The scenic beauty of the Härz Mountains and the Thüringian Forest, the quaintness of its old towns, the cultural heritage of Goethe and Schiller and its historical importance in the lives of Martin Luther and Saint Elizabeth, combined to give the central German region of Thüringia a uniquely warm place in the hearts of 19th. century Germans. Raff had strong links with the region. He had spent five years working with Liszt in Weimar, one of its principal cities, and had married into a prominent familiy there, the Genasts. Being much closer to his wife's relatives than to his own, he made frequent visits to Weimar and holidayed in Thüringia's fine countryside and historic towns. His great friend Hans von Bülow was conductor of the acclaimed Grand Ducal orchestra in the Thüringian town of Meiningen and another close associate, Max Erdmannsdörfer, had a similar position in nearby Sondershausen. The premieres of many of his most import works, including the Im Walde and Lenore Symphonies and the Welt-Ende Oratorio, took place in Thüringian concert halls.
It was natural, therefore, that Raff would think about commemorating Thüringia in a major composition. In the early 1870s he had intended to write a programme symphony about the Wartburg, the majestic castle which towers over the town of Eisenach and which figured prominently in German medieval history. Later in the decade, once he had moved to Frankfurt, he sketched out the plot of an opera based upon the castle's medieval history. By then, though, the putative Aus der Wartburg (From the Wartburg) Symphony had been transformed into his fourth orchestral suite, the Thüringer Suite (Thüringian Suite) in B flat WoO.45. There is some uncertainty about when the work was composed. Müller-Reuter contends that it was written in Wiesbaden in 1875 and cites as evidence the fact that Raff wrote "op.208" on the manuscript, clearly indicating that it was written before the work which was eventually published with that opus number, the Symphony No.9 Im Sommer. Schäfer says that the Suite was composed in 1877. Whilst Schäfer gives no evidence for any of the composition dates in his catalogue, his date seems more likely. By the mid 1870s most of Raff's major compositions were premiered soon after their completion. The Thüringian Suite was first heard at a concert on 27 March 1878 at the Ducal Court Theatre in Sondershausen, with Max Erdmannsdörfer conducting from the manuscript. This, and the fact that opp.206 (the Second Violin Concerto) and 207 (the Fantasy for Two Pianos or Piano Quintet) were both written in 1877 and published the next year, seems to indicate the later composition date.
Erdmannsdörfer's premiere performance was such a success that he prophesied that the piece would prove as popular as the Symphony No.3 Im Walde. Schäfer records that Raff "cleansed himself with the freshness of the work and its good 'structure'", after a difficult couple of years when he had endured harsh criticism and suffered the consequent self-doubt. Liszt urgently wanted to perform the Suite at an imminent music festival in Erfurt, another Thüringian city, but Raff demurred, preferring to withhold it until it could be performed at some more prestigious celebration of Thüringia's history. That opportunity never came and so, although he thought highly of the piece, it remained unpublished and unperformed at his death and had to wait until 1893 for its second airing. This was under the baton of the famous Danish/Belgian composer and conductor Eduard Lassen (1830-1904) at a concert on 17 April in the Grand Ducal Court Theatre in Weimar, where Lassen was the Court Music Director. Ries & Erler published the work later the same year, together with Raff's own reduction of it for piano four hands.
Although the music itself was unaltered, the published score showed some significant changes from the manuscript. Firstly, the work was renamed Aus Thüringen (From Thüringia) and Raff's subtitle "Suite No.3" was dropped, no doubt because Ries & Erler had already published his Italian Suite in 1884, so making this Suite für grosses Orchester (Suite for large orchestra) as it was now called, Raff's fourth published Suite. The order of the third and fourth movements was reversed. Raff's subtitle to the first movement, Eingang des Schwarza-Thales (Entrance to the Schwarza valley), was dispensed with. Finally the title of the finale was changed from Beim Vogelschiessen (At the Bird Shoot) to Ländliches Fest (Country Festival), although at the Weimar second performance it had been given as Zum Schützenfest (At the shooting festival). The reasons for these changes are not recorded but, given the proximity of the Weimar performance and its publication, it may have been on the advice of Eduard Lassen.
In common with Raff's other suites for orchestra, the Thüringian Suite has five movements:
As well as the opening movement's Latin motto, Raff supplied a further clue to its content by writing in the manuscript "Entrance to the Schwarza valley". It is clearly open-air music, lively and good-natured, depicting the scenic delights of this well known area of natural beauty on the edge of the Thüringian Forest, and the festivals and merry making of the little towns which line the river. At almost ten minutes, it is the work's longest movement. It begins with a stately, rather four-square and brass-dominated theme which is immediately embroidered first by the winds and then the strings, these variations lending it an appropriately pastoral character. Raff then introduces an attractive quicker motif, dominated by the woodwinds, and which is absolutely typical of its creator. A third cantabile, but surprisingly anonymous, theme briefly joins this pair, providing a few moments of relaxation. The first two themes are then developed in a series of diverting passages and climaxes which sees the opening theme relax and the second motif become more insistent until, after a powerful Fughetto passage, Raff begins his recapitulation. The skipping second theme returns and becomes more dance like, before being absorbed in yet another forte statement of the opening melody, which then collapses into the third theme. After a half-minute quiet passage, with no discernable melodic content, the movement builds to an exciting brass-laden restatement of the two main themes in succession before a final, blazing conclusion.
