Henri Vieuxtemps
Henri Vieuxemps

Symphony No.4

Perhaps because of his rather misleading reputation as a writer of programme symphonies, Raff's Symphony No.4 in g op.167 tends to be overlooked in his canon. His daughter recalled that he used to joke that the patter of "the little child's feet" could be heard in the work's second movement (she was six years old when it was being written), but there is no real evidence that Raff ever had a programme in mind when writing it - a distinction which it shares with the Symphony No.2 alone.

Despite being written in the Spring and Summer 1871, at the time of the Franco-Prussian war, it betrays no identifiable patriotic sentiment and was published in October 1872.

Coming hard on the heels of the successes of the "Forest" Symphony No.3 and the Opera Dame Kobold, the g minor symphony was taken up quickly by orchestras and had its premiere on 8 February 1872 in a concert at the Royal Hoftheatre in Wiesbaden under Wilhelm Jahn. More performances followed in the same year. On 25 October it was conducted by Karl Müller in Frankfurt and only six days later it was given under Raff's baton at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Helene Raff records in her biography: "It always won enthusiastic approval from the orchestra and the public; at the time it increased the delight of [his] colleagues. 'Enormously fresh, spontaneous, spirited, lovely' - wrote [Hans von] Bülow about it to a musical friend. With greatest warmth, even enthusiasm, Franz Wüllner and Josef Rheinberger wrote to Raff after the November 1872 Munich performance of the g minor symphony. 'The splendid work in which I marvel along with all preceding ones' - wrote Rheinberger who had a deep respect and recognition for Raff and made it known on every occasion".

The work soon left Germany's borders. It was played in Brussels in February 1873 with the Belgian violin virtuoso and composer Henri Vieuxtemps conducting. He wrote to Raff about the success of the "amazing g minor symphony" and reported that there was "a unaminous call for its repeat in the next concert". He urged Raff, in spite of the distance and bad traveling season to make the trip to the Belgian capital to hear his work himself "and see how great the number of his admirers was". Raff did not go - it was not an unusual request as his fame was spreading rapidly at this time.

He was clearly particularly highly thought of in Belgium. During a later visit to the fashionable resort of Spa in September 1873, which he made for a performance of the "Forest" Symphony, "the enthusiastic members of a resident arts group sent him a giant wreath: grape leaves with guilded grapes" reports Helene Raff.

But despite its success the fourth Symphony was soon overshadowed by an even greater work, the Symphony No.5 Lenore. The public's predilection for programmes in its music may also have militated against the continued popularity of this more traditional piece, sandwiched between the two most popular and explicitly programmatic symphonies in Raff's oeuvre.

1st movement: Allegro [the second subject group - 1:56]

The character of this g minor movement is difficult to define. Perhaps, sunshine with the odd prospect of rain. It starts in solemn mood with a sprightly but vaguely threatening theme, but then dissolves in a woodwind-led group of melodies which are typically Raff in their joi de vivre - a swaying gracious melody with slightly hesitant accompaniment leading to a bright climax. These two elements are intertwined through the sometimes contrapuntal development section which features a stormy passage recalling the brass writing of the 3rd. Symphony. The positive material gradually gains the ascendant towards a great sunlit outpouring which subsides before the close of the movement, which uses the opening melody in an assertive conclusion. This piece ranks amongst the best of Raff's opening symphonic movements.

Listen to an audio extract 2nd. movement: Allegro molto [the extract is the end of the first scherzo section and the first part of the trio - 1:23]

This is a relatively straightforward and attractive E flat major scherzo in ABA format - two fast sections flanking a slower trio. The almost standard Mendelssohnian combination of rapid string figurations and chattering woodwind colour skittering melodies (Helene running around the Raff household?) before a more stately theme is introduced for the trio. This is repeated before the scherzo reasserts itself and then quickly ends, as if exhausted.

Listen to an audio extract 3rd. movement: Andante, non troppo mosso [the example is the end of the movement - 1:56]

Raff moves to c minor for the slow movement, which begins at a walking pace with a long bassoon solo over pizzicato strings followed by a solo oboe over legato accompaniment. As usual in these moments, Raff's lyricism is well to the fore. The full orchestra comes in to build a more forceful theme to a powerful climax with insistent timpani providing a strong pulse. These two contrasting ideas are then pitted against each other in a movement which has more than its fair share of drama, before it spins out calmly - its passion spent.

Listen to an audio extract 4th. movement: Allegro [the extract is the end of the movement - 1:55]

The finale opens with the same melodic fragment in g minor as the first movement but within a few bars it is on a much more festive track with a succession of folk-like dancing themes in G major. With short woodwind solos interspersed with tutti the celebratory mood never wavers until shortly before the end. Here the symphony's opening theme is briefly reprised over tremulous strings before being dismissed as the festivities re-assert themselves in a rousing close.

All audio excerpts from Hyperion CDA 66628. An extensive essay on this work is available in the Analysis section.

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