The string quartet medium was one of the major compositional obstacles facing composers of Raff's generation and one with which he had a false start. His first quartet was composed in Weimar in 1849. It featured a fugal adagio but nothing else is known about it. The quartet seems to have been well received, was played several times by Josef Joachim and other members of Liszt's circle but was subsequently suppressed by Raff for reasons now unknown. His published String Quartet No.1 in d minor, Op. 77 was also written in Weimar, but in the autumn of 1855. Over the intervening five years Raff's relationship with Liszt had become increasingly strained for both artistic and personal reasons. According to his daughter Helene, the d minor quartet was the last composition which he completed in Weimar before the final breakdown between them, and Raff's departure for Wiesbaden in 1856.
The breach with Liszt precluded a Weimar performance for the new work but it soon received a prestigious premiere in Vienna in 1856 in a quartet led by the famous Josef Hellmesburger, who was a champion of "new music". Published by Schuberth of Leipzig in November 1860, the quartet went on to be a favourite amongst audiences - matched only by the much later String Quartet No.7. It was arranged by Raff for piano four hands in March 1877.
It has been described as an "astonishingly mature and individual work" for a 33 year old and this is no exaggeration. A passionate and highly dramatic piece, its rather dark and brooding first and third movements are balanced by a joyfully fleeting scherzo and a kaleidoscopically contrapuntal finale. In all, a persuasive testament to the technique, poetry and imagination of its composer.
Movement: Mässig schnell, ruhig, breit [the start of the
This d minor piece begins hesitantly with a repeated, rather moody viola motif before the violin bursts forth with a flowing melody from which most of the movement is derived. After a passionate climax based upon this, there follows a lushly melodic interlude before the darkly dramatic atmosphere is re-established. This pattern is repeated until the movement subsides into an even more hesitant reminiscence of its opening.
The composer's direction "Very happy - as fast as possible" summarises the mood of this gossamer Mendelssohnian scherzo which seems to be over almost as soon as it has begun. Structurally it has an ABA plan with a central lyrical section relieving the breathlessness of the two outer sections.
In his commentary for the recent Tudor CD recording [review], Peter Hugli describes this as "an astonishing movement in which the string quartet is given orchestral dimensions, with dissonances, frictions and delays such as will appear later in Wolf and in the Schoenberg of 'Verklärte Nacht'". The quartet's brooding atmosphere is reinforced in this nocturnal G major piece as the first violin's yearning opening melody is slowly clothed in darker and darker hues. The overall impression is one of desperate sadness and loneliness, which only seems to deepen in a more agitated climactic passage. Throughout, the first violin takes centre stage and remains so at the end as, almost alone, it reprises its opening melody.
The mood lightens as the finale returns to d minor and gets off to a scurrying start introducing the main motifs which Raff later weaves into a contrapuntal patchwork with his customary skill. Melodically, the material is perhaps slightly less distinctive and more short-winded than in the preceding movements, but Raff makes up for this with plenty of incident and great contrasts in texture and pace. After the despair of the slow movement, there is something faintly manic about the finale's exuberance. At the close the pace becomes ever more frenetic before the final calmer chords bring this tour de force of a quartet to its end.
All audio excerpts from Tudor 7079.