1853 did not start well for Raff, and it got worse. His friend the Hungarian violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim left Weimar for Hanover in January 1853. He had not yet formed his great attachment to Brahms and Raff held him in great affection. His departure deprived Raff of a friendly face amongst Liszt's circle.
The lack of a formal position continually rankled with Raff; he aired his frustration to Kunigunde Heinrich. His music was indeed being published, he wrote, but it didn't produce much income. For twelve songs, produced by various publishers he had received "12 Louis d'ors, or as much as Kücken gets for just one". He felt has was not recognised as an individual artist but merely as part of Liszt's coterie "The pressure which Liszt ... has put on my personality is insufferable".
He told Heinrich that he had decided that "In May I'm going to leave Weimar altogether. I am thinking of moving to Gohlis, a village about half an hour from Leipzig". He didn't go. He went on: "Over the Summer I want to devote all my energies to ... completing my Samson" for which he had finished the text and was writing the music. He reported that he had abandoned the style of König Alfred and that he had moved to the "realm of music drama for which Wagner has shown the way". Wagner's influence was strengthened by a Wagner week which Liszt organised in Weimar in Spring 1853. Three of the four works which he completed that year show his struggle with Wagner's influence. The two sets of piano works and the three Duos for piano & violin which comprise his Opp.61-63 all take as their starting points themes from Wagner's operas.
In April there arose the prospect of a permanent position as Assistant Music Director in Munich, in succession to Vincenz Lachner. Raff turned to Liszt for help and his mentor responded with a splendid letter of recommendation: "The talents of Herr Joachim Raff, as composer and accomplished musician, are of such immediate and apparent nature, his numerous orchestral as well as piano and vocal works delivering such executional proofs, that I find it superfluous to add anything more or attempt any further certification of proof. I make it my duty to recommend Herr Raff to all those music institutes, which lay genuine worth on possessing an intelligent and trustworthy leader with the challenges and developments of art, and I do so with all urgency". Raff, however, regarded the document as "artificial" and Liszt, no doubt miffed at his ingratitude, responded tersely that he was "entitled to it by law".
Despite this, Liszt continued to lobby for Raff's appointment and even enlisted the help of his mistress Princess Wittgenstein (who presumably would have wanted to be rid of Raff anyway), but to no avail. No only were the Munich authorities unlikely to look kindly on someone who was seen as a Liszt supporter, but also Raff was overtaken by an entirely unexpected calamity.
His past caught up with him, in the form of an arrest warrant linked to the debts which he had incurred whilst living in Switzerland. The details of the case aren't known, but Raff refused to borrow to pay the alleged debt and so was imprisoned. It was the low spot of his life. To his great credit, Liszt stood by his sometimes ungrateful protogé, refrained from paying the debt himself, but instead used his influence in Weimar to secure comfortable accommodation for him.
Raff missed the Karslruhe festival, but ultimately his principled stand was successful and he was released from jail without paying. He was free again, but his life was in the doldrums. He was bereft of income and official position, his music was appreciated by a small circle of admirers, but unknown and unwanted in the wider world.
Having reached their nadir, his fortunes took a turn for the better. He had met and immediately fallen in love with the actress Doris Genast at Christmas in 1850. She had been slower to acknowledge the attraction, but by the time she had left for Dresden a few month's later, they were an item. In her absence, the Genasts looked after Raff and he became very close to her younger sister Emilie, who bore a striking resemblance to Doris. During a visit home by Doris, however, Raff's true feelings for her resurfaced and they became engaged.
Once Liszt had realised that Raff's feelings for Doris were more than a passing infatuation, he had been very supportive of the couple, but their engagement provoked in him a coolness towards her which took years to wear off. He did later appreciate her self-sacrificing role in Raff's success, saying of her: "That woman is a heroine". As for Emilie, she reverted to the role of good friend and prospective sister-in-law. In later years she too became a protogée of Liszt (who took more than a shine to her) and became a fine singer who later made a substantial name for herself. She premiered Wagner's Wesendonk Lieder.
The engagement gave Raff hope of a brighter future but also unsettled him even more. Doris realised that Raff had to free himself from Liszt's benign but smothering influence if he was to have any independent success. In the Autumn of 1853 she moved from Dresden to the Nassau capital of Wiesbaden, as much for her health as for the new job. Raff started visiting her there regularly and began to make contacts in the city's musical circles which would bear fruit in the next few years.
Apart from the three Wagner-related sets of works in opp.61-3, the only work which Raff finished in the year was his setting for chorus and orchestra of the Te Deum WoO.16. Finished in July, it was played the following month under Raff's baton as part of a royal celebration. Earlier in the year, his Festival Overture WoO.15, composed the previous year, had been played at a royal wedding, with Liszt conducting.
His primary artistic activity throughout the year was the composition of his "musical drama" Samson. The engagement fired his enthusiasm for the work and he later said that in few other works had he had given of himself so recklessly as in the opera's great love scene where Samson declares: “With you alone, beloved, rests my happiness!”. He became as obsessed with the piece as he had earlier been with König Alfred.
1853, a year which had begun in disillusion and had seen him imprisoned, ended with Raff absorbed in his greatest project to date and looking forward to a new life with Doris, away from the stifling atmosphere of Weimar.