Two of the charges most frequently levelled at Raff are that he lacked originality and that he wrote far too much music for it to be of any worth. This little set of three Tanz-Capricen (Dance Caprices) might be used as evidence for those accusations. They are so suffused with the spirit of Chopin as to almost teeter on the brink of plagiarism. Certainly it would be difficult to argue that Raff was extending any musical boundaries here. Secondly, they were the 30 year-old Raff's op.54 - hardly evidence of a compositional career in which quantity was being sacrificed on the alter of quality!
They were written in 1852, whilst Raff was working for Liszt in Weimar as his musical secretary and general assistant. Although he was later to break with his employer, at that time he was greatly under Liszt's influence and so these three dances are an intriguing indication of Raff's musical independence from him - if only in being open to influences from the newly deceased Chopin. There is no gainsaying that they are derivative, but Raff had yet to find his mature style and these are comparatively early works. Liszt repeatedly warned Raff about his overproduction (a bit rich from a man who would eventually pen over 700 works himself), but Raff was deep in debt and needed the money.
The set's waltz, mazurka and polka are each deliciously melodic and harmonically attractive. Engaging and effectively written, they give pleasure to the listener and player alike - although the performer may not relish some of Raff's writing which is typically virtuosic in its demands. As such, they are typical of his brotarbeit - highly competent music churned out because he had to feed himself. No sooner were the Dance Caprices written, than they were sold to Trautwein & Co. in Berlin and published in February 1853, with a later reissue by Bahn.
They are hardly indicative of the worth of his later great works in music's major genres but, whilst not mature Raff, they illustrate the mastery of compositional technique which he already had at his disposal. Each small piece is a kaleidoscope of rhythmic variation, filigree decoration, fleeting textures and characteristic "Polish" harmonies.Their popularity during Raff's lifetime is attested to by the writing of versions for piano 4 hands by Friedrich Brikler, published between 1874 and 1879.
This D flat major work is marked Moderato, rubato and opens with a gentle lilting waltz, almost regretful in tone. The second melody, with a rather stronger character, is introduced and the two alternate before an upbeat finale developed from a modified version of the second theme brings this little piece to a pleasing end.
The longest of the three at almost six minutes, the D major Mazurka is again constructed from two contrasting but complementary melodies which alternate before the faster and more assertive closing pages. The thematic material is especially well suited to the structure used by Raff - particularly in the G major central section..
The B flat major polka begins with a delightful skipping theme which develops an unexpectedly long and varied character. Two other themes are crammed into this, the shortest of the three works. Raff provides plenty of dynamic contrast and uses rests effectively to give it an odd, hesitant character. Once again, all the melodic material is dashed through in the closing pages.