Works about Spring appear throughout Raff's creative output and two of his greatest creations, the Symphony No.8 in A op 205 Frühlingsklänge ( Sounds of Spring) and the song collection Sanges Frühling, celebrate the season. Throughout his life, as a true romantic, Raff delighted in nature and the countryside and he certainly shared an almost primeval release of energy at the onset of Spring. In her biography of her father, Helene Raff sheds no more light on why he decided to write a symphony celebrating Spring, and whether it was always his intention for it to be the first in a cycle of four celebrating all the seasons. The fact that the next one he wrote was about Winter and was not published or performed in his lifetime perhaps hints that the A major symphony was written as a stand-alone work, rather than consciously as the first of a series.
Raff composed the work in Wiesbaden during the Summer and Autumn of 1876 at around the time that he was appointed to head the new Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt and at the end of what appears to have been a period of creative uncertainty and self doubt. It was premiered the following year in Wiesbaden's Kurhaus and was well received - no doubt a relief after the mixed reception of the previous Symphony, In the Alps. The first two movements were particularly well received. The work soon crossed the Atlantic and the conductor of a performance there later in 1877 reported to Raff, "I want only to share with you that I have had the pleasure of introducing your Spring Symphony here (in New York) and with great success".
In this work, Raff produced three successive movements of surging vitality, demonic excitement and pastoral delicacy which go a long way towards explaining his huge success in his lifetime. The finale is rather more diffuse - although as colourfully orchestrated and structurally sound as its predecessors it is not so melodically memorable; Helene Raff records in her biography that audiences "did not understand" this movement. It is somehow not on quite such a high level of inspiration as the others and, as such, it underscores the reasons for the posthumous decline in Raff's reputation.
Raff left no detailed programme for the symphony's movements beyond the title of each. The work is written for his standard orchestra with augmented flutes and trumpets.
In this extended sonata-form movement is distilled Raff's joy and pleasure at the return of his favourite season. Without exception, the melodic material is joyful in character and a general exuberance prevails. Raff makes extensive use of brass and woodwind. After a long, rather ambiguous and generally dark introduction the surging, rather bouncy, opening theme in A major appears and this leads, after a long transition featuring a dazzling procession of lyrical motifs, to the gentler second main theme which is in E major. The development and recapitulation follow with captivating interplays between woodwinds and strings and lead to the closing pages which feature an imaginative fughetto passage before the movement reaches a radiant close.
Raff cast this evocation of a Witch's Sabbath on Walpurgis night in an allegro-rondo form in A minor. He was a past master at conjuring up visions of ghoulish frenzy as exemplified by the finale of the Lenore Symphony or the Orchestral Prelude to "Macbeth". The opening scherzo material features swirling woodwind, braying trombones and pumping rhythms to suggest the unrelenting demonic dance, before giving way to a more lyrical section with a provacative swaying rhythm (a suductress joining the witches?) played mostly by the strings. The macabre material reasserts itself with greater intensity only to subside again as the swinging idea returns clad in heavier orchestral colours before a final whirlwind restatement of the devilish scherzo concludes this effective movement.
This pastoral idyll in C is a beautiful example of Raff's ability to charm. The gentle lyricism of this piece is in sharp contrast to its fiery predecessor, though another variation of rondo structure is also used here - this time an abridged rondo-sonata. Although there is a mildly agitated section at the centre of the movement, the overall mode is evocative of a warm Spring afternoon; flowers waving in a gentle breeze.
Although Raff looked forward to the advent of Spring, he was also prey to a restlessness at its onset, and it is this personal "wanderlust" which the finale depicts. Although nominaly in A, the movement's tonic instability effectively creates a feeling of unease without menace, as does much of the orchestration which has a generally restless character. Once again the movement is in sonata form and throughout it the thematic material, which is not very strongly contrasted, has a nervous feel. Perhaps unexpectedly, there is no joyous coda but rather an emphatic restating of earlier material, now firmly in the blazing A major with which this expansive symphony began.
All audio excerpts from Ex Libris 17 008. An extensive essay on this work is available in the Analysis section.