As is so often the case with Raff, it is not now known what his motivation was for writing Die Tageszeiten (The Times of Day). It's clear though that, in the final five years or so of his life when he took on the herculean task of setting up and then managing the Hoch Conservatory, Raff's mind was turning more and more to vocal composition. As well as this work, he wrote his great oratorio Welt Ende - Gericht - Neue Welt, the opera Die Eifersüchtigen, the Cantata Die Sterne and the Blondle de Nesle song cycle. He had just begun work on another oratorio, about John the Baptist, when he died and had also sketched out ideas for several other operas and large-scale vocal compositions.
The text on which he based Die Tageszeiten was some verses by Raff's teenage daughter Helene, credited in the published score as Helge Heldt, but whether Raff had the idea for the work before he set her this task, or whether her poetry inspired the form of the composition is not made any clearer in her two written accounts. In her biography of her father, Helene Raff wrote: "The text of the cantata Die Sterne and the cycle Blondle de Nesle as well as that for Die Tageszeiten were composed by the poetess Helge Heldt; the person who hid behind this pseudonym was the composer’s daughter. The father gave his teenage daughter the commission to write these poems for him; naturally his request was fulfilled but with a bad conscience on the part of the poetess because it was something of a sin against the Holy Ghost of poetry for her to rhyme without inner reason the thoughts commissioned from her." She is equally equivocal about her contribution in her own autobiography: "He made up his mind to use my ability, thoroughly childlike though it was, to make up rhymes – the words “write poetry” would be blasphemy here – in a formal task that he would set me. I was to write the texts for ... Die Tageszeiten; fortunately the verses appeared under a pseudonym. Even at that age I began to realise that I was no good at poetry."
In any event, despite all the cares of setting up his new conservatory, Raff was inspired to write this joyous evocation of the passage of time employing the novel combination of choral symphony and piano concerto. The piano, choir and orchestra take roughly equal prominence in the work, whose underlying 40 minute structure is clearly symphonic: a large sonata-form fast opening movement and substantial finale, sandwiching smaller slow and fast middle movements. Raff's work was quite revolutionary. Although Beethoven's Choral Fantasia might be argued to be a model as it employes the same forces and also begins with a piano solo, Raff's conception is radically different. The single movement Fantasia is about the same length as only the first movement of Die Tageszeiten and has none of its symphonic structure. In Raff's work the forces are employed equally and are closely integrated, whereas Beethoven only introduces the chorus in the very closing pages of the Fantasia. The work didn't fit neatly into any existing compositional genre and so Raff invented his own, the Concertante, just as he had coined the term Sinfonietta five years earlier. Its full published title is: Concertante in four movements - Die Tageszeiten op.209 for Choir, Piano & Orchestra.
Composed in Frankfurt in late 1877 and early 1878, Die Tageszeiten was premiered on 12 January 1880 in Wiesbaden's opera house, the Royal Theatre. The Theatre's orchestra and chorus were under the baton of its director Wilhelm Jahn (1835-1900), who conducted from the manuscript, and the soloist was Karl Faelten, a young pianist who had recently been engaged by Raff to teach piano at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. The work was given again in neighbouring Mainz on 21 January with the same forces. Die Tageszeiten was published by Breitkopf & Härtel in July 1880.
Together with the Welt Ende Oratorio, it proved to be one of the most popular of Raff's late works. Theodore Thomas gave the piece its American premiere in New York on 12 January 1882, two years to the day since it was first heard in Wiesbaden. The British premiere was in Birmingham on 30 April 1885, the Musical Times' critic crediting it with "musicianly skill and poetical fancy. The lines ... are flowing and graceful, the treatment throughout being lyrical and the skill and scholarship of the composer are frequently vindicated by happy pieces of orchestration and the frequent deployment of contrapuntal devices, culminating in the final number in a fugue." A further British performance took place in London's Royal Academy of music in December 1891. In Germany itself, although initially widely performed, Die Tageszeiten soon suffered from the rapid collapse of Raff's reputation. Barely 16 months after his death, in a letter to Brahms on 1 October 1883 Heinrich von Herzogenberg sneered: "Or, if you would rather avoid Raff's Tageszeiten ... you might come to us from Berlin."
Die Tageszeiten is a radiant celebration of life, brim full of energy and joi de vivre. It is one of its creator's most successful and satisfying compositions.
