Joachim Raff – Challenge to Canonicity

Ernest Robin

The so-called ‘long’ nineteenth century began with the French Revolution in 1789 and ended at the outbreak of world war in 1914. A turbulent period, it saw revolution and reaction, empire and nationalism, industrialisation and exploitation, democracy and anarchy. In the arts, the term ‘Romanticism’ has been coined to express the unifying passion of the age. Its harbinger was the German poet Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772–1801), more commonly known by his pen name Novalis; its most iconic figure was perhaps the ‘feral child’ Kaspar Hauser (d. 1833), who appeared on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828, lost, bewildered, unable to speak, barely able to walk, and was then brutally murdered a few years later, with the mystery of his origins never satisfactorily solved; its literary voice was expressed by the darkly tortured fairy tales of the brothers Grimm, published in 1812 and 1814; and its most eloquent painter was Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), whose lonely forest landscapes are embroiled in gloom.

The canon of musical titans begins with Beethoven, the energetic but isolated iconoclast, and Schubert, whose melancholy never ceased its relentless onward journey. Robert Schumann then takes up the baton as the victim of mental anguish who eventually succumbed to cruel depression; the musicians’ musician, his consummate compositional technique attracts ever greater accolades, as well as empathy with his inner torment. Liszt represents the epitome instrumental virtuosity: through domination of the keyboard, he subdued all adversaries. Brahms inherited the Beethovenian symphonic mantle and its ideals of absolute music, perhaps via Mendelssohn’s less contrapuntal hues. Most controversial is Richard Wagner, whose megalomaniacal tendencies helped to propel German nationalism into more totalitarian territory, though their cultural wellspring was mythological and mystical. Later in the long century comes Mahler and his massive symphonies that seesaw between extreme emotions, one moment ecstatic, the next macabre. Strauss abandoned the symphony altogether, turning to tone poems, lush orchestral colour and opulent theatrical works. By comparison, the organist Bruckner’s symphonies and choral works appear almost conservative and orderly.

This, then, is the essential Germanic canon as the early twenty-first century understands it (even if Liszt was Hungarian). Like all canons, it exudes a self-perpetuating circular logic: the composers it includes are ‘great’ – that is why they have been selected – but, once admitted into the magic circle, everything they create becomes ‘great’ by definition, which guarantees their continued membership. The message is inculcated into generations of acolytes who continue, through familiarity, to uphold the tradition and its values. There will always be a few names on the edge of the canon, for example Weber and Wolf, but their status is acknowledged as such. Non-Germanic European and North American voices are included in other lineages, and the whole forms ‘the Western Classical tradition’.

What, then, of Joachim Raff? Born in 1822 and dying in 1882, he spans the middle decades of the epoch, yet nowadays his name is barely known and his works rarely performed. Why is he not included in the canon? Why should someone who has not heard any of his music assume that it is of lesser value than more familiar names? Before the days of the internet, the most likely chance encounter would have been a visit to the library in search of Rachmaninov and picking up a score by Raff by mistake. Pedagogues imbedded in the canon are unlikely, however, to encourage such heretical tendencies in their students to take root and flower: put back the Raff, try the Rachmaninov for fun, and how about a Beethoven sonata?

In terms of his biography, Raff certainly qualifies as the quintessential Romantic. Penniless and declared bankrupt in early life – even spending time in prison as a debtor – he lived on the margins of the musical world. His first contact with members of the canon was with Mendelssohn but, more significantly, in 1844, as an aspiring disciple he apparently made a barefoot pilgrimage to attend a recital by Liszt in Basel and was soon initiated into the entourage of the great virtuoso. There followed a tortuous life of toadying to publishers and persuading reluctant impresarios to champion his works, but eventually he was able to find a role in the musical establishment when appointed the first director of the newly founded Hoch Conservatoire in Frankfurt in 1877. Just as the German state was in the process of being consolidated, formerly destitute and errant musicians were able to find their niche. Romanticism was becoming conservative. By then, Raff was an extremely popular symphonic composer, and his compositions were widely performed, though by the end of the long nineteenth century they had largely been abandoned and still await their Renaissance.

