Although he had written several major choral works before, Welt-Ende - Gericht - Neue Welt (World's End-Judgement-New World) op.212 was Raff's first Oratorio and was amongst the last works he completed before his death in 1882. It had been in gestation for several years and his daughter in her biography suggests that Raff turned to its completion in solace during a difficult period running the Frankfurt conservatory in 1880. Written for baritone, alto, chorus and orchestra, it tells the story of the biblical apocalypse using a text written by Raff which he had adapted from chapters 5,6, 20 and 21 of the Book of Revelations. It has intriguing musical similarities with Liszt's "The legend of St Elizabeth" and was well received at its premiere four months before the composer's death. "World's End" was soon taken up by choral societies, achieving five hearings within two years. It soon suffered the same fate as the rest of Raff's music however, and remained unheard until a pioneering performance in 1986 organised by the town of Empfingen - whence his family had originated.
Structurally, it is a curious mixture of new and old. Raff's orchestration is daringly original in places but some of the choral writing is rather foursquare and conventional. The orchestra plays an unusually prominent part through a series of purely orchestral mini tone-poems depicting elements of the story and Raff uses several motto themes throughout the 100 minute long work, but this is no Wagnerian semi-opera and the burden of the tale is carried by the baritone narrator St. John in extended recitative, interrupted only intermittently by the chorus. This mixture of styles led both to the work being praised for being "full of the most spectacular beauties" and also criticised for "being written 40 years too late". Raff had just begun work on a second Oratorio about John the Baptist when he died.
The Oratorio is composed of three parts - "World's End", "Judgement" and "New World". The first is further split into four - "John's Vision", "The four horsemen of the Apocalypse", "Pleas and Thanksgivings of the Martyrs" and the wonderfully descriptive "The last signs of life and the despair of Mankind".
No.1: Introduction [2:00]
The Oratorio's orchestral opening sets a sombre and serious mood and introduces the motto theme used by Raff throughout the work. This excerpt is the very start of the piece in which the moto theme predominates.
Nos.4 & 5: Recitative
for St John & "Pestilence" [2:44]
The second section of World's End is given over to largely orchestral descriptions of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - Pestilence, War, Famine and Death. It starts with a recitative for John, followed by "Pestilence" - which concludes with the second, more reconciliatory, motto theme used by Raff throughout the work.
No.11: Death & Hell [2:01]
In the last of the mini tone-poems Raff combines a picture of the fourth horseman, Death, with a graphic description of the incessant infernal winds of the various circles of Hell which can be heard in this excerpt from towards the number's end.
No.13: Chorus of the
The third section "Pleas and Thanksgivings of the Martyrs" is mainly given over to the chorus which describes the Christian martyrs praying for the forgiveness of mankind's sins. This excerpt is the end of the first of the two choruses.
No.16: Recitative & Aria
- The Voice [1:58]
The mezzo-soprano part in the oratorio is small compared with that assigned to the baritone. Here, as the Voice (of God), she prepares mankind for the End in a dramatic aria. This excerpt is the transition from recitative to the aria proper.
No.18: The Last Signs [2:01]
The concluding section of the World's End part includes another orchestral interlude and in this Raff conjures up a vision of despair in some strikingly original and spare orchestral writing.
Nos.22 & 23: The
Last Trump [1:38]
At the beginning of the second part, Judgement, Raff produces a memorable fanfare to announce the breaking of the seven seals and this is followed by a short section of recitative for the baritone.
Nos.27 & 28: Recitative
for St John & "The Judgement" [1:59]
The Judgement itself is given over to another of Raff's orchestral miniatures - the first part of which (mankind waiting for the decision) features Raff's opening motto theme, here preceded by some recitative for St. John.
Read a newspaper report of the 1883 English premiere of Welt Ende. All audio extarcts from a 3 LP set produced by Empfingen Town Council