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Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner

Die Wagnerfrage

Raff was a controversialist whose could be as provocative with the pen as he often was in conversation. He was an acerbic music critic for the journal Cäcilia whilst scratching a living in Cologne. He quickly got himself so unpopular in the city that he had to leave it altogether after publishing a combative article in the Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung of Vienna. Once Raff was ensconced in Weimar, his ready pen was at the service of Liszt and his friends in promoting their revolutionary cause. Either in his own name, or "ghosting" articles for Liszt, he courted controversy and reveled in it.

None of his writings was as controversial, however, as the booklet Die Wagnerfrage (The Wagner Question) which was published in 1854 whilst Raff was part of Liszt's circle.

Once he was under Liszt's strong influence as part of his household in Weimar, Raff fell under Wagner's spell. He immersed himself in the music, witnessed the premiere of Lohengrin and organised the Wagner week held in the city in spring 1853. Although generally regarded at that time as an ardent Wagnerian, he had as early as 1851 drawn a distinction between the music, about which he was enthusiastic, and the librettos, which he disliked. His first attempt at coming to terms with this dichotomy was to write several piano and chamber works on themes from Wagner's operas: opp.61 and 62 for piano both date from 1853 as do the three op.57 pieces for violin and piano, which already exhibit the desire to "classicise" Wagner.

Raff's booklet The Wagner Question, Critically Examined by Joachim Raff. Part One: Wagner's latest Artistic Demonstration in "Lohengrin" took this mental pigeonholing process one stage further. It was written in the winter of 1853/54 and published the next summer by Vielveg of Braunschweig. The implied second part remained unwritten.

Its author's aim was to write from an even handed viewpoint a closely-argued philosophical and musical critique of Lohengrin. His heavy handed attempt at objectivity gave it a flawed structure, resulting in a succession of passages in which praise follows trenchant criticism to the bewilderment of the reader. His own daughter described the book as being "pedantic and difficult to understand".

Raff too had doubts: "I write too tersely and unclearly! The philosophical formula with which I help myself to be as concise as possible makes my style unclear and my latin is also unsuited to making a book readable. I am doubtful about it".

Foreshadowing his later awkward position athwart the musical divide, Raff was criticised by all sides. Although he was trying to be objective, there were scarcely any objective readers, so divided was the musical world by the "new music" of Liszt and Wagner. The anti-Wagner faction were incensed by Raff's praise of him. His erstwhile friends and allies in the Weimar camp were outraged that he had dared to criticise their hero. They had regarded Raff as the senior member of their circle - now he had betrayed them. His friend Peter Cornelius told Raff that he was "not a party man" and Richard Pohl provoked from Raff the assertion "[even] if you write for years and fill volumes, I keep the last word" - to which Pohl replied "then I'll live longer than you and still have the last word". He died 14 years after Raff.

Although relations with his Weimar friends slowly improved, Raff had permanently distanced himself from the inner circle and his dissatisfaction with his life there grew. His friendship with Liszt remained outwardly cordial but the booklet had damaged his mentor's regard for him. Liszt had been offended that he hadn't seen the manuscript before publication, which had come as a surprise to him. The booklet itself left him in a quandary - he wrote to Bernhard Coßmann that he felt like simultaneously defending and refuting it. He was certainly critical of its style, writing that in it Raff was "perpetually getting himself on scientific stilts, which are by no means of very solid wood. Philosophic formulas are sometimes the envelope, the outer shell as it were, of knowledge; but it may also happen that they only show empty ideas and contain no other substance than their own harsh terminology". He does go on, however, to temper this by saying that he would support Raff in public.

Wagner himself seems to have made no recorded reference to Raff's book. No doubt he reveled in the controversy whilst it raged.

In establishing a name for its author (albeit a controversial one) and in forcing into the open Raff's artistic differences with the Weimar circle, Die Wagnerfrage undoubtedly helped him establish his own artistic identity. Although a cause célèbre amongst musical circles for a few years, its lasting influence on anyone other than its author was minimal.

© 1999-2017 Mark Thomas. All rights reserved.