Saint-Saëns - dedicatee of the Fantasy-Sonata
Saint-Saëns, dedicatee of the Fantasy Sonata

Fantasy Sonata

Although a major piano work, written by Raff at the very height of his fame, the Fantasie-Sonate in d minor op.I68 doesn't seem to have made any headway with performers or audiences. This may be because it is an usual and experimental work, refuting Raff's posthumous reputation as an unadventurous imitator of others. It is not mentioned at all by Helene Raff in her father's biography and no performance is recorded by Schäfer in his 1888 catalogue of Raff's works.

The Fantasy-Sonata was written in Wiesbaden in Autumn 1871 - a year which also saw the Symphony No.4, and the "Italian" Suite, but which was otherwise mainly given over to piano pieces. Politically, it was also the year of the declaration at Versailles of the German Empire, after Prussia's crushing victory over the Napoleon III's France. Whilst Raff was happy to see a unified Germany, he was much less happy at what he regarded as the bombastic, militaristic nature of Bismarck's creation and he abhorred the narrow trend towards an exclusively German culture. Despite pressure from his publishers to use only German titles and tempo indications for his works, in a typical display of cussedness he gave three of his 1871 pieces French names and dedicated the Fantasy-Sonata to his friend, the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. The work was published by Siegel in April 1872 but then forgotten. It received its first public performance in modern times (and perhaps ever) at a Joachim Raff Society piano recital in 1998.

The title "Fantasy-Sonata" accurately reflects this fascinating works ambivalent nature. It is a compact one movement piano fantasy within which there are three distinct fast-slow-fast sections suggesting a recognisable piano sonata layout. There are strong thematic links between these alternating sections too which give it a satisfyingly cyclical character. The heroic scale of the work is remiscent of Liszt, though it remains thoroughly Raffian, and it belies its 15 minute length.

Listen to an audio extract 1st. Section: Allegro patetico [the excerpt is the start - 1:58]

After an improvisatory opening in d minor, the "motto" theme which pervades the whole work is hesitantly picked out before being developed into a fully fledged and rather fateful motif. A second, more gentle, theme is introduced and then repeated with filigree ornamentation in the right hand before a stormy passage emerges, bringing the return of the motto theme around which a doom laden climax is developed. A short quiet bridge passage leads to the second section...

Listen to an audio extract 2nd. Section: Largo [the excerpt is the start of the section - 1:51]

Moving from 4/4 to 3/4 and to B major, it opens with a lovely new melody of beguiling simplicity which has some similarity to the second theme. At first presented plainly, Raff then adds a syncopated accompaniment and goes on to add further ornamentation underlining the "fantasy" element of the work. There follows a return to the drama of the 1st. section and the Sonata's motto theme is further developed into something stormier and darker, leading to the start of the final section...

Listen to an audio extract 3rd. Section: Allegro molto - Presto [the excerpt is from the middle - 1:34]

In contrast to the slow section, the 6/4 finale is stormy throughout. Beginning in d minor, the drama is heightened with the motto theme taking on a doom-laden tread, before subsiding into a marginally calmer passage in which the second theme returns in D major, greatly embellished. The tempo speeds up, the motto motif reasserts itself and then all three themes are combined into the 6/8 presto finale dash to the finish, at which the second melody finally asserts itself.

An extensive essay on this work by Prof Matthias Wiegandt is available in the Analysis section. This work is available in a modern edition from Edition Nordstern. All recordings from the October 1998 Joachim Raff Society recital given by Stefana Chitta-Stegemann.

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