A glance down his work list is rewarded with a rich selection that spans the principal genres of the era. Mostly it is ‘absolute’ music – symphonies, concertos, sonatas, chamber music, solo repertoire – but there are also four operas and songs. The symphonies take Mendelssohn as their starting point. They are consonant, pleasant works, well constructed and well composed. Raff evidently preferred major keys, and there is little of the pain and anguish of Schubert and Schumann’s oeuvre. Members of the canon may have earned their place through extremity of emotion, but Raff’s style is more amenable and approachable, and far less challenging. This is not music of the suicidal melancholic and instead breathes the atmosphere of the bourgeois concertgoer who wishes to be entertained and enlightened, and not dragged through the pits of despair.

Textures are lush and full, and the instrumentation follows the contemporary norms of a string-based orchestra supplemented by woodwind and brass choirs and solo voices drawn from these sections. Such features resemble Brahms, as do the well-ordered forms and balanced Classical structures, including the relative length of movements. Both composers employ substantial motivic development but, with Raff, there is little of the driving counterpoint, and only brief fugato sections demonstrate more sophisticated compositional techniques. Orchestral textures and figurations, once established, often repeat for entire sections, and are only then replaced by the next combination. Colours do not merge.

For all their amiable approachability, in the symphonies at least, there is a lack of iconic moments, that is, extreme emotional thematic nuggets that take the listener from mundane musical progress into a higher plane. Exceptions are a chorale at the close of the fourth and last movement of the fifth symphony, ‘Lenore’, and a searing descending opening to the slow second movement of the third symphony, ‘Im Walde’. These are few and far between, however, and the imprint on the listener of the many likeable themes is low: you do not leave the concert hall humming the tunes, as is likely to be the case with Beethoven’s symphonic melodies or motifs, though, arguably, Beethoven’s musical icons are embedded more deeply in the modern cultural ether, whereas Raff’s are nowadays mostly entirely new to audiences, so the comparison may be unfair. Partly this is also because Raff, although writing largely in the sonata forms and their close relations of the Classical era, does not usually highlight the recapitulation section when the themes of the opening exposition re-emerge towards the close of a movement. Unlike Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner, there is generally no triumphant moment of return when, after a convoluted central development section, musical material that is instantly recognisable is recapitulated in its original guise and key. Raff prefers instead to disguise the moment in favour of a more general and pleasing sense of continuity.

His musical language is thus situated in the mainstream of the nineteenth-century Germanic tradition, though with a low density of chromatic chords – aside from the ubiquitous diminished seventh – and the consequential emotion they portray. ‘Voice-leading’ (the chromatic interweaving of contrapuntal parts) driving the music forward is rare, as are prolonged appoggiaturas (dissonant notes that resolve upwards or downwards by step), and the influence of Wagner’s experiments in these directions is barely felt, though it finally emerges in the eleventh and last symphony, ‘Der Winter’. By contrast, Wagner builds his whole fabric from a patchwork of iconic moments – leitmotivs – that depict characters, objects or emotions through their own instantly recognisable melodic, motivic or harmonic components.

If there is an explanation for why Raff’s symphonies disappeared from the canon, other than the vagaries of time and tide, it must lie in the disappearance of the audience they were designed to please or appease. Whereas for some the turbulent nineteenth century was an epoch of war and revolution, for others it was one of burgeoning middle-class prosperity and a more settled existence. Members of this new comfortable bourgeoisie did not go to concerts other than for pleasant amusement within precisely prescribed limits. After the Great War, that bourgeoisie no longer existed, and its more discontented replacement required newer and more hard-edged nourishment.

Raff’s piano music fares much better, and here the neglect is more unjust and redress more readily available. Writing for the intimacy of only one individual performer and often with no immediate public to satisfy, the level of creative energy is much higher and moments worth savouring abound. Drei Klavier Soli, op. 74 (1852), comprises three movements: Ballade, Scherzo and Metamorphosen. By the third bar of the Ballade, there is already a lingering soulful appoggiatura over a chromatic chord, followed by another in bar seven and yet one more in bar nine. Later in the same movement is use of the chromatic augmented sixth chord in a manner so avantgarde that it defies conventional analysis, something Wagner’s near-contemporary and celebrated Tristan-chord does not (from a technical perspective, in fact, an extremely conventional usage). Similarly, the opening of Metamorphosen also moves through several progressions of profoundly expressive chords, this time mystical and reverential.

