Raff in the early 1880s
Raff in the early 1880s

Piano Sonata

Raff wrote three piano sonatas, which is hardly unusual in such a pianistic composer. What appears inexplicable, however, from a cursory look at his catalogue is that only one of them is listed - the early op.14. The second of the three is hiding under the less conventional title of Fantasy Sonata - his unusual one-movement op.168 of 1871. And the third work? This 1881 piece is also designated op.14, also in e flat minor. It was, however, not a case of mere tinkering revisions in old age to a composition from Raff's youth. The 1881 sonata is a completely new work.

The circumstances of its composition are unusual and shed some light on the commercial reality of music publishing in the Victorian era. Raff's relationship with the firm of Breitkopf & Härtel frames his career. His earliest works were published by them at Mendelssohn's suggestion - the last of them being the Piano Sonata op.14. The Leipzig company found that Raff's music wasn't selling well and finished the arrangement. They must have watched with frustration as his reputation soared in the 1860s and 70s and their competitors reaped the reward - the mature Raff avoided them as publishers. So, in 1875 they swallowed their pride and suggested that he write new works for them. He responded with the suggestion that he revise his earlier works for them to publish in new editions and this was agreed.

What Raff had in mind, however was re-composition rather than simple revision. In the next six years his opp. 2,3,4,5,6,9,10,12 and 14 were completely rewritten. He retained the titles and key signatures of the works, but otherwise they were all newly composed, giving a fascinating illustration of Raff's progress as a composer over the intervening 35 years or so. One of the external changes had been the creation of imperial Germany and a growing upsurge in German nationalism, which was not to Raff's taste. He had to resist strongly his publisher's attempt to replace his original French titles with German.

The second version of the Grande Sonate is therefor, like the first, in four movements - although the earlier work incorporated a concluding Fugue which Raff did not preserve in the rewrite, which he completed in November 1881. Together with the new op.10, it was his last composition for the piano and, like the other works for Breitkopf and Härtel, it sold well. The resulting Sonata is, as might be expected, dissimilar to Raff's effective, showy salon piano pieces. Although the work shares with them his characteristic easily-assimilated melodies, the harmonic structure of each movement is complex, there are thematic links between the movements and the texture is often polyphonic, with liberal use of counterpoint.

Listen to an audio extract 1st. Movement: Allegro [the excerpt is the start- 2:06]

The first movement begins with a straightforward statement of the principal theme in e flat minor, before beginning a series of dramatic excursions via C major and e flat major. Throughout the piano writing is powerful and full of incident.

Listen to an audio extract 2nd. Movement: Allegro molto [the excerpt is the second half from the end of the trio - 1:26]
This short movement is in sharp contrast with its predecessor. Of ternary construction, it begins in e flat minor with a furious pounding "devil's ride" tour de force which subsides into a gentler e flat major trio section before the whirlwind resumes in C major and then slowly ebbs away.

Listen to an audio extract 3rd. Movement: Larghetto [the excerpt is from towards the end - 2:13]

The majestic third movement is, as so often with Raff, the work's centre of gravity. It is dominated by one of his great melodic ideas which has a noble, almost march-like character, bringing to mind a religious procession. This is intertwined with sprightlier material which had a delicate filigree ornamentation. Beginning in B major, it passes through F major, F sharp major, b minor, D flat major and b minor before returning to its home key.

Listen to an audio extract 4th. Movement: Allegro [the excerpt is the start - 2:05]

To finish, Raff wrote another of his lively, celebratory finales. Again, the main material is presented in a straightforward way before Raff develops it with his usual contrapuntal skill. An animato section speeds up the pace and the whole work is brought to a rousing and satisfactory conclusion.

You can listen to, and download, a complete MIDI rendition of the Piano Sonata. This work is available in a modern edition from Edition Nordstern.

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