The Orchestral Preludes which Raff wrote to four Shakespeare plays are amongst his last purely orchestral compositions. There is scarcely a mention of these pieces in his daughter's biography of Raff and Schäfer's catalogue records their existence and premieres but nothing else. Yet they are hardly negligible works either in length (varying from eight to sixteen minutes duration) or in importance in their composer's oeuvre. They demonstrate that he was by no means a spent force and Macbeth WoO.50 in particular is a piece of great quality.
Nothing is known of Raff's motivation for writing the set which, although described by him as Orchestral Preludes, are essentially Symphonic Poems conveying the atmosphere and, to a certain extent, telling the story of Shakespeare's original plays. It was unusual for Raff to choose literary subjects for orchestral works - the only other example being the Symphony No.5, based on Bürger's ballad Lenore.
The four works were clearly conceived as a set of independent pieces rather than as some sort of suite or programme symphony. Structurally and thematically they are independent works. Written sometime during 1879, they went unpublished in Raff's lifetime and only two were premiered before his death in 1882. Sturm (The Tempest) was premiered in February 1881 and it was Macbeth's turn in Wiesbaden's Kurhaus on 13 January 1882 where it was performed by the City Orchestra under the composer's friend Luis Lüstner. Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet were eventually published in the USA by Arthur Schmidt in versions supposedly edited by Raff's pupil Edward Macdowell, although this appears to have been a device to protect the US copyright (see E Douglas Bomberger's article). Sturm and the fourth work, Othello, remain in manuscript.
Brahms quipped "Quite casually Raff writes four overtures to four of the most glorious tragedies". It is a cheap jibe, refuted by the quality of works of which Brahms was no doubt ignorant when he made the remark. Macbeth in particular is a fine example of Raff's craft. In it he uses his orchestration skills to the utmost, conjuring up a sound world which fuses the macabre with the chivalrous into a concise, but never episodic, synopsis of the play. At the same time he gives the listener a faithful psychological insight into the Scottish king's tortured character. Until the work's closing pages, after its anti-hero's death, it is permeated with a fevered restlessness which speaks of Macbeth's guilt-ridden soul.
Clearly identifiable themes are used by Raff to portray the major players in the drama, although his precise scheme can only be presumed from the music. Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth and Banquo give flesh to the twin aspects of Macbeth's character - ruthlessness and nobility. Raff echoes this in musical terms in several places in the score by intertwining the two themes to show Macbeth's indecisiveness and guilt.
The work begins with swirling woodwind depicting the three witches in Raff's best spectral fashion, followed by short statements of the themes which seem to represent Macbeth and his companion Banquo - the one full of nervous strength, the other rather calmer and nobler, showing the Thane's alter ego. All three are then mixed in a stormy passage depicting the play's opening scene where the witches predict Macbeth's ascension to the throne. After a meditative but tense section there follows the introduction of a new and slippery melody - no doubt Lady Macbeth.
To represent Macbeth's struggle with his conscience (represented by Banquo) these two themes are then played in succession before his decision to murder King Duncan is made and illustrated by a new martial marching motif which climaxes in a grand restatement of his theme.
Having introduced most of his major themes, Raff continues to combine them to show Macbeth's persistent struggle with his conscience, leading to an extinguishing of the Banquo theme - his death at the hands of Macbeth's assassins and at Lady Macbeth's urging. Seeing Banquo's ghost, Macbeth visits the witches a second time which provokes a return to the opening material.
Raff describes the witches' prophesy of Macbeth's downfall by interrupting their music with the quiet introduction of a new triumphant theme - illustrating Duncan's son Malcolm and his army. This passage is followed by an anguished combination of the Macbeth and witches' themes and then a spell of doom-laden darkness before Lady Macbeth emerges, mad, to reveal her husband as the murderer of Banquo - their themes combining contrapuntally for the last time. The Malcolm music, gradually growing in intensity as his army approaches Dunsinane Castle, is punctuated by a long snare drum and trumpet passage which presages Macbeth's defiance.
The two themes are mixed in counterpoint as Macbeth fights his nemesis Macduff. The music falters as the usurper dies and there follows a finale in which Malcolm is shown by the triumphant peroration of his theme to have succeeded his father to the Scottish throne.
Raff's music combines both psychological and narrative snapshots of the tragedy into an exciting and satisfying work. One wonders how his art would have developed had he lived longer.