In November, 1873, Dr. Hans von Bülow gave a magnificent performance of Raff's concerto in C minor (Op. 185), at one of the concerts of the Wagner Society; and the work made such a favourable impression, that people began to ask about the composer. It was then ascertained that Raff, who had written more than one hundred and eighty works, and who was well known and highly esteemed in Germany, was all but unknown in England. The Philharmonic Society announced in its prospectus for 1874 the "Leonore" [sic] symphony, Op. 177; it was not, however, performed by that Society until it had been brought to a hearing at the Crystal Palace, under the direction of Mr, Manns. This was on the 14th of November, 1874. The enthusiasm created by each movement was quite unprecedented. Since that date, many, indeed we may perhaps venture to say all, Raff's most important orchestral and chamber works have been heard at the Crystal Palace, the Philharmonic Society, the Musical Union, the Monday Popular, and other concerts too numerous to mention. It is, indeed, rather sad to contrast the warm reception given to the "Leonore" and "Im Walde" symphonies, when first played at the Crystal Palace, with the somewhat cold reception given to the "Frühlingsklänge" and "Im Sommer" when performed a short time ago at the same place.
Raff wrote eleven symphonies, nine of which are published; and of these six have been heard in England. The composer has always shown a marked partiality for programme music; most of his symphonies have special names, and, in addition, a title or inscription is affixed to each movement. Yet, perhaps of the whole series the two finest are the second and fourth, in G minor [sic] and C major [sic], two works without any programme. Raff's music has many excellencies, but also many defects. Haydn is reported to have said, speaking of composition: — "The whole art consists in taking up a subject, and pursuing it." It was all very well of Haydn to express himself in this manner, because interesting subjects came naturally to him, and his refined art of development brought out fully their beauty and latent power. But Raff sometimes took up a commonplace subject, which failed to attract per se, and in pursuing it with all his wonderful command of counterpoint, canon, and fugue, only revealed its poverty and nakedness. Another and grave fault with the composer is his want of conciseness. It is better to say too little rather than too much. When Raff selected interesting themes, he wrote movements worthy to be compared with those of the great masters. As examples of such happy moments, we would mention the Andante and Finale in the second symphony, the second movement of "Im Walde", and the Allegro and Andante of No.4.
Raff composed an immense quantity of pianoforte music; but much of it will not live. He wrote many drawing-room pieces, which are showy and brilliant, and not at all vulgar, such as the "Polka de la Reine", the "Cachoucha Caprice", the "Erinnerungen an Venedig", "La Fileuse", and the graceful "Impromptu Valse" (Op. 94); but would that he had never composed such pieces as the "Polka Glissante", and "Grande Etude de L'Arpeggio-tremolando". Of good pieces, we would mention the Valse Caprice in G, the Gavotte in A minor (Op. 125), the twelve pieces in Op. 55, especially No. 12, "Abends", and the operatic transcriptions Sonnambula, Freyschutz, and Lohengrin. And especially would we notice the "Reminiscenzen aus R. Wagner's Oper Meistersinger"; there are four numbers, and they are all exceedingly interesting. The first and third are not so difficult as the second and fourth, which include the Strassentumult from the second, and the choruses from the third act.
We may also mention the two excellent piano suites in E minor and D minor, and the curious piece, Variations on an original theme (Op. 179). The theme and nearly all the variations are in 5/8 and 7/8 time; one variation, in strict canon form, is very clever.
Raff wrote some very good piano duets for small hands (Op. 82). No. 12 is the popular tarentelle, "Les Pêcheuses de Procida", and also a pleasing set of Fantasie-stücke, entitled "Aus dem Tanzsalon"(Op. 174). His "Chaconne", for two pianos, is well known to pianists.
His suite for violin and orchestra is very brilliant and showy, but, as a composition, not remarkably striking.
Raff produced a quantity of chamber music, of which we cannot here speak in detail. The writing is, however, very unequal. It is curious to note how little seems to be known of his vocal music. Yet the set of thirty songs (Sanges-Frühling, Op. 98) is very interesting. Of these we would specially mention "Elfen Schiffer", "Die Winde wehen so kalt," "Abendlied", "Ade", "Die Nonne", and "Rastlose Liebe".
And now we take leave of one of the great musicians of the nineteenth century, of a man who was gifted by nature, and who by patience and perseverance made unto himself a name which musicians are not likely ever entirely to forget. Had he composed only for the sake of art, and had he possessed in a fuller degree the power of self-criticism, he would, without doubt, have written less, but acquired a still nobler fame.
[From the Monthly Musical Record, London, 1 August 1882 pp.175-6]