2nd. Movement: Elizabeth's Hymn. Larghetto [the extract is the end of the movement - 1:58]
St. Elizabeth of Thüringia (1207-34), was chatelaine of Thüringia's famous Wartburg castle and a symbol of Christian piety and charity. She was the subject of Liszt's 1865 Oratorio "The Legend of Holy Elizabeth". Here Raff adopts an ABACBA structure, with the introduction of the movement comprising a serene melody, given over to the strings, setting a suitably religious scene. The middle section is marked by faster material, an ascending long-breathed melody, built up to an effective climax which subsides, via a brief and more forceful restatement of the opening motif, to introduce a third motif. This pensive melody, from oboe and clarinet, is heard only once before the second theme returns for an even grander climax. In its turn, this is replaced by the opening material, still heard only in the strings, but now given a distinctly celestial character. Although it can only be speculation, the six episodes of the movement presumably represent the various chapters of Elizabeth's story: perhaps her pious childhood in Hungary, the happiness of her marriage and motherhood at the Wartburg, the sadness of her husband's death on the crusades and her eviction from the castle, her spiritual fulfillment after she renounces the world and enters a life of poverty and finally her beatification.
At under four minutes, this movement is the Suite's shortest and sees Raff combine two of his favourite styles of orchestral scherzos: the ghoulish and the faerie. The gnomes and sylphs of the title are probably a nod to the Hörselberg, a Thüringian mountain where legend had Venus presiding over a realm, peopled with mythical beings, which also features in Wagner's Tannhaüser. Raff's straightforward ABA scheme introduces the subterranean gnomes with an entertaining spectral dance made up of two short phrases, with much characteristically ghoulish squeaking from the woodwinds. It quickly builds to a short climax, after which it is the turn of the sylphs, elemental creatures of the air. Here Raff's orchestration for their attractively flighty, Mendelssohnian music is suitably light and dominated by the flute. The gnomes' more vigorous music quickly reasserts itself as Raff whips up the final climax, which itself evaporates in a very brief recollection of the sylphs' theme.
Raff was a very accomplished writer of variations, with several acclaimed sets in his catalogue. This fine movement one of his best and is based upon the popular song Ach wie ist's moeglich dann? (Oh, how is it possible?) which Raff mistakenly called a folk song. It is now known to have been written in 1827 by either the organist Georg Heinrich Lux (1779–1861), or the choral composer Friedrich Silcher (1789-1860). Raff begins with a suitably "folksy", woodwind setting of the song before launching into nine winningly imaginative variations. The sequence conjures up a picture of a small town Dance, with its succession of lively, delicious melodies in piquant orchestrations. The first two each take little over half a minute: a fast country dance which speeds up on repetition and leads into a slower variation dominated by a bassoon solo. Following the lightness of these two, the third variation is a grand brass-dominated tutti after which, in contrast, the next number has woodwind piping over a delicate pizzicato. Variation V. features languid legato strings and is followed by a puckish woodwind-based number before variation VI. returns to the full orchestra for the longest variation, an impressive ballet-style dance. The seventh variation is more sinuous, with a clarinet and flute dialogue over pizzicato strings, quickly followed by variation VIII, which has flowing upper violins, again over a pizzicato accompaniment. The final variation is all busyness and then it suddenly freezes, to be followed by a more fully orchestrated restatement of the theme, after which Raff ends this tour de force with a frantic stretto flourish.
5th. Movement: Country Festival. Larghetto
- Allegro, quasi Marcia giojosa [the excerpt is from then middle
of the movement 1:48]
Raff titled this movement Beim Vogelschiessen (At the Bird Shoot) but when the score was eventually published, 11 years after his death, the finale had the less explicit name of Ländliches Fest (Country Festival). The triangle begins the movement, and features throughout it, whenever Raff employs the opening rustic melody, which is orchestrated initially in a "country band" style. It gradually develops into a grand orchestral tutti and is followed by new material: a contrasting, ascending fanfare-like phrase paired with a falling woodwind dominated motif. After reprising both all these elements a third is introduced, a typically Raffian flowing melody. This is immediately repeated in augmented orchestration before being interrupted by the first motif, which soon gains the upper hand and goes onto a substantial climax. The fanfare and the cantabile melody follow and lead on to the closing pages in which elements of all three are mixed to create a satisfying end to one of Raff's more successful finales.