Hugo Riemann (1849-1919) enjoyed an exceptionally high reputation in his lifetime, both in his native Germany and worldwide. As a teacher he counted Max Reger as one of his pupils, but it as a musicologist and writer on music that he remains very influential. His work is still considered to be one of the cornerstones of modern musical theory. He published many books of which the Musiklexikon, a musical dictionary, and handbooks on harmony and counterpoint are the most famous. In 1901 his Geschichte der Musik seit Beethoven 1800-1900 (History of Music Since Beethoven) was published. It is an invaluable survey of music in the preceding century, primarily in the German-speaking world; just 73 of its 816 pages are devoted to Berlioz and Die neueste Produktion im Auslande (the newest productions abroad).
He devotes over five pages to a survey of Raff's career and works and his judgement is devastating. Such trenchant criticism from a highly influential figure, at a time when Raff's reputation was falling in the concert hall, must have contributed significantly to the dismissive attitude towards him which became the norm amongst the musical establishment during the 20th. century. Even by the time that Riemann was writing he was able to note that "despite the existence of an imposing body of compositions, serious in conception and in all musical genres, he was unable to secure a position as one of the great composers", although Raff "received widespread, genuine recognition for a period lasting almost until his death".
After reviewing Raff's career and his body of work Riemann writes: "His most important works ... are undoubtedly his orchestral compositions which for the most part belong to the category of 'programme music' because of their titles, but which preserve classical forms and avoid the extension of the symphony orchestra begun by Berlioz and Liszt - i.e. increased numbers of wind instruments and the introduction of harp, cor anglais, bass clarinet, bass tuba and the like. There is no doubt that Raff, despite his connections with Liszt and the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein strove through this self-imposed restriction to forge a special position as mediator between the camps - in which he succeeded for a while. Unfortunately his works turned out to be incapable of withstanding the corrosive influences of the period - with the result that in our day they have entirely lost their youthful freshness. The reason why they went out of fashion so quickly is probably to do with Raff's eclecticism; behind the extraordinary fluency and technical skill which characterise them there is evidently not the irresistible creative urge which alone gives birth to genuine works of art.
"Of his eleven symphonies ... the 'Forest Symphony' (No.3) and the 'Lenore' (No.5) were held in high esteem for a period. However, time has gnawed away even at them and laid bare their shortcomings, with the result that they have disappeared from concert programmes even before the more conservative concert societies had had the time to be persuaded that Raff was not one of those 'dangerous innovators'. Of these shortcomings the first is the fact that Raff never succeeded in understanding the great features of Beethoven's musical structure, namely the use of sudden switches between instruments and therefore the participation of all instruments with their differing tone-colours in the thematic development so that, to use (like Bülow) Goethe's expression, the musical development is passed from one instrument to another [i.e. the instruments lit. 'pass each other the golden pails' - translator's note]; instead, with Raff there emerge long solo passages on individual instruments, often irritatingly so - passages which run quite counter to the character of a symphony, while for the rest the orchestral canvass remains too constricted and the instrumental groups appear and disappear again according to their registers in the manner familiar before Haydn.
"The second shortcoming is that Raff didn't understand Weber's innovations and so, despite individual instances of successful special effects such as stopped horn notes, flute double-tonguing and the like, he did not understand how to exploit the magic of tone colours; thus, in spite of all the successful instances of intensified orchestration - from fading pianissimo to booming fortissimo - what is missing is the discrete use of more subtle nuances [lit. 'light effects and refractions' - translator's note].
"The third shortcoming, however, is the most serious of all - namely an occasional lapse by Raff into a sort of tunefulness which can be criticised from an aesthetic point of view as lacking in refinement and which often descends into the sentimental and vulgar. In comparison with the distinguished effects of Brahms' orchestral works - made ever more powerful as one gets to know them better because they avoid these shortcomings through their supreme refinement - Raff's orchestral works, though in general highly regarded to begin with, have utterly paled into insignificance.
"Apart from the eleven symphonies, Raff's orchestral works ... do not in any way affect the opinion which I have expressed about the symphonies. As a 'composer of programme music' Raff is to be distinguished from Berlioz and Liszt - and not to his advantage - in that he attempted to preserve the old forms so that his symphonies could be regarded at the same time as absolute music or as programme music, according to taste. However, his eclecticism came back to haunt him, because in terms of aesthetics this sort of deceit is an absurdity. With regard to any particular piece of music the question: 'Is the music a subjective expression of feeling or is it intended to render a particular programme?' must be answered either one way or the other; the answer cannot be 'yes' to both at the same time. If the music is programme music, the structure becomes totally dependent upon the programme and it is therefore a complete and utter sham to arrange the programme in such way as to make it fit as far as possible the traditional symphonic structure. One even finds this sort of deceit in Liszt and Berlioz, e.g. the smuggling of a scherzo ('Queen Mab') into the 'Romeo Symphony' and also the special place accorded to the 'Gretchen movement' in the 'Faust Symphony' - yet there is no intention, while adhering to new ideas, of somehow doing justice to tradition; rather it is a question of a habit that cannot quite be shaken off.
"History condemns without mercy half-way houses such as Raff's compromises because they are not totally honest. No-one can prevent a composer from showing to advantage both capacities which music possesses (i.e. a direct means of expression or one which tells a story through the evocation of particular associations), either in different works or even in different parts of the same work (it is a widespread error to argue that the same composer cannot write absolute and programme music without being characterless); it is, however, an aesthetic lie to write programme music which is supposed at the same time to be absolute music."
Riemann bases his whole condemnation on his critique of the symphonies, which account for only a small (if prominent) proportion of Raff's oeuvre. Although he lists Raff's major chamber works, he makes no attempt at analysing their value, even though they are generally entirely classical in character. The large catalogue of songs, piano pieces, choral and operatic works are entirely ignored. Unfortunately, such was Riemann's prestige in his own lifetime and throughout the 20th. century that, despite the clear flaws in his analysis, his view was very influential.
[ Hugo Riemann's Geschichte der Musik seit Beethoven 1800-1900 was published by W. Spemann of Berlin and Stuttgart in 1901. Grateful thanks to Alan Howe for his English translation]