Biography - Weimar 1850-56

1850 - A dream realised

Raff's idyllic time in Bad Eilsen continued after his arrival in Weimar. He rented two small furnished rooms in the Posamentier Donat and wrote: "Above my desk there stands a large statue of the god of love ... beneath him there is a tiny bust of Liszt. You won't believe how homely these four walls are to me and how gladly I work within them". After only a month of revelling in the cultural life in Weimar, city of Goethe and Schiller, he formally declined the publisher Schuberth's previous offer of employment. The lure of daily contact with Liszt and the musical notables who visited him, and artistic privileges such as free admission to theatre, were much more alluring than the prospect of a steady but mundane job in Hamburg. The completed parts of his String Quartet WoO.13 and Piano Trio WoO.9 were played for him soon after he arrived and Liszt promised performances of his Psalm 121 WoO.8 and his largest work, the opera König Alfred. Raff saw Liszt daily, and referred to him in his letters as "my friend". In his first years in Weimar, the work he carried out for Liszt was prodigious: he produced an orchestration of the 2nd. Piano Concerto, and of early versions of the works which would become the symphonic poems Prometheus and Héroide Funêbre. He made fair copies of several of Liszt's works, together with mountains of secretarial and translation work. Bülow wrote: "Raff sacrifices half his existence to Liszt".

Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt

Although his own productivity was constrained by work for Liszt, in 1850 he managed to compose a few songs and a short work for violin and piano. Much of his own time was taken up with completing works begun in Stuttgart. With the prospect of a performance under Liszt's direction, he reworked König Alfred, "a gigantic undertaking". The final part of his setting for soloists, chorus & orchestra of Psalm 121 was revised and the String Quartet and Piano Trio were finished. He also started work on a Symphony, which was not to be completed until 1854, and as a result he abandoned a couple of concert overtures. Raff shared the enthusiasm of Liszt's circle for the works of Berlioz, whose Requiem and Harold in Italy he had studied intently, but a trip to Paris with his mentor, which held out the opportunity of meeting the Frenchman, came to nothing. He did make several trips to Leipzig and whilst there was impressed by Schumann's Genoveva and Meyerbeer's Le Prophète, but the new opera which most affected him was Wagner's Lohengrin. This was premièred by Liszt in Weimar in August 1850. It was Raff's first exposure to Wagner's music and it had a profound effect. For several years thereafter he felt himself under its influence, whilst at the same time being critical of many aspects of it. Raff became great friends with the young virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim, who stayed in Weimar as one of Liszt's circle for over a year. He joined Liszt and the cello virtuoso (and lifelong friend of Raff's) Bernard Coßmann in more performances of Raff's chamber music, playing the Piano Trio "with great accomplishment". To record those ideas which couldn't immediately find expression on paper, he began keeping a musical sketchbook.

Liszt generously committed himself to performances of König Alfred in late 1850 or early 1851 at Weimar's Court Theatre and staged a surprise performance of an excerpt from the opera, with himself playing the piano. Raff reported that "the piece came off magnificently". In spite of his heavy workload, to supplement his meagre income he began writing reviews and articles for the Leipzig Signale and other periodicals. A fulfilling, if busy, year was spoiled by the linked problems of a lack of money and his strained relations with Liszt's mistress, Princess Carolyne zu Sayn Wittgenstein. He had been able to keep up his debt repayments, but it was a struggle because Liszt paid him less than he had been promised. The princess controlled Liszt's finances and Raff couldn't complain: "What am I supposed to do? I can't annoy Liszt". From their first meeting in Bad Eilsen, the princess had been hostile towards Raff, labelling him a pedant and better suited to a career as a mathematician. She regarded his brusque directness as ill mannered and he probably didn't disguise his assessment of her as a dilettante. Their relations were hampered by her poor German and his poor French, and no doubt they were each wary of the other's influence on Liszt. "The love of this woman exhausts my friend" wrote Raff. The Princess' public hostility towards him softened in Spring 1850, however, once he had proved his musical ability and his usefulness to Liszt, but her underlying attitude never changed.

The final months of 1850 were spent preparing for König Alfred's première. He worked closely with the Court Theatre's director Eduard Genast, of whom he thought highly. Genast invited the young man to spend Christmas Eve with his family, and there Raff met again a young women who had caught his eye some month's before whilst he was walking in one of the city's parks. Genast's daughter Dorothea (but called by all Doris) was 24 years old and already an accomplished actress. The couple's attraction was immediate and profound. Raff thus ended his first year in Weimar not only with the imminent prospect of his grand opera's première. in the most prestigious circumstances, but also deeply in love.

