Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Re-evaluating Raff, or How to Find New Old Music

I really enjoy exploring the field of classical music. There are several acknowledged masterworks that deeply move me, and my quest is to discover more that have the same effect. I've found some not-so-famous composers whose music consistently hit the mark with me, and even some virtually unknown ones that do as well (even if not with any consistency).

So how do I find these composers? It really doesn't involve any great research -- I'm just open to suggestions.

For example, in a Twitter discussion about unusual repertoire, I happened to mention the curious effect the music of Joachim Raff had on me. That is, I thoroughly enjoyed it while it played, but it left no trace -- I couldn't recall a single theme after it was over.

And I don't think I was alone. Joachim Raff (1822-1882) was, during his lifetime, a respected and celebrated composer. A talented pianist, he was one of Franz Liszt's proteges. He wrote a vast amount of music, and his symphonic works put him on part with Brahms and Wagner with audiences of the day. But after he died, his music almost overnight vanished from the concert halls, and his name fell into obscurity. 

The 1907 edition of "Stories of Symphonic Music" had this to say:
Raff, an astonishingly prolific composer, wrote twelve symphonies, of which "In the Woods' (Im Walde) [Symphony No. 3] is one of the two that have most conspicuously survived the winnowing processes of time. [Symphony No. 5 "Lenore" is the other].
 The Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 3rd edition, 1907 was even harsher:
Since his death his music as passed, alike in Germany and England, into an oblivion which cannot excite surprises in those who realize the inherent weaknesses of the composer; and the sudden change on the part of the public, from a widespread admiration to almost complete neglect, is of itself a severe criticism on his work.
So I didn't find my reaction to Raff's music unusual. And might have left it at that, had not I been urged by one of my colleagues on Twitter to try again, and started with Raff's 5th Symphony. And this time I even remembered some of it later. As my friend and I discussed my reaction, he suggested other, better works by Raff -- the 5th Symphony, his cello concertos, and the piano quintet.

All of those works turned out to be posted on YouTube, and so I could audition them all -- and a few more besides.

Joachim Raff isn't quite the genius Brahms or Wagner was. Some of the works ran a little long, and a few were mediocre (as in average -- nice, but not remarkable). Still, I enjoyed a good deal of it, and glad that I was open to the suggestion to revisit this composer.

Are you? Give Raff's 3rd Symphony a listen and let me know what you think!

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