Franz Gehring, writing about the time of Raff's death and only a year before his own, gives a good idea of the mixed feelings about Raff and his music even whilst he was at the height of his fame. Gehring himself was a staunch partisan of Brahms and his faintly dismissive assessment of Raff is typical of his circle.
Unfortunately for Raff's reputation, this article appeared in the highly influential first edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians and so helped spread the sneering attitude towards Raff's music so prevalent subsequently:
"Raff was born on May 27, 1822, at Lachen on the Lake of Zürich. He received his early education at Wiesenstetten in Wurtemberg [sic], in the home of his parents, and then at the Jesuit Lyceum of Schwyz. where he carried off the first prizes in German, Latin, and mathematics. Want of means compelled him to give up his classical studies, and become a schoolmaster, but he stuck to music, and though unable to afford a teacher, made such progress not only with the piano and the violin, but also in composition, that Mendelssohn, to whom he sent some MSS., gave him in 1843 a recommendation to Breitkopf & Hartel. This introduction seems to have led to his appearing before the public, and to the first drops of that flood of compositions of all sorts and dimensions which since 1844 he has poured forth in an almost unintermitting stream. Of Opus I we have found no critical record; but op.2 is kindly noticed by the N. Zeitschrift (Schumann's paper) for Aug. 5, 1844, the reviewer finding in it 'something which points to a future for the composer.' Encouraging notices of ops. 2 to 6 inclusive are also given in the A. M. Zeitung for the 21st of the same month.
Amidst privations which would have daunted any one of less determination he worked steadily on, and at length having fallen in with Liszt, was treated by him with the kindness which has always marked his intercourse with rising or struggling talent, and was taken by him on a concert tour. Meeting Mendelssohn for the first time at Cologne in 1846, and being afterwards invited by him to become his pupil at Leipzig he left Liszt for that purpose. Before he could carry this project into effect, however, Mendelssohn died, and Raff remained at Cologne, occupying himself inter alia in writing critiques for Dehn's Cacilia. Later he published 'Die Wagnerfrage,' a pamphlet which excited considerable attention. Lizst's endeavours to secure him a patron in Vienna in the person of Mechetti the publisher, were frustrated by Mechetti's death while Raff was actually on the way to see him. Undismayed by these repeated obstacles he devoted himself to a severe course of study, partly at home and partly at Stuttgart, with the view to remedy the deficiencies of his early training. At Stuttgart he made the acquaintance of Bülow, who became deeply interested in him, and did him a great service, by taking up his new Concertstück, for piano and orchestra, and playing it in public.
By degrees Raff attached himself more and more closely to the new German school, and in 1850 went to Weimar to be near Liszt, who had at that time abandoned hiscareer as a virtuoso and was settled there. Here he remodelled an opera 'König Alfred,' which he had composed in Stuttgart three years before, and it was produced at the Court Theatre, where it is still often performed. It has also been given else-where. Other works followed -a collection of piano pieces called 'Frülingsboten' in 1852, the first string quartet in 1855, and the first grand sonata for PF. and violin (E minor) in 1857. In the meantime he had engaged himself to Doris Genast, daughter of the well known actor and manager, and herself on the stage; and in 1856 he followed her to Wiesbaden, where he was soon in great request as a pianoforte teacher. In 1858 he composed his second violin-sonata, and the incidental music for 'Bernhard von Weimar,' a drama by Wilhelm Genast, the overture to which speedily became a favourite, and was much played throughout Germany. In 1859 he married.
In 1863 his first symphony 'An das Vaterland' obtained the prize offered by the Gesellechaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna (out of 32 competitors), and was followed by the 2nd (in C) and the 3rd (in F. 'Im Walde') in 1869, the 4th (in G minor) in 1871, the 5th ('Lenore') in 1872, the 6th ('Gelebt, gestrebt, gelitten, gestritten, gestorben, umworben') in 1876, and the 7th ('Alpensinfonie') in 1877, the 8th ('Frühlingsklänge') in 1878, and the 9th 'Im Sommerzeit' [sic] in 1880. A 10th ('Zur Herbstzeit') was lately played at Wiesbaden. In 1870 his comic opera 'Dame Kobold' was produced at Weimar. A serious opera in 5 acts entitled 'Samson,' for which he himself wrote the libretto, has not yet been performed in public. Two cantatas, 'Wachet auf' and another written for the Festival in commemoration of the battle of Leipzig, were his first works for men's voices, and are popular with the choral societies. His arrangement of Bach's 6 violin sonatas for piano is a work of great merit.