One Lisztian pianistic technique frequently encountered in the Ballade and elsewhere – for example, in the Polonaise-Fantasie, op. 106 (1861) – is a cascade effect, often in octaves in both hands from the top register of the instrument down to the bottom. It generally occurs at climactic moments after the tension has been building and acts as a form of punctuation that allows the texture to renew and grow once more. The influence of Liszt’s predilection for consecutive diminished seventh chords evinces itself spectacularly in one such cascade at the start of the Scherzo. Like Liszt too, many of the piano textures are derived from orchestral writing; towards the end of the Scherzo, pulsating horns with a woodwind solo instrument above are heard.

The Grande Sonate, op. 14 (1844), also begins with a powerful sense of musical identity, this time a sinuous melody in octaves in the lower register in the home key E flat minor. This is certainly a darker hue than anything encountered in the symphonies, though the last movement is in a more triumphalist E flat major. The slow third movement in the relatively distant key of B major presents another component of the Raff musical rhetoric, that of the chordal semplice melody. The tune is readily singable and breaks easily into regular phrases, and the harmony is diatonic and uncomplicated, supporting the voice in a more folk-like manner. A similar mood is generated in the central Largo (the interconnected second movement) of the Fantasie-Sonate, op. 168 (1871); indeed, the opening to the entire piece also features a winding octave melody in the lower reaches of the piano, so the whole composition may itself be a reworking of memories of the Grande Sonate, written almost three decades earlier.

Album Lyrique, op. 17 (1845), is couched more in the nineteenth-century idiom of the piano character piece. Grouped into four collections: Trois Reveries, Deux Chansons, Deux Nocturnes, and Scherzino e Fughetto, an attempt has clearly been made, possibly at the behest of the publishers, Schuberth, to simplify some of the figuration, perhaps to increase the appeal to a wider piano-playing public. If any composer is lurking in the background as an influence, it is Chopin. Limpid melodies seem to hang above chord progressions worked out in simple figurations, most strikingly in the first of the Reveries, Andante Espressivo. The second Reverie, Andantino, alternates chordal passages with similar melodies over slow broken chord accompaniment patterns, and here their contours, replete with chromatic inflections and covering a much wider ambit, are also at least as expressive as any of Chopin’s masterpieces. So too the third Reverie, a mazurka with all the teasing pizzazz and harmonic coquetry that Chopin espoused, and here rendered in a pleasing quasi-rondo form.

Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words are perhaps the model for the Deux Chansons and Deux Nocturnes, though the writing is less fluid and tends to linger inside the same figuration for lengthy passages in the same manner as do the symphonies. The Fughetta is a brief glimpse of what might have been if the dynamic nineteenth century had not intervened. The imitative elements of fugue are present in many passages, including the opening, but are interspersed with more lyrical sections where the ideals of archaic counterpoint are discarded. It is, after all, a fughetta and not a formal fugue. In his use of fugue, albeit rare, Raff is in good company: Schumann too succumbed to the lure of Bach, and his later efforts in fugal forms produced some of his most profound and skilled utterances. Raff, however, is clearly more at the mercy of the marketplace and has incorporated the fugal idiom into a salon piece.

The psychological and, dare one say, financial investment in the perpetuation of a canon is huge. Admittance can only be gained at a high price and, once excluded, the re-initiatory ceremony will undoubtedly end up being even more intense and convoluted, because it may edge aside established voices considered hitherto more central to notions of taste. Raff, though, with his life of destitution, has long since paid the price and only achieved recognition in his later years, falling victim to a sudden heart attack just when his future finally seemed secure. The temptation, nonetheless, is to set Raff in the context of composers nowadays better known, but this is the luxury of retrospection. His contemporaries would have been shocked to learn of his exclusion, given that he represented such an important stratum of creative thought. They would also have wondered at modern preferences for the coruscating extremism of the musical ecology they inhabited rather than its healthier mainstream.

Or perhaps the whole notion of a canon should be abandoned altogether!