The critics' view of Raff


Raff in later years

A modern view of Raff

Professor Alan Krueck (1939-2010) of the California University of Pennsylvania was a pioneering musicologist who spearheaded the revival of interest in the music of Joachim Raff from the 1970s onwards. His work laid the foundation for the continuing reassessment of Raff's achievement which continues. These notes on Raff were written to accompany a performance of the String Quartet No.7.

From 1855 to 1878 Raff worked independently in Wiesbaden, writing most of his successful compositions. In 1878 he was named the first director of the recently founded Dr. Hoch's Conservatory of Music in Frankfurt-am-Main, where he remained until his death four years later. Although noted for his care and generosity both professionally and personally, he could erupt in fits of irascibility, abandoning all tact and restraint, at times literally biting the hand that fed him (Liszt comes immediately to mind). Allied early in his career with Liszt and the New German School, Raff dared to question Wagner's ideas polemically. Unwanted by the conservatives, and himself rejecting the circle with which he was most often associated, he isolated himself between the two most important poles of musical politics during his life. An impeccable craftsman for whom all matters of music were second nature, he could be totally uncritical of the materials he used in his compositions, placing movements of soaring inspiration and incredible invention next to ones of embarrassing dross, pairing the simpleminded with the sublime.

One constant in Raff's career, however, gives at least partial explanation for the lack of attention given to his music. Almost from the beginning of his career as a composer he was cautioned by colleagues and friends about his penchant for overproduction, his compulsive facility for writing. Vielschreiber was the word that haunted him throughout his life and the term that echoed loudest in the posthumous condemnation of his output. Vielschreiber, one who writes (too) much, carries with it the pejorative connotation of one who has little to say as well. The term has been used to characterize such composers as Telemann and Reger and could certainly describe such twentieth-century composers as Darius Milhaud and Alan Hovhaness. In its most basic meaning--someone who writes a lot--Vielschreiber could be justifiably applied to the likes of Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and, in our day, Hindemith. What then is the difference between the two groups of names? Too many subjective elements enter any single explanation, but one thing is certain: in the latter group, technique is malleable and not merely facile and one senses an instinct for realizing when the maximum potential in the compositional materials has been reached. Raff lacked this perception in many of his works and, though technically secure, his reliance on standard patterns of melodic and harmonic sequence, not to mention recurrent basic rhythmic patterns, could assure Raff that all was well in the progress of a movement when, in fact, a musical treadmill was in play. Yet, despite the harshest criticisms leveled at him, no one can deny that the man was touched by genius and it does not take a sophisticated music lover to respond to the best in Raff's works. What those works are, though, is still a matter of debate. A fair assessment of Raff's compositions has really only recently begun, focussing with good reason on his orchestral music. That is only part of Raff's rich lode as there is also an extensive catalog of instrumental, vocal, and chamber music.

Professor Alan Krueck

[These notes are adapted after those prepared by Alan Krueck for a performance of Raff's Die schöne Müllerin String Quartet by the Willow Pond Quartet and are reproduced with the kind permission of Robert Rej.

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