1851/52 - Success and drudgery

As 1851 began, Princess Caroline's daughter Marie Wittgenstein contracted typhus in Bad Eilsen. Weimar's artistic life came to a temporary halt as Liszt left the town to travel to her bedside. Raff was now in charge of the plans for the première. of his opera König Alfred, working with Eduard Genast, the Theatre Director, father of Doris with whom he had fallen in love the Christmas before. Liszt's extended absence prompted a lengthy and sincere correspondence with Raff. "Nobody can have a better regard for you than I" he wrote to his mentor. "I thank you a thousand times over for so many proofs of the sacrifices and aid of your friendship." Whilst working with Genast on the preparations for König Alfred, Raff was feverishly polishing the score. He finished the work on 31 January 1851, shortly before Liszt returned to Weimar to begin directing rehearsals. Liszt himself regarded the piece as being a ground breaking one: "Alfred is really a very important work", but shortly before the première. he again left for Bad Eilsen. This time, the princess herself was seriously ill. He asked Raff to conduct König Alfred instead: "So get on with it, and good luck Raff!" The opera's first hearing, on 9 March 1851 at Genast's Weimar Court Theatre, was a great success. Both it and a second performance were sold out. Although absent, Liszt had arranged for a celebration dinner for the cast and prominent guests at his home, the Altenburg. Raff was blissfully happy; he enjoyed being stopped in the street and congratulated. His friends Joachim and the cellist Coßmann wrote fantasies on the opera's themes and Liszt transcribed two passages for the piano. So happy was he that even Doris Genast's departure for a new acting post in Dresden was eclipsed.

Doris Genast
Doris Genast in 1856

The success was short lived, though. Although there were two more performances in April under Liszt's baton, the work failed to gain acceptance in other cities, despite several hopeful contacts made by Raff, including the elderly Louis Spohr in Kassel. The 67 year old composer was nearing the end of his career, but remained open to new music. He had been enthusiastic about presenting the work, but the Regent of Hesse-Kassel insisted that only one new work would be performed at the Court Theatre each year, and that he would choose it. A difficult work by an unknown composer was generally felt by intendants to be too risky a venture. Raff's spirits were lifted by the visit in June 1851 of Hans von Bülow and his mother, during which Raff gave instruction to his young friend and also helped persuade Bülow's mother, who remained nervous at the prospect, that her son had a brilliant musical future. Whilst he was staying in Weimar Bülow, with Joachim and Coßmann, played his friend's first Piano Trio. As tireless in his attempts to improve Raff's prospects as he was in finding jobs for him to do, Liszt formulated a plan. He proposed that Raff gain a doctoral degree from nearby Jena university and afterwards he would be appointed secretary to Liszt's nascent Goethe Foundation, which was intended to organise a regular music festival. It would provide a small but regular income. Raff chose as the subject of his doctoral study the biblical story of Samson. He intended to "kill two flies with one swat" by producing both an academic dissertation and the text for a music drama. The Foundation plan was soon dropped by Liszt, but Raff continued with the work and completed both his projects, although he never gained his doctorate.

As 1851 and 1852 progressed, Raff felt that Liszt's support for him was weakening. In contrast to his fulsome praise of his friend at the start of 1851, he now started to feel bitter at what he regarded as Liszt's indifference, and resentful of the continued burden of work which he carried out for him. Writing at the end of 1851 in a letter to his friend from the Stuttgart years "Mama" Kunigunde Heinrich, he complained of the unfairness of Liszt's continued absence from Weimar when he, Raff, had sacrificed so much to get Alfred staged. 1852 proved musically fruitful, however. In June, just after his 30th birthday, Raff left for Ballenstedt near Magdeburg to assist Liszt in preparations for the music festival which Liszt planned there. König Alfred's Overture was played, which perhaps went some way to redressing Raff's feeling of being abandoned by Liszt. Hans von Bülow played the bass drum. Encouraged by the festival's success, Liszt organised a Berlioz festival in Weimar in November 1853, at which Berlioz was present. Further demonstrating that Raff's feelings were perhaps wide of the mark, Liszt also favoured him with two more full performances of König Alfred.

Although his Symphony remained an unfinished project, Raff did complete in January 1852 a Festival Overture WoO.15 which he had begun in Spring the previous year as a Fantasy Overture on a motto from Goethe's Faust, after his revision of König Alfred was finished. Other works written in 1852 include the second of the Two Fantasy Pieces for piano and violin Op.58, and three sets of piano pieces. The Drei Tanz-Capricen (Three Dance Caprices) Op.54 perhaps betray too strongly the influence of Chopin, but the substantial Drei Klaviersoli (Three Piano Solos) Op.74, which were not published until 1859, are much more independent in their inspiration. The third piece in the set, Metamorphosen, is a large set of variations and was particularly well received. The final set of pieces finished in 1852 was Raff's Op.55, Frühlingsboten (Harbingers of Spring), on which he had been working since his first year in Weimar. Although they weren't at the time wanted by any publisher, the collection was widely praised by Raff's circle and, once they were finally published by his friend Schuberth the following year, Bülow said of them "Joachim Raff appears here as a master... An admirable unity of idea and form prevail everywhere". They eventually went into three editions. As 1852 ended, the excitement of König Alfred's première and Raff's high hopes for a permanent position gained with Liszt's help were far behind him. In their place was continued drudgery in Liszt's employ and artistic frustration with his inability to get performances or find publishers for music which was nonetheless praised by his musical peers.

