Etching of Raff in the 1870s
Raff portrait from the 1870s

Sinfonietta

The lack of evidence to the contrary seems to indicate that Raff himself coined the word Sinfonietta for his op.188 in F. It has since been commonly used for works such as this - "little" or "light" symphonies and Raff's piece pre-dates the next work (by Rimsky-Korsakov) by seven years. The Sinfonietta was popular in its day and that no doubt helped the use of the term amongst composers.

He wrote the piece in Wiesbaden in Spring 1873 during the period which was, as his daughter Helene wrote, "the cultural high point of his life". The Lenore Symphony had recently capped even the success of his "Forest" Symphony and everywhere he was fêted and honoured. However, the next work he completed after the Sinfonietta - his 6th. Symphony - got a rather cooler reception and marked the start of what became a period of artistic crisis for the composer.

Isolated works are rare in Raff's canon. In contrast with his eleven Symphonies, six Operas, eight String Quartets, four Piano Trios and five Violin Sonatas there is only one Sinfonietta and only one other (earlier) piece for wind band. This is unlikely to signal any feeling by Raff that the work was a failure, however. It was virtually unique in its time and was popular from the first. Raff understood the financial imperative of getting his works performed. From a commercial point of view there may have been little point in writing another whilst the original one was doing so well in an uncontested field. From an artistic standpoint, it is difficult to see how he could have bettered his first attempt.

Written for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and French horns, it was clearly intended by Raff to be regarded as something greater than the wind serenades which had been popular since Mozart's time. Neither his motivation for writing the work, nor the occasion of its premiere is recorded, but it was published in November 1874 by Siegel of Liepzig and Raff himself also arranged all four movements for piano four hands.

The Sinfonietta's popularity endured and it was one of the works which continued to keep its composer's name before audiences, long after most of his music was forgotten. This is no doubt partly due to the comparative dearth of quality repertoire written for small wind bands, but it must also be because of the unfailing wit, vivacity and good humour of the music itself. It retains the traditional symphonic movement structure and is truly a "small symphony". Throughout, Raff employs his trademarks of counterpoint and classic musical forms but these never interfere with the work's pervading atmosphere of joi de vivre.

Listen to an audio extract 1st movement: Allegro [the excerpt is the start of the movement - 1:52]

In this long F major movement, lasting almost nine minutes, Raff gives an object lesson in how to write for wind instruments. There is an endless variety of texture and dynamic; interest never sags as he plays with his two principle themes. The first, puckish and sprightly, is the dominant one and is rarely absent - its dotted rhythm pervades the piece even if present only in the accompaniment. The second melody is a much more stately affair and Raff uses this contrast to good effect as he develops them and intertwines them in counterpoint. A fughetto passage, very characteristic of Raff, leads to a lovely moment where the lower bassoons and horns carry the melody against the twittering of the upper winds. The movement end with a reprise of the two major themes.

Listen to an audio extract 2nd movement: Allegro molto [the excerpt is the end of the movement - 1:45]

This short 6/8 movement has an ABCACA structure and is largely in f minor. The dancing opening melody is cut short by a rather spiky theme which Raff does not re-use. Instead he introduces a lovely lyrical idea which is continually developed through myriad shifting combinations of instruments and a brief interruption from the dance melody. The dance reasserts itself at the end in a Mendelssohnian close.

Listen to an audio extract 3rd movement: Larghetto [the excerpt is from almost 3 minutes into the movement - 1:30]

This C major piece carries Raff's favourite designation for a slow movement - Larghetto. Almost as long as the opening Allegro, it is a rapt, gentle study built around two complementary but contrasting themes on an ABABA scheme. The first melody is quiet and long breathed but, for Raff, of uncertain contour. It leads into the second theme, a much more typical lyrical outpouring of great beauty - vintage Raff. An episode of chattering clarinets returns to the first theme in an ultimately intense recapitulation before the two melodies are heard again in sequence leading to a slow, wistful close.

Listen to an audio extract 4th movement: Vivace [the excerpt is the start of the movement - 2:00]
After the quiet intensity of the Larghetto the Sinfonietta's finale is all festive jollity. It is the shortest movement in the work, built from two groups of themes - the one bubbling staccato and the other rather more lyrical. Raff's knows how to whip up excitement and the frenetic tempi, swirling winds and contrasting material all make for a dazzling end to this masterful "little symphony".

All audio excerpts from Tudor 787.

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