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The young Brahms
Johannes Brahms

Brahms on Raff

Brahms first met Raff in 1853 at Liszt's house in Weimar. There he played his Eb Scherzo and, typically insensitive, Raff straightaway remarked on the similarity of its beginning to a Chopin Scherzo! Although Raff was probably right about Brahms' debt, it wasn't an auspicious start to their relationship. Further, when he was leaving Weimar, Brahms tried to borrow money from the debt-ridden Raff for his onward fare. In later years, as Raff's moved away from his Lisztian heritage towards a more classical style, he moved closer to Brahms.

Raff always respected him as an artist. When Brahms played as soloist in his own Piano Concerto No.1 in Wiesbaden's Kurhaus concert hall, Raff (who lived in the city for 21 years) was there. The work wasn't well received and applause was hesitant until Raff ostentatiously stood up and clapped vigorously. The audience, recognising him as their own great composer, allowed themselves to be led by Raff and Brahms got his just reward. He called on Raff the next day and said "Listen! I saw you yesterday. Don't you want to accompany me on my performance tours as my claque?".

Despite their very distinct artistic differences, Brahms too professed an affection for Raff's music and also for the man himself - though in a rather condescending fashion. George Henschel (1850-1934) the Anglo-German baritone, conductor and composer, writing many years after the event recalled a visit which he and Brahms made to the Raff household in Wiesbaden, sometime before 1877. It paints a fascinating picture of Raff's home life and hints at Brahms' feelings about Raff the Vielschreiber:

"In the afternoon we paid a visit to Joachim Raff. Raff was one of the most popular composers of the time and lived at that time in Wiesbaden. Of his over 300 works, scarcely three are known today. 'I really like Raff a lot', said Brahms, 'and he likes to hear himself speak so much that it is as much fun as going to the theatre…He isn’t happy unless he composes a certain number of hours each day, and on top of that he writes out all his orchestral parts himself!'

So, off we went to Raff’s house and found him and his wife at home. Brahms seemed somewhat tired and spoke little, Raff and his wife, on the contrary, that much the more. After a time Raff, who reminded me of Dr Bartolo, was called away; his barber had come and he asked us to excuse him for 10 minutes. In his absence, the duty of entertaining us fell to his wife. 'You have no idea' she said 'how tireless a worker Raff is' (she never said 'my husband' but always 'Raff'). 'I am proud and happy that I was finally able to persuade him to go for a walk with our daughter now that she’s grown up, every day for two hours, that keeps him from composing at least two hours a day!'. 'Ah, that’s good, yes, that’s very good!' cried Brahms, with the most innocent face in the world!"*

Even mutual friends such as Hans von Bülow sometimes did nothing to keep his relationship with Brahms on an even keel. He wrote to Raff in 1870: "What do the Br.'s matter to me? Brahms, Brahmüller, Bruch, etc. Don't mention them again! ....The only one who interests me is Braff!"

That Brahms envied Raff his family life and held him in genuine affection cannot be in doubt when one reads the letter which he wrote to Doris Raff on hearing of her husband's death: "I was permitted genuine satisfaction by acquaintance with him and the liveliness and loveliness of his happy family circle, which has now been so terribly destroyed. Even if it does not heal your pain, the knowledge of what a rich life the deceased lived must comfort and ennoble it, and how generally the sadness of your loss is shared."

Judging by the evidence of a letter which he wrote to Bülow, Brahms remained ambivalent in his attitude towards Raff. Although he professed envy at Raff's ability to write quickly and without apparent difficulty, he couched it in terms which imply that he was also critical, or at least suspicious, of it. Shortly after Raff's death Bülow was asked by Doris Raff to arrange the publishing of Raff's four Shakespeare Preludes, composed in 1879, which had been left in manuscript upon his death. Bülow wrote for advice to Brahms and asked whether the publisher Simrock might be interested. Brahms' reply was written in October 1884, two years after Raff died:

"I'm returning to Vienna tomorrow, and before that and while packing I want to say a few words to you - but don't know quite what! Simrock is not at all receptive to things like yours. For the 100 Variations by Marxsen, for example, I paid cash. Your case is as uncommonly sympathetic to me - as it is difficult. As far as I know, Simrock has no works of Raff; the question as to whether he wanted or wants them seems quite superfluous. We can imagine approximately what he'll first ask or say. But especially as a present, - acceptance is impossible!

Although I'm trying to find an answer - my thoughts have been occupied more - with the composer himself! I am so greatly inclined to envy my prolific, swift-writing, quick-witted colleagues. I gladly assume that they write not on account of encyclopaedias, but out of the same need, for the same reasons, as I - the best, that is. How often someone will cheerfully write his Fine, which actually says: I'm finished with what I had on my mind! How long I can sometimes carry about with me the smallest finished trifle, before reluctantly attaching that 'finished'!

Quite casually Raff writes four overtures to four of the most glorious tragedies. It seems an enviable thing to be able to find fulfilment so often, to feel satisfied, liberated. Did Raff, in fact, have time for the hangover? He was intelligent enough for it! Or was he simply happy in the possession of his talent?

That we lesser ones rarely are - and to what great heights do these 'lesser ones' aspire?

But now to Simrock! What should I do? Are you full of praise for the things? Include them enthusiastically in your programme? What do Raff’s actual editors say?"*

*[Translations of George Henschel's recollections, and Brahms' letter to von Bülow © Styra Avins and Josef Eisinger, with whose kind permission they are reprinted from their book: Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters , selected and annotated by Styra Avins, letters translated by Styra Avins and Josef Eisinger. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 1997 and 2001]

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