Ebenezer Prout (1835-1909) was a highly respected British writer on music who was also the composer of four symphonies. Although entirely self-taught, his reputation was eventually high enough for him to teach composition at the Royal Academy of Music for 30 years and to be appointed Professor of Music at Trinity College, Dublin in 1894. From 1871 to 1875 he was editor of the Monthly Musical Record and extracts from his article on Raff in that periodical are reprinted here. Between 1874 and 1879 he was music critic of The Academy, a London weekly journal of science and the arts which on 10 April 1875 published his long article reviewing Raff as a symphonist and looking at five of his first six symphonies.
That he was an enthusiast for Raff, albeit not an uncritical one, is clear from the first: "No living composer possesses the various qualifications needful to the symphonist in so large a measure as Joachim Raff. I have no hesitation in saying that the [first six symphonies] are, taken as a whole, the greatest symphonies written since those of Schumann. While inferior to this composer in poetic beauty of imagination, Raff is far his superior in all that pertains to the technique of his art. [He] just (and only just) falls short in the possession of the highest genius."
Prout is clear headed when it comes to what he sees as the composer's failings: "In Raff ... it is the masterly skill of the workmanship which produces the most forcible impression; the themes which are treated are often of subsidiary importance. The composer seems deficient in self criticism; he sometimes appears to take the first series of notes which occurs to him and goes on to construct a most elaborate and extensive movement out of them, as if intent upon disproving the old saying that one 'cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.' Raff's melody is for the most part simple and very appreciable, and sometimes 'ear catching' to a degree that verges on the commonplace. He prefers diatonic to chromatic subjects, and frequently constructs themes entirely on the notes of the scale, sometimes ... merely on the notes of a common chord. His subjects always lend themselves well to thematic development and in this branch of his art Raff may be compared even with Beethoven himself. His contrapuntal skill is at times really admirable. He has a peculiarity which I have not met with, at least to nothing like the same extent in the works of any other symphonic writer. He frequently takes two quite distinct subjects from different parts of the same symphony, and works them together in a most ingenious way. As to the other devices of fugue, canon, and imitation, his scores are full of them. Scientific writing has been called 'the salt of composition;' if it be, Raff’s music is certainly highly flavoured. It should in justice be added that his fugal writing is seldom, if ever, dull.
"There is, however, one serious drawback to the popularity of these symphonies which must be mentioned — they are nearly all more or less too spun out. Prolixity is Raff's easily besetting sin. Evidently gifted with the greatest fluency in composition, and able at a moment's notice to throw off any quantity of thematic development by the yard, he does not always know when he has said enough. Modern composers too often use excessive elaboration to conceal poverty of invention. This cannot be said of Raff; still he is none the less open to the charge of too great lengthiness.
"Raff has a decided partiality for what is known as 'programme music.' Few musicians would condemn it per se; the great point that should be borne in mind is that it should be, as Beethoven himself said of his Pastoral Symphony, 'expression of emotion, rather than painting'. In Raff's symphonies we find both; and while those movements in which 'expression of emotion' is attempted are frequently among their composer's most successful efforts, he fails when he essays the painting 'of the wild hunt of Hulda and Wotan' in the finale of the 'Im Walde,' or the ghostly ride in the 'Lenore.'"
Having dealt with Raff's symphonic credentials, Prout went on to deal with each of the first six symphonies in turn, omitting only the Symphony No.5 Lenore:
The Symphony No.1 An das Vaterland is "on the whole by no means a satisfactory composition. ... it suffers more than any that follow it from terrible prolixity. It enjoys, indeed, the somewhat doubtful distinction of being, in all probability, the longest symphony in existence, occupying an hour and a quarter in performance. Apart altogether from its preposterous length — each movement seems as if it would never come to a close — it is laboured and wanting in spontaneity to a painful extent. It conveys the idea that the composer was determined to outdo all the symphony writers who had preceded him. He certainly has done so; but the result is a monstrosity, a sort of musical 'sea-serpent.'" Prout criticises its programme as being unpoetic and impossible to illustrate in music, before concluding that "The symphony contains an immense amount of clever writing, and even many charming details, but as a whole it is decidedly a failure."
He takes a very different view of the Symphony No.2. "It is difficult to realise the fact that this work and the 'An das Vaterland' are the productions of the same pen. Here we find all the best characteristics of Raff's music. The ideas ... are always pleasing; and their treatment is masterly throughout. It is a significant fact that while Raff so frequently writes with a definite programme, it is precisely the two symphonies in which this is wanting (the second and fourth) which must rank highest as works of art. The treatment of the orchestra is admirable — in this respect, it may be said in passing, Raff's symphonies are models — and the melodies have a refinement which is not invariably to be found in the composer's works. On the whole, as already said, this second symphony must be considered one of the very best of the series."
He is more equivocal in his praise of the Symphony No.3 Im Walde. "Though I am inclined on the whole to rank it slightly below No.2 from a purely musical point of view, it is certainly more adapted to catch the popular ear. It is pre-eminently a 'tuneful' symphony, full of melodies that one whistles or hums almost involuntarily; perhaps without recollecting whence they come. 'Im Walde' is another programme-symphony, divided into three sections. Of these the first and second sections are legitimate subjects for musical treatment, and the composer is successful accordingly. Of the finale it is impossible to speak so highly. The 'wild hunt' is very noisy, very chromatic, and terribly spun out — the finale extends over 138 pages. The movement is full of life and vigour; but Raff has attempted here to paint what I cannot help thinking out of the province of music, and has failed in consequence. But for the finale I should have ranked this symphony the highest of the six; but this movement is the weak point of the work. It is, nevertheless, written with all its composer's great technical skill, and brilliantly, though somewhat noisily instrumented."
Prout heaps praise on the Fourth Symphony, which he calls "another gem. Here for the second time we find 'absolute' as distinguished from 'programme' music. If we liken the second symphony to a painting of great breadth of design and large outline, No. 4 may be compared to an exquisite miniature. The entire work is indeed well worthy of performance."
Moving on to the Sixth Symphony, Prout again has doubts about its programmatic basis. "[It] bears the motto, 'Gelebt, gestrebt, gelitten, gestritten, gestorben, umworben,' which may be roughly paraphrased in English as 'Life and aspiration, suffering and strife, death and renown.' In his treatment of this subject it is not always easy to follow the thread of the composer's ideas. Undoubtedly, the third movement, a funeral march, represents the 'gestorben,' and the brilliant and joyous finale is just as certainly intended to depict the 'umworben.' Probably also life and its aspirations are meant to be indicated by the first movement; but what in the world the light and playful scherzo which follows has to do with 'gelitten, gestritten' I cannot conceive.The best portion [of the symphony] beyond dispute is the funeral march — a movement which one is almost tempted to compare for breadth and dignity with that in the 'Eroica;' the rest of the work is, as regards ideas, of inferior interest. This symphony, more than most of the others, seems to have come from the head rather than the heart, and to be the product of reflection and deliberation rather than of inspiration. The workmanship of the whole, its counterpoints and developments, are wonderfully clever, often really fine; but the work after repeated readings leaves one cold — always excepting the third movement." He criticises both the scherzo and finale for the paucity of their thematic material and concludes "how much more effective would it not have been had the composer exercised more care in the selection of his materials."
Prout seems to have had the knack of identifying Raff's strengths and weaknesses dispassionately and describing them with clarity. Mindful of the subsequent and sustained collapse in Raff's reputation during which only his "faults" were repeated it is interesting that, despite what Prout clearly sees as shortcomings, he nonethelesss regards Raff as the the most significant symphonist in the thirty years since Schumann wrote his last work.