Eduard Genast
Eduard Genast

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ballenstedt castle
Ballenstedt Castle

Weimar: Success and drudgery

As 1851 began, Princess Caroline's daughter Marie Wittgenstein contracted typhus in Bad Eilsen. Weimar's artistic life came to a temporary halt as Liszt left the town to travel to her bedside. Raff was now in charge of the plans for the premiere of his opera König Alfred, working with Eduard Genast, the Theatre Director, father of Doris with whom he had fallen in love the Christmas before. Liszt's extended absence prompted a lengthy and sincere correspondence with Raff. "Nobody can have a better regard for you than I" he wrote to his mentor. "I thank you a thousand times over for so many proofs of the sacrifices and aid of your friendship."

Whilst working with Genast on the preparations for König Alfred, Raff was feverishly polishing the score. He finished the work on 31 January 1851, shortly before Liszt returned to Weimar to begin directing rehearsals. Liszt himself regarded the piece as being a ground breaking one: "Alfred is really a very important work", but shortly before the premiere he again left for Bad Eilsen. This time, the princess herself was seriously ill. He asked Raff to conduct König Alfred instead: "So get on with it, and good luck Raff!"

The opera's first hearing, on 9 March 1851 at Genast's Weimar Court Theatre, was a great success. Both it and a second performance were sold out. Although absent, Liszt had arranged for a celebration dinner for the cast and prominent guests at his home, the Altenburg. Raff was blissfully happy; he enjoyed being stopped in the street and congratulated. His friends Joseph Joachim and the cellist Bernard Coßmann wrote fantasies on the opera's themes and Liszt transcribed two passages for the piano. So happy was he that even Doris Genast's departure for a new acting post in Dresden was eclipsed.

The success was short lived, though. Although there were two more performances in April under Liszt's baton, the work failed to gain acceptance in other cities, despite several hopeful contacts made by Raff, including the elderly Louis Spohr in Kassel. The 67 year old composer was nearing the end of his career, but remained open to new music. He had been enthusiastic about presenting the work, but the Regent of Hesse-Kassel insisted that only one new work would be performed at the Court Theatre each year, and that he would choose it. A difficult work by an unknown composer was generally felt by intendents to be too risky a venture.

Raff's spirits were lifted by the visit in June 1851 of Hans von Bülow and his mother, during which Raff gave instruction to his young friend and also helped persuade Bülow's mother, who remained nervous at the prospect, that her son had a brilliant musical future. Whilst he was staying in Weimar Bülow, with Joachim and Coßmann, played his friend's first Piano Trio (which was later destroyed by Raff).

As tireless in his attempts to improve Raff's prospects as he was in finding jobs for him to do, Liszt formulated a plan. He proposed that Raff gain a doctoral degree from nearby Jena university and afterwards he would be appointed secretary to Liszt's nascent Goethe Foundation, which was intended to organise a regular music festival. It would provide a small but regular income. Raff chose as the subject of his doctoral study the biblical story of Samson. He intended to "kill two flies with one swat" by producing both an academic dissertation and the text for a music drama. The Foundation plan was soon dropped by Liszt, but Raff continued with the work and completed both his projects, although he never gained his doctorate.

He was so busy with König Alfred and his work for Liszt that he was only able to complete one work in 1851. Schweizerwiesen (Swiss Airs) op.60 is a collection of nine pieces based upon traditional tunes from the country of his birth. The set was published in 1855.

As 1851 and 1852 progressed, Raff felt that Liszt's support for him was weakening. In contrast to his fulsome praise of his friend at the start of 1851, he now started to feel bitter at what he regarded as Liszt's indifference, and resentful of the continued burden of work which he carried out for him. Writing at the end of 1851 in a letter to his friend from the Stuttgart years "Mama" Kunigunde Heinrich, he complained of the unfairness of Liszt's continued absence from Weimar when he, Raff, had sacrificed so much to get Alfred staged.

1852 proved musically fruitful, however. In June, just after his 30th birthday, Raff left for Ballenstedt near Magdeburg to assist Liszt in preparations for the music festival which Liszt planned there. König Alfred's Overture was played, which perhaps went some way to redressing Raff's feeling of being abandoned by Liszt. Hans von Bülow played the bass drum. Encouraged by the festival's success, Liszt organised a Berlioz festival in Weimar in November 1853, at which Berlioz was present. Further demonstrating that Raff's feelings were perhaps wide of the mark, Liszt also favoured him with two more full performances of König Alfred.

Although his Symphony remained an unfinished project and he destroyed the manuscript of a Fantasy Overture on a motto from Goethe's Faust, Raff did complete in January 1852 a Festival Overture which he had begun in Spring the previous year, after his revision of König Alfred was finished. Other works written in 1852 include the second of the Two Fantasy Pieces for Piano und Violin op.58, and three sets of piano pieces. The Drei Tanz-Capricen (Three Dance Caprices) op.54 perhaps betray too strongly the influence of Chopin, but the substantial Drei Klaviersoli (Three Piano Solos) op.74, which were not published until 1859, are much more independent in their inspiration. The third piece in the set, Metamorphosen, is a large set of variations and was particularly well received. The final set of pieces finished in 1852 was Raff's op.55, Frühlingsboten (Harbingers of Spring), on which he had been working since his first year in Weimar. Although they weren't at the time wanted by any publisher, the collection was widely praised by Raff's circle and, once they were finally published by his friend Schuberth the following year, Bülow said of them "Joachim Raff appears here as a master... An admirable unity of idea and form prevail everywhere". They eventually went into three editions.

As 1852 ended, the excitement of König Alfred's premiere and Raff's high hopes for a permanent position gained with Liszt's help were far behind him. In their place was continued drudgery in Liszt's employ and artistic frustration with his inability to get performances or find publishers for music which was nonetheless praised by his musical peers.

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

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