Raff's one movement work for violin and orchestra in A minor La Fée d'amour (The love fairy) op.67 is one of those pieces which propelled him in little more than a decade from the obscurity of a Liszt acolyte in Weimar to a composer of world renown. It is amongst his first orchestral compositions and his first for solo instrument and orchestra. The Morceaux caractéristique was written in December 1854 to express, as his daughter Helene wrote in her biography of him, "the inner experience of his engagement" to Doris Genast.
Raff had already prepared an alternative version for violin and piano. It was in this reduced form that it had its premiere - in private, by Raff's friend Edmund Singer who was the Grand Duchy's "chamber virtuoso and concert master". Liszt himself played the piano at two soirées in the maestro's Altenburg home in Weimar. The great man declared himself "very satisfied" with it and went on to say that Raff could rest on his laurels for a long time after producing such a piece.
Having previously had little success in getting his larger compositions performed publicly, Raff didn't have long to wait to hear La Fée d'amour. It featured in the first all-Raff concert in Weimar's Grand-ducal theatre on 20 April 1855, alongside his Grand Symphony (since lost), the orchestral song Traumkönig und sein Lieb and his setting for soloists, chorus and orchestra of Psalm 121. The concert - at which Raff wielded the baton - provoked interest and, predictably, divided the critics along modernist/traditionalist lines. The violinist for the public premiere was again Singer, and it is to him that the work was dedicated on its publication.
After its composer moved to Wiesbaden in 1856 to join his fiancée, La Fée d'amour acted as his calling card. It was played there twice that year by Alois Baldenecker. After these airings Raff revised the ending and the new version appeared in a Leipzig Gewandhaus concert late in 1858 with the redoubtable Singer playing under Ferdinand David's direction.
The piece went on to be a concert favourite during the mid 19th. century, remaining in Singer's repertoire throughout his career. The piano and violin version was published by Schott of Mainz in 1857 but a further 20 years passed before the orchestral accompaniment was published. It is easy to see why it was once popular and also to guess why it fell out of favour. Its subject is a sentimental one and the melodies used by Raff are pleasant and appropriate to its theme. Although cast in one 18 minute movement, variety is achieved by dividing it clearly into three sections, with the final third re-using material from the first. Raff's orchestral skill is already evident in this early work and a certain lightness of touch lends it a charm which disguises the lack of anything novel in the final section. By the end of the century, however, naive delicacy at such length must have seemed distinctly out of fashion in the brash and cynical atmosphere of Wilhemine Germany.
The woodwind introduce a lightly tripping motif - perhaps suggesting the hesitancy of the potential lovers? This is immediately taken up by the violin and then followed straight away by a vivacious melody, appropriately suggestive of a tiny fluttering fairy - all of this to attractive passage work from the woodwind. The pace slows and the initial melody introduces a third arched theme, first heard from the violin. After some development of these melodies and extensive fireworks from the soloist the pace slows, leading to the quieter central section.
This peaceful episode (the blossoming of love?) is dominated by a long and tender melody against which the themes of the first section are sometimes heard in counterpoint from the orchestra. It comes to a passionate climax before subsiding against a texture of shimmering strings reminiscent of the Mendelssohn of the Midsummer Night's dream Nocturne.
In the finale the fairy resumes her skittering flight against an orchestral backdrop which foreshadows the the spectral Raff of the Im Walde Symphony and Macbeth. The other motifs from the first section are reintroduced in turn before giving way to an extended cadenza for the violin. After a couple of minutes, the orchestra gently re-enters the fray and leads the violin into the closing pages, ending the work with a flourish.