The critics' view of Raff






Joachim Raff
Joachim Raff










Doris Genast
Doris Raff

Ewen's assessment of Raff

Austrian born David Ewen (1907-85) emigrated to the United States as a child. His first book, a biography of Franz Schubert, was published in 1931. He wrote and edited many popular books on music. He founded Allen, Towne and Heath, a company which specialised in books about music.

This extensive survey of Raff's life and music is taken from his "Great Composers 1300-1900", published in 1966. It is not without errors, but remains unusually positive about Raff, considering it was written when his reputation was at its nadir.

"Although the music of Joseph Joachim Raff has lapsed into comparative obscurity in the twentieth century, he was in his time one of the most highly esteemed and popular of the German Romantic composers. The son of an organist, Raff was born in Lachen, on the lake of Zurich, on May 27, 1822. His penchant during his boyhood was toward languages rather than music. After completing his early studies in Wiesenstetten and at the Württemberg Institute, he attended the Jesuit Lyceum of Schwyz, where he won first prizes in German, Latin, and mathematics.

The necessity of earning a living forced Raff to terminate his formal education. At this time he began to devote himself assiduously to music, which had heretofore been merely a passing hobby. Too poor to afford lessons, he taught himself composition, violin, and piano. In 1843 Raff sent several of his compositions to Mendelssohn. "The composition is elegant and faultless throughout," Mendelssohn replied, "and in the most modern style. If my hearty recommendation will have any weight, I most willingly add it to the request of my young friend." On the weight of Mendelssohn's recommendation the young composer was able to approach the important publishing house of Breitkopf and Härtel, which issued some of his early piano pieces.

Encouraged by Mendelssohn's praise and by his own first publications, Raff gave up school teaching to devote himself to music. During the years that followed he was often in dire financial straits, but this circumstance did not hinder his creativity.

In the middle 1840's Franz Liszt, impressed with Raff's talent, urged the young man to accompany him on a concert tour. Raff accompanied Liszt as far as Cologne, where in 1846 he met Mendelssohn at last. He remained, accepting Mendelssohn's invitation to become his student, but the death of the master soon afterward forestalled his plans. Raff then sought music instruction from Hans von Bülow who, on January 1, 1848, introduced Raff's first major work, the Konzertstück, for piano and orchestra. During this period Raff also wrote music criticism for Cäcilia, a Cologne music journal.

The friendship and mutual admiration of Liszt and Raff deepened and Liszt did much to promote the interests and career of the younger man. He recommended Raff to the Viennese publisher Mecchetti, but the latter died just before Raff could visit him. Raff, by then an ardent advocate of the "music of the future," settled in Weimar to be closer to Liszt. For several years he worked as Liszt's secretary while studying under the master. In 1854 he published a valuable treatise on Wagner and Wagnerism, Die Wagnerfrage. Liszt's patronage of Raff resulted in the premiere in Weimar of Raff's opera König Alfred, on March 9, 1851. The opera had three more performances in Weimar, then was produced in Wiesbaden in 1856.

William Mason, an eminent American pianist and teacher who lived in Weimar during these years, has left the following impressions of the young musician: "He was hard to become acquainted with, and not disposed to meet one half way. He was fond of argument, and if one side was taken, he was apt to take the other ... Upon better acquaintance ... one found a kind heart and a faithful friend ... He was very poor and there were times when he seemed hardly able to keep body and soul together. Once he was arrested for debt ... He was a hard worker and composed incessantly."

In Weimar Raff met and fell in love with Doris Genast, the daughter of an actor. When she moved to Wiesbaden in 1856, Raff followed her and settled there, soon acquiring a substantial reputation as a piano teacher. Raff married Doris in Wiesbaden in 1859. His eminence as a composer was also increasing. The overture to Bernhard von Weimar, which he had written in 1858, was being performed throughout Germany. In 1863 he received first prize from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde for his first symphony, An das Vaterland.

In 1870 Dame Kobold, a comic opera, and Im Walde, one of his finest symphonies, were successfully introduced in Weimar. Two years later another symphony, Lenore, was acclaimed at its premiere in Sonderhausen on December 13, 1872.

By 1877 Raff was regarded in Germany as one of the country's leading composers. He was appointed director of Hoch's Conservatory in Frankfurt am Main, a post he held until his death. Raff died in Frankfort of an apoplectic stroke on June 25, 1882.

As a composer Raff was both prolific and versatile. He filled his writing with euphonious melodies and harmonies, and was particularly successful in projecting subtle moods and atmosphere. Arthur Hervey (1855-1922) wrote, "The wonderful ease with which he was able to employ scholastic devices revealed itself in all his larger compositions ... If he was occasionally prolix in his utterances and not invariably inspired, he was always comprehensible and rarely dull ... His Romanticism was grafted on a classical stem, and the broadness of his outlook resulted in his endeavouring to conciliate opposing tendencies."

Raff was at his best in his orchestral music, most notably in his symphonies. "The best point that strikes the student of these symphonies," said Ebenezer Prout, "is their individuality. They possess, it is true, that family likeness which shows them to be productions of the same brain ... His ideas are by no means of equal merit, but at all events the well never runs dry, and inexhaustible fluency seems to be one of the composer's striking characteristics ... I have no hesitation in saying that since Beethoven nobody has equalled Raff in the absolute mastery of thematic treatment. By his skill in this respect, he frequently succeeds in constructing an interesting movement out of the most unpromising material; and when, in addition, he has been happy in the choice of themes, he produces music worthy to rank with the masterpieces of our art. No less remarkable ... is his complete command of counterpoint."

Though Prout's estimate may seem excessively enthusiastic to a present-day audience, there is no question about some of the sound aesthetic and musical values of at least two of Raff's symphonies which are occasionally revived: the third, Im Walde, and the fifth, Lenore.

Paradoxically, in view of his vast output of hundreds of works in the larger forms, the composition by Raff most often performed today is a slight piece for violin and piano, the Cavatina in A-flat major, op. 85, no. 3, also familiar in orchestral adaptations."

[Great Composers 1300-1900, edited by David Ewen, was published by H W Wilson of New York in 1966]

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