Peter Cornelius
Peter Cornelius















La Fée d'amour
Score of La Fée d'amour

Weimar: Departure

As 1854 began Raff was still assimilating the effect on him of Wagner's music. He spent the Winter working on his book Die Wagnerfrage (The Wagner Question), which was a critical review of Lohengrin. When it was published in the Summer it caused a storm. Liszt took offence straight away because Raff hadn't shown him the manuscript before publication. He hastily distanced himself from the book, saying that Raff was on "shaky ground". Liszt was always very tolerant of Raff's idiosyncrasies, however, so more serious for Raff's position in Weimar was the adverse reaction of his friends amongst Liszt's circle, the self-styled Murls (carrots) such as Peter Cornelius and Richard Pohl. Up to now, as the most senior of them, he had enjoyed the status of Murl Nakib (Guardian Carrot), but now the others felt betrayed by his criticisms of their idol Wagner. Expressing his frustrations at their inability to respect his need to chart an independent course, in a letter to his fiancée Doris Genast he wrote: "I’ve dragged the carts of Zukunftsmusik (music of the future) for the past five years, before any of these young pudding heads were even heard of". He was honest enough, though, to recognise that he had done his arguments in the book no favours by adopting a style which was both abrupt and opaque, blaming it on his Jesuit schooling which had majored in Latin.

Raff's need to assert his independence had led him to begin the process of distancing himself from the smothering embrace of Liszt's circle and their unquestioning adherence to Liszt and Wagner's Zukunftsmusik. No doubt his later abhorrence of musical factions and attempt to steer a middle course between the opposing musical camps represented by Brahms and Wagner dated from this painful experience.

Whilst he was enduring the self-inflicted problems brought on by Die Wagnerfrage, he still found time to compose. In 1854 he finally finished work on his second opera, the "music drama" Samson, which had been occupying him for eighteen months. Unlike his first opera König Alfred, there was no prospect of a performance. His stormy First Violin Sonata was completed early in the year, but would have to wait until 1855 before his friends Edmund Singer and Dionys Pruckner premiered it in Weimar. After that it was quickly taken up, however, and was published in 1859. The major piece of the year, though, was his first Symphony, a five movement work in E minor which also had to wait until the following year for its premiere. Amidst all this activity he found time too to take on composition pupils, notable among them Alexander Ritter and Edmund Singer. Both became his lifelong friends.

The dawn of 1855 saw the staging on 2 January of a play by his fiancée's brother Wilhelm Genast. Bernhard von Weimar boasted an overture and incidental music which Raff had written during the previous year. Although the play's run only lasted six performances, Raff's music was noticed. Anton Rubinstein said "I don't know if the music pleased me, but there is one thing for certain: Raff is a master of orchestration". Although the rest of the pieces didn't resurface in Raff's lifetime, the overture as "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott: Overture to a Drama about the 30 Years' War" eventually had an independent career as one of his most successful orchestral works.

At the very end of 1854, at the suggestion of the poet Hoffmann von Fallersleben, the Neu-Weimarverein (Union of the New Weimarers) had been founded to formalise Liszt's circle. Liszt was, of course, the president and as well as Raff himself its most prominent members numbered Hans von Bronsart, Bernhard Coßmann, Peter Cornelius, Richard Pohl, Dionys Pruckner and Alexander Ritter. Raff was responsible for the Newsletter "The Lantern" which was almost entirely written by him. Berlioz became an honorary member in February 1855 during a visit to Weimar in which he conducted a concert in the city. Afterwards Raff proposed the toast during a reception for the Frenchman given by the Neu-Weimarverein. Conscious of his poor French, he delivered his toast in Latin and further homage was paid that evening to Berlioz by the performance of a four part chorus which Raff had written to Fallersleben's Latin text.

