Wilhelm August Burger
Wilhelm August Bürger
Author of Lenore

Symphony No.5 Lenore

Raff's Symphony No.5 in E Lenore op.177 is generally regarded as being amongst the best of the eleven surviving symphonies and is probably also the best known today - there are currently no less than five CD recordings. Described by Donald Ellman as "a most important pivotal work between early and late-romantic styles", Lenore represents the high point of Raff's attempt to combine traditional symphonic structures with romantic pictorialism. Despite following a programme not wholly of Raff's own devising, it is probably the most satisfying musically of his "programme" symphonies.

Together with the much later Four Shakespeare Preludes, Lenore is unusual in Raff's orchestral output in portraying a literary work in music. Raff's "programme" music generally avoided such literal depiction of literature or paintings in favour of more generalised scene setting or mood description - though sometimes to a detailed programme of his own creation. It is not known what inspired him to depart from his usual practice for Lenore.

He began mulling over ideas for the work in 1870 and finished it during the summer of 1872. Since the huge success of the 3rd. Symphony, a new Raff symphony did not have long to wait for its premiere, which took place at a private performance in Sonderhausen in December 1872. Raff recorded that the audience (of 20!) "appeared beset with some fright". At the first public performance in Berlin the following year the work was very well received. Bechstein declared "It was an unbelievable success for Berlin". More performances quickly followed throughout Germany - followed by England and then America. Ebenezer Prout reported on Lenore's first English hearing "those who were present will remember the sensation created by its performance".


The Symphony is based upon Wilhelm August Bürger's gothic ballad Lenore - one of the greatest of the Sturm und Drang period. It is set at the end of the 30 years war in the mid-18th. century: Lenore anxiously awaits the return from the war of her betrothed, Wilhelm. He does not appear and she believes him to be dead, but her mother suggests that he may instead have found another girl. Distraught at this suggestion, Lenore rails against God, denying His existence - much to her mother's distress. That night, Wilhelm appears at her door as she sleeps and commands her to ride with him. Together at last, they gallop off on his horse. They pass all manner of gruesome sights - at each of which Wilhelm repeats "Are you afraid, sweetheart, of the dead?". The horse's pace increases until they reach a grave, which Lenore realises is Wilhelm's own, and "Wilhelm" is revealed as Death himself. They are joined by other madly dancing spectres and, as she dies at Wilhelm's graveside, Death admonishes her for quarrelling with God.

Raff himself summarised it all more prosaically as: "The happiness of two lovers is interrupted by war. The time has come when he must go forth with his fellow soldiers and she remain behind alone. In this solitude evil forebodings take possession of her; she falls into a fever, in which her hallucinations prepare, in reality, only for her own death."

As he did with his third symphony, Raff grouped the work's four movements into three parts. The first part "Love's happiness" comprises the first two movements, the second - "Parting" - is the third movement whilst the fourth movement "Reunited in death" - is the last part.

Listen to an audio extract 1st movement: Allegro [the excerpt is the opening - 2:17]

Raff wrote that this movement described the "longing for and striving after love's happiness". It has no direct relation to the Lenore ballad except to illustrate the happiness of the lovers. The movement, which is in sonata form, opens confidently with a surging "yearning" motif which sets the tenor of the piece - throughout the music is passionate and the thematic material is generally joyful, though in a several places the trombones briefly intone a sombre chorale as a foretaste of the tragedy in the last movement.

Listen to an audio extract 2nd. movement: Andante quasi larghetto [the extract is from the central section, leading back to the opening material - 2:56]

The second movement is in A flat major and has an ABA structure. It depicts, in Raff's words, "the enjoyment of love's happiness" and is a "love scene". Raff wrote that the movement begins with the onset of night and is followed by the two lovers talking, the "exchange of kisses" and then a more vigorous section which, though Raff did not go into detail, is perhaps a depiction of "enjoyment" on a more physical level! The earlier love theme returns and the movement ends with a repetition of the night music. This movement is intensely lyrical throughout; brimful of melody.

Listen to an audio extract 3rd. movement: Marsch Tempo - Agitato [the example is the end of trio section and the return of the march - 2:20]

This was amongst Raff's most popular compositions and is a straightforward pictorial representation of, as Raff wrote: "the approach of an army corps to the abode of the lovers...the lovers bid farewell, and the division marches away". It is again an arching ABA structure, in C, with the central anguished "Parting" episode flanked by two march sections each constructed from the same two, deliberately brash, themes. The opening march is an extended crescendo and, after the trio, the second a matching long diminuendo - depicting in turn the approach and departure of the army. The varied and vibrant orchestration of these outer sections prevents boredom and the central trio, with its agonised dialogue between violins and cellos graphically portrays the lovers' agony.

Listen to an audio extract 4th. movement: Allegro [the extract is from the end of the movement, up to the start of the apotheosis - 2:45]

This movement, entitled "Reunited in death, Introduction and ballad (after G Bürger's Lenore)" is a literal portrayal of the events of the ballad and as such is more akin to a Lisztian symphonic poem, its free form being in e minor except for the E major close. The extended introduction reprises themes from the first three movements and these also recur later in the movement - often satirically transformed for dramatic effect. The nightmare horseride is graphically depicted by Raff using a perpetuum mobile theme which gathers in speed and rhythmic intensity as the movement progresses, underlying all the passing eerie episodes in the ballad - at some of which the trombone theme first heard in the opening movement makes its full appearance. Finally, the ride ceases at the graveside in a massive climax and then silence. Raff concludes the movement with a redeeming apotheosis in the form of a solemn and gentle E major chorale which begins softly, grows to a radiant climax and then ebbs away, higher and higher.

The 1st.movement extract is from Tudor 7077. This CD is reviewed. The excerpt from the 2nd. movement is from ASV DCA 1000. This CD is reviewed. The excerpts from the 3rd. and 4th. movements are from Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD 2031.

© 1999-2014 Mark Thomas. All rights reserved.