1853 - Disillusion and hope

1853 did not start well for Raff, and it got worse. His friend Joachim left Weimar for Hanover in January 1853. He had not yet formed his great attachment to Brahms and Raff held him in great affection. His departure deprived Raff of a friendly face amongst Liszt's circle. The lack of a formal position continually rankled with Raff; he aired his frustration to Kunigunde Heinrich: his music was indeed being published, he wrote, but it didn't produce much income. For twelve songs, produced by various publishers he had received "12 Louis d'ors, or as much as Kücken gets for just one". He felt has was not recognised as an individual artist but merely as part of Liszt's coterie "The pressure which Liszt ... has put on my personality is insufferable". He told Heinrich that he had decided that "In May I'm going to leave Weimar altogether. I am thinking of moving to Gohlis, a village about half an hour from Leipzig". He didn't go. He went on: "Over the Summer I want to devote all my energies to ... completing my Samson" for which he had finished the text and was writing the music. He reported that he had abandoned the style of König Alfred and that he had moved to the "realm of music drama for which Wagner has shown the way". Wagner's influence was strengthened by a Wagner week which Liszt organised in Weimar in Spring 1853. Three of the four works which he completed that year show his struggle with Wagner's influence. The two sets of piano works and the three Duos for piano & violin which comprise his Opp.61-63 all take as their starting points themes from Wagner's operas.

Raff in 1853
(Joachim Raff Gesellschaft)

In April there arose the prospect of a permanent position as Assistant Music Director in Munich, in succession to Vincenz Lachner. Raff turned to Liszt for help and his mentor responded with a splendid letter of recommendation: "The talents of Herr Joachim Raff, as composer and accomplished musician, are of such immediate and apparent nature, his numerous orchestral as well as piano and vocal works delivering such executional proofs, that I find it superfluous to add anything more or attempt any further certification of proof. I make it my duty to recommend Herr Raff to all those music institutes, which lay genuine worth on possessing an intelligent and trustworthy leader with the challenges and developments of art, and I do so with all urgency". Raff, however, regarded the document as "artificial" and Liszt, no doubt miffed at his ingratitude, responded tersely that he was "entitled to it by law". Despite this, Liszt continued to lobby for Raff's appointment and even enlisted the help of his mistress Princess Wittgenstein (who presumably would have wanted to be rid of Raff anyway), but to no avail. No only were the Munich authorities unlikely to look kindly on someone who was seen as a Liszt supporter, but also Raff was overtaken by an entirely unexpected calamity.

His past caught up with him, in the form of an arrest warrant linked to the debts which he had incurred whilst living in Switzerland. The details of the case aren't known, but Raff refused to borrow to pay the alleged debt and so was imprisoned. It was the low spot of his life. To his great credit, Liszt stood by his sometimes ungrateful protégé, refrained from paying the debt himself, but instead used his influence in Weimar to secure comfortable accommodation for him. Raff missed the Karslruhe festival, but ultimately his principled stand was successful and he was released from jail without paying. He was free again, but his life was in the doldrums. He was bereft of income and official position, his music was appreciated by a small circle of admirers, but unknown and unwanted in the wider world.

Having reached their nadir, his fortunes took a turn for the better. He had met and immediately fallen in love with the actress Doris Genast at Christmas in 1850. She had been slower to acknowledge the attraction, but by the time she had left for Dresden a few month's later, they were an item. In her absence, the Genasts looked after Raff and he became very close to her younger sister Emilie, who bore a striking resemblance to Doris. During a visit home by Doris, however, Raff's true feelings for her resurfaced and they became engaged. Once Liszt had realised that Raff's feelings for Doris were more than a passing infatuation, he had been very supportive of the couple, but their engagement provoked in him a coolness towards her which took years to wear off. He did later appreciate her self-sacrificing role in Raff's success, saying of her: "That woman is a heroine". As for Emilie, she reverted to the role of good friend and prospective sister-in-law. In later years she too became a protégée of Liszt (who took more than a shine to her) and became a fine singer who later made a substantial name for herself. She premièred Wagner's Wesendonk Lieder. The engagement gave Raff hope of a brighter future but also unsettled him even more. Doris realised that Raff had to free himself from Liszt's benign but smothering influence if he was to have any independent success. In the Autumn of 1853 she moved from Dresden to the Nassau capital of Wiesbaden, as much for her health as for the new job. Raff started visiting her there regularly and began to make contacts in the city's musical circles which would bear fruit in the next few years.

