The critics' view of Raff










Frederick Niecks
Frederick Niecks

Niecks on Raff

In his 1907 book "Programme Music in the Last Four Centuries" Professor Frederick Niecks (1845-1924) of Edinburgh University offered an extensive survey of Raff's relationship with Liszt followed by an assessment of Raff's music, which is quite evenhanded for its time and is in sharp contrast with Gehring's of twenty years before. Niecks' review of the Liszt/Raff relationship was coloured by the recent (1902) publication of Raff's letters which implied that he had written large parts of some of Liszt's symphonic poems.

"The relation between Liszt and Raff was peculiar - it had on both sides much genuine respect, affection, and goodwill, but also some disrespect, suspicion, and contrariety. It lacked the quality of ease, indeed was disturbed by a positive element of discomfort. This state of matters arose from disparity in their characters, positions, and abilities. There was, on the one hand, Liszt, aristocratic and idealistic as a man, famous and high-placed as a musician, and ambitious and self-confident, but ill-trained, as a composer; on the other hand, Raff, boorish and homespun as a man, unknown and low-placed as a musician, and equally ambitious and self-confident, but of skillful craftsmanship, as a composer. Liszt could not forget that he was the patron and employer of Raff, nor Raff that he was the subordinate and dependent of Liszt. And again, Liszt, who, conscious of his genius, originality, and poetic inventiveness, no doubt looked down upon Raff, could not but feel his own technical inferiority; whereas Raff, we know, proudly felt his superiority in this respect.

[The] letters . throw further light on the relation of the two men, and expose to view Raff's standpoint with regard to Liszt's position as a composer. However, I must not conceal my suspicion that Raff's strong self-satisfaction leads him now and then - unconsciously no doubt - to lay on a subjective colouring that interferes somewhat with objective truth.

Raff published his confession of faith in a Letter to the Editor of the Neue Zeitshrift für Musik. He there says that he has felt the need of seeking the terra firma of a neutral ground, as productive activity cannot find support in either of the negations presented by the extreme parties - by those who oppose what goes farther than Beethoven and even what goes so far as the works of his last period, and by those who are exclusive partisans of R.Wagner, and deny the right of existence to specific music, i.e., music apart from the drama".

After a further comprehensive review of the attitude of Raff and Liszt to each other, Niecks considers Raff's place in the musical pantheon.

"Let us have Liszt's [opinion] of Raff. "Your true friends must seriously draw your attention to the probable bad consequences of the gigantic fertility of your genius, and remind you of moderation and aim' (October 28, 1846)".

This refers to a very early period of Raff's career, yet even then Liszt put his finger on the weak and strong points that remained the same throughout Raff's life. Over productivity, however, was not, as we shall see, the only cause of the fate that so soon overtook the composer Raff. What was this fate ? Early in the last quarter of the 19th century, one of the most distinguished, and at the same time most sane and solid musicians and critics of England, Ebenezer Prout, declared that Raff was one of the three German composers that stood in the front rank, head and shoulders taller than their fellows, the other two being Wagner and Brahms. The fame of the first has been short-lived. No one would now pronounce his name in the same breath with those of the two other masters. Indeed, although Raff's published works number considerably more than two hundred, and comprise compositions of all kinds, his name on programmes has for some time been a very rare phenomenon.

The explanation seems to be this: Raff, a composer of inexhaustible inventiveness and wonderful fluency of expression, of masterly craftsmanship in counterpoint, form, and instrumentation, was not an inspired poet, not an original individuality, not a grand personality. Moreover, pedantry made him sometimes indulge in unseasonable contrapuntal sportiveness (canons, etc.); and an irrepressible passion for work even more than the need of making money prevented him from waiting for the propitious moment and from selecting his ideas. But as Raff, besides being intellectual, was poetical, although not a poet, was a distinct individuality, although not a strikingly original one, was an estimable personality, although not a grand one, it must be admitted that the neglect of his more than respectable achievements is not quite deserved. But that, I am afraid, may be said both of all successes and all failures: even time, the supreme court of appeal, does not know how to hold the balance. As to my explanation, it is incomplete. Riemann is right when he says: "it is true that Raff's works are unequal ; but it would be difficult to give an explanation of the fact that, for instance, the Forest Symphony, too, does not 'sound' nowadays". Or let us rather say: "that it now fails to impress the public as it used to do".

From what has been said it may be gathered that the programme acted on the form as well as on the content of Raff's compositions. But it has to be noted that the form, however modified, is classical, i.e., based on the example of the great classics and their followers. While Liszt's theory and practice had undoubtedly a considerable influence upon Raff, it is equally clear that his programme music differs from Liszt's, both in programme and music, both in content and form, but in form especially. In short, Raff, although connected with the New German School, was not of it. This was evidenced not only by his musical compositions, but also by his writings on music - for instance, Die Wagnerfrage (The Wagner question; 1854), and still more in his article on Mozart in the Signale (1856). These caused some heartburning among the party to whom he ostensibly belonged. Moreover, Raff's daughter assures us that her father was a sincere reverer of the classics and especially of Mozart".

Prof. Frederick Niecks, Edinburgh 1907

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