Independence
Breakthrough

 

 

 

 

 

 

Piano Suite op.69
Score of the Piano Suite op.69

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doris Genast
Doris Genast in 1856

 

 

Wiesbaden: Independence

Wiesbaden in 1856 was an elegant and prosperous medium-sized city. Capital of the still-independent Duchy of Nassau, its cultural life revolved around its famous Kurhaus spa and the ducal court. For Raff the greatest advantage of his move was no doubt that he could be close to his fiancée Doris Genast, an actress at the court theatre, but it also enabled him to capitalise on the reputation which he had already gained there through the support of the court conductor, Hagen. Although nowhere near as significant musically as Weimar, the city also had the benefit of being free of Liszt's, or any other resident composer's, overbearing presence. Raff could be his own man at last.

The income from his compositions was hardly sufficient to live on, so he set himself up as a music and piano teacher and also returned to journalism. Over the next few years he built up a portfolio of part-time jobs which enabled him to keep the wolf from the door, holding salaried positions as a music teacher at Wiesbaden's two largest girls' schools and also taking on private pupils in harmony, piano and singing. Raff quickly became the music critic for the city's newspaper, the Nassauischen Zeitung, and over time this work expanded to take in editorial work and theatrical criticism, the latter no doubt with reluctance as, despite his wife's profession, he was not fond of the theatre.

Almost as soon as he had arrived, his opera König Alfred opened on 28 August 1856. Both the production and its reception were as good as the work had received a few years before in Weimar but unfortunately the result was also the same: it failed to stay in the theatre's repertoire. To this disappointment was added the knowledge that his move to Wiesbaden had soured relations with his former colleagues back in Weimar. "We younger ones believed you had insulted Liszt" Peter Cornelius later wrote to Raff and Liszt himself changed his greeting from "Dear Friend" to "Honoured Sir and Friend" when writing to his protegée. Despite this, Raff arranged for some of Liszt's symphonic poems to be played at Kurhaus concerts and for Liszt to be invited. He didn't come but was grateful for the gesture and tried to use his influence to secure for Raff the post of conductor in Stuttgart, left vacant by Lindtpaintner's death. Although Raff hoped that it might even be possible for Doris to secure a position at the court theatre there, his old friend Kunigunde Heinrich soon disabused him, writing "There's no hope for you my friend, because Gall (the director) won't forget that you once wrote to him, as he declared, an incredibly vulgar letter at one time and told Stoffregen and others that you were not to be permitted any visits with him".

Although he found time to compose a couple of pot-boiler opera arrangements, opp.68 and 70, most of Raff's spare time in 1856 and early the next year was taken up with work on revising his opera Samson. A diversion, though, was the composition of his first Piano Suite op.69, a ground-breaking work of five short movements taking the baroque suite as a model. He took it with him on his visit to Weimar in April and May 1857. Liszt played two movements "at sight and in a manner worthy of astonishment," finding "much in them that was to his taste regarding gesture and expression". It was published at the end of year. Buoyed with the Suite's success Raff swiftly composed two more, opp.71 & 72, which were published the following year.

He had found his mentor frustrated by the artistic opposition building up against him in Weimar. On 1 May Liszt asked Raff for a substantial favour. Firstly, to write a book analysing his symphonic poems and secondly to carry out other work very reminiscent of Raff's old duties as his amanuensis. This put Raff in a quandary. He needed the money which Liszt was offering for the work, but felt that accepting it would prejudice his independence so newly achieved. He wrote to Doris: "If I want to leave this affair honourably, I shouldn't allow payment for it. My intent, therefore is this: I'll tell Liszt I want to fulfil his request. I can’t do it right away because I want to finish my opera most of all." In the event the book went unwritten, the other tasks unperformed.

Having begun the work of orchestrating Samson in the Spring of 1857, Raff's creative urges soon turned towards other major projects, the results of which were the String Quartet No.2 op.90 and the Konzertstück for Piano and Orchestra Ode au Printemps op.76. The latter, although finished during 1857, was not premiered until 1860 but the String Quartet only had to wait a year for its own first performance, which took place on 29 March 1858 in Wiesbaden. Samson having been finished in the Summer, Raff interested the Darmstadt court theatre in the work and also showed the first three acts to Liszt when he again visited Weimar in September. Liszt was enthusiastic and the following January sent an urgent request for the full score as an opportunity to perform it had arisen. The prospect of a Darmstadt premiere fell through because of the lack of a suitable Delilah, so Raff committed himself to Weimar, even though he had also by then interested Hagen at Wiesbaden in the piece. There were delays, however. The staging was first put back to the Autumn and then even later as the only available heldentenor declared that the part of Samson was too high for him. At the end of the year the faction opposed to Liszt caused such a furore at the premier of his disciple Cornelius' Der Barbier von Baghdad that Liszt's involvement in the opera at Weimar had to cease, and with it ended Raff's hope of seeing Samson staged there.

