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Joachim Raff - Portrait of a Life
Joachim Raff -
Portrait of a Life

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Helene Raff in her late 60s
Helene Raff in her late 60s

Helene Raff's biography

Although many biographical sketches of Raff appeared in articles and musical lexicons during his lifetime and after it, the prime source for Raff's life is the biography written by his daughter Helene. Despite an early ambition to be a painter, Helene Raff eventually made for herself a name as an author. Her autobiography Blätter vom Lebensbaum (Leaves from Life's Tree - now available in an English translation from raff.org) was published in 1938 and the first few chapters describing her childhood are a valuable record of life in Raff's household during the last 16 years of his life, but it is her 292 page biography of her father, Joachim Raff: Ein Lebensbild (Joachim Raff: Portrait of a Life - now available in English transaltion from raff.org), which remains by far the most significant source for Raff's life which we have. Published in 1925 by the Regensburg firm of Gustav Bosse, it was the 42nd. volume in their Deutsche Musikbücherei (German Music Library), which comprised biographies and theoretical texts.

Helen Raff's foreword to her work demonstrates that she was painfully aware of her inability to write a properly musical biography. Her aim (which from the finished book seems to have been successful) was to attempt an objective portrait of her father. She makes clear not only her extensive use of family sources and private letters, but also the difficulties which she faced in collecting materials for the book in the years following the end of the First World War:

"It was not without substantial doubts that I decided to write the life of my father, Joachim Raff. Actually only a fellow composer can be completely fair, whereas I am neither a musician nor a musical writer. A critical distinction is thus called for: here there can only be talk of a purely historical biography. One also asks oneself, as one is destined to be a member of the deceased, whether future generations can draw a picture of one's nature and experience, whether they can gain the necessary distance in order to see one in such a way that they can view without prejudice. If I did not believe to some extent that I could be allowed to affirm for myself the latter question, then I would not have undertaken such a task. I am however resigned to the fact that, even though perhaps I do not completely agree with my father, when I enter a plea for him I shall hear the accusation of bias or of not being completely serious. I must dare to take both risks. My father's hundredth birthday, on which this book will appear, reaches a new generation which knows little about him. His contemporaries preceded or followed him into death; only a few of his pupils are alive. I must say that, even though I have no right, I should not take to the grave the memory which I retain of him and the artistic epoch to which he belonged.

"In any event, the completeness of my portrayal is limited. Not only because of the difficulties which any author and publisher contend with today and which necessarily curb the scope of a book, but also the problems of travel from which our entire existence has suffered for eight years. Traveling to the scenes of Joachim Raff's life and gathering information outside the borders of Germany could only be achieved to some degree. I hope that nothing important or crucial has been overlooked by me.

"The sources mainly used for this book were: my father's diary-like letters to his motherly friend Kunigunde Heinrich and later to his fiancee and wife, as well as his pages of sketches and his relevant reports and critiques etc. Furthermore his exchange of letters with Franz Liszt, the letters from Hans von Bülow and Franziska von Bülow to Raff, the records of Raff's sister Celine Raff, family letters in large numbers, as well as a quantity of individual letters of Raff's friends and fellow artists. The published material used by me is set out at the end of the book.

"With regard to the above mentioned sources of letters, the exchange of letters between Raff and Adolf Jensen, Ludwig von Schnorr's letters to Raff and above all the exchange of letters between Liszt and Raff; particulars of these have been mentioned to a large degree in Die Musik magazine. This time I restricted myself to individual important quotations due to considerations of limited space. In addition, from Joachim Raff's views in those letters which remain unused there is the possibility of provoking an inaccurate picture of people or events. The task of these pages should be to establish an understanding in the reader of the fundamentals of his nature and the internal reasons for his actions.

"In conclusion I must thank all those who helped my work with action and advice. The number of those from whom I received individual letters or verbal pieces of information is too great for me to mention them all here; also my publishers, who are prepared to risk bringing out this book on Raff's centenary, despite the unfavourable times. If the desire is aroused in the reader to learn more about the composer Raff and his works then the work of the author and her helpers was not in vain."

The title pages of Joachim Raff: Ein Lebensbild frame the cover's publisher's cartouche

A reviewer of the newly-published book in the German musical journal Signaled wrote:

"Helene Raff has dealt sympathetically with her father's career. She states that she is no musician and no critic of music, but it transpires that she was a pupil at the Frankfurt Music Conservatory and that she also studied music with her father. She displays much more musical knowledge in her book than she claims to possess. She treats the relations between Liszt and Raff with discretion. Each had much to thank the other for. Raff was a part of Liszt's entourage and he was much stimulated by personal intercourse with the virtuoso; on the other hand, he was overshadowed by the reputation of the greater musician, and the originality and freedom of the younger composer seem to have suffered.

"The single-mindedness of Liszt's intentions in giving assistance to the worthy and needy is not attacked in the book; nor is Raff's temporary bitterness palliated, it is only cleared up. Life had dealt hardly with him. In spite of all his diligence, all his faithfulness, his burning enthusiasm for his art; though he reaped success in the last two decades of his life, it was only in the last five years that he gained a solid position. Who remembers today that for fifty years Raff was one of the most played composers in the concert halls of Germany? Helene Raff in her book makes a new public acquainted with the composer Joachim Raff. He does not deserve the oblivion which has descended upon him."

Helene Raff's biography of her father will now be available from raff.org in a superb English translation by Alan Howe. Full details here.

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