The critics' view of Raff










George Putnam Upton
George Upton

Upton's view of Raff

George Putnam Upton (1834-1919) was the music critic of the Chicago Tribune between 1862 and 1881. Whilst there he doubled as the paper's war correspondent in the Civil War and witnessed the Great Fire of Chicago, about which he co-wrote a famous account. A highly respected and influential man, he pioneered musical journalism in the United States and his national influence was greatly enhanced once he left the Chicago Tribune and began producing his series of handbooks on the popular concert repertoire of the day. The Standard Operas was published in 1885 and it was quickly followed by two companion volumes on oratorios and cantatas; the series concluded with The Standard Symphonies of 1888. In 1910 he produced The Standard Musical Biographies.

Upton thought highly of Raff, who had died just six years before The Standard Symphonies was published. He writes that Raff "has left the world eleven important symphonies, which are among the finest illustrations of programme-music that the modern German school has yet given us". He devotes several pages to describing in detail the Im Walde, Lenore and Frühlingsklänge Symphonies and gives a brief review of the rest of Raff's symphonic oeuvre - the Symphony No.7, for instance, is credited with an opening movement which is "a remarkable piece of tone-painting".

In his description of the Symphony No.3 In the Forest , Upton describes the "ingenious modulations" and "beautiful" second theme of the first movement which he characterises as a "charming picture of the quiet surprises of woodland in an autumn day". He treats the second and third movements as one, although strictly speaking they constitute the second part of the work. The Largo is credited with a "beautiful and suggestive melody", the repetition of which is "admirable from an artistic point of view". The finale "attempts actual description with remarkable success" and Upton writes approvingly of Raff's skill in depicting the various incidents which the movement illustrates.

Upton was amongst those who founded the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and he became close to its first conductor Theodore Thomas, whose biography he was later to write. Thomas was another Raff enthusiast and the composer's works appeared regularly in his programmes. From these performances Upton would have become familiar with the Symphony No.5 Lenore. This he calls "confessedly the best of Raff's symphonic works", although the description of the first movement's principal themes as "simply expressions of happy, passionate scenes between the two lovers" is perhaps rather underselling the music.

The slow movement (as in the 3rd. Symphony, Upton confuses movement and part and calls it the second part of the first movement) is "a delightful representation of the discourse of the lovers" and the third movement is a "fascinating march [which] is so familiar by its frequent performance that it hardly needs more than mere reference". His enthusiasm for the finale is manifest throughout his description of each episode as a "plaintive theme", "the tramp of the steed", "the terrible ride" and "a gloomy dirge" until "one after another the constantly intensified and impetuous music pictures the scenes of the ride" leading to Lenore's doom played out to a "sad and tender accompaniment".

Upton's third selection from Raff is the Symphony No.8 "Sounds of Spring" about which he says "Though very pleasing by its variety in effects and realistic color, it has not made such an impression as the Lenore or Im Walde, - his earlier works; but of the series to which it belongs it is unquestionably the most popular". The work had also had the longest time of the four seasons pieces to get itself established - it was published in Germany 11 years before Upton was writing.

He praises the "bright and cheerful color", "charming pastoral episode" and "jubilant outburst suggestive of a chorus of praise" to be found in the first movement. The second movement "brings us into Mendelssohn's world of fancy, but not his light and airy step. It is weird and grotesque, instead of fanciful". The lovely slow movement "opens with a suave and tender melody, most poetically orchestrated, and treated with unusual refinement". The second theme is "equally pretty and sentimental, and enhances the graceful and spring-like effect of the movement". Upton is evidently less enthusiastic about the fourth movement which he says is "characterized by a resumption of the clamour and noisy resonance of the first two".

Writing in his Standard Musical Biographies of Raff's oeuvre in general, and of his posthumous reputation, Upton opines; "The long catalogue of Raff's works shows his extraordinary facility in composition — a facility which in his case proved nearly fatal to his fame. ... Of this great number there remain today in the concert-room the Piano Concerto in C major, the Suite for Violin and Orchestra op.180, the Quintet op.107, the Cello Concerto op.193, the symphonies 'An das Vaterland,' 'Im Walde,' 'Lenore,' and 'Frühlingsklänge,' the Capriccio op.92, 'Fest-march,' op.139, 'Ein 'feste Burg' Overture, a Serenade, and a few songs. Much the larger part of his music is now neglected in concert programmes, although all of it is individual and distinctive. Indeed, notwithstanding his long array of compositions, for he continued writing almost until the day of his death, he never repeats himself. What then is the cause of the public forgetfulness? It may possibly be due to the fact that he wrote a great number of 'pot boilers,' owing to the pressure of poverty and the demands of publishers, for his works were among the 'best sellers' of his day, but suffered the fate of 'best sellers.' Under such circumstances it was inevitable that he should write much that was commonplace and perishable. Hence the great number of piano solo pieces. This does not or should not detract from Raff's fame, for his greater works are great indeed.

"He belonged to the new German school. He combined the classic and romantic and wrote most graphic programme music, as in his 'Lenore' and 'Im Walde' symphonies, without the sacrifice of form, clearly revealing Mendelssohn's influence. He had a rare gift of melody and was fertile in original melodious devices. His orchestral color is of a delightful kind, as is shown by his vivid tone-painting of Burger's ballad in the 'Lenore' symphony. While he lacks breadth and great dramatic power and his work is not characterized by depth of thought, yet it is graceful, poetic, full of melodious charm, and reveals unusual technical skill. It is hard to believe that two such admirable works as the 'Lenore' and 'Im Walde' symphonies will ever be lost so long as marvellous accuracy of musical description, perfect symmetry of form, and melodic charm are held of any account. Even in the demoniacal finale of the 'Lenore' it is still the true symphony. And yet much has been lost for reasons already stated. If he had not written so much under compulsion, or if he had been sternly self-critical, he might have left still greater works than he has, and time would not have been such a remorseless weeder."

[The Standard Symphonies, their history, their music and their composers by George P Upton was published by A C McClurg & Co. of Chicago in 1888 and reprinted and revised many times. The Standard Musical Biographies by George W Upton was published by A.C. McClurg & Co. of Chicago in 1910]

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