Raff & his peers






Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner













Biberich: seat of the Duke of
Nassau and Wagner's home
for several months in 1862

Wagner and Raff

Raff's relationship with Wagner was a complex one. Coming to musical maturity in Liszt's household, he admired many aspects of Wagner's music but he was far from being uncritical of it. In writing about his second opera Samson, he opined "I am abandoning the style in which König Alfred was written and in my new dramatic work I am moving completely to the realm of music drama for which Wagner has shown the way, although I intend to operate in a different manner than that poet and musician." He wrote his Three Duos for violin & piano op.63 based on motifs from Wagner operas and also penned a whole series of transcriptions for piano of music from the operas.

Over all, Raff's attitude towards Wagner seems to have been one of critical respect, exemplified early on in their relationship by his famouse treatise Die Wagnerfrage, the publication of which had caused a storm amongst Liszt's circle and precipitated his ejection from it. He wrote to Liszt's mistress Princess Wittgenstein that he was "by nature in antipathy to Wagner", he found Wagner's personality overbearing and patronising and his philosophical and political views were distasteful to him.

Wagner's autobiography is typically self-serving but he does at least credit Raff with suggesting the publication of the Wesendonck Lieder: "On the advice of Raff, who considered a volume of my songs to be worth one thousand franks, I decided to offer my publisher, by way of temporary compensation, five poems by my friend Frau Wesendonck which I had set to music (consisting chiefly of studies for Tristan with which I was occupied at the time)".

Wagner's only other reference to Joachim and Doris Raff is a typical dose of patronising character assassination. Whilst staying in Biberich, near Wiesbaden in 1862 he writes: "I had already looked up the Raff family in Wiesbaden, where Frau Raff had an engagement at the court theatre. She was a sister of Emilie Genast, with whom I had been on friendly terms during my stay in Weimar. One excellent piece of information I heard about her was that by extraordinary thrift and good management she had succeeded in raising her husband's position of careless wastefulness to a flourishing and prosperous one. Raff himself, who by his own accounts of his dissipated life under Liszt's patronage, had led me to regard him as an eccentric genius, at once disabused me of this idea when, on a closer acquaintance, I found him an uncommonly uninteresting and insipid man, full of self-conceit, but without any power of taking a wide outlook on the world.

"Taking advantage of the prosperous condition to which he had attained, thanks to his wife, he considered he was entitled to patronise me by giving me some friendly advice in regard to my position at the time. He thought it advisable to tell me that I ought in my dramatic compositions to pay more attention the reality of things, and to illustrate his meaning he painted my score of Tristan as an abortion of idealistic extravagances. In the course of my rambles on foot to Wiesbaden I sometimes liked to call on Raff's wife, a rather insignificant woman, but Raff himself was a person to whom I soon became perfectly indifferent. Still, when he came to know me a little better, he lowered the tone of his sage-like maxims, and even appeared to be rather afraid of my chaffing humour, against the shafts of which he knew he was defenseless".

In her biography of her father, Helen Raff discusses Raff's relations with Wagner and attitude towards his music is some detail. She confirms that Wagner "developed a coolness toward Raff, namely because of Raff’s doubts regarding Tristan. [He] didn’t understand it and the great work didn’t lay well with his own artistic views. Raff himself later recounted that he had probably been too loving of the truth, not to have had one or another of his objections loudly proclaimed; Wagner would have retaliated vociferously: 'Don’t make me mad Raff, don’t try to dissuade me! There’s gall and venom in it and I know it but, by God, it had to be brought out.' Raff’s peculiarity of always wanting to let the other side of a matter be shown, if it seemed to him that his partner saw only his own side, may have been part of the situation. It is also possible that he became pedantic, because he was embarrassed. The opinion of Wagner that Raff might have believed 'he was entitled to patronise me by giving me some friendly advice', hit home heavily, for freedom from care won through hours of giving lessons and the efforts of a wife who was employed, is not a reason to become overbearing, especially with a master."

Despite these difficulties, when he was at Biberich in 1862, Wagner saw a great deal of the Raffs "and it was frequent and friendly; both thanked him and his Tristan for an unforgettable pleasure. Wagner read his text for Meistersinger on many occasions, the first being in the publishing house of Schott [in neighbouring Mainz], often in limited company... Doris Raff frequently recalled how magnificently he sensed what tone to apply for each figure, in each situation. When he read the tumultuous scene at the conclusion of the second act, a crowd collected down on the street in the belief that someone up above was being killed. It amused Wagner more than a bit when he later heard of this." Helene states that Raff gave Die Meistersingers his "unequivocal admiration. For the rest of his life he considered this work to be the master’s masterpiece." In 1868 he composed four extensive piano transcriptions of the work under the titles Reminiscences of Wagner’s Meistersinger (Schott, 1868) which Schott declared were "too difficult for the hands of the ladies".

