, in which, he declared, "the whole of harmony" was exhibited. His mind was like that of a scientist in its power to dissect, and to grasp the relations of countless details.

"It was his great misfortune, however, that, cleverly as he could pull apart, he was unable to build up. He had little constructive power, either in art or in life. In his works ... in spite of all their incidental beauty and interest, he never achieved a clear, well-fused, individual style. And similarly, his really unusual intellectual power did not save him from drifting rather helplessly on the tide of events. He was not able to stamp his career with one purpose, one direction, one dominant trend, as much less brilliant men are often able to do. He accomplished a great deal, in spite of many adverse circumstances, but he never developed a clearly pronounced, fully rounded individuality. It is easy to make the mistake of blaming his poverty too much for the indefinite results of his life. No doubt poverty was a severe handicap to him; no doubt he would have done better work, more painstaking, serious work, if he had not had to depend more or less on popular favor for his bread and butter. But the difficulty was deeper than mere circumstance; it lay in a sort of facility of nature that kept him from concentrating all his energies on one predetermined line of action. He scattered and squandered his abilities; and as a consequence the enormous quantity of the work he did is more striking than any special quality in it.

"Emerson once wrote in a letter, 'I have a fancy that talent, which is so imperative in the passing hour, is deleterious to duration; what a pity we cannot have genius without talent. Even in Goethe, the culture and varied, busy talent mar the simple grandeur of the impression, and he called himself a layman beside Beethoven.' If these words are true of Goethe, how much more true are they of Raff, who was too versatile to have any one dominant characteristic, and all of whose talents together did not amount to genius."

After such a comprehensive demolition of Raff's reputation, Mason, the eventual composer of "A Lincoln Symphony", turned his scathing attention to Raff's supposed obsession with programme music:

"Raff is a maker of program music in all of his symphonies, and in many of his smaller works. The mere titles are indicative of his aims and methods. In addition to the three best known symphonies, entitled 'In the Fatherland, 'In the Forest' ('Im Walde'), and 'Lenore' (after Burger's poem of that name), there are ' In the Alps,'' Sounds of Spring,' 'In Summer,' 'In Autumn,' and 'Winter.'

"Now, whatever may be in general the justification of program music, it seems fairly certain that Raff's extreme devotion to it was largely the result of a weakness or limitation in his genius. He created many interesting and beautiful themes, but so great were his facility and lack of self-criticism that they are almost lost in the mass of trivial and insignificant stuff which he produced with distressing industry. He subjected his themes to very learned processes of development, but too often these developments were labored and pedantic, not prompted by really musical impulse. And always, both in the creation of his themes and in their working-out, he seems to have been actuated by dramatic and pictorial imagination rather than by the musician's instinct for tone-combination. In fact, music was to him so much more a means than an end that we may fairly ask, Might he not, with the necessary training, have been a poet or a painter? Would he not have been perhaps even more successful, since description is more proper to poetry and painting than it is to music?"

Clearly Mason knew little of Raff's work beyond the symphonies. His final paragraph does give Raff some grudging credit, albeit hedged around with such faint praise as "generally sufficient" and "satisfactory":

"These questions, however, pertinent as they are, must not lead us away from considering what Raff actually did accomplish as a composer. No matter how his themes occurred to him, or what his motives as a conscious artist may have been in writing them, the best of them are fresh, interesting, and individual enough to win our admiration. There is about them a peculiar warmth, a sensuous richness, not to be found elsewhere. Mr. Henderson well insists on their 'poetic sentiment and musical grace.' Such a theme as the central melody of the 'Twilight' movement of the 'Im Walde' Symphony, for example, is enough to prove conclusively the breadth and warmth of Raff's melodic expression, as well as its individuality. Moreover, his skill in building up a stout musical fabric out of his primary strands is generally sufficient, and sometimes remarkable. Though he cannot bear comparison with great constructive artists like Beethoven, whose fine logic and economy are beyond him, he has enough contrapuntal skill and enough command of the varieties of orchestral color to build up satisfactory whole movements. His instinct for the orchestra is remarkable. He combines all its varied resources harmoniously and piquantly, getting effects as novel as they are rich and clear. The development of the movement from 'Im Walde' consists largely of various settings of the original theme, in each of which it is enhanced by some new embroidery. Such treatment is not, to be sure, of a very high order of art. It seems cheap when we compare it with the wonderful thematic development of Beethoven. We are reminded of those modern plays which depend for their effect, not on a dramatic idea gradually and logically worked out, but on the well-stocked wardrobe of the fair heroine. But if Raff in the last analysis lacks genius, with its stern simplicity and its perfect coherence, he nevertheless has so many talents, he writes with so much spontaneity and sensuous beauty, and decks out his ideas in so attractive a garment, that he must be admitted to an honorable place among those composers who fall just short of the highest rank."

[ The monthly magazine Masters in Music was published by Bates & Guild of Boston. The issue on Raff, vol.1 part 6, appeared in June 1903]

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