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Raff
Raff at the start of his career

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raff
Raff at the height of his fame

The collapse of Raff's reputation

"Since his death his music has passed, alike in Germany and England, into an oblivion which cannot excite surprise in those who realise the inherent weaknesses of the composer; and the sudden change on the part of the public, from a widespread admiration to almost complete neglect, is of itself a severe criticism on his work." This was the dismissive summing up of Raff in the 1928 edition of Grove; a verdict of almost unparalleled harshness for the dictionary.

Such was the depth to which Raff's reputation had sunk barely 50 years after his death. He had already by then become such a byword for incompetence that the editor clearly felt it unnecessary to explain his "inherent weaknesses" or the reasons for the public's "severe criticism" of his music.

Succeeding generations of musicologists and critics accepted this received wisdom, without apparently bothering to look at Raff's music itself, let alone perform it. Only the Cavatine and La Fileuse - comparative trifles - retained a precarious place in the repertoire amongst all his prodigious output. It was left to Bernard Herrmann in the early 1970s to begin the long process of restoring Raff to his proper place in the musical pantheon.

In contrast to the indifference of posterity, Raff was acclaimed in the 1870s as a composer of the first rank, the finest symphonist of the age. There is no shortage of composers who were towering figures in their lifetimes, only to endure a generation of criticism after their deaths before their reputation was restored. Raff, however, is arguably unique in suffering such an immediate, catastrophically complete and enduring fall from grace. Why did it happen?

From the beginning of his career, Raff was dogged by the accusation of being a Vielschreiber - someone who wrote so prolifically that the quality of his work was compromised. This canard followed him beyond the grave.

The number of Raff's compositions - over 300 original works - is large but hardly unusual. His mentor Liszt, who himself warned Raff against over-production, created over 700 works. Almost half of Raff's oeuvre comprises solo piano works and, viewed objectively, the number of his non-piano works is not excessive. To make a comparison with his contemporary Dvoràk, who also died in his early 60s: Raff wrote 11 symphonies, six operas, 11 pieces for chorus and orchestra, nine works for soloist and orchestra, eight string quartets, four piano trios and five violin sonatas. Contrast this with Dvoràk's nine symphonies, 15 operas, nine pieces for chorus and orchestra, eight works for soloist and orchestra, 14 string quartets, six piano trios and two violin sonatas. Mere number of compositions signifies little more than a strong work ethic.

The second aspect of the Vielschreiber charge was that his critical faculties were compromised by ceaseless production. A fair minded Raff enthusiast must admit that Raff did suffer from lapses of artistic judgement. To quote Alan Krueck's memorable phrase, "he could be totally uncritical of the materials he used in his compositions, placing movements of soaring inspiration and incredible invention next to ones of embarrassing dross, pairing the simpleminded with the sublime".

Raff was far from being alone in this, but neither Beethoven's "Wellington's Victory" nor Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture", for example, are cited as reasons to disregard their whole oeuvres. This juxtaposition of trivial and masterly passages was by no means true of every Raff composition, or even of the majority of them, but there were enough instances to establish a reputation for poverty of inspiration. The "embarrassing dross" won out over the "soaring inspiration and incredible invention".

A sneering tone often accompanied the Vielschreiber tag. It was no doubt because many of his smaller works and most of the piano pieces were written for the salon. These works, so prominent, plentiful and popular, prejudiced serious critics against Raff. How could a man who churned out such trifles also create symphonies of distinction, it was argued; particularly a man who had a sharp tongue and over the years had offended more of his colleagues than he'd charmed.

All in all, Raff's Vielschreiber reputation had already ensured that, by the time of his death, his works were often played out of respect for his position in the musical establishment, rather than out of any thirst to hear more of them. Once he died, there was simply no reason to play them any more. Raff was essentially an isolated craftsman who left behind him no "school" to argue his corner or promote his legacy. By the 1880s his musical personality, once so fresh and exciting, was no longer strong enough to survive unaided. Of his major adherents, Macdowell was too young to have any influence and von Bülow, although loyal to his memory, had by then transferred his musical allegiance to Brahms.

Other factors contributed to the speed and completeness of the collapse of his reputation. At end of his life his fame rested largely on his programme symphonies - a genre which was out of favour by then with critics if not yet with audiences. His music was sounding old-fashioned in the 1880s. He stuck with a modestly sized orchestra and eschewed fancy effects. He had gradually moved from Lisztian extravagance to a sparer classicism at a time when the mainstream was moving the other way.

By the turn of the century Raff's civilised thrills and piquant melodies seemed very old-fashioned to concert goers enjoying a diet of Richard Strauss spectaculars. He was artistically redundant.

He was isolated, too, by the politics of the musical world. Composers and critics had become polarised between the "new music" of Wagner and Liszt and the upholders, as they saw it, of traditional values who found their champion in Brahms. There was no place for the independent voice of Raff, who wanted to occupy the middle ground, to "pour new wine into old bottles", an anachronistic Lisztian classicist. Raff believed that all "schools" were redundant and that music was an international art form, but the end of his career coincided with the rise of the nationalist composers of Bohemia, Russia and Scandinavia and a public which responded to local colour.

So, like many great composers before and since, his death, his musical isolation and changing fashion triggered a loss of interest in his music. In Raff's case the Vielschreiber reputation made this decline sharper and more profound. By the time a generation had passed, Raff somehow had the bad luck (and can it have been more than just that?) to have become a cipher for compositional incompetence at a time when the concert going public quite suddenly stopped listening to modern music. The surviving great works of the romantic era became a "standard" and severely restricted repertoire, almost to the exclusion of all else. Raff's music was frozen out and remained unperformed. His deplorable reputation became an orthodoxy which was repeated, without challenge or investigation, for fifty years until the 1970s saw the beginnings of a reappraisal.

© 1999-2017 Mark Thomas. All rights reserved.