1886 album which includes the Three Pieces

Three Pieces

In 1875 publisher Breitkopf & Härtel asked Raff to renew his relationship with them after a gap of 31 years. This gave him the happy idea of writing new works which to some extent mirrored the structure and titles of his pieces which they had published when he was an amateur composer in Switzerland in the 1840s. Although called "revisions" and keeping the original opus numbers, each of the resulting pieces was a completely new work. The Trois Morceaux op.2 was the second of the replacement works to be written by Raff.

The original Trois Pièces Caractéristiques op.2 comprised two Préludes and a Valse Capricieuse. They were written in 1842, whilst Raff was working as a school teacher in Rapperswil on Lake Zürich in Switzerland. It was a time of unhappiness for him - he had good prospects but was struggling with the idea of giving up his post in favour of becoming a musician. Publication of this and other early works at Mendelssohn's urging by the prestigious Breitkopf & Härtel in May 1844 was the catalyst which persuaded Raff to make the fateful decision.

By 1875, Raff was at the pinnacle of his success as a symphonist. Even then, though, he was dogged by accusations of being a Vielschreiber - someone who was prolific at the expense of quality. Of the 200 or so works which he had by then produced, more than half were piano pieces and many of those were unashamedly written for parlour or salon performance. These were Raff's Brotarbeit - work which put bread on the table.

His critics felt these works to be trifles which devalued him as a serious artist. In his defence it should be considered firstly that Raff was far from being a wealthy or financially astute man, and he had to provide for his family. Secondly, he seems not to have made any artificial distinctions between "art" music and "popular" music himself. Thirdly, and most tellingly, is the nature of the salon works themselves. They demonstrate a consistently high quality of invention, coupled with poetic imagination and melodic beauty. This, together with the impressive technique demanded of the player to bring them off effectively, puts them in a league almost of their own amongst the genre. Raff put as much of himself into a three-minute piano piece as he did a symphonic movement.

Typical of these works are the Trois Morceaux which Raff wrote in June and July 1876 in Wiesbaden, shortly before he left the city to take up his post at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. They are a set of piquant little delicacies. Small but never slight, two of the three pieces are under four minutes in length and the whole set last no more than 13 minutes. An Elégie, Romance and Valse replace the original three movements. The set was published in February 1877 and, interestingly, Raff's cataloguer Albert Schäfer made an orchestral arrangement of No.2, the Romance.

Listen to an audio extract Elégie: Larghetto [the excerpt is the start- 2:00]

The F minor Elégie is the longest of the works and has an ABAB structure. It begins in a musing way, as if a sudden thought has stirred an old memory. The opening cell of notes quickly blossoms into a wistful and typically Raffian melody which in its turn gives way to a more lyrical companion idea. A very brief forceful outburst leads to the return of the first subject, then the second melody is repeated in a more trenchant style before fading away into the final chords. Raff seems to be telling a story of some sort here - perhaps lost love would be a suitably Romantic subject? It would certainly fit the piece's mood.

Listen to an audio extract Romance: Adagio quasi Andante [the excerpt is the end of the piece - 1:52]

This is one of those works of Raff which sticks in the memory as soon as it is heard. It starts with an archetypal Raff idea - a delicately hesitant melody in D which is followed by an equally attractive companion of a more yearning character. It is heard only once in this brief piece and one wonders at Raff's willingness to dispose of beauties like this with such profligacy. When it is spent the original hesitant melody returns and is gently varied until the Romance quietly plays itself out.

Listen to an audio extract Valse: Allegro Molto [the excerpt is the start of the work- 1:22]

The set ends with this energetic little waltz confection. Raff employs three short melodic ideas in succession after a faltering start - all of them in waltz time but each with its own character, each repeated once - by turns flighty, rather more serious and then faintly sad. The sequence is repeated in a more forceful manner and the miniature finishes almost before it has begun. It is in D flat major.

All audio excerpts from Cahoots 001 [review].

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