[REPOST] Raff, symphonism, etc.

Joseph Joachim Raff (1822-82) gets a bad rap. The possible reasons are
numerous and most of them are as unworthy as they are unprovable. Yes,
a lot of his music is facile to the point of slickness, but a lot of it
also contains fine ideas alongside the craft; and, even if listening to
X number of his works is likely to lead you to form a stereotype, the
X+1′th work is liable to break it.

I have always had a soft spot for Raff, which was initially based upon
his ability to write very[, very] long tunes. He has this, if nothing
else, in common with Bach and Reger. (Rakhmaninov is in there
somewhere, but Rakhmaninov’s tunes work so oddly that I hesitate to
characterize them in any way, no matter how obvious.) The opening
themes of Raff’s 3d symphony and his piano concerto are cases in point.
The delicious thing is how often he thinks of these tunes in pairs, that
work in invertible counterpoint, so that he can use them as the first
and second subjects of a sonata form and then spring the surprise of
combining them in the recap. Never gets old – for me, at any rate.

Perhaps the single slickest thing about Raff’s style is his scoring.
Supposedly he taught Liszt, but Liszt’s orchestra never sounds like
Raff’s; let us not speak (today, at any rate) about what it does
sound like.

You guessed it: I have been listening to the radio again (although that
is not all I have been doing; see the next post) and the other day it
was Raff’s orchestration of the Bach violin Chaconne (from BWV1004). I
did not know this thing existed and when it was announced I had small
hopes of it, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Immediately, with typical understated defiance, he starts out with the theme
on the wind. Then, mostly, throughout, the question is “what would
Brahms do?” and the answer is usually “something very like this“, if not
“exactly this”. The louder bits are the least good. They are
Mendelssohnian in spirit, but inflated past the point of maximum
effectiveness. On the whole, though, an excellent accomplishment of a
task that is intrinsically in the nature of a stunt.

Some of Raff’s best-known works today are his eleven symphonies. I
think one of the things we ask ourselves about a symphonist is not how
many symphonies they wrote, but how many different notions of what a
symphony is they put forward. I think this is one of the reasons why
Beethoven ranks so high as a symphonist; among nine works, he gave us
(to within quibbling) six or seven different kinds of symphony. I
am going to say that his 1st and 4th symphonies are instances of the
same paradigm, as are the 2d and 7th; but no two of the others are
alike. (Your mileage may vary.)

We do not expect composers of the Classic period to reinvent their
genres with each work, but only occasionally. Haydn has a handful of
symphonic patterns that he used dozens of times each – alongside an
exceptional number of one-offs. Mozart started out with two patterns,
one of which was the Italian overture, which he last used in the G major
symphony K318 (“No. 32”); but then the non-overture symphonies might
have either three or four movements, right down almost to the end. And
again, I think one of the reasons why we rate his last set of three so
highly is because each is an archetype of a different paradigm: lyric,
tragic, heroic. (Why no comic symphony? Possibly because Haydn wrote
so many? But there is little evidence that Mozart knew any of Haydn’s
symphonies. Mozart was in any case rarely purely comic – or purely

Composers after Beethoven had to work under somewhat higher expectations
of not repeating themselves. Mendelssohn and Schumann (all right,
Dvorak too) come out fairly well by that test, but neither Brahms nor
Bruckner nor Chaikovsky come anywhere near Beethoven’s standard of

Raff’s symphonies are more like Haydn’s, except that “programmatic”
works outnumber “absolute” ones. If you think you know who Raff was, go
listen to his 4th symphony, which has no program. The sound is
Mendelssohn’s, but the architectural perspective is Haydn’s; the work is
aggressively monothematic, and I choose the adjective with care, because
Haydn’s use of monothematicism is a fundamental challenge, still
underappreciated, to the mainstream academic notions of musical form in
his time and since. “Contrasting themes” go hang. The form needs a
different kind of fuel; and the experiment may have been carried too far
in this case, as the result almost seems to be more about what he is
not doing than about what he is. doing.

The last four of Raff’s symphonies form a four-seasons cycle. The last,
“Winter”, No. 11 in A minor, Op. 214, was apparently not left in a fit
state for publication when Raff died and Max Erdmannnsdoerfer had some
work to do to scrub it up and see it through the press; how much work,
of what kind, we may never know. But its first movement (“The First
Snow”) bears no signs of patching and its style (by which I mean, in
this case, the handling of form, harmony, tonality, and thematic
development) is remarkable. The opening – who else could have written
it? – is tonally oblique in a manner that instantly evokes the danger of
disorientation in a snowstorm (whether that was the exact intent or not).

Critics enjoy clucking over the rapid decline of Raff’s reputation after
his death and he is usually regarded as having had no followers; but
when Rud Langgaard is (as so often) being retrospective, Raff is one of
his clearest and most prominent models. He even gets that perfect
scoring, which we would have thought inimitable.

(originally posted 19 January 2016)

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