Raff seemed to provoke controversy - indeed, he revelled in it. He was by nature a blunt and sometimes argumentative person and a by-product of this was that many of his contemporaries held strong opinions about both him and his music.
His critical notices were a curate's egg. Although the generally severe critic Max Chop described some of Raff's works as "significant and ageless" another wrote "After the intermission, Raff filled out the remainder of the concert, even to weariness with the Im Walde Symphony (no.3, F major)...we were prepared to like it better than the Lenore and some of the other extravagances, but on the whole we were disappointed". Of the same work an American critic reported: "The second part of the program contained the best Symphony of modern times, one of the very few which are worthy to go down in posterity in company with the works of Beethoven and Schumann. This is the "Forest" Symphony, the "Im Walde" of Raff. It is full of fresh, vital themes and poetic fancies, the offspring of nothing short of genius, while in point of instrumentation it is nothing short of a miracle. Raff is par excellence the master of all the resources of modern orchestration.... Raff has the means and the skill to make a marvellous tone-picture and that he has done....It was a privilege to hear such a work....". Then again: "...at Paris M. Pasdeloup tired his audience a second time with the second part of Raff's symphony 'Im Walde' which, at a first hearing, they hissed. Neither applause nor disapproval was this time expressed".
Liszt had a soft spot for Raff and once Raff had left Weimar and established himself free of Liszt's overpowering presence, the two got on well. Liszt was usually generous in his praise of Raff's music as shown by this comment in 1882, the year of Raff's death: "His style guarantees him a special place among today's composers and already places his individuality among those whose reputation is established. If it be true that works of art live through their style, then Raff's works are assured of a certain duration". He wrote to Raff's widow: "As a friend and artistic colleague, few stood closer to me than Joachim Raff".
However, Liszt's opinion wasn't consistent - he also wrote: "Raff preferred rare combinations to spontaneous inspiration". This contrary view of Raff was echoed by the German composer and academic Woldemar Bargiel (1828-97). In an 1879 letter to his half-sister Clara Schumann he wrote: "It has interested me very much, what you write about Raff. From this I have had the same impression as you yourself, namely a favourable one. He is clever, funny and, what is the most important thing, he gives the impression of an urbane character. He has also however a strange career behind him: he was educated with the Jesuits... Now however to his music! I am sorry that there I can no longer feel any sympathy for him. He has learned much, writes for orchestra brilliantly, has great contrapuntal skills, but everything nevertheless remains cold and hollow. The man is puzzling to me musically. He produces ideas and melodies that appear as if they should tear the soul from the body, but one is left with the conviction that their inventor felt absolutely nothing for them; and on top of that, this most modern harmonic impurity! Now you are there you may be a healing influence on him, and your presence in Frankfurt will inspire him to work which is all pure gold."
[Thanks to Sharon Kirkwood for finding some of the quotations used and allowing their use]