Raff was a good violinist, but only a competent pianist and by no means a virtuoso, although he had given a couple of recitals whilst in his early 20s in Switzerland. He didn't compose at the piano either, preferring to use it only to check a passage once he had composed it. Nonetheless, his first 59 compositions were for the piano and he continued to write many pieces for the instrument even once he had established his reputation in much larger forms. By a large margin, Raff wrote more music for solo piano than for any other medium.
By 1868, the year in which he composed the first of the pieces which were eventually going to become his Dreizig fortschreitende Etüden WoO.36 (Thirty Progressive Etudes), Raff's career was taking off. His First Symphony had won a major prize and received great acclaim, his chamber and choral works were attracting attention and he seems to have had no difficulty in attracting publishers. Yet despite this success he was still working as a teacher and a critic and it was still necessary for him to write popular piano pieces to keep money flowing into the household. He was a born educator; for many years he taught piano at two girls schools in Wiesbaden and later his composition class at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt was greatly admired. He also had a ready pen, writing music criticism through his life until he took up the Frankfurt post. It is surprising, therefore, that he never wrote a musical textbook of any sort and his piano etudes are for the most part wholly artistic in conception and not intended as pianistic exercises.
The nearest which Raff came to writing instructional pieces was when he accepted a commission to write three short Etudes for publication in Gustav Damm's Weg zur Kunstfertigheit (Path to Artistic Mastery), a collection for student pianists which was published in Leipzig in 1869 by J G Mittler. Damm was the pseudonym of Theodor Steingräber (1830-1904), the son of a Bayreuth piano manufacturer. Under this alias he was the author of a phenomenally successful piano method which was first published in 1868, went through many editions and was translated into English, French and Russian. In 1878 he established his own publishing house in Hanover, the well known Steingräber Verlag, which moved to Leipzig in 1890.
The three works Raff which wrote for Damm's Kunstfertigheit are each around three minutes long and comprise a forceful Allegro patetico, a jolly Allegro and a fiendishly hectic Moto Perpetuo, based on a descending sequence. Although taxingly difficult, none would be out place in Raff's regular canon of short pieces for parlour or salon performance. They eventually became the last three numbers in the whole set.
Raff's contribution to the earlier book obviously pleased Mittler, as he was commissioned two years later, in 1870, to write another fifteen pieces for a second compilation edited by Damm, his Übungsbuch nach der Klavierschule (Book of Exercises after the Manner of a Piano Text Book). The first edition was published in 1871. These pieces are markedly different in character from the three original etudes, each concentrating on one particular pianistic skill and all of them substantially shorter; eight are finished in a minute or less and none lasts longer than two minutes. Most of them are fast, some very fast, and the slower pieces are only moderately so. There's a charm in their brevity and Raff's craftsmanship in these little jewels is unerring: the combination of strong melody, rewarding writing for the instrument and an effective exercise for the pianist is impressive. The fifteen pieces for Damm's second book became Nos.1-15 of the final set.
Damm's Übungsbuch was clearly a success, because a second edition was published by Mittler two years after the first, in 1873. Raff was asked to provide more pieces to add to the original fifteen and this prompted his composition in 1872 of the final twelve etudes, which became Nos.16-27 of the full set. These are much more varied in character than those in the Übungsbuch's first edition. Although there are a couple which echo their brevity, most are more substantial and this final batch contains the two longest etudes: No.22, an effective Jagdstück (Hunting Piece) and No.24, a very attractive Andante quasi larghetto exercise in tremolo. Raff the autodidact is in evidence in four fugues, of which the fourth (No.20) is particularly forward-looking for 1872. The Duettino in G which follows it is another winning piece, as is the relentless Allegro, No.26.
During Raff's lifetime, the thirty etudes were spread over Damm's three books in their three editions. Whilst Raff no doubt thought of the first 27 as a coherent set, as they appeared together in the second edition of the Übungsbuch, it's not known whether he felt that the final three, published earlier in the Kunstfertigheit should also belong to the set. In any event, just a year after Raff died, and having in the meantime shed his pseudonym and set up his own publishing house, Steingräber published the complete set as 30 Progressive Etudes in October 1883. Clearly the title was not Raff's, although it is appropraite. The set is "progressive" not so much in the difficulty of each work, but in the move from the more straightforward, focussed exercises of the first fifteen to the employment of the techniques learned from them in the larger, more developed and artistically richer works which particularly characterise the final ten pieces.
[Grateful thanks to Alan Howe for his translations from the German.]