Württemberg flag
The flag of Württemberg

Raff's nationality

Raff is variously described by today's writers as being Swiss, Swiss-German or German. There are two societies dedicated to promoting his music - based in Switzerland and Germany. This schizophrenia about his nationality would perhaps provoke in Raff some posthumous sympathy with his contemporary Anton Rubinstein who famously remarked "For the Christians, I am a Jew and for the Jews, a Christian; for the Russians I am a German, for the Germans a Russian... I am neither fish nor fowl, a deplorable creature". In Raff's case, though, there is at least no doubt about his religious allegiance. He was brought up a Catholic, studied for a time at a Jesuit seminary and throughout his life he remained true to Rome.

There should be no uncertainty about his nationality either. He was certainly born in Switzerland and his mother and her family were Swiss. His father, however, was a refugee from Swabia, in the south German state of Württemberg, who throughout his life held a Württemberg passport. As did Raff himself throughout his own life. In modern times, therefor he would be regarded quite straightforwardly as an ex-patriot Württemberg citizen, born in Switzerland.

Once he left there for good in 1845, he moved around a Germany which was not yet a single state but was still fragmented into many, often tiny, independent countries. He lived successively in the Rhine Province of the Kingdom of Prussia, the Kingdom of Württemberg, the Free Imperial City of Hamburg and the Grand Duchy of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach, before settling in Wiesbaden, the capital of the Duchy of Nassau.

Everywhere but in his Württemberg homeland he remained technically a foreign citizen. Being German, however, was a matter of language, culture and heritage rather than just citizenship and Raff was as German as the next man - who was probably also born in a "foreign" state himself!

Only when the German Empire was created in 1871 did German nationality and citizenship correspond in the narrower way which we are used to thinking of today and even then it was a federal state outside of which large numbers of "Germans" lived - in Switzerland (his mother and her family for example) and throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. German Europe, even after Bismarck's unification, was much larger than the Second Reich.

Raff remained very proud of Switzerland, the land of his birth, and also of his Württemberg homeland. At a banquet given in his honour in Stuttgart in 1876 Raff's speech of thanks began in Schwyzertütsch (Swiss German) as he recalled his childhood. When he mentioned his family's native Swabia he continued in heavily accented Swabian dialect before moving later to "high" German. This humorous device illustrated that his was a typical story of the times, a product of fluid and casual borders between states sharing a common cultural heritage.

He wrote many works celebrating Switzerland but in the purely musical sense Raff was clearly a German composer irrespective of his nationality. In the narrow modern definition of that term, however, Raff was a German too - or more accurately, he was a Württemberger.

© 1999-2017 Mark Thomas. All rights reserved.