The Symphony No.11 in a op 214 Der Winter (The Winter) is both the last in a series of symphonies describing the four seasons and the last Symphony undertaken by Raff. Although composition commenced in the spring of 1876, the work remained unfinished at the time of Raff's death six years later. The task of completing the work was assumed by his long time friend and associate, the conductor Max Erdmannsdörfer (1848-1905), who published the score in the year after Raff's death. The symphony was premiered in February 1883 in Wiesbaden under the direction of Louis Lüstner.
It would not be surprising when listening to this symphony if one would be reminded of the characteristics usually associated with Tchaikovsky, Raff's younger contemporary. Some comparison with the Russian's first symphony (op. 13 in g "Winter Dreams") might be made. Although composed some ten years prior to Raff's Winter Symphony, it was not performed until 1886 and it is quite unlikely that Raff had any knowledge of the work. Although not one of Raff's strongest compositions, the work appeared quite frequently on concert programs, in particular in the United States where it was the most performed of the composer's symphonies after the "Forest" and Lenore Symphonies. The Winter Symphony is in the traditional four movements: Allegro (Die erste Schnee/The First Snow ), Allegretto, Larghetto (Am Camin/By the Fireside) and Allegro (Carneval/Carnival).
A doleful quality pervades the music of the first movement with a particularly Tchaikovskyesque mood symbolizing winter's cold. The bassoons give out a motto theme at the beginning and, after a short transition flutes intone a melancholy chant. A theme of more animated and march like character takes over and leads into the development section. In the final section, the melody first stated by the flutes returns in major mode - a surprising maneuver and exceptionally effective - only to give way to the return of A minor, the home key. The movement ends abruptly.
The second movement is without title; somewhat unexpected for Raff's programmatic symphonies, although one surmises that this was the most incomplete section of the symphony at the time of Raff's death and that the composer had been unable to settle on a suitable title before he died. The movement is a delight, filled with delicate touches in instrumentation and maintaining an enchanting naivete throughout. The major thematic material consists of a perky tune in A major given out by the strings at the beginning, a motive treated in dialog between winds and strings and a chorale melody decorated with striking orchestration. The close of the movement turns from major into minor and leads to a touching coda, though a sudden swell into A major brings the movement to its conclusion.
The third movement is an excellent example of Raff's slow movement lyricism and his seemingly inexhaustible well of melody. The main theme is stated by bassoon against a gently pulsating accompaniment in theme strings. This theme is taken up by various instruments in turn and spun out in all directions with amazing contrapuntal skill. Chirping from the woodwinds introduces a new section and the music becomes slightly more animated. After the central climax the music moves softly onward, finally flickering out on the sounds of low strings and timpani.
"Carnival" is the title given to the Allegro finale, a rondo. A roll on the timpani and several unison proclamations from the full orchestra and introduce the animated main theme. From there on the music moves helter-skelter through the multi-sectional design. In the coda, the motto given out by the bassoons at the beginning of the first movement returns in the brass, thus giving a semblance of unity in the symphony's overall outline. The symphony is then taken to a swift and exciting finish.
Thanks to Robert Rej for his kind permission to republish these notes. All audio excerpts from Tudor 787. An extensive essay on this work is available in the Analysis section.