The Violin Concerto No.1 in B minor op.161 was written during a time of some anxiety for Raff. Although his musical career had at last seen him acclaimed as one of Germany's great composers, his country was at war. Raff lived in Wiesbaden, capital of the Grand Duchy of Hesse, but since Prussia's victory over Austria in 1866, the Grand Duchy had been under Prussian domination. France's Napoleon III had allowed himself to be provoked by the Prussian Chancellor Bismarck into declaring war in the Summer of 1870. At the time that Raff began work on the Concerto that Autumn, the outcome was far from certain; France was still regarded as Europe's premier military power. By the time the work was finished, early in the following year, Napoleon III had abdicated, France had fallen and Paris was besieged.
Although Raff had written two substantial Konzerstücke in the 1850s, La fée d'amour for the violin and Ode au Printemps for piano, he left it surprisingly late before he began composing full scale concertos. The B minor Violin Concerto is the first of them. It was written for the great German virtuoso August Wilhelmj (1845-1908), whom Raff had taught for some time as a private composition pupil in the 1860s. He was clearly involved deeply in its composition, as Raff's daughter Helene records in her biography of her father that "every couple of days this master violinist came to visit to make sure of the progress on his concerto and to express his wishes and views." Raff dedicated the work to him and it became one of the mainstays of his repertoire for the rest of his career.
The Concerto was premiered at a concert in Wiesbaden's Kurhaus on 24 August 1871 but had to wait for its next performance until January 1872 in nearby Mainz. This was quickly followed by airings in Weimar and Kassel where Wilhelmj, who had been the soloist in all these performances, scored a notable triumph with it. Raff's own arrangement for violin and piano and the orchestral parts was published by Siegel in November 1871 but the orchestral score itself remained unpublished.
In the 1890s Kistner published Wilhelmj's own arrangement of the orchestral version. Attempting to modernise a work he loved, Wilhelmj thickened and substantially reharmonised the piece in Wagnerian style, excised 50 of its 708 bars (thus changing its structure) and introduced additional virtuoso gymnastics into the solo part. In the process, he completely changed its character and so it was unfortunate that the only edition of the orchestral version which seemed to have survived in the world's music libraries was this later arrangement which was effectively a different work. Luckily, an autograph score of the original was discovered in 2003 and the Raff's score is now available from Edition Nordstern and has also been recorded.
The Concerto is through composed in three movements. The third movement, Allegro Trionfale, is clearly Raff's relieved reaction to the Prussian victory over France in 1871 and is based upon a celebratory march, the first bar of which is identical to Haydn's melody used for the Deutschlandlied ("Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles") which, although it had yet to become Germany's national anthem, was already a highly popular patriotic song of the time. Raff's reference could hardly be clearer.
This movement, at almost 13 minutes, is not only symphonic in length but also in its character, something still novel in 1871. Although the "symphonic" piano concerto was beginning to gain currency by then, amongst well known violin concertos only Joachim's Hungarian Concerto of ten years earlier had an opening movement conceived so broadly; Brahms' concerto was still some eight years away. The work begins sturdily with the orchestra introducing a short and emphatic theme which is immediately repeated by the soloist. It is on this material that the whole movement is largely based. The necessary contrast comes from the beautifully lyrical second subject, rhapsodically elegiac, which is first heard on the violin, after which the rest of the movement proceeds powerfully in alternating dramatic and lyrical passages. Throughout, Raff maintains his characteristic momentum and a real dialogue of equals is established between the soloist and orchestra. The writing for the violin is certainly brilliant but it is never empty and although the soloist establishes a commanding presence, the orchestral contribution is substantial and continuous. In keeping with his symphonic design, Raff eschews a solo cadenza and, after the final climax based upon the opening theme, this movement dissolves quite suddenly into the next via a short bridge passage.
In contrast to the magestic opening Allegro, Raff keeps things simple in the G major slow movement by restricting the orchestration for long stretches to the strings. They introduce a gently contemplative theme on which the soloist rhapsodises throughout the piece only interrupted, about two thirds of the way into the movement, by two brief outbursts of a more strident character from the full orchestra, which frame a quieter passage using the same material. Towards the close the music returns to the lyrical musings with which the movement began, before a gentle cadence ends it.
The Finale, the shortest of the movements, follows without a break. It begins with grand orchestral fanfares (for which Raff uses trombones for the first time in the Concerto) before launching into a lively, if slightly pompous, march. This is taken up straight away by the soloist, who twists it into something really quite jolly and then decorates it in a series of brilliant virtuoso passages. The triumphal nature of the music is made clear by the unrelentingly upbeat character of the material and the ever increasing tempo until, after another tutti restatement of the march, the soloist begins what appears to be his cadenza, only to have the orchestra filter back in, instrument by instrument, for the closing pages in which the march blazes out fortissimo in B major for the last time.