Raff’s symphonies

Joachim Raff was a famous composer in his own time, but we don’t hear much of his music today. His best-known work is his Fifth Symphony, based on the spooky German poem “Lenore.” Classics Online has been promoting Raff lately, so I bought and downloaded an MP3 album with his Ninth (“In Summer”) and Eleventh (“In Winter”) Symphonies. Going by these, I hope Classics Online’s efforts get his works some more notice. I’ll want to try some more of them.

Some nineteenth-century composers with relatively conservative styles, like Spohr and Raff, didn’t keep their place in the repertoire unless they were top-rank masters like Brahms. There are a lot of treasures to be found if you know where to look.

The “Lenore” symphony is most memorable for its third movement, a military march with an interlude representing parting, and the fourth, a wild ride. His last four symphonies have seasonal titles, but for the most part they’re better considered just as music. The first movement of the Ninth is titled “A Hot Day,” and the first movement of the Eleventh is “The First Snow,” but you could swap them and I wouldn’t have known the difference. The exception is the second movement of the Ninth, “The Elves’ Hunt.” This is clearly modeled on Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and evokes the same kind of feeling, with solo cello and violin parts for Oberon and Titania.

Raff’s orchestration and use of motifs make both of these symphonies lively fun. Generally I prefer the Ninth, but I like the last movement of the Eleventh, titled “Carnival.” There’s a well-written website on Raff with information on his life and works.

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