There is no better indication of the great injustice meted out to Raff by fate than the fact that, for three quarters of a century or more, just one three-minute long piece of his salon music maintained his name precariously before the music-loving public, despite the huge acclaim heaped upon many of his large scale creations in several genres during his lifetime. The Cavatina, from his Six Morceaux for Violin & Piano op.85, was probably his most played work during his lifetime and it remained in the general repertoire when all the rest of his huge production of music had disappeared.
Dedicated to to the violinist Ludwig Strauss (1836-99), this perfectly formed set of little salon pieces was composed in Wiesbaden in 1859 and published by Kistner of Leipzig in January 1862 and Novello of London in 1865. They were popular from the first and most of the individual pieces were soon available in transcriptions for various combinations of instruments - including even orchestral versions. Whilst Raff was an active arranger of his own works, he made none for these pieces, probably because he didn't need to, such was the industry of others.
Unlike most of his contemporaries amongst "serious" composers, Raff did not feel that the composition of "salon music" was beneath him. Indeed, as a melodist capable of writing with clarity and wit he was admirably suited to produce a large catalogue of piano and light chamber works many of which showcase the very best qualities of a genre then in huge demand for home and small concert music making. Raff's salon music never fails to charm and does not outstay its welcome. It often displays a sly wit which punctures any hint of pomposity, well demonstrated by the opening Marcia of this set. Throughout his salon music output there is an economy of statement and delicacy of idiom which, allied to a gift for melody rivaled only by Dvorák and Tchaikovsky, renders even the most trifling of pieces capable of producing a smile.
This is the longest of the pieces at just under five minutes duration and alternates a childish C minor march with Tranquillo episodes calculated to deflate the strutting bombast.
An air of rustic sadness pervades the outer sections of this haunting little picture in A minor, an object lesson in economy of statement. The filigree middle section (in A) provides a short episode lightening the melancholy.
This Cavatina in D was a staggeringly popular piece, and the reasons are not difficult to see. It is both ardent and beguiling. Its fame was such that it was soon the subject of a legion of arrangers who ensured that there were few salons, bandstands or concert halls in which it went unheard. Its appeal even earned it a place amongst the repertoire of the salon orchestra of the "Titanic"! It is a simple piece of A-B-A construction, whose attraction is founded on a typical example of Raff's superb melodic invention.
The first excerpt is from Guild GMCD 7125. The second selection follows on immediately after the first and is of the extended middle section, in Singer's transcription for violin and orchestra. From ASV DCA 1000 [review].
In his orchestral works, Raff had a penchant for woodwind-dominated scherzos and here he manages to transfer the genre to violin and piano whilst retaining the faerie atmosphere of the larger works. The little G minor piece chatters along packing several changes of texture into its three minute life.
This lovely E major movement is a song without words in which Raff the melodist is to the fore. As with the Pastorale, there is a hint of melancholy about this elusive cantilena which is given voice in a slightly more dramatic middle section which slowly subsides as its passion is spent.
The concluding Tarantelle dispels the Canzona's tristesse in a fiery virtuoso display. Raff pulls out all the stops in a helter-skelter finale, bringing this delightful little set of pieces to a satisfying close.
All musical examples, except where noted, are from CPO 999 768 [review].