Hans von Bülow (1830-94) was one of the iconic figures of the middle romantic era. Beginning his career as a virtuoso pianist, he gravitated to the Liszt/Wagner camp and married Liszt's daughter Cosima. He became the pre-eminent conductor of his time and zealously promoted Wagner's works before gradually transferring his enthusiasm to the music of Brahms and his circle. It is less well known that he was also a great friend of Raff and tireless advocate of his music.
Raff's time in Stuttgart during 1847-48 was artistically and financially amongst the most difficult of his life. It was brightened, however, by the making of two lifelong friendships. Firstly, he was taken under the wing of a retired music teacher, the widowed Kunigunde Heinrich. Through her he met the very talented youth Hans Guido von Bülow who had just moved with his parents from their home city of Dresden. He showed great promise as a piano virtuoso and as a showpiece for him Raff wrote his Fantasy on themes from Kuchen's opera "Der Prätendent" WoO.7 and the student played it at a 1848 New Year's concert in Stuttgart to great acclaim. A few month's later, however, Bülow moved on the Leipzig to further his studies. Raff's piano piece was subsequently lost.
They continued in contact and met again three years later in Weimar, where Bülow described Raff as "my older brother" (he was eight years Raff's junior). The older man interceded with Bülow's mother, convincing her that her son had a career ahead of him in music. Raff's role as Bülow's mentor was firmly established, but came under strain as Raff became disenchanted with Liszt and the Weimar school. Only in 1859 did matters improve with Bülow programming Raff's piano and chamber music in Berlin, where he now lived. To cement matters, Raff dedicated his Piano Suite op.91 to Cosima von Bülow. Raff had earlier dedicated the Three Piano Solos op.74 of 1852 to his friend and latter added the Overture Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott op.127 and the Piano Concerto op.185 - more dedications than to anyone else.
The affair between Cosima and Wagner shattered Bülow and for a time he left Germany, returning in 1870 to take up an itererant existence but staying frequently with the Raffs in Wiesbaden. Raff's warmth towards his friend during these healing visits was remembered for the rest of his life by Bülow. He would "breath family excitement" and the composer's daughter recalled him describing Raff to her as "your unbelievable father", going on the write that "it was Bülow's nature to return welcoming friendship a hundredfold". The repayment took the form of international ambassadorship for Raff's music - resulting in plaudits from Florence, London and New York.
Bülow sincerely believed in the merits of Raff's music. He described him as as "a musical architect" and called his Piano Quintet "the most remarkable work in the field of chamber music since Beethoven". He called his friend a "colourist genius" and joked "What do the Br.'s matter to me? Bruch, Brahms, Brahmüller, Brumbach etc. Don't mention them again! ....The only one who interests me is B-raff!".
Whilst others derided Raff's practice of writing salon music alongside his more substantial works, Bülow appreciated the artistry which was brought even to these pieces: "Raff is indeed uniquely situated in the history of art on this account, because he combined the most diverse styles and yet preserved the purity of all of them : the salon style in the best sense (in the salon music of Raff, a delicate irony shimmers through), and the strict style. Raff never aspired to appear more than he was, but to be what he was. How few are able to say that about themselves !" He had plenty of practice interpreting Raff's music too and had its measure: "with Raff, everything goes somewhat briskly".
Raff's untimely death was a body blow to Bülow. He wrote to his fiancee a few days afterwards: "Be happy - for two, if you can - I, I am shaking miserably, deeply saddened and hardly up to my duty of consoling compassionately the dear bereaved family. Joachim Raff was my oldest, truest friend. I was proud to experience his affection, which he often proved through his actions. With him has been buried the better part of my life. The great artist, the noble man - together in one person - how seldom, yes how unique - not separate - served me as a model, although so unattainable to a follower. I can say that I looked up to him in all respects".
Once Raff was gone, Bülow remained loyal to his friend's memory, giving a series of recitals to raise money for a memorial and eventually contributing a large sum himself to the fund which financed the monument.