It can be argued that 1872 was the year of greatest achievement for Raff as a composer. Vocal works included the acclaimed Maria Stuart lieder op.172 and Sei Still op.173 No.8, an enduringly popular song. The twelve pieces in the collection Aus dem Tanzsalon op.174 for piano four hands quickly became favourites in the salons. To cap it all, the Symphony No.5 Lenore op.177 proved to be the greatest critical and public success of his career. It was also the year when he created two masterful works for chamber ensembles - the String Octet op.176 and the String Sextet in G minor op.178.
The available sources are silent on the reasons for the Sextet's composition. Raff had a habit of writing works in the same genre in close succession: the Piano Suites opp.69-72, the Violin Sonatas opp.128/9, the six String Quartets of opp.136-8 and op.192 and the two Piano Quartets op.202, for example. The Octet and Sextet for strings follow this pattern. Although the two works come either side of the Lenore, his magnum opus, Raff clearly had string ensemble writing on his mind. For a man with such a prolific chamber music output (eight String Quartets, five Violin Sonatas, four Piano Trios) it is odd that he wrote only one work for each of several larger ensembles: Piano Quintet, String Sextet, String Octet and Sinfonietta for ten Winds. Perhaps he felt that in each of these works he had gone as far as he could? It is unlikely that he would have felt that the medium was beyond him - Raff wasn't prey to such modesty.
The Sextet medium was still a novelty when the work was written - only Brahms' pair of works from the last decade were then well known. Written for pairs of violins, violas and cellos, it mirrors the Octet in the brilliance of the writing but betrays little trace of debt to Mendelssohn, unlike its companion piece. The work was premiered on 13 December 1872 at a private concert in the Court Chapel of Sondershausen Castle - Raff's lifelong friend Hans von Bülow was conductor of the court orchestra there. The composer was delighted, writing home to his wife "We did the Sextet yesterday, after dinner. It proves to be a piece in which wit finally outstrips humour". It was published by Robert Seitz of Leipzig (later Ries & Erler) in October 1873.
It is indeed a work which blends wit and good humour - hugely effective in performance and grateful to play. The deftness and general transparency of Raff's writing complement the unceasing, playful interplay between the six instruments.
The Sextet begins with an agitated and earnest episode in G minor before relaxing into a long, casual and almost bucolic tune. These two melodies form the substance of the movement and are immediately repeated with different instrumentation. A rather more densely scored passage follows, combining snatches of the two themes and weaving a darker texture before the merry tune returns and brings relief from the tension. The mood dissipates as the movement builds to an impassioned climax based upon the opening theme which suddenly evaporates into three pizzicato cords at the close.
The short G minor Scherzo begins all of a bustle, having the character of a scurrying accompaniment to a missing melody. It builds to a climax before falling back to its opening busyness and then speeds up to an even more furiously paced climax. The trio arrives in the shape of a slower dance-like melody which has the pronounced flavour of a slow Slavonic dance. The scurrying material from the first half of the movement returns and the piece builds to its close as the two combine in a fast-paced but lyrical conclusion.
The C major slow movement is a theme and eight variations. The theme itself has a faintly wistful baroque character and this is followed by a syncopated variation given over to the cellos, following which the first violin gives it a virtuoso twist with many figurations. A more forthright variation follows in which the theme is tossed from one desk to the other. Next a faster mood is set - the melody skips hesitantly. A long drawn out viola melody follows and is taken over by the cellos and then given a flighty violin accompaniment. All instruments are given a say in a rolling variation which accelerates and then stops at a short cadenza-like solo for the first violin which heralds the final variation in which the fist violin plays a decorated version of the theme in calmer vein to a gentle accompaniment from the other desks. The pace slows more and more as the movement comes to a serene close.
The brief finale begins in G minor with all the bustle and energy of the Scherzo. An arched nine-note motif, playing incessantly, pervades the helter-skelter movement. A brilliant and forceful theme emerges, which is repeated. This is followed by a second, similarly brisk, theme which is added to the frenetic mix. A cello breaks through the scurrying with a sweeter melody but it is soon absorbed by the general hurry. Suddenly the frantic pace is cut short, but it proves only to be a snatched breath before the final dash to the blazing G major end of this virtuoso tour de force. Throughout this movement Raff's contrapuntal skill (already amply employed in the earlier movements) is especially dazzling, demonstrating that such technical mastery never stood in the way of Raff creating a witty and grin-inducing piece such as this.
All audio extracts from MDG 304 1181 [review].