1st. Movement: A capriccio, Largo, Allegro - "Im hellsten Licht erglänzt die Welt"
1: the piano-only start of the movement, leading to the entry of the orchestra [2:11] 2: from the end of the "hunting" section to "So thut es wohl!" [2:47]
This grand conception in C major illustrates daytime and is, at almost 16 minutes, by far the longest movement of the work. The piano makes an arresting solo entry, its great chords seeming to start a free fantasia, which in fact contains the kernal of all that follows. After 90 seconds the orchestra enters and gives a straightforward exposition of the movement's main theme, which is then quickly developed by the piano in the first of 14 variations, soon to be joined by the orchestra. The theme goes through a variety of transformations: tender and stormy, dramatic and ceremonial before a long tender, lyrical passage is ushered in by the piano. The extended concerto-like first half of the movement draws to a close as the woodwinds herald an increase in tempo. A fughetto passage from the strings builds up the tension towards a great climax, at which point the choir at last enter, almost halfway through the movement. In an intense outpouring of joy they sing "Im hellsten Licht erglänzt die Welt" (The world shines with intense brightness). The blaze of sound subsides to a gentler pastoral passage, in which the choir, with orchestral and piano support, sing a celebration of rural life, briefly mentioning farmers, shepherds and fishermen before an extended passage extolling huntsmen, provoking choruses of sonorous horns. Returning to the main theme with a repeat of "Im hellsten licht", Raff then uses the piano to drive forward the movement to a great swell of happiness, "So thut es wohl!" (It is good!") before pushing on to a glittering, climactic close, singing of life's myriad joys.
2nd. Movement: Andante - "Die Sonne sich neiget, der Abend, er steiget"
This is from the central section of the movement [2:05]
The 6/8 slow movement is in F major and is a depiction of evening. It opens with divided strings painting the calm of twilight in a descending motif, before a barcarolle melody is established to which the choir sings "Die Sonne sich neiget, der Abend, er steiget" (The sun sinks. The evening, it climbs). The piano, in a solo, then embellishes the same tune, almost as a commentary on the choir's contribution. The pattern repeats itself with the choir's verses contemplating the silence of the night, which stills joy and promotes secret tears, hidden during the day. Once again, the choir and orchestra break off for a piano solo passage before the mood changes slightly and the orchestra and choir reassert themselves with a repeat of the earlier material. Another piano interjection provokes a more anguished protestation, "Wie wild am Tage, Das Herz auch schlage" (However wildly the heart beats during the day), calming on "Jetzt bebt es nicht" (Now it does not stir).The orchestra and piano go on to develop this into a stormier passage and another climax, soon to be joined by the choir, building to a repeat of "Jetzt bebt es nicht". Raff repeats the original material for a final time and the music gently winds down, closing on an almost whispered "Und Alles ruht" (And everything is quiet), followed by a brief piano cadenza. The movement lasts eight minutes.
3rd. Movement: Allegro - "Still ist's nun"
This is the end of the central section leading to the movement's close [1:58]
The F minor third movement is Die Tageszeiten's shortest and is about the dead of night: "Still ist's nun" (It is quiet now). It has a ternary structure, with outer fast, restless sections enclosing a consoling central one. Agitated figures from the orchestra set the scene for the choir's entry. Accompanied by both orchestra and decorative piano figurations, they initially sing disconcertingly about night as a comforter, bringer of healing dreams. The underlying atmosphere is explained by the second verse, sung after a short piano passage: "Nur die Schatten alles dessen, Was uns froh und trüb gemacht, Schleichen heimlich und vergessen, Bis zur Ruh´sie bringt die Nacht" (Only the shadows of everything which makes us glad and sad, creep secretly and forgotten until night brings them to rest). The tempo slows for the consoling central chorale of "Holde Nacht!" (Blessed night!) from choir and orchestra, taken up by piano in a lovely imitation of the passage, later joined by choir and woodwind. Piano, horn and winds lead us back to the starting unease, which soon passes and the six minute movement ends with a glittering piano cadenza followed by the choir's quiet "Still ist's nun!"
4th. Movement: Allegro - "Is ist mit Dunkel und Schatten verschwunden die lange Nacht"
This is the end of the finale [2:18]
This final movement opens with a picture in sound of dawn: a gradual orchestral crescendo, leading up to stunning chords from the piano reminding us of the first movement's main theme, to which Raff returns as the basis for the finale. This impressive opening ushers in the choir's "Is ist mit Dunkel und Schatten verschwunden die lange Nacht" (With darkness and shadow the long night has vanished). The choir, piano and orchestra are more integrated here and elsewhere in this movement than in the others as Raff builds up strong momentum. A spectacular piano passage leads to gentler material from the choir, before the orchestra takes them back to the driving allegro as they rejoice at the beginning of a new day, rapidly running through the first three of Helene Raff's four verses extolling the new day. There follows an extended passage for piano and orchestra, overtaken by one for choir and orchestra, marked by great vigour. Halfway through the ten minute long movement, after another ecstatic climax, Raff quite suddenly launches into the great choral fugue, based on the fourth verse, which concludes the work. The piano then adds its own solo version of the fugue and is later joined by the orchestra as the excitement mounts. The choir re-enters and all three take this, one of Raff's most successful finales, to its coruscating conclusion glorying "the One whose mighty hand, through the hours, winds around life a ribbon of ever-varying colours.".
A detailed analysis of Die Tageszeiten by Dr. Avrohom Leichtling is also available.
All audio excerpts from Sterling CDS-1089 [review]. Grateful thanks to Alan Howe for the translations of Helene Raff's autobiography and of the text of Die Tageszeiten. Translation of Helene Raff's biography of Joachim Raff by the late Dr. Alan Krueck.