Raff's fame as a symphonist was assured by the Symphony No.3 in F Im Walde (In the Forest) op.153. Together with the later Lenore, it was amongst the most played of modern symphonies in its day, taking his name to both England and America. Its dramatic pictorialism seems to have created a sensation when it was first heard - an effect only lessened by his style later becoming common currency from many composers. With this work, Raff was indeed an innovator.
As a true romantic, he was greatly influenced by nature - six of his nine programme symphonies relate to nature in one form or another, as do many of his other compositions. As a German, he had a particular feeling for his country's woods and forests. He wrote the work in Wiesbaden in 1869 and it was premiered in his old home of Wiemar on Easter Sunday, 1870 with great success. The acclaim for it continued throughout the rest of his life: an American critic described it as "the best Symphony of modern times, one of the very few which are worthy to go down in posterity in company with the works of Beethoven and Schumann". After one performance at which Raff was present "a complete hurricane went through the house" and Raff mounted the podium "amidst barbaric jubilation from the audience". Hans von Bülow described the symphony's success as "colossal".
The published programme for his third symphony comprises short titles for each movement, but Raff may have been working to a very much longer and highly detailed unpublished programme, which is illustrated quite literally by the music - see Carol Bevier's dissertation for more detail (pp.28-93). This programme links almost every phrase and section of the work to the experiences and feelings of a "wanderer" in the Forest. It was not unknown, however, for composers to concoct such detailed programmes after the event to satisfy the incessant demands for literalism that developed amongst Victorian music lovers - those for Bruckner's "Romantic" symphony or Rubinstein's "Ocean" Symphony being contemporary examples. Whether this was so in Raff's case is not known.
Just as he was to do later with the Lenore Symphony, Raff grouped the traditional four movements into three parts:
This F major movement is in traditional sonata form. Thematically and instrumentally it is Raff at his most attractive. Horn calls and bird song, coupled with forward propulsion provided by the insistent triple-time and Raff's characteristic writing for woodwind all contribute to a glorious celebration of the feelings evoked by a walk in the forest. The movement closes with a return of the second subject in an apotheosis which Raff echoes at the very close of work.
The serene second movement is in A flat major and has an ABA structure. It is essentially a mood piece, with gently ruminative strings supporting clarinet solos carrying the lush melodic line. The central section in E major is in contrast with the outer sections and builds to a climax, before the music subsides to a repetition of the opening material and a serene coda in which the clarinet again features.
This is probably the most Mendelssohnian of Raff's symphonic scherzos with scurrying woodwind the predominant atmosphere of the D minor movement. Like its predecessor, it is basically in ternary form, with a short introduction and a more extended coda. This repeats the opening theme of the slow movement in counterpoint with the main scherzo melody played by the flutes, unifying these two movements which comprise part two. The central trio is rather slower and lyrical than the outer sections which demand considerable virtuosity from the woodwinds.
Part Three: At Night. The living stillness of night
in the Forest. Arrival and departure of the Wild Hunt, with Frau Holle
and Wotan. Daybreak
4th. movement: Allegro [the extract is the end of the hunt section - 2:12]
The extensive finale is the most dramatically exciting of the movements and structurally more original than the others, being a modified sonata-allegro opening with a fugal passage which sets the night-time atmosphere, before a fast march begins to assert itself and grows in intensity - the wild hunt. The material grows more strident and frantic with Raff's trademark skirling woodwind, leading to two great brass-heavy climaxes before gradually subsiding as the hunt rides away. There is a quieter passage of shifting themes and dark uncertain textures before the hunt returns leading up to succesive climaxes which again ebb away - this time to be replaced by the closing material of the first movement. Symbolising daybreak, it gradually swells to bring the work to a musically satisfying and programmatically appropriate conclusion.
All audio excerpts from ASV DCA793.