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The critics' view of Raff

 

 

 

 

 

Shaw in his 30s
Shaw in his 30s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shaw during the 1880s
Shaw during the 1880s

George Bernard Shaw

The famous Irish playwright and author George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was also, in the early years of his career, a music critic in London. Writing initially under the pseudonym of Corno di Basetto, his witty, caustic and often penetrating concert reviews always make an entertaining read, despite Shaw making no attempt to disguise his partisan enthusiasms. He seldom misses an opportunity to champion Wagner's music, or one to damn Brahms with faint praise.

Predictably, his opinion of Raff's music wasn't a high one. In an early review in February 1885 he accused Raff (and Liszt) of imitating the "aims and methods" of Berlioz. In the following October, Shaw again coupled the three composers, writing "If [the student of Berlioz] is capable of drawing comparisons, he will, at least, be in no danger of mistaking the orchestration of Liszt and Raff for first-rate work". He coupled the three one last time, in April 1887, by which time the Frenchman had joined the other two in Shaw's low opinion. "Many pages of demoralizing mænad music, fruit of the misdirected ambition and aborted genius of Berlioz, Raff, Liszt, and others of less note, are now figuring at their true level as plagiarisms in the scores of our comic operas".

Shaw amusingly characterised his view of Raff as an epigone by writing in June 1885 (about an overture by Eugen d'Albert), "The cool reception of his overture ... ought to convince him that second-hand Wagner will prove as intolerable tomorrow as mock Shakespear (sic) or Mozart-and-water have proved in the past. We have endured, in Joachim Raff, one cuckoo composer of XIX century music".

In October 1891 he made an attempt at defining the pecking order in his musical pantheon. In view of his earlier carping, he gave Raff a surprisingly high place but couldn't resist a sideswipe at Brahms. "The great composer is he who, by the rarest of chances, is at once a great musician and a great poet - who has Brahms's wonderful ear without his commonplace mind, and Molière's insight and imagination without his musical sterility. ...Thus it is that you get your Mozart or your Wagner... The honour of the second place I shall not attempt to settle. Schumann, Berlioz, Boïto, and Raff, borrowing music to express their ideas, have, it must be admitted, sometimes touched an even higher level of originality than Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Goetz, who had to borrow ideas for their music to express, and were unquestionably superior only in the domain of absolute music. But nobody except the directors of the Philharmonic Society will claim any higher than fourth place for those who have borrowed both their ideas and their music, and vulgarized both in the process - your Bruchs, Rubinsteins, Moszkowskis, Benoits, Ponchiellis, and other gentlemen rather more likely to see this article and get their feelings hurt if I mention their names. Brahms, as a unique example of excess in one department and entire deficiency in the other, may take his place where he pleases, provided I am out of earshot of his Requiem".

Turning to individual works by Raff, Shaw records a marathon concert in December 1891 given by students of London's Royal Academy of Music. "The program was an extremely liberal one, consisting of a composition of symphonic proportions, in four movements, for pianoforte, chorus, and orchestra, by Raff, entitled Die Tageszeiten, with three concertos, a suite de ballet, and four airs. I held out until after the second concerto".

In April 1893, under the title "A good concert", he reports on the English premiere at the Crystal Palace of Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite and goes on to write, "[we] also had a fine performance of Raff's Im Walde symphony (why don't they cut away all that repetition of the ghostly hunt stuff in the finale?)".

It is no surprise, however, that Shaw concentrates on Raff's most popular major work at the time, the Symphony No.5 Lenore. He wrote a review of the work in December 1885, prefaced by a description of its programme. "Nothing suits your modern orchestral composer so well as the weird - the diabolical - the infernal. It is very exciting, very easy, and justifies any extravagance. The best part of Raff's symphony is, however, the natural part. The supernatural ride is far inferior to that in Berlioz's Damnation of Faust. The first movement, which depicts the happiness of Lenore and Wilhelm before he goes to the war, is bright, impetuous, and carried along with breadth and freedom. The slow movement consists of several pretty, though vulgar melodies, and contains some harmonic beauties of an audaciously Raffish description. The third movement is the long march past of the returning troops, interrupted for a few moments by the agitation of the stricken Lenore, but presently resumed and continued in its unvarying tramping rhythm until it dies away in the distance. The last movement is the phantom ride. It is poor and second-hand, and contains a passage which was composed by Wagner for the Flying Dutchman, just as the second subject of the first movement was composed by Auber for The Crown Diamonds.

Raff's compositions are extraordinarily numerous, and in some points extremely ingenious; but he seems to have used the first ideas that came to him, without any scruple as to their quality. Sometimes he was fortunate in his ideas; sometimes he was not. He was never deep, and he was often too shallow and careless to be even superficially refined. If his powers of conception had been as remarkable as his powers of execution he would have been a great composer. As it was, his best is no better than Schubert's 'middling'". Only six years later, in April 1891, he was writing that Lenore "is curiously neglected just now, considering that popular taste is passing through the very phase to which it ministers."

In 1892, however, he reviewed two concerts featuring the work. In May Shaw wrote about a concert conducted by Frederick Cowen: "The symphony was Raff's Lenore, in which a great point was made of the crescendo of the march. The opening pianissimo was certainly successful enough; but the climax ought to have been much more magnificent. It is not enough for an orchestra to be able to coo: it should be able to thunder as well. The Lenore symphony requires rather more study and stage management, so to speak, than a Philharmonic conductor can be expected to give to it unless it has a special attraction for him; and so I do not blame Mr Cowen for having failed to excite the audience sufficiently to conceal the weakness of the work as a symphony, especially in the last movement, which will not bear cool examination, notwithstanding its one really imaginative theme and the clever picture of the night scene before the arrival of William's ghost. It is odd, by the bye, that the program-writer never points out that William's appearance is preceded by a Wagnerian quotation of the phrase in which Vanderdecken speaks of the resurrection that is to release him from his curse".

In the following December, George Henschel's performance met with more approval. "At the London Symphony Concert last Thursday, Mr Henschel staked the capacity of his orchestra for refinement of execution on Raff's Lenore symphony, and won. The crescendo of the march, from pianissimo to forte, was admirably managed. It did not quite reach fortissimo - not what I call fortissimo at least - and it fell short of the final degrees of martial brilliancy which Mr Manns has sometimes achieved in it; but it was enormously superior to the recent attempt of the Philharmonic band, which began moderately piano, tumbled into a mezzo forte in the second section, and stuck there for the rest of the movement. The second movement was perfectly executed: it held the attention of the audience from the first note to the last, as slow movements very seldom do. The quick movements would have been equally perfect but for a certain unpunctuality of attack in the vigourous touches, especially in the bass, and an occasional want of weight when the fullest power of the band was needed".

It is the last reference Shaw makes of Raff or any of his works - a measure of the catastrophic decline in his reputation.

[Shaw's Music edited by Dan H Laurence and published in three volumes in 1981 by The Bodley Head, London contains all Shaw's musical criticism, and is a lively and entertaining read. The use of extracts from this publication is gratefully acknowledged]

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