Already rather divorced from Liszt's circle, it was inevitable that Raff's membership of the Neu-Weimarverein was a short one. He resigned in March 1855 after a series of disagreements. His relationship with the magnanimous Liszt didn't seem to be affected though, as he was shortly afterwards asked by him to superintend the preparations for the first performance of his Mass at the consecration of the new cathedral in Gran, Hungary. In the end Raff didn't make the trip. Liszt also assisted him in staging a concert which would at last showcase his recent compositions. At Weimar's Grand Ducal Theatre on 20 April 1855 he conducted the premiere of four large scale orchestral works. As well as his new Symphony and the Psalm 121 for soloist, chorus and orchestra, which dated from 1848, there were two brand new works, the Konzertstück for violin and orchestra La Fée d'amour and the orchestral song Traumkönig und sein Lieb, both of which had been completed during the previous Winter. His fiancée's sister, Emilie Genast was the soloist in the Psalm and Traumkönig, which Raff dedicated to her. His friend and pupil Edmund Singer was the dedicatee of La Fée d'amour in which he was the soloist. Liszt was particularly impressed with it: "Raff can go a long time without anything else, now that he's done this", but despite much local acclaim nothing came of the concert. No publishers wanted to take up the works.

With his fiancée Doris now living permanently in Wiesbaden, Raff became a second son to her family the Genasts, with whom he spent many evenings. In contrast to these home comforts his professional disappointments continued. A hoped-for music directorship in Anhalt-Dessau failed to materialise and the rest of 1855 played out with Raff gravitating more and more to Wiesbaden, where he could not only see Doris but also where he sensed a more receptive musical climate. Whilst staying in the Nassauen city, he composed in the summer of 1855 his major "Fairy Tale Epic" Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty) for soloists, choir and orchestra. As his activities working for Liszt declined because of his gradual separation from the master and his acolytes, he had more time for composition. 1855 proved to be a productive year. As well as finishing Dornröschen, he began to compose songs again, initially for a cycle entitled Todte Liebe (Fatal Love) which never saw the light of day, although some were eventually published in 1864 as part of his major collection Sanges-Frühling (Spring Songs). To bring in some money he composed pot-boiler piano arrangements of airs from operas by Schumann, Berlioz and himself (his König Alfred) but also a pretty Capriccio op.64. The last work of this year, and of his whole time in Weimar, was his dramatic First String Quartet. This was finished in the Autumn and was played soon afterwards by Edmund Singer's quartet, in which also played his friend the cellist Bernhard Coßmann. Published in 1860, it went on to be one of his most played chamber works.

Raff's persistence in cultivating the Wiesbaden court conductor JB Hagen paid off when his Symphony was played in Wiesbaden on 23 January 1856 and then repeated just six days later, such was the enthusiasm for the work. It was heard again in the Ducal Theatre and had a fourth hearing with La Fée d'amour on 14 March. Raff had made a good impression in Nassau. This was in stark contrast with the atmosphere back in Weimar where an article he wrote to mark the Mozart centenary was taken by his colleagues as further proof that he was taking a position contrary to their "Music of the Future" credo. Liszt said to Emilie Genast "It almost seems as if Raff wants to break loose from us." He wasn't far from the truth.

Raff was slowly gaining a reputation outside Weimar and Wiesbaden. He was invited to Gotha to conduct a concert, consisting of the Eine Feste Burg Overture, Psalm 121 and the Symphony, on 11 April in the court theatre. He was fêted by the Gothauers and was even decorated by Duke Ernst of Coburg-Gotha, an amateur composer who had previously asked Raff for advice.

Back in Weimar itself, despite the renewed recriminations of Liszt's circle, he was able to get his new Dornröschen performed on 24 May 1856 under his own direction. The main solo part was again sung by Doris' sister Emilie, who was establishing a fine reputation for herself. Although not designed as a work for the stage, the performance was illustrated by tableaux vivant and Liszt was "completely enthused by it". He later wrote an extravagant review of the work. Despite this success, though, Raff had decided to move to Wiesbaden, where he could join Doris and build on the reputation he had quickly gained there through Hagen's promotion of his music. Naturally, Liszt was against the move. He felt that Raff was leaving for a city where he would have no permanent position and would be cast adrift from gifted companions who shared a similar outlook. But for Raff it was clearly time to break free of the frustrations of being a semi-detatched member of Liszt's circle and, in particular, of Liszt's benign but overpowering influence. Although he retained for the rest of his life the friendship of many of the Neu-Weimarers and eventually mended his fractured relationship with Liszt himself, whilst in Weimar he had had to endure their continual sniping for daring to distance himself from them ideologically. Away from the place, for good or ill, he was free to be his own man.

After six and a half years, early in the Summer of 1856 he moved to Wiesbaden, to the city where he was to stay for the twenty one years which would see him eventually gain a reputation as one of the three greatest composers in Germany.

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

© 1999-2017 Mark Thomas. All rights reserved.