Wagner did respect Doris Raff for her thrift and fiscal acumen. On one occasion he visited Wiesbaden "his head filled with household worries. He wanted Frau Raff to help him shop: a few pots, a saucepan, etc., since he had decided to cook for himself for reasons of thrift. Instead of coming on foot as he usually did, he had taken the caution of using a wagon, probably imagining a pile of purchases. But Doris Raff had a theatre rehearsal and somewhat dejected had to miss going along. 'Good, then get Raff to come along!' The practical side of the woman didn’t regard either with any special trust in the matter; when she was together later with her husband after he had returned home, she asked him if the shopping had gone well. 'Yes,' he said hesitantly, 'We were in one porcelain shop after another. Wagner bought a pan and a coffee pot and a few other pots. In each shop Wagner put down a five gulden note and when the shop girl went to give him change, he said, 'Just keep it!'. Doris figured up the normal price on each item purchased pathetically cheap at the time plus the fare for the rented wagon to and from Biberich and calculated the usually princely tip from Wagner. Shaking her head she exclaimed that such expensive pots were seldom bought."

After Raff had suggested to Wagner that he offer his Wesendonck Lieder to the publisher Schott, Doris' sister, the singer Emilie Genast who was visiting the Raffs, "studied the five poems under the direction of the master and sang them accompanied by [Hans von] Bülow, for the master of the Schott villa at Laubenheim, with the success we take for granted today, so that Schott accepted [them for publication]. To celebrate the singer of the 'Five Poems', Wagner invited all the participants to him in Biberich. Raff was convalescing from a rather serious malady at the time but the doctor allowed the visit to the social event, albeit with the condition of being careful and returning home at a reasonable hour. The evening passed in as much excitement as possible; Wagner was in a sparkling mood; when the time for the last train back to Wiesbaden came, Frau Raff advised breaking off . Wagner wanted nothing of the sort: 'Ah, what can you be thinking of? Everything’s just right now and Emilie still has to sing. We can order a coach later'. The wife remained firm, excusing herself out of concern for her husband’s health and since Emilie didn’t want to remain without her sister, all three really took their leave. With that Doris lost all consideration of Wagner’s favour. 'A little pedant of a woman,' he directed at her and she carried the name with him from then on." Such rudeness was entirely typical of Wagner.

Soon afterwards, whilst he was still at Biberich, the question arose amongst Wagner's admirers whether they should call for a national referendum of support for him, to help him out of his perpetual financial difficulties. Raff, along with Liszt and von Bülow, had strong misgivings, fearing that such a well meaning action might backfire and cause Wagner great embarrassment. Nonetheless, Raff's literary reputation meant that he was persuaded to draft the petition. Luckily, its proponents had second thoughts and the idea was dropped, allowing Wagner to leave Biberich with a final "charming farewell note" to the Raffs.

Raff only met Wagner twice in the remaining twenty years of his life. His great friendship with von Bülow meant that he inevitably took a partisan stance after Wagner's affair with Cosima von Bülow caused the break up of the marriage. Although Raff was never truly an anti-Wagnerian, he was contrary by nature and so, as Wagner gained adherents, Raff distanced himself further. He never went to Bayreuth, "did not understand" Tristan and "rejected" the Ring, whilst admiring Wagner's use of the orchestra and individual orchestral set pieces from it. "I’m only involved with the marvelous tragedy in the orchestra", he said. He disliked alliterative verse, the extended vocal solos and the overall length of the operas. Raff never saw Parsifal. He had even less time for Wagner's imitator's however and at a performance of an opera by one such he declared "They’re like a monkey is to man in comparison to him. What a shame for Wagner! What a shame for art!"

Despite the mutual coolness, raff did Wagner one favour in 1870. Apparently Raff had at some stage in the past offered to orchestrate Wagner's Huldigungsmarsch (Homage march) , originally written for a military band. The publisher Schott appealed to Raff to honour his old promise and he responded by orchestrating in as Wagnerian a manner as possible. Franz Schott later reported "Wagner is satisfied, let’s say, very satisfied and has pronounced it a success". Wagner was patronising even when being done a substantial favour.

[Grateful thanks to Dr Alan Krueck for his translations from Helene Raff's biography of Joachim Raff]                              
© 1999-2017 Mark Thomas. All rights reserved.