Raff's character was multifaceted. All accounts agree on his intelligence, but then the divergence of opinion is striking. To some he appeared a disputative, cantankerous, arrogant man. To others he was an amusing, inspiring, loyal and supportive friend and teacher.
Raff could certainly be brusque to the point of rudeness and enjoyed vigorous debate. He sometimes even took up a position with which he disagreed, just for the sake of the argument. Especially in his younger days, he courted controversy by writing inflammatory articles which lost him his job in Cologne and forced him to flee Stuttgart. Whilst working with Liszt, who was a great champion of Wagner, he published his critical pamphlet "Die Wagnerfrage" ("the Wagner question") which certainly caused Liszt much embarrassment and gave Raff notoriety if not celebrity. At the time Liszt complained that Raff was "perpetually getting on scientific stilts, which are by no means of very solid wood". His eventual attitude towards Wagner was best put by von Bülow: "Raff was a great Wagner enthusiast whilst thoroughly disapproving of his literary works".
Raff was clearly rather impractical in the day to day business of managing money - having been reduced to bankruptcy in his early days in Zürich, he seems to have been unable to rise much above destitution for another ten years or so and was eventually saved from continued penury by his practical wife, Doris.
In her biography of Raff, his daughter Helene also confirms that her mother managed the family's household affairs. In particular Doris ran the finances and Raff simply asked her for money whenever he needed it. On several occasions Raff would arrive at a shop only to find that his pockets were empty - fortunately shopkeepers were familiar with him and let him buy what he wanted, sending the bills direct to his wife. In their daughters words: "Since his wife mediated between him and life, he became more and more accustomed to turning his thoughts away from all that was not music or had nothing to do with it".
His failure to make financial provision for his wife and daughter after his death is symptomatic not only of his pride in his achievement, as pointed out by Helene Raff, but also of his financial naivety.
Raff was a German patriot - but not a Wilhelmine nationalist. The programme of his 1st. Symphony "To the Fatherland" is no crude celebration of German supremacy but rather a depiction of various, generally philosophical or artistic, traits of the national character coupled with aspiration for national unity. At the time that it was written there was still no single German state and most Germans remained frustrated by the failure of the peaceful attempts at unification of 1848. Germany was forcibly reunited under Prussia's leadership by Bismarck after the Austrian and French wars of 1866 and 1870. Raff was pleased by unification itself but was disappointed by the triumphalism, posturing and materialism of the new Reich. He remained an idealist whose vision of a united Germany had been "more genteel and less ostentatious" as Helene Raff wrote. "The monuments which it brought forth, the celebrations which it instituted, offended his cultural instincts....He complained how dangerous the hollow pathetic gestures were, especially for art".
A number of sacred works in his oeuvre written in a determinedly non-secular style demonstrate the devotional side to his nature. Perhaps as a result of his two years schooling at the Jesuit Lyceum in Schwyz, Raff was always a religious man despite living a rather bohemian lifestyle in Weimar and provoking disputes wherever he turned. He seems, however, to have mellowed with marriage, fatherhood, fame and responsibility and was clearly a devoted husband and father. By his daughter's account it was a caring and happy home and, as she grew into her teens, Raff set a couple of her literary attempts as major musical works. The Cantata "The Times of Day" op.209 and the song cycle "Blondle de Nestle" op.211 are both settings of Helene Raff's words - though her use of the pseudonym Helge Heldt hides these as the work of the composer's daughter - aged only 13 and then 15 when the works were completed. Raff's willingness to put his reputation and his prestige at the service of his daughter's ambitions speaks volumes for their relationship if not, possibly, for his artistic judgement. In fact, Helene did become a literary figure of note after a dalliance with painting after Raff's death.
Those who penetrated his prickly protective outer shell, found Raff a highly intelligent, amusing and decent man. In his lifelong friendships such as with Hans von Bülow, he proved to be a staunch and trustworthy ally. Those, like Clara Schumann, who were artistically opposed to him were often won over by him in person. Within a year, though, there were two other women on the staff and composition classes for women were established - the first in Germany.
Though he had a very clear public sense of his own worth, he was a realist. In establishing the Conservatory he recognised that he had to attract the best teachers in order to attract students to the new institution. To do this he was prepared to pay one, the renowned singer Julius Stockhausen, substantially more than his own salary as Director and he also demonstrated a self-denying integrity by banning performances of his own music by teachers and students alike.
Raff's was clearly a very complex character. Being entirely self taught and achieving great success as a composer in the face of heavy parental opposition and an almost unbelievable barrage of obstacles which fate thrust in his path over fifteen years, he cultivated a reserve and outward arrogance which could be unattractive, however understandable. Suffering continual sniping from critics, coming from an unprivileged background and enduring many years of near-poverty, he was probably inwardly unsure of both his musical ability and his social standing. No doubt his prickly public persona was defence against this - usually to be abandoned, once someone could be trusted, to reveal a warmer and much more attractive man.