Although Raff wrote nine string quartets, five piano trios, five violin sonatas and two piano quartets, his catalogue of chamber music in other combinations is restricted to one work in each genre. Each of those pieces, however, is a masterwork. The Sinfonietta, String Sextet and Piano Quintet are not only amongst his own finest creations, but arguably they also deserve to rank with the greatest chamber music written by any composer in the mid 19th. century. The Octet in C op.176 completes this quartet of singular works of great quality.
Because the biographical sources are so limited, it is not known what motivated Raff to write the work, but it emerged when he was at the high point of his creative genius. 1872 was the year which might fairly be described as Raff's annus mirabilis. It not only saw the creation of this Octet, but also the completion of some more of his most enduring works: the String Sextet, the song cycle Maria Stuart and the famed Lenore Symphony. When he wrote his Octet there were surprisingly few models upon which Raff might have based his composition. The most obvious ones are Mendelssohn's masterful creation from forty years earlier and Spohr's three Double Quartets from 1822, 1833 and 1849. Gade's Octet followed the Mendelssohnian model and was also published in 1849. Raff may have been aware of Woldemar Bargiel's fine three movement student work, although it was not published until later in the 1870s, but he probably did not know of Svenden's Octet (published in 1867). The only other published works came from lesser lights: Franz Gebel (a Double Quartet), Karl Grädener, Gottfried Herrmann and Carl Schuberth.
As might be expected, Raff's essay in the genre, like most if his large scale chamber works, is in four movements and is written for four violins, and pairs of violas and cellos. It was dedicated to Johann Lauterbach (1832-1918), a prominent violin virtuoso with whom Raff had recently come into contact
The Leipzig company of Robert Seitz published the Octet in March 1873, only a few months after its completion and, such was the eagerness with which Raff's compositions were by then seized upon, it received its premiere in the publisher's own performance hall on 30 March 1873 in the first of a series of concerts showcasing new music. The performers were local Leipzig musicians. More performances followed quickly. It featured in a morning chamber music concert on 15 April 1873 in the Leipzig Gewandhaus with an illustrious set of performers led by the dedicatee Lauterbach: Ferdinand Hüllweck, Edmund Medefind and Richard Eckhold (violins), Louis Göring & Eduard Wilhelm (violas), and Karl Hüllwec and Friedrich Grützmacher (cellos). It was heard again on 22 April at the Tonkünstlerverein in Dresden and was soon established in the repertoire. Apparently the work made a strong impression on the virtuoso Grützmacher, who was prompted to write to Raff after playing the "beautiful String Octet" requesting that a cello concerto be written for him. The result was the Cello Concerto No.1.
Although firmly in the Mendelssohnian tradition, Raff's Octet (unlike that of Gade for instance) is no slavish imitation. His writing for strings is much more robust and there is a strength, momentum and confidence to the work which is utterly typical of mature Raff.
The opening movement begins with an assertive and busy theme which sets the tone for the work, but it soon gives way into lyrical idea introduced by the violins. After this temporary slackening of the pace, the opening momentum reasserts itself and these two ideas dominate the movement until a third lilting melody is brought in by the first violin, leading to a recapitulation of the opening idea. This is a typically successful Raff first movement with plenty of pace and invention as thematic fragments are tossed from one desk to the next and back again. The third melody returns briefly as the music drives to its close, but the actual conclusion is based upon the opening idea. Such is the bubbling vivacity of this movement than one is left amazed that almost nine minutes have passed.
The frisky second movement lasts barely three minutes. Its two themes are combined in an ABABABA sequence; the first is distinguished by its rhythmic vitality and this contrasts effectively with the melodic strength of the second. The busyness of the opening material in C minor is relieved by the softer contours of the second theme, which sees a transition to A major and a slight slackening of the pace. The opening theme returns in C minor and they then alternate until the madcap pace slows as the second melody returns at the end to great effect.
This lovely slow movement is in stark contrast to the frenetic activity which characterises its three companions. Cast in F major and 3/8 time, it opens with that Raff hallmark, a heartfelt melody suffused with wistful regret. As it develops it acquires a serenity, which is disturbed about a third of the way into the movement by a new and much more pensive idea in F minor emerging against pizzicato accompaniment. This is developed into a much sweeter melody but still the mood is one of unease throughout the middle third of the movement. The opening phrase then gradually emerges and gains in intensity, building to an impassioned climax, before subsiding into regret-tinged remembrances of both melodies.
Unusually for Raff, this delightfully breathless and playful finale is perhaps the most successful movement of the work. It begins hesitantly, but soon rushes into life with a strongly rhythmic idea which bowls along throughout the piece, complemented by an appropriately contrasting idea in broadly the same tempo. It is a whirlwind ride, briefly interrupted halfway through by a third skipping, descending idea which is soon overwhelmed by the onward momentum of the opening theme. Just as Raff gathers up the threads for the close, the first violin interrupts the headlong dash with a brief passage of introspection, before the music plunges on to its conclusion.
All audio extracts from Chandos CHAN 8790.