When Wilhelm Taubert premiered Raff's new symphony in Berlin's Royal Hofkapelle on 21 October 1874, expectations ran high. The composer's previous symphony, the Lenore, was already a huge success after only a couple of years, promising to outdo even his Im Walde Symphony in the public's affection. The Symphony No.6 in D op.189 was received well enough on the day, but it never garnered more than a success d'estime and in time it came to be regarded by his detractors as the first evidence of a decline in Raff's powers.
Following the premiere, critics praised the scherzo - prompting Raff to write home testily to his wife: "The Berlin papers with their scherzo-enthusiasm are only partly correct as this piece was written with the most refined contrapuntal art, through which is delivered proof for all time that this highest of all forms has an appropriateness surpassing anything [which] they had thought". He went on "Uniquely, the symphony has its value in the unity by which the content was constrained (and of which the Gentlemen wanted to understand nothing), through the relation of the last to the first part and the way the relationship was laid out".
His oblique reference is to a rhyming motto which, although the work was untitled, was published in concert programmes and in the final score:
Gelebt: Getsrebt, Gelitten, Gestritten - Gestorben - Umworben (Lived: Struggled, Suffered, Fought - Died - Glorified).
In a letter to his friend Hans von Bülow, Raff confirmed that the symphony's programme represented the fate of an artist. The first two movements (Lived: Struggled, Suffered, Fought) represented firstly the heroic and secondly the humorous aspects of being an artist struggling for recognition. The third movement (Died) is a "lament for the fallen one", whilst the finale (Glorified) is "far from an apotheosis in the usual sense" but rather "Joy at the end of suffering" and a recognition that "he was not as bad as all that".
Knowing only the motto, contemporary critics were unimpressed: "The new Symphony by that sleepless and voluminous composer Raff, revealed no correspondence part for part, between its several movements and the section of the rhymed German motto..... The Vivace...is just a freakish, wild fantastic Scherzo, apropos of nothing.....Raff's picture is, as to its ambitious finale, no picture at all, but a great smudge of vivid colour made in the dark, as it would seem, with the brush of a house painter. Witnessing it, the eye is dazzled by glare without being conscious of form. We want to know what this means, what that is intended to convey, why our senses are harrowed in one place and soothed in another; but we ask, vainly, notwithstanding our acquaintance with the composer's general idea".
The symphony had been composed in the summer and autumn of 1873 and it was published by Bote of Berlin in October 1874. As was his habit, Raff made his own piano four hands arrangement. The disappointment of critics and public in the score is easy to understand. The new work had much less in common with its flamboyant pictorial predecessors than with Raff's other untitled symphonies, No.2 and No.4. Its scherzo is very much in the same mould as those of the two earlier works and the first movement has the same confident momentum as theirs do. The funeral march slow movement, the most overtly programmatic of the four, has its parallels in the religiosity and solemnity respectively of the two earlier Andantes. Despite Raff's protestations, this piece wears its programme more lightly than any of the other symphonies.
After a low key start, this powerful movement strides forward with characteristic Raff momentum mixing a leaping, confident first subject with a more relaxed second subject. It is a generally upbeat and assertive piece in D which rather confounds Raff's claim to Bülow that it depicts his artist's struggle and suffering. The confident atmosphere does certainly convey a sort of good natured heroism, however.
The B major scherzo opens with typical Raff muscular bustle using two rather Italianate melodies in a series of combinations which test the woodwind to their limit. The E flat major trio is delayed until two thirds of the way into the work and is then constantly interrupted by snatches of the fast material before the movement spins its way to a frenetic conclusion. A delightful Raff scherzo
To depict the artist's death, the measured tread of a lugubrious funeral march opens this d minor piece but, after it is repeated, a glorious, gently-pulsing melody of consolation is introduced. A powerfully orchestrated fugal section, based upon the march, leads to a thundering brass-led climax before it subsides back into the extended cantabile theme. The march returns in a sudden upsurge before it quietly drifts away into the distance with the consoling melody interweaved in occasional counterpoint.
A hesitant beginning soon leads straight into celebration, as Raff launches into the exuberant theme which dominates the movement. The second subject is a dance-like motif of complementary character. All the composer's skill is employed in using these materials to lay out a series of different textures which varies effectively the landscape of a piece of generally constant pace and mood. The convivial atmosphere is maintained until the end, at which fleeting references to the opening movement are heard.