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William Mason at 18 in 1847
William Mason at 18

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Mason at 70 in 1899
William Mason at 70

Mason on Raff

William Mason (1829-1908) was an influential American composer, pianist and teacher. As a young man he had travelled to Europe and met most of the luminaries of the musical scene in the 1850s. For a short time he was part of Liszt's circle in Weimar and, judging by his entertaining autobiography (Memories of a Musical Life, 1901) this experience left a lasting impression on him. Mason gives vivid descriptions of Liszt at the height of his powers and of the many young musicians who surrounded him: Brahms, Cornelius, Joachim, Klindworth and, of course, Joachim Raff.

Mason arrived at Liszt's Weimar house, the Altenburg, in 1853 and immediately encountered Raff, who did not make a good impression. "The first evening Raff, whom I had previously never heard of, struck me as being rather conceited; but when I grew to know him better, and realized how talented he was, I was quite ready to make allowance for his little touch of self esteem. We became warm friends, dining together every day at the table d'hôte, and after dinner walking for an hour or so in the park."

Mason recalled an incident when Raff's first Violin Sonata, which was subsequently lost or destroyed by him, received its private premiere: "Raff had composed a sonata for violin and pianoforte in which there were evervarying changes in measure and rhythm; measures of 7/8, 7/4, 5/4, alternated with common and triple time, and seemed to mix together promiscuously and without regard to order. Notwithstanding this apparent disorder, there was an undercurrent, so to speak, of the ordinary 3/4 or 4/4 time, and to the player who could penetrate the rhythmic mask the difficulty of performance quickly vanished. Raff had arranged with Laub and Pruckner that they should practise the sonata together, and then, on a favorable occasion, play it in Liszt's presence. So on one of the musical mornings at the Altenburg these gentlemen began to play the sonata. Pruckner, of sensitive and nervous organization, found the changes of measure too confusing, especially when played before company, and broke down at the first page. Another and yet a third attempt was made, but with the like result. Liszt, whose interest was aroused, exclaimed: "I wonder if I can play that!" Then, taking his place at the instrument, he played it through at sight in rapid tempo and without the slightest hesitation. He had intuitively divined the regularity of movement which lay beneath the surface."

Mason paints a fascinating and balanced portrait of Raff: "Of my Weimar comrades, Joachim Raff, it is hardly necessary to say, became the most distinguished. My first impression of him was not wholly favorable. He was hard to become acquainted with and not disposed to meet one half-way. He was fond of argument, and if one side was taken he was very apt to take the other. He liked nothing better than to get one to commit himself to a proposition and then to attack him with all his resources, which were many. Upon better acquaintance, however, one found a kind heart and faithful friend whose constancy was to be relied on. He was very poor, and there were times when he seemed hardly able to keep body and soul together.

Once he was arrested for debt. The room in which he was confined, however, was more comfortable, if anything, than his own. He had a piano, a table, musicpaper, and pen and ink sent there. How this was accomplished I do not know, but I think Liszt must have had a hand in it. Raff enjoyed himself composing and playing, and we saw to it that he had good fare. The episode made little impression on him: so long as he could compose he was happy. However, the matter was compromised, and in a short time he returned to his own lodgings.

He was a hard worker and composed incessantly, with only a brief interval for dinner and a little exercise. We habitually sat together, and afterward usually took a short walk. I enjoyed his conversation exceedingly and derived much profit from it. At about five o'clock in the afternoon, looking out of my window, I would frequently see Raff coming over the path leading through the park, with a bundle of manuscript under his arm. He liked to come and play to me what he had composed. His playing was not artistic, because he paid little attention to it, and he did not attempt to elaborate or finish his style.

He composed very rapidly, and many of his compositions do not amount to much. He could not get decent remuneration for good music, and he had to live; therefore he wrote many pieces that were of the jingling sort, because his publishers paid well for them. Sometimes, however, he turned out a composition which was really worthy, and among his works are symphonies, sonatas, trios, and chamber-music which gained him reputation. His symphony Im Walde is well known in the musical world, and his Cavatina for violin, although not a piece of importance, is one of the most popular and effective violin solos and exists in various arrangements. At times he was much dejected, and there was a dash of bitterness in his disposition. I think he felt that, being obliged to turn out music for a living, he would never attain the rank to which his talents entitled him.

In promoting the cause of Wagner, Raff did considerable work for which Liszt got the credit. I think that at one time Raff acted as Liszt's private secretary; but he had decided ideas of his own, and knew how to express them. Being generally in close accord with Liszt, and having a ready pen, he rendered great assistance in promulgating the doctrines of the new school by means of essays, brochures, and newspaper articles. Of course much that he wrote was based upon suggestions made by Liszt. Raff was a tower of strength in himself, while at the same time acting as Liszt's mouthpiece in the Wagner propaganda."

Their parting was a warm one: "An autograph written for me by Joachim Raff is also interesting. On the night before I left Weimar, June 25, 1854, Raff and I had supper at the Erbprinz {Mason's hotel} together, and as the evening wore on we somehow got into a heated discussion about Zukunftsmusik (the music of the future), taking opposite sides. However, as a matter of course, we made up before parting. He had previously written his musical autograph in the book, but now he added a kind thought to speed me on my way, namely: 'That he may live well, work well, and soon return to Weimar music. Mitternachtscheide.'"

The warmth of Raff's feelings for his younger colleague are evident when they met many years later in Raff's Frankfurt Conservatory: "He interrupted his lessons the moment that he heard I was there, came running downstairs, threw his arms around my neck, and was so overjoyed at seeing me that I felt as if we were boys once more at Weimar. Of the pupils and of the many musicians who came to Weimar to visit Liszt at that time -die goldene Zeit (the Golden Age), as it is still called at Weimar."

During this visit, they discussed Wagner: "The general public and a large majority of the musicians were not at all favorably disposed toward Wagner's music in those days, and in this connection a remark of Joachim Raff made to me in 1879-80, on the occasion of my second visit to Germany, was significant. Raff had been in earlier years, perhaps, the most ardent of all pioneers in the Wagner cause. A quarter of a century had elapsed since I had seen Raff, and naturally one of my first questions was, " Raff, how is the Wagner cause?" "Oh," said he, "the public have gone 'way over to the other extreme. You know how hard it was to force Wagner upon them twenty-five years ago, and now they go just as much too far the other way and are unreasonable in their excessive homage." "Well," I replied, "I suppose the matter will find its level and be adjusted as time passes on."

[My Musical Life by William Mason was published by The Century Co. of New York in 1901]

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