For all his eventual fame as a symphonist, the popularity of his chamber music and his repeated attempts at operatic success, Raff wrote more for the piano than for any other medium. Even ignoring the many piano reductions he made of his own works, there are more than 130 compositions for the instrument in his catalogue. This industry is all the more impressive knowing that, whilst many of these works are short pieces lasting no more than a few minutes, there are amongst them major works of significant artistic substance such as the three sonatas and the seven suites and no less than forty six opuses which are sets of multiple pieces, ranging from two to thirty numbers.
In an era when home entertainment for the middle and upper classes centred on the piano and when keyboard virtuosos were amongst the superstars of the day, Raff found a ready market with publishers for his piano music and it provided a steady, if always modest, income for a household perennially short of cash. Although his huge output of piano works intended for the salon and recital hall undoubtedly counted against his posthumous reputation in the eyes of many critics, the music itself refutes any suggestion that these were hastily thrown together works of slipshod manufacture, churned out for an uncritical market. Raff was as craftsmanlike as he was industrious. There is no denying that even such a master melodist was sometimes capable of employing undistinguished material or of using a well-worn structural or developmental formula but in the main his piano music for the salon is a delight and it is easy to see why it proved to be so popular.
Typical of his sets of multiple descriptive keyboard pieces is this collection celebrating the river Rhine: Vom Rhein (From the Rhine) op.134. These six "Fantasy Pieces" were written in the summer of 1866 when Raff was living in Wiesbaden. It was a time when his reputation was at last on the climb, but he was still teaching in two of the fashionable spa city's girls' schools and writing theatre and music criticism for the local newspaper. The birth of his daughter Helene, also added to the financial pressure, which probably gave extra impetus to his decision to write this set and the collection of twelve Blätter und Blumen (Leaves and Blossoms) op.135 which followed straight after it.
The six descriptive pieces in From the Rhine last about 35 minutes in performance and, apart from their titles and the illustrations on the title page of the score, leave to the listener's imagination what was in Raff's mind when he was writing them.
Solemn chords introduce Gruss an den Rhein, a Larghetto in G flat, before launching a solemn chorale-like melody, perhaps meant to convey the majesty of the great river. This gives way to another stately cantabile melody, soon supplanted by a spikier theme which is, perhaps, overworked by Raff before the original material material returns, this time decorated by slow arpeggios as it makes its way to the close. This opening movement, with its foursquare melodies, unimaginative accompaniment and uncharacteristically laboured treatment of the third theme is arguably one of Raff's less inspired creations.
An Andantino, Kahnfahrt begins with a jolly 6/8 melody, appropriate for a carefree trip on the river, but the title page illustration for this piece gives a clue to what Raff has in store for the unsuspecting rowers. He moves to C major and the pace quickens; a river steamer is approaching, threatening to overwhelm the little boat. A stormy, peril-laden passage ensues and tension increases as Raff transforms his material with increasing energy and violence. Quite suddenly the crisis passes, G major is restored, the steamer passes them by safely and calm is restored. Although the remaining journey is interrupted by brief reminders of the adventure, eventually fanfare-like figures herald a safe arrival. From a straightforward ternary structure employing a single melody, Raff has wrought a mini tone-poem.
A very attractive piece, Am Loreley-Fels was popular in Raff's day. He again employs an ABA structure for this Andantino in A flat which begins with a sound picture of water flowing swiftly past the famous Lorely Rock: a straightforwardly attractive melody accompanied by rippling figures in the left hand. The contrasting central section is in C: a prominent folk tune-like melody, presumably intended to evoke the Rock itself, is played twice, the second time against arpeggiated figures. The opening material returns in the original key and there is a brief reminder of the Lorely melody before the work ends.
Once again, the illustrator of the score gives a clue to Raff's thoughts: the title page shows two anguished 17th century ladies looking out of a window as what appears to be an army marches by. Raff gives the tempo indication Andante, quasi ma marcia funebre, so one might imagine them watching the return to a Rhineland castle of its master, killed in some conflict. Certainly the grand, dark C minor march with which Burgsage opens fits this scenario. Raff bases the tumultuous central Allegro assai in C major on the same material - perhaps the listener should imagine the conflict which resulted in the tragedy? Certainly, the sudden doom-laden chord which briefly interrupts the passage sounds fatal, but the music quickly returns to C major and the Allegro assai resumes in a much more positive vein - maybe the hero survived after all?
This pensive Andante con moto in A major comes as a relief after the drama of Burgsage. In der Laube begins with a typically Raffian long drawn out melody, simply harmonised, which is later contrasted with a more animated one of a rather darker, more anguished character. This builds to an unhappy climax before subsiding back into the original theme leaving the work to close in a rather darker mood than it began. Clearly Raff's protagonist, shown by the illustrator sitting thoughtfully under a tree, has a lot on his mind.
Nachklänge vom Winzerfest begins Allegretto with a sober, slow dance theme in E flat which Raff repeats several times, decorating it in increasingly elaborate ways before switching to a much faster Allegro vivo grazioso in B flat, characterised by dazzlingly fast renditions of the opening melody and other complementary themes. The wine festival was clearly a convivial event. After much effective jollity, the initial theme returns at its original tempo but now over a rocking figure low in left hand. Maybe a little too much wine was imbibed? This evaporates as a madcap Presto close brings both this number and the whole set to an effective end.