Compared with previous years, 1858 appears to have been a quiet year, during which Raff no doubt concentrated on his teaching and journalistic work, establishing enough financial stability to enable him and Doris to wed. Only one major work was completed, but he did compose a couple of short piano works which proved to be amongst his most popular: the Cachoucha-Caprice op.79 and Am Gießbach op.88 became firm favourites when they were published in the early 1860s. As well as yet another opera paraphrase, this time on themes from Verdi's Les Vêpres Siciliennes, his other piano works from this year were the Mazurka-Caprice op.83, Chant de l'Ondin op.84 and the Introduction et Allegro scherzoso op.87, all of which also had to wait several years for publication. The year's magnum opus was a setting for male chorus and orchestra of Geibel's verse Wachet Auf! (Awake!). Although not at all narrowly nationalistic himself, Raff had obviously chosen his subject adroitly for the work scored an immediate success, chiming as it did with the patriotic sentiments of the time fuelling renewed calls for German unity. Ludwig Schnoor, the great Wagnerian tenor, later wrote to Raff that "Wachet Auf is so beautifully, so fundamentally German; simple and - may I say - timely in the best sense that I will bring it out for presentation at the first opportunity."

Towards the end of the year work began on three more substantial compositions, all of which were finished during 1859. The Second Violin Sonata op.78, a large scale four movement work, was first of all tried out by Raff and his friend the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, the rift between them provoked by Raff's departure from Weimer having been newly healed. Liszt himself, and the violinist Ludwig Strauss played through the new work at Bülow's house during February. It's first public performance by the dedicatee Joseph Hellmesberger was in Vienna the following year. The other two works were a sets of piano pieces, each with a dozen numbers. The Suite de Morceaux pour petites mains op.75 (Suite of Pieces for Small Hands) was written with his piano pupils in mind and each is dedicated to a different young lady. Some of the numbers from this set eventually became very popular, particularly No.1 Fleurette and No.2 Fabliau. "Raff, Op.75, numbers 1-4, excellent!" von Bülow wrote to Louis Koehler. The other set was Douze Morceaux pour Pianoforte à quatre main op.82 and once again Raff's mademoiselles were in the forefront of his mind. This set of delicious numbers for piano four hands also had great success in Raff's lifetime.

Raff and Doris Genast were at last married at a very simple Catholic ceremony in Wiesbaden on 15 March 1859. None of their relatives were present and after the ceremony they celebrated by eating a picnic in the nearby gardens of the ducal palace at Biebrich, where they knew the gardener. On seeing the happy couple, he presented Doris with a huge bouquet, hurriedly culled from the borders under his care. Although Raff's clutch of positions and his wife's acting post provided them with a regular income, it was a far from easy existence for them because for a further nine years they had the added burden of having to pay off Raff's debts stretching back to his days in Zürich. It seems to have been a very happy marriage, although Doris quickly learned that she would have to manage their finances as Raff from the beginning proved to be completely impractical in money matters. In their first year together they had the misfortune of Doris suffering a miscarriage. Raff briefly feared for her life, later telling her that, had she died, he would never have married again but would have sought to enter a religious order.

The remainder of 1859 saw the completion of five new works. Two were compositional drudgery, aimed at keeping a roof over their heads: the transcription for piano of two Marches from Handel's Oratorios Saul and Jephta nonetheless had to wait until near the end of Raff's life to find a publisher but Villanella op.89 for piano eventually proved popular as another of his well crafted salon pot-boilers. The other three works, however, further enhanced his slowly rising reputation. The D minor Piano Suite op.91 was immediately recognised as a major work. Dedicated to von Bülow's new wife, Liszt's daughter Cosima, the work was on a much grander scale than any previous piano composition attempted by Raff. von Schnoor wrote of the "unending joy" he derived from it and von Bülow called the work a masterpiece which was "everywhere inspired and grateful." The song Ständchen became a firm favourite in parlours throughout Germany and, in English translation, in Britain and the USA too. The third piece was the Cavatine, the fourth of his Six Morceaux pour Violin et Piano op.85. The wild popularity of this perfectly formed little work, which was published in 1862, was phenomenal. Of all its creator's huge output, it alone survived the calamitous collapse in his reputation and, helped by arrangements for almost every conceivable ensemble, it lived on into the 20th century on the edges of the repertoire.

By the end of 1859, Raff could look back on his first four years in Wiesbaden with satisfaction. Although he had been unsuccessful in getting Samson staged and he was still far from comfortably off, he had at last married his beloved Doris, he had distanced himself from Liszt without losing his support and his major new works were at last attracting favourable attention and getting his name known beyond Weimar and Wiesbaden. Further, as the new decade dawned, he had begun work on the piece which would catapult him to musical fame throughout Germany.

[The source for this article is the fourth and fifth chapters of Helene Raff's 1925 biography of her father]

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