Unlike Richard Strauss, the composer of another Alpine Symphony, in his own programme music Raff generally betrayed little that is clearly personal to him, born of his own feelings and experiences. His Op.201, the Symphony No.7 in B flat In den Alpen (In the Alps) is therefore unusual. He wrote it from the start as his musical homage to the country of his birth and childhood - Switzerland. Into it he poured his memories of the landscapes and people of his youth in Lachen, by the side of Lake Zürich.
By the time he came to compose the work in the spring and summer of 1875, Raff had been hailed as the greatest symphonist of his age following the runaway successes of his Im Walde and Lenore symphonies. The 6th Symphony, composed two years earlier, had not met with much more than a successe d'estime, however, and this may have influenced Raff to return in his new work to the more overt pictorialism of his earlier triumphs.
The public was still eager to hear each Raff novelty as soon as it was finished and so the premiere took place in Wiesbaden's Kurhaus concert hall on Thursday, 30 December 1875 under the baton of Raff's friend Louis Lüstner. It was repeated at the New Year's Day concert. Raff himself conducted the third performance, which took place in Stuttgart in October 1876, amidst much feting of this belatedly-recognised son of Württemberg. A few days later the wider musical establishment took up the work - it was the centrepiece of a Leipzig Gewandhaus concert conducted by the renowned composer and pedagogue Karl Reinecke.
The symphony was published that same year by the Leipzig
company of Seitz (later Ries & Erler) and, as was his custom, Raff
himself prepared the piano four-hands adaptation.
The public's response was disappointingly unenthusiastic. They wanted more wild hunts and ghoulish sensation and instead the maestro had produced a pastoral, almost bucolic, celebration. This reception, together with the indifference with which some of his other recent works had been received seems to have brought on in Raff an artistic crisis which lasted a couple of years and was only finally broken by his appointment to the directorship of the Frankfurt Conservatory.
Spanning more than 50 minutes, it is amongst the longest of Raff's symphonies and in the wrong hands it can seem a diffuse work. In contrast to his two earlier explicitly programmatic symphonies, the four movements here have short descriptive titles but no detailed programmes - as in his 6th. Symphony, Raff was relying upon the music to convey impressions and feelings to the listener. There is a wealth of incident contained within each movement but it is only hinted at by the constantly shifting textures and recurring thematic references. It is a deceptively subtle piece.
One of his longest symphonic movements, it must portray the joy that Raff the nature-lover felt as he walked amongst the high pastures on a bright alpine day with the massif rearing above him. The piece opens with a sonorous chorale depicting the grandeur of the mountain peaks which soon relaxes into a passage with fleeting dance rhythms followed by the evocative sound of alphorns echoing across the valleys. The pace quickens into the Allegro and the dance motif is now played out in all its boisterousness, first from oboes and clarinets and then from the whole orchestra. A more reflective passage and a return to the alphorns ushers in the very extensive development section in which there is much attractive interplay of the various themes, lashings of "alpine" colour and contrapuntal working out. Even the most dedicated Raff enthusiast might be excused the feeling that he could have been rather more concise - the whole movement boasts over 1,000 bars of music! The long closing section sees the pace whipped up as the material is reprised and it closes with grand restatements of the opening chorale and the dance theme.
Hardly a traditional scherzo, this g minor movement must have perplexed audiences. Its title suggests a jolly, ale-filled drinking song. Instead, we hear the trudge of a weary walk, relieved by a slightly brighter trio section. The mood begins to lighten with a more lyrical treatment of the walking theme in fuller orchestration. A tranquil interruption to the walk suggests a moment of reflection but the pace quickens and a scherzando section with characteristic Raff wind writing follows. This gradually builds to a climax into which the walking theme is intertwined but it gives way to a glorious restatement of the earlier tranquil tune transformed into something radiant. It subsides to almost nothing before a momentary surge rounds off the piece. In this movement, perhaps Raff is depicting the traveler, having arrived at the inn, recalling his long journey, a moment of rest along the way, the excitement of arrival and then the slow drift off to sleep?
Raff grew up beside one of Switzerland's largest lakes and it almost claimed his life. Here he paints a dark and brooding picture in C major. Almost everything in the piece derives from the long drawn out rocking melody with which the movement opens, its dark colouring and lack of momentum suggesting the gentle ebb and flow of the deep waters. It is given more character by a combination of oboes, flutes and horns which gently stir up some motion and build to a rippling climax. Distant thunder can be heard and the speed increases as the music becomes agitated - wind forewarning of a storm. The distant drum beats once more only to recede again. The threatening mood refuses to improve and the intermittent drums continue before vanishing in a lyrical climax after which the earlier peace is re-established and the rippling motion of the lake is recalled. The movement is gently played out to a final horn-dominated close which subsides to nothing.
The piece gets off to a disconcertingly casual start, presenting skittering fragments of motifs. In fact, they allude to the dancing theme which is is the mainspring of this rondo in B flat major. It is soon aired properly for the first time by pizzicato strings and winds. Each time it reappears its orchestration becomes heavier. The intervening two episodes are not particularly distinguished melodically but the third sequence features a wonderfully galumphing tune for the lower strings (the wrestling, perhaps?) which Raff returns to later in the movement. He begins to weave themes from the work's earlier movements into the bustling textures which graphically depict the good-humoured rustic frenzy of a local festival. It wouldn't be Raff without a fughetto passage in the finale and it duly appears - built from the galumphing tune. A grand climax is quickly curtailed and a quiet, but hardly still, passage asserts itself. Into this are injected reminiscences of the symphony's opening chorale, followed by the alphorns and then the lake music - all tinged with the regret of the departing traveller. From it erupts a coruscating finale, based on the opening chorale, bringing Raff's homage to Switzerland to a blazing conclusion.
The extracts are from a broadcast recording of a live performance given by the SudWest Orchestra of Baden-Baden & Freibug conducted by Urs Schneider [review].