There isn't any record of Raff ever visiting Hungary and so, unlike his Italian Suite of three years earlier, the inspiration for the Suite No.2 in F In Ungarische Weise (In Hungarian Style) for large orchestra op.194 appears to be rather more second hand. The idea for such a work had been triggered as far back as the mid 1850s when Liszt had planned for Raff to accompany him to the Hungarian city of Esztergom for the premiere of his "Gran" mass. Liszt himself had been instrumental in popularising the art music variants of Magyar verbunkos folk music and its formalised successor, the czárdas, through his Hungarian Rhapsodies and other works associated with his homeland. The characteristic harmonies and melodic quirks became all the rage throughout Europe and many Hungarian genre pieces were written by umpteen composers.
Raff himself was no exception. Before this Suite he had already written a Hungarian Rhapsody for piano (op.113 of 1863) and one of the 12 fantasy Dances for piano (op.172 of 1872) is an "Ungrischer". There is also a Hungarian movement in his "Volker" cyclic tone poem for violin and piano of 1876 which Raff arranged for violin and orchestra as another Ungrischer two years later.
The Suite was completed in the Summer of 1874 and premiered in Wiesbaden on 5 March 1875 under Louis Lüstner's baton. It was published in June 1876 as the Orchestral Suite No.2 - the "Italian" Suite went unpublished until after Raff's death. In layout it follows its predecessor. The five movements begin with an Overture (in both suites the piece with the least local colour) and end with a dance movement. The second movement of each is a slow, dreamy piece which precedes a must faster one. Only in their fourth movements do the two "travelogue" suites differ in character. The last of the series, From Thüringia again follows the pattern and although the opening movement is not explicitly titled "Overture", the rest of them are closely modelled on the Hungarian Suite's pattern - the fourth movement is even a folksong with variations.
As became his normal practice, Raff also made his own arrangement of the op.194 for piano 4 hands.
The new work was well thought of in Raff's lifetime. Hans von Bülow, the composer's tireless friend and advocate, praised "Raff's genius for colour" in the work but he was disappointed as it made little headway in Hungary itself. This shouldn't really have been a surprise - delightful though it is, this is a highly coloured and romanticised 45 minute picture of the country, rather than a portrait taken from life.
Subtitled "Overture", this lively and engaging piece in F begins with an assertive extended fanfare before subsiding into a pastoral melody of great charm. Raff quickens the pace with a skipping motif which builds up to a strong climax and then relaxes into another gently lilting theme. These four elements and their development occupy the rest of the 10 minute long prelude which in many ways is an example of Raff at his most attractive: hummable melodies, rhythmic excitement and melting lyricism wrapped up in inventive orchestration and rounded of with a dash of counterpoint. That said, there is little identifiably Hungarian about its colouring.
2nd. Movement Larghetto "On
the Puszta" [the extract is towards the end of the movement
The Puszta is the Great Hungarian Steppe and this a minor movement, which Raff subtitled "Reverie", is a mood piece redolent of the wide open expanses and slow pace of life of the area. It has an opening with strong pre-echoes of Tchaikovsky - a plaintive clarinet introduces a sinuous melody taken up by other woodwinds and hushed strings, before the strings themselves spin out another long wistful theme. A slightly more animated section, still delicately scored, involves the rest of the orchestra. The dreamy ebb and flow is briefly broken by a more powerful passage before the piece gradually returns to the ruminative stillness with which it began. Though highly atmospheric, if anything it has a slavonic rather than Magyar feel to it.
3rd. Movement Quasi
marcia "Amongst a parade of the Honvéd" [the extract
is the start of the movement - 1:30]
The shortest of the movements, this is one of Raff's most enjoyable marches - portraying a cavalry parade. For the first time in the Suite, Raff uses what a contemporary audience would have recognised as Hungarian harmonic cadences. This fast march in C is made up of a series of inter-related march tunes, strung together into a gradual crescendo, interrupted once by the return of the opening material. Attractively orchestrated and with an insistent beat it is perhaps not the most subtle of the Suite's five movements, but was no doubt one of its most immediately effective.
Perhaps the gem of the Suite. The slow A major folksong (presumably Hungarian) with a distinctly baroque outline is followed by nine variations. The song itself is given over mostly to the strings, whereas the first variation, taken rather faster, is scored mainly for the wind band. The next two variations are similar in style - both feature a rocking motion in the base taken at a middling pace, which is further emphasised by timpani beats in the fourth variation, leading to a strong theme on the brass. A sudden change of tempo brings a quietly contemplative episode for the fifth variation and this continues in the next one, with an added plaintive horn accompaniment. The seventh is similar in mood and melodic outline to the original folk song, whereas the penultimate variation is much more assertive being based on an ascending motif in the strings. This leads, via a restatement of the original theme itself, to a sparkling final fast variation recalling the mood of the Suite's opening Overture. The whole movement is an object lesson in creating a set of variations without sacrificing a feeling of organic growth and natural progression.
5th. Movement Larghetto
- Vivace "At the Czárda" [the excerpt is start
of the movement 1:34]
A Czárda is a rural inn. Raff piles on the local colour in this portrait, beginning with a distinctly Hungarian-sounding Larghetto introduction which could have been written by Liszt or Hubay. The slightly portentous opening material gives way to a rather bucolic dance melody before reasserting itself in a grand climax. It is roughly a third of the way into the movement before the main material is introduced - a trio of lively dances which twirl around each other in a vivid portrayal of a lively rural dance. The spirit of the verbunkos is never far away as Raff develops the material with plenty of non-academic counterpoint. A slow interlude is quickly brushed aside by a cleverly scored fughetto passage which leads into the closing pages featuring a blazing F major reminder of the Overture's opening. This finale is a fittingly up-beat close to one of Raff's most open-heartedly enjoyable large-scale compositions.