Raff's fascination with the baroque put him in the forefront of the revival of the suite and he composed eighteen in all, in a variety of genres from piano solo to works for soloist and orchestra. The first of these concertante works is the Suite for Violin & Orchestra in G minor op.180, which was composed at a time when Raff's reputation was reaching its zenith after the premiere of the Lenore Symphony. By then he was an experienced composer in this genre as the Suite was preceded by the early Konzerstück La fée d'amour of 1855 and by the Violin Concerto No.1 of 1871.
Raff's daughter Helene is silent in her biography of her father about what prompted him to write the work, but his burgeoning fame as a composer and the recent success of the First Violin Concerto, coupled with his fascination with baroque forms, must have tempted him to break new ground by composing a concertante suite, something which does not appear to have been attempted by any romantic composer before him. Written in Wiesbaden in 1873 (Spring, according to Schäfer but Müller-Reuter dates it to the Autumn), the Suite was dedicated to the young violinist Hugo Heermann (1844-1935), who five years later was appointed by Raff to teach violin at the new Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where he had been appointed Director. The Leipzig firm of Siegel published the Suite in October 1873 and Heermann gave its premiere performance on 9 December that year in the elegant spa town of Homburg vor der Höhe, with an orchestra conducted by Gustav Härtel (1836-1876). This was swiftly followed by another performance by Heermann in Bremen on 16 December at a private concert conducted by the composer Karl Reinthaler (1822-1896).
The Suite, with its catchy melodies and unrelenting virtuoso fireworks proved a popular piece and it was frequently programmed in the next two decades. The work was rapidly taken up in both England and the United States and was a particular favourite of the renowned Spanish virtuosos Sarasate, whose performance of it in London's Crystal Palace in 1877 provoked The Times' reviewer to write: "the rapidity of the Spanish violinist's execution had ample opportunity for display, and he availed himself of the chance with unrestrained impetuosity." Perhaps a clue to the Suite's eventual decline in popularity comes from the reviewer's next sentence: "A fresh proof of what can be accomplished by music written with no other purpose than to show off the dexterous manipulation of a virtuoso was thus afforded - and nothing more than this can be detected in the suite of Herr Joachim Raff, whose quickly improvised works might already fill a library." Another English reviewer wrote of its five movements: "... the minuet strikes us as the best. ... The subjects are very pleasing, and the treatment excellent. The prelude is also a capital movement ... but the other three sections of the work are more noticeable for clever construction than for interesting ideas. The workmanship of the whole suite is excellent, the solo part very showy and brilliant, and the orchestration effective and not overloaded; but, on the whole, we have seen many works of Raff's which we prefer to this one." It is certainly true that Raff doesn't even pay lip service to the idea that soloist and orchestra are equals. Whilst his orchestral writing is as effective as ever, the instrumentalist is always centre stage and completely dominates the work.
The Suite for Violin and Orchestra is in five movements, each with a baroque title: Preludio, Minuetto, Corrente, Aria and Il moto perpetuo. Although clearly inspired by baroque forms, as were so many of Raff's suite movements, they are essentially containers for music which is full-bloodedly romantic in its harmony, melody and in the case of this work, its extreme virtuosity. The baroque element is most noticeable in the structure of the movements and sometimes in the melodic turn of phrase, which occasionally carries echoes of the 1770s.
The first movement launches the soloist straight into an unaccompanied frenetic rendition of the piece's primary theme, replete with much vigorous passage work from the violin.The orchestra gradually enters and keeps pace before taking over for a few bars, at which point the soloist rejoins the fray with modified material, but maintaining the breakneck tempo. Some relief appears to come from the orchestra's introduction of a more relaxed second subject, but the violin's modification of this drags the music back to the agitated mood of the opening. It's unrelenting, remorseless pace continues to the end of this breathless movement.
The soloist again starts this G major movement off with the first part of its stately theme, immediately followed by the orchestra. The pattern repeats with the second part of the theme, after which the violin sweetly embroiders it to a gentle wind and pizzicato string accompaniment. After a forceful tutti restatement, the orchestra introduces another more martial air, which the violin then decorates before the original material returns tutti, only to fall back as the violin muses for a few more bars. The movement ends with another tutti flourish.
The Corrente's furiously skipping dance melody stays in G major and is introduced by the violin, against a lightly scored accompaniment, and continues throughout this short movement, the violinist having no respite from its unrelenting demands until the breathless piece suddenly comes to an end after three minutes.
Raff moves to C minor for the Air, at almost nine minutes the longest movement. For the first time, it is the orchestra which begin the piece, but only as a prelude to the violin's long-breathed melody which sings out over a muted accompaniment. There follows a snatched conversation between violin and winds, before the soloist can take a short rest, the orchestra restating part of the air. This most lyrical movement continues on it's lusciously melodic way, introducing subtle drama towards the end by some darker colouring in the accompaniment which introduces a bitter-sweet feeling to its gentle close.
The orchestra start off this tail-catching tour de force, but within a dozen bars the soloist enters in a cascade of notes which continue unabated throughout the movement. A dazzling display of virtuoso writing hides the absence of any strong melodic material, a real rarity for Raff. After little more than three minutes of this fireworks display the piece close in a blaze of G major.