The critics' view of Raff





Ebenezer Prout
Ebenezer Prout

Prout discusses Raff 1

The English composer and writer Ebenezer Prout (1835-1909) wrote an article in the Monthly Musical Record to introduce the British public to Raff's first six symphonies, which were subsequently analysed by Barry and Shedlock. The opening lines of this article, published in 1875, give a good idea of the pinnacle of fame which Raff had achieved by this time:

"Among living German composers there are three who by common consent, are admitted to stand in the front rank, and to be, like Saul the son of Kish, a head and shoulders taller than all their fellows. Many of my readers will anticipate me when I name as these musical chiefs - Wagner, Brahms, and Raff. Whatever views may be held as to Wagner's art-theories, or as to his music, there can be no two opinions as to the fact that his operas immeasurably transcend in importance any other dramatic music of the present day; while as a vocal writer a similar pre-eminence may be claimed for the composer of the Deutches Requiem the Triumphlied and the Schicksalslied. Brahms also excells in the department of chamber music, as witness his stringed sextetts and his pianoforte quartetts, though in this last province of art he is not without many rivals and some peers.

Raff is so voluminous a writer, and so equally conversant with every style of composition, that it is difficult to name his speciality... For the last twenty years [1855-75] his production has been incessant. In pianoforte, chamber, and orchestral music he is equally at home; but it is in this last direction that he shows his superiority to his contemporaries. Quartetts, trios, or pianoforte pieces equal to his may be easily named; but as a symphonic writer he stands at present absolutely alone. His works of this class are, taking them as a whole, unquestionably the greatest that have been written since those of Schumann".

He goes on to say:

"The well never runs dry, and inexhaustable fluency seems to be one of the composer's striking characteristics...[he] has in a very detailed degree the gift of tune...No less remarkable is his complete command of all the intricacies of counterpoint. Fugue, canon, augmentations, diminution - all seem equally easy to him...Sebastian Bach himself need not have been ashamed to sign the page; and this is the work of a self-taught man!"

Describing the first performance in London of the Lenore Symphony in 1874, Prout wrote: "Those who were present will remember the sensation created by its performance. It was to our audiences a new revelation of power, for which only those few who were previously aquainted with the work were prepared".

Later in his analysis he unfortunately could not resist repeating the charge which followed Raff throughout his career. Prout put it very succinctly:

"...still it is often the case that Raff seems to take the first series of notes that comes into his head and to show what can be done with them. Of that careful revision and re-touching of his subjects, of which Beethoven's sketchbooks afford such remarkable instances, there is little or no trace in these symphonies".

It is difficult to know what lead him to this assertion. Most likely he is simply repeating a charge often levelled by hostile critics. Raff's habitual care and methodical way of working demonstrate that specific charge as baseless - whilst not guaranteeing that the final results of all his work were uniformly inspired.

Prout coupled this with the charge of "diffuseness" in some symphonic movements, which he defined as: "Rather undue length in proportion to the actual amount of musical thought".

In the same year, Prout wrote a long article in The Academy, a weekly journal of science and the arts, in which he furthered his analysis of Raff as a symphonist by himself considering five of the first six symphonies in turn. This article is summarised here and can be viewed in full here.

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