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Raff and the French Romantics

For the circle which gathered around Liszt in Weimar, Hector Berlioz was a legend. The Frenchman was revered as much for his iconic status as a romantic revolutionary, unappreciated in his own land, as for the qualities of his music. Liszt himself had known Berlioz since his days in Paris in the 1830s. He invited the older man to Weimar on several occasions, holding Berlioz "weeks" in 1852 and 1855 at which his music was played in several concerts in Weimar. The Frenchman had been unable to attend the first festival but did travel to Germany three years later in February 1855.

At that time Raff was the longest-serving and most independent member of Liszt's circle. As a stalwart of the "New Weimar Club" he was fully involved in making Berlioz's visit a convivial success. After attending a rehearsal with Berlioz, Raff wrote to his fiancée Doris "Berlioz and yours truly get on rather well in spite of large differences of opinion. It's moving that the European Artist of Paris has recently thrown Schumann, Liszt, Berlioz, Raff and Brahms together in a pot ... Berlioz, who brought the papers with him, drew my attention to it".

At their first meeting, Berlioz had commented admiringly on Raff's compositions, after which Liszt had taken his protegé to one side and suggested that Raff repay Berlioz's kind remarks later at a banquet given by Liszt and his coterie. Bearing in mind his poor French, Raff reverted to his schoolboy Latin to honour Berlioz in his speech to the revelers. Another of the guests, the poet Hoffmann von Fallersleben, had composed a poem in Latin which Raff there and then set to music. Berlioz was delighted by the impromptu performance which rounded off the evening, in which Raff himself sang one of the four parts he had written with such dazzling facility.

Only a few weeks later, after Berlioz had left, Raff had such a serious falling out with other members of the "New Weimar Club" that he left it, precipitating his eventual departure from Weimar for Wiesbaden the following year.

In happier times, possibly during the first Berlioz week in 1852, Raff and Liszt discussed Victor Hugo - then beginning his long exile from France after the accession of Napoleon III. Raff was only a partial admirer of the great French writer; he found the tragedy Hernani richly expressive but he thought the hero's suicide at the sound of an enemy's horn to be "frankly, funny". Liszt objected that Raff didn't properly understand the Spanish character and in particular that a Spaniard might be pundonoroso (honourable in the extreme).

This provoked "philological delight" in Raff. Liszt was so taken with the young man's reaction that he had made for him a signet ring displaying a dove with a scroll in its beak on which was written pundonoroso. He gave it to Raff with the injunction "if we are no longer together and you have an urgent written request of me, signal it with this signet". Raff never needed to use it, but it remained on his writing table until his death.

© 1999-2017 Mark Thomas. All rights reserved.