Detailed analyses of the first six of these Symphonies will be found
in the 'Monthly Musical Record' for 1875. and from these a very good
idea of the composer's style may be gathered. Remembering his struggles
and hard life, it is only a matter for wonder that he should have striven
so earnestly and so long in a path that was not his natural walk. A glance
at the nearly complete list of his works at the foot of this notice will
explain our meaning. The enormous mass of 'drawing-room music' tells
its own tale. Raff had to live, and having by nature a remarkable gift
of melody and perhaps not much artistic refinement, he wrote what would
pay. But on looking at his works in the higher branch of music - his
symphonies, concertos, and chamber music - one cannot but he struck by
the conscientious striving towards a very high ideal. In the whole of his
nine published Symphonies the slow movements, without a single exception,
are of extreme melodic beauty, although weak from a symphonic point of
view: the first movements are invariably worked out with surprising technical
skill, the subjects appearing frequently in double counterpoint and in
every kind of canon. And however modern and common his themes may appear,
they have often been built up with the greatest care, note by note, to
this end; showing that he does not, as is often said, put down the first
thing that comes into his mind. Observe the treatment of the first subject
in his 1 st Symphony 'An das Vaterland' - a canon in augmentation and
double augmentation. Such instances as this are numerous, and the art
with which these contrapuntal devices are made to appear spontaneous
is consummate. In the Pianoforte Concerto in
C minor (op. 185), in each movement all the subjects are in double counterpoint
with one another, yet this is one of Raff's freshest and most melodious
works. To return to the Symphonies: the Scherzos are, as a rule, weak,
and the Finales without exception boisterous and indeed vulgar. Writing
here, as ever, for an uneducated public, Raff has forgotten that for
a symphony to descend from a high tone is for it to be unworthy of the
A remarkable set of 30 Songs (Sanges-Frühling, op. 98) deserves notice for its wealth of fine melodies, some of which have become national property ('Kein Sorg urn den Weg'; 'Shön'Else,' etc.); and among his pianoforte music is a set of 20 Variations on an original theme (op 179) which displays an astonishing fertility of resource, the theme - of an almost impossible rhythm of 5 and 7 quavers in the bar - being built up into canons and scherzos of great variety and elegance.
Raff's Pianoforte Concerto is very popular, and his Suite for Violin and Orchestra (Op. 180) only little less so. His versatility need not be enlarged upon. In all the forms of musical composition he has shown the same brilliant qualities and the same regrettable shortcomings. His gift of melody, his technical skill, his inexhaustible fertility, and above all his power of never repeating himself - all these are beyond praise. But his very fertility is a misfortune, since it renders him careless in the choice of his subjects; writing 'potboilers, has injured the development of a delicate feeling for what is lofty and refined: in short, he stands far before all second-rate composers, yet the conscientious critic hesitates to allow him a place in the front rank of all.
Even those who have least sympathy with Raff's views on art must admire the energy and spirit with which be has worked his way upwards in spite of every obstacle poverty could throw in his way. He is a member of several Societies, and has received various orders. In 1877 he was appointed with much éclat director of the Hoch- conservatoire at Frankfort. A post be still retains.
The first of his large works performed in this country was probably the Lenore Symphony at the Crystal Palace, Nov. 14, 1874. This was followed by the 'Im Walde', and the Piano Concerto in C minor (Jaell), at the Philharmonic; the Symphonies in G minor 'Im Walde,' 'Frühlingsklänge' and 'Im Sommerzeit,' with the Concertos for cello and violin, and the Suite for piano and orchestra, at the Crystal Palace. His Quintet (op. 207), 2 Trios (op. 102, 112), Sonata (op. 128), and other pieces, have been played at the Monday Popular Concerts.
Dr Franz Gehring, Vienna 1883