The Douze Romances en form d'Études (Twelve Romances in the form of Etudes) op.8 are amongst the earliest of Raff's compositions. They owe their existence, as arguably does Raff's very career as a composer, to his friends the Curti brothers, Anton and Franz Alexander. When the 18 year old arrived in the Swiss lakeside town of Rapperswil in 1840 to take up his post as a schoolmaster, he was soon befriended by the pair, who came from a family established in the town. Anton was an opera singer who went on to become a noted Wagnerian, whilst his brother was a doctor. Between them they encouraged Raff's nascent musical ambitions.
By the autumn of 1843, when Raff wrote this set, he had become deeply dissatisfied with his teaching post and spent all his spare time absorbing the composer's craft and writing music. The Curtis had introduced him to Zürich's young kapellmeister Franz Abt and he too was enthusiastic about his new friend's talent. Between the three of them they managed to persuade Raff to write to his then idol Mendelssohn, including with his letter some of his compositions.
Mendelssohn's reply probably exceeded the young man's wildest hopes. He felt that Raff's talent was so promising that he should become a full-time musician. Mendelssohn not only praised the compositions, but reported that he had sent them on to his own publishers Breitkopf & Härtel with a recommendation that they be published by them. These "Twelve Romances in the form of Etudes" were amongst them.
Although originally designated as his op.10 by Raff, they were published by Breitkopf & Härtel in two volumes as op.8 in April 1845. Understandably, they were "respectfully dedicated" to Mendelssohn. Perhaps to appear the product of a more sophisticated author, the complete set boasted a French title and each Etude was given an Italian name. In May 1874, when Raff was at the peak of his popularity, Breitkopf & Härtel brought out a new edition which itself was republished after the composer's death in 1886.
They are naive and generally straightforward works which require little commentary, but there is a melodic freshness and straightforward charm to them which is very appealing. It's clear to see why Mendelssohn was so impressed by these products of a 21 year old who had never had (and was never to have) any formal musical training.
Étude No.1: L'Abbandonata (The Abandoned Woman), Allegro moderato [4:24]
This work begins and ends with a haunting melody reminiscent of Satie's Gymnopédies. Taken at a walking pace, it is as if Raff had in mind a disconsolate woman traipsing back home. The counter melody is more conventional but in well-judged contrast. A simple ABA thematic layout and B flat minor - major - minor harmonic structure underpin this little gem.
Written in A flat major, the Pastorale repeats a carefree melodic idea against an ostinato accompaniment.
Another piece in which Raff repeats a single theme, this frantic exercise in anxiety is in G minor.
A rather bucolic first theme is repeated and then contrasted with a vigorous staccato section. The first theme returns and finally is combined with the staccato idea. L'Amicizia is in B flat major.
Raff's thematic structure of AABACCAAB seems complicated, but this is a charming example in E minor of Victorian parlour music. The first melody is full of pathetic yearning, whilst the second is rather more jaunty. The third idea isn't as refined as the other two - the music hall isn't too far away it seems.
Concluding the first volume is this tumultuous piece full of tremolo in the right hand and darkly threatening passages in the left. It begins and ends in C minor with a brief excursion into the major.
The gentle rocking motion of this delightfully innocent Étude in G major presages its composer's Barcarole in his Italian Suite of 28 years later.
The solemn atmosphere is evident from the first bars as a chorale-like theme is intoned before giving way to a brighter rising melody. The chorale reasserts itself and is extended. Cascading decorations then augment it and these continue for the remainder of the piece as the second theme is reintroduced to be replaced for the last time by the chorale. The Preghiera is in G flat major.
This E flat major exercise in monothematic staccato playing paints the Gladiators in a jolly light - no duals to the death in this contest, it seems.
The first of the set's two Polish numbers is in E major, with a short excursion into the minor key. It was presumably inspired by Chopin's immense popularity at the time and faithfully apes some of his music's characteristics, albeit without much subtlety. The melodic material is certainly evocative, attractive and unmistakably Polish in inspiration, however.
Another archetypal salon piece. The only theme is, as in so many of these works, repeated almost note for note before receiving some elaboration and being subjected to some modest development. The outer sections are in A major, the central section in C major.
This charming work closes the set. It opens in D flat major and detours by way of G flat major, D major and C major before returning to its home key. The Chopin model is not quite as obvious as in Étude No.10, neither is the Polish atmosphere so successfully conveyed. Pretty though it is, as the longest piece in the set it is the only one which threatens to outstay its welcome.