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Pulchinella, subject of the 3rd. movement
Pulcinella, subject of the Suite's third movement

Italian Suite

The Italienische Suite ( Italian Suite) for large orchestra in e minor WoO.35 is an extensive work, lasting over half an hour. It is also one of Raff's sunniest large-scale compositions, melding his usual grateful melodies with seductive and sumptuous orchestral textures. Like Tchaikovsky and Elgar, Raff was inspired to write a work celebrating Italy by his first visit there and this portrait of the country is an eclectic mix of dance, mood pictures and character study, with a rousing general introduction setting the mood for what follows.

Raff was a major force in reintroducing the suite as a musical form and he wrote four of them for orchestra, all in five movements. Whilst the Suite No.1 was an abstract work, the other three comprise what have been called "Raff's travelogues". As well as the Italian, there are the Hungarian Suite (designated No.2, but the third to be written and a very popular work in Raff's day) and the final From Thüringia.

His daughter Helene, explained the work's background in her biography of Raff: "The Italian Suite (in e minor, originally "From the South") was the artistic fruit of the first, even if short, thoroughly enjoyable Italian trip that Raff could allow himself. However, he locked the work in his desk, since he intended another revision". It was finished in Autumn 1871, but went unpublished and unperformed during his lifetime. Presumably Raff's continued withholding of the work until death intervened, meant that he never did get around to revising it - it was eventually premiered in Berlin under Franz Wüllner's baton on 26 November 1883 and published the next year by Ries & Erler.

Listen to an audio extract 1st. Movement Allegro molto "Overture" [the extract is the beginning, in which all three themes can be heard - 1:59]

This e minor movement is the least "Italian" of the five - its character rather that of a German concert overture, albeit an unusually vibrant one. It is constructed of three strongly contrasting themes: a dramatic call to attention based on the material with which the piece opens, a liltingly sweet melody and finally a memorable galloping motif reminiscent of that in the Lenore Symphony's finale. The three are developed at first individually and then together before piece closes in E major.

Listen to an audio extract 2nd. Movement Andantino "Barcarole" [the extract is towards the end of the movement - 2:13]

This gently flowing e minor movement is a masterpiece of orchestral colouring and the gem of the Suite. With its glowing colours and indolent motion, it could be a sound picture of a gondola crossing the Venice lagoon on a hazy summer's day. Raff constantly varies the dappled orchestral textures, but the predominant mood is of a succession of sinuously delicate woodwind melodies floating over lazily swelling string passages. At one point, in a muted climax five double chords from the brass interrupt the flow but these punctuations don't disturb the atmosphere and the music gradually ebbs away to its close.

Listen to an audio extract 3rd. Movement Presto "Intermezzo (Pulchinella)" [the extract is the end of the movement - 1:37]

Again in e minor (with the middle section in C major) this agitated piece is a portrait of the Commedia dell'Arte trickster and scallywag Pulchinella, who was the forebear of Mr Punch. The work's character is one of scurrying action and, unlike the other movements, this one does not have a strong melodic element - nervous movement pervades the piece. As musical portraiture it is a precursor of Raff's own "Macbeth" and in portraying a cunning joker it is in some ways a early cousin of Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel. The opening string crescendo leads to a passage of genial vivacity before building to a repeat of the opening climax. More nervous activity follows before a final climax and a sudden end.

Listen to an audio extract 4th.Movement Andante no troppo lento "Notturno" [this excerpt is from the middle of the piece 2:15]

The A major Notturno is basically monothematic. It opens with the winds voicing a rocking motif which provides the piece's rhythm and against which the strings introduce the lovely melody of the work. This is slowly built up into a climax at which the horns echo the rocking motif. Quiet returns with first the cello and clarinet soloists together, and then the solo bassoon having the main theme before it gradually disappears. This movement was used by Raff as an entr'acte in his penultimate opera "Benedetto Marcello".

Listen to an audio extract 5th. Movement Molto vivace - Più mosso "Tarantelle" [the excerpt is end of the movement 2:03]

Raff wrote no less than eight Tarantellas - it was obviously a favourite dance form for him. This is the only orchestral one, however, and it provides the suite with an exiting close built from two swirling italianate melodies. The forte opening introduces the first theme which is repeated and then gives way to a Rossinian crescendo/decrescendo, heralding the second melody and an increase in tempo. This section ends in a fughetto passage followed by another climax which subsides into a delicate few bars for woodwinds, before the tumult reasserts itself and leads on to the frantic conclusion. In the space of under six minutes Raff encompasses e minor, C major, e minor, E major & e minor yet again before coming to rest in E major.

All audio excerpts from Marco Polo 8.223194.

© 1999-2017 Mark Thomas. All rights reserved.