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Beethoven Monument, Bonn
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Felix Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn

Raff in Cologne

Once Raff left Switzerland in Liszt's entourage in 1844, the virtuoso's influence over him was profound. He was thrust into the very heart of the musical world of which he had longed to be part, helping with his patron's concert arrangements as the maestro toured Europe. He was present at the unveiling of the Beethoven monument in Bonn on 11 August 1845 and began to make useful contacts, such as Franz Schott (1811-74), the Mainz music publisher. Having been under the influence of Mendelssohn's music, Raff now immersed himself in Liszt's style and showed him all his previous compositions, which resulted in the destruction of those not meeting with the master's approval.

He accompanied Liszt to Hungary, but his pressing need for money remained. He had to have regular employment. Through his contacts, Liszt arranged for Raff to work for the firm of Eck and Lefebvre, the Cologne piano makers and music publishers. When they returned to Frankfurt, he took his leave of his patron and left for the Rhineland city.

His position in Josef Lefebvre's establishment soon turned out to be a bitter disappointment. After six month's there he wrote to Liszt, complaining of his long hours of work and low pay. His duties ranged from book keeping and the collation of manuscripts, to the demonstration of newly built pianos to potential customers in a vast, cold hall. In particular, he felt slighted by Lefebvre's dismissive attitude towards him. He wrote: "Had I known in Frankfurt what I know now, I would have hurried back to you barefoot in the night".

His miserable circumstances didn't prevent him from composing, however. He used his precious free time to write piano works about which he wrote frequently to Liszt, sending them to him for review and criticism. Musically, things began to look promising.

At Liszt's suggestion, he sent his opp.21-26 to the prominent Viennese publisher Pietro Mechetti, who eventually did publish most of them and several others. Raff had the satisfaction of Schott's firm publishing his Six Poèms op.15, which were dedicated to Liszt. They replaced an earlier composition which he had destroyed. Schott further advanced Raff by inviting him to write for his musical journal Cäcilia.

Liszt continued his travels, but provided Raff with much support nonetheless. In April 1846 he wrote that he had "the firm resolve to promote your career, and that with God's help and your excellent talents [you] will be on a straight, respectable and brilliant path". By June he was angling for Raff to rejoin him: "my manuscripts remain disorganised until you ... take an interest in them". He dangled the bait by praising the manuscripts which Raff had sent to Mechetti and promising "I will serve you as godfather and present them to the public in full splendour. Count always and everywhere on my totally devoted friendship".

At the large male voice choir festival in Cologne in June 1846 Raff, acting as Cäcilia's correspondent, at last met Mendelssohn. He praised Raff's music, but criticised the young man's slavish following of his and Liszt's models without understanding their artistic basis. He suggested that Raff study with him in Leipzig, once Mendelssohn had returned from a trip to England. On top of this happy prospect, Raff soon heard again from Liszt that he continued to press Raff's case with Mechetti and had made contact on his behalf with another Viennese publisher, Haslinger. Nothing concrete came from this second introduction, however.

The Liszt correspondence continued. Yet again he dangled in front of his impoverished protogée the prospect of a job in his household - this time once he'd returned from Constantinople. Raff carried on his drudgery of a job by day and composed by night. So many works flowed from his pen that, in October 1846, Liszt wrote to him, warning: "Your idea ... to bombard the public with the quantity of your production, is an inappropriate and useless one. ... You are weakening your talent and your name". Raff seems to have taken this advice to heart, and destroyed several of the compositions written that year.

As well as writing for Schott's Cäcilia, Raff became associated with August Schmidt's Allgemeine Weiner Musikalischen Zeitung, despite, or perhaps because of, its proprietor's view that "you are sharp and go on your way without a backward glance". Writing for the Viennese journal, though, soon landed him in trouble back in Cologne. He wrote sneeringly of some Rhineland music lovers "who regard themselves as musical and critical notables". Those he had so publicly slighted immediately made it clear to Josef Lefebvre that Raff's views would adversely affect his trade. Confronted by Lefebvre and the complainants, Raff had no choice but to leave his despised job.

Once again destitute, he took up with a businessman, Peter Gaul, who gave him a roof over his head although he remained, as he later said, "breadless". He tried, without success, to get a commission from Schott to write a march, and he wrote to Liszt (then in Kiev) that he intended to leave Cologne for Stuttgart, where he might try his hand at teaching music. After a final meeting with Mendelssohn, he left Cologne early in 1847. From his unhappy time there, Raff treasured only the memory of his meetings with Mendelssohn and the friendship of the poet C.O. Sternau (a pseudonym of Otto Inkermann, 1823-1862), several of whose poems he later set to music.

[The source for this article is the second chapter of Helene Raff's 1925 biography of her father]

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