Benjamin Bilse
Benjamin Bilse, conductor of the Berlin performance

Symphony No.9 Im Sommer

From the outset Raff's Symphony No.9 in E minor Im Sommer (In Summer) op.208 was well received. A critic wrote after the Wiesbaden premiere: "If Raff hadn’t already laid the basis for his fame and reputation in his other symphonies, then this work would certainly add much to it". The renowned conductor Benjamin Bilse (1816-1902), who conducted its first Berlin performance on 10 January 1880 declared it a work of genius. He wrote to Raff: "Your symphony has stirred up the entire music world of Berlin and brought my orchestra the greatest pleasure". After the lukewarm receptions of its three predecessors, Raff restored his symphonic reputation with his Summer Symphony.

This third part of the cycle of four works celebrating the seasons was composed in Frankfurt during the summer and autumn of 1878. It was premiered at Wiesbaden's Kurhaus on 28 May 1879 by the city's orchestra under the baton of Raff's friend Louis Lüstner (1840 - 1918), and received a second airing there only two days later. The piece made a strong impression on one reviewer: "A beautiful and most interesting work. The first movement combines the energetic main theme with the most charming detail in the contrasting sections and the development, for example, where, directly after the exposition (page 19) the tympani softly outlines the main theme while above, three flutes softly play the extended series of chords which introduce the symphony with the effect of a soft breath of wind. The second movement, "The Hunt of the Elves", is of the richest poetry. Orchestration, which is as sensual as it is poetic, envelopes the magical and fanciful atmosphere. No. 3 begins with a quietly maintained idyll, which knows how to wed the language of pastoral majesty to the sounds of charm and gentleness. Directly following this pastoral poem (Ekloge) comes “The Harvest Wreath”, which begins with a festive procession or march, and then, with broad development, passes by in a portrait filled with life and joy."

Raff's friend Hans von Bülow, perhaps the greatest conductor in Germany at the time, judged it to be amongst the finest of his compositions, ranking it alongside the Im Walde and Lenore symphonies. Just as he had with them, Raff grouped Im Sommer's four movements into three parts. The third and fourth movements comprise Part III, but why Raff made this distinction is unclear. Unlike the earlier works, there is no overarching title for the third part and no discernable descriptive or musical link between them. Apart from the second movement, Raff provides no detailed programme for the symphony's movements beyond their titles. The Midsummer Night's Dream scherzo itself does have quite a detailed programme and in many ways is a worthy precursor to the Four Shakespeare Preludes which Raff penned the following year.

The Symphony No.9 was was published by Siegel of Leipzig in November 1879. As was his usual practice, Raff made a piano 4 hands reduction of the score, which was published at the same time.

Listen to a audio extract 1st. Movement: Allegro - Ein Heißer Tag (A hot day) [the excerpt is the middle of the movement leading to the recapitulation 2:30]

This wonderful evocation of Summer bears all the hallmarks of a classic Raff opening movement with its grand sweep and relentless momentum. It begins softly with shimmering strings depicting the hazy heat, before a bucolic country dance is introduced, which builds up into more lively fughetto passage. Horn calls announce the introduction of a grand sweeping theme, first on the clarinet and then taken up by whole orchestra as the material is developed. A calmer passage of pastoral tranquility follows but it soon gives way to a more agitated section based upon the bucolic material. The exhilarating climax which follows is built upon the fugal passage and leads into a grand restatement of the sweeping theme to close this fine movement.

Listen to a audio extract 2nd. movement: Allegro - Die Jagd der Elfen (The hunt of the elves) [the example is from towards the end of the movement 1:32]

Die Jagd der Elfen. Versammlung der Elfen; Oberon und Titania; die Jagd; Rückkehr der Elfen mit Oberon & Titania (The hunt of the elves. Gathering of the elves; Oberon and Titania; the hunt; Return of the elves with Oberon and Titania). This fleet footed scherzo in F major is one of the few examples of Raff acknowledging an explicit literary inspiration, in this case Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream". He is in top form here, clothing his memorable melodies in a delicately fey orchestral palette which recalls, but does not ape, Mendelssohn's incidental music of 40 years earlier. The prominent horn calls and intertwining concertante parts for solo cello (Oberon) and solo violin (Titania) contribute to the piece's episodic structure which faithfully illustrates the extensive programme, which Raff may have decided to make more explicit after the premiere; its original title of Oberons und Titanias Liebesgesang (Oberon and Titania's song of love) doesn't adequately describe all that is going on here..

Listen to a audio extract 3rd. Movement: Larghetto - Eklogue [the example is the start of the movement 2:14]

At the premiere this C major slow rondo was described as an Andante, which perhaps is more appropriate to the music's character. An Eclogue is an evocation of pastoral idyll and Raff's orchestration of strings, woodwinds and horns together with the folksy character of the rondo theme, which is suggestive of a shepherd's pipe heard across a meadow, helps give this gem an attractive rural character. Darker colours cloud the atmosphere briefly at the movement's centre, but they are soon banished by the return of the rondo theme, after which an air of rural peace is maintained to the end of the work.

Listen to a audio extract4th. Movement: Allegro - Zum Erntenkranze (To the harvest wreath) [the excerpt is the close of the symphony from the lead into the coda 2:12]

The comparatively brief E major finale, is as life-affirming a piece as Raff ever wrote. It begins with a gradual marching crescendo, which is transformed into a paean of thanksgiving for a successful harvest. In its turn this serves as the introduction to an extended and uniformly joyful rondo, full of joi de vivre and celebration. There is plenty of rhythmic interest here and the dexterity of the strings is fully tested in passage work of unrelenting virtuosity. An atmospheric return of the march motif from the start of the movement heralds the exhilarating coda, which melds the previous material into a coruscating close, finishing Raff's evocation of summer in a blaze of triumph.

All audio excerpts from Tudor 7120 (review). An extensive essay on this work is available in the Analysis section.

© 1999-2017 Mark Thomas. All rights reserved.