Apart from the three Wagner-related sets of works in Opp.61-3, the only major work which Raff finished in the year was his setting for chorus and orchestra of the Te Deum WoO.16. Finished in July, it was played the following month under Raff's baton as part of a royal celebration. Earlier in the year, his Festival Overture WoO.15, composed the previous year, had been played at a royal wedding, with Liszt conducting. His primary artistic activity throughout the year was the composition of his "musical drama" Samson. The engagement fired his enthusiasm for the work and he later said that in few other works had he had given of himself so recklessly as in the opera's great love scene where Samson declares: “With you alone, beloved, rests my happiness!”. He became as obsessed with the piece as he had earlier been with König Alfred. 1853, a year which had begun in disillusion and had seen him imprisoned, ended with Raff absorbed in his greatest project to date and looking forward to a new life with Doris, away from the stifling atmosphere of Weimar.

1854/55 - Breaking ties

As 1854 began Raff was still assimilating the effect on him of Wagner's music. He spent the Winter working on his book Die Wagnerfrage (The Wagner Question), which was a critical review of Lohengrin. When it was published in the Summer it caused a storm. Liszt took offence straight away because Raff hadn't shown him the manuscript before publication. He hastily distanced himself from the book, saying that Raff was on "shaky ground". Liszt was always very tolerant of Raff's idiosyncrasies, however, so more serious for Raff's position in Weimar was the adverse reaction of his friends amongst Liszt's circle, the self-styled Murls (carrots) such as Peter Cornelius and Richard Pohl. Up to now, as the most senior of them, he had enjoyed the status of Murl Nakib (Guardian Carrot), but now the others felt betrayed by his criticisms of their idol Wagner. Expressing his frustrations at their inability to respect his need to chart an independent course, in a letter to his fiancée Doris Genast he wrote: "I’ve dragged the carts of Zukunftsmusik (music of the future) for the past five years, before any of these young pudding heads were even heard of". He was honest enough, though, to recognise that he had done his arguments in the book no favours by adopting a style which was both abrupt and opaque, blaming it on his Jesuit schooling which had majored in Latin. Raff's need to assert his independence had led him to begin the process of distancing himself from the smothering embrace of Liszt's circle and their unquestioning adherence to Liszt and Wagner's Zukunftsmusik. No doubt his later abhorrence of musical factions and attempt to steer a middle course between the opposing musical camps represented by Brahms and Wagner dated from this painful experience.

Whilst he was enduring the self-inflicted problems brought on by Die Wagnerfrage, he still found time to compose. In 1854 he finally finished work on his "music drama" Samson, which had been occupying him for eighteen months. Unlike König Alfred, there was no prospect of a performance. His stormy First Violin Sonata Op.73 was completed early in the year, but would have to wait until 1855 before his friends Edmund Singer and Dionys Pruckner premièred it in Weimar. After that it was quickly taken up, however, and was published in 1859. The major piece of the year, though, was his first Symphony, a five movement work in E minor (WoO.18), which also had to wait until the following year for its première. Amidst all this activity he found time too to take on composition pupils, notable among them Alexander Ritter and Singer. Both became his lifelong friends.

Violin Sonata No.1 score
Score of the Violin Sonata No.1 Op.73

The dawn of 1855 saw the staging on 2 January of a play by his fiancée's brother Wilhelm Genast. Bernhard von Weimar WoO.17 boasted an overture and incidental music which Raff had written during the previous year. Although the play's run only lasted six performances, Raff's music was noticed. Anton Rubinstein said "I don't know if the music pleased me, but there is one thing for certain: Raff is a master of orchestration". Although the rest of the pieces didn't resurface in Raff's lifetime, the overture as Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott Overture to a Drama about the 30 Years' War Op.127 eventually had an independent career as one of his most successful orchestral works. At the very end of 1854, at the suggestion of the poet Hoffmann von Fallersleben, the Neu-Weimarverein (Union of the New Weimarers) had been founded to formalise Liszt's circle. Liszt was, of course, the president and as well as Raff himself its most prominent members numbered Hans Bronsart von Schellendorf, Coßmann, Cornelius, Pohl, Pruckner and Ritter. Raff was responsible for the Newsletter "The Lantern" which was almost entirely written by him. Berlioz became an honorary member in February 1855 during a visit to Weimar in which he conducted a concert in the city. Afterwards Raff proposed the toast during a reception for the Frenchman given by the Neu-Weimarverein. Conscious of his poor French, he delivered his toast in Latin and further homage was paid that evening to Berlioz by the performance of a four part chorus which Raff had written to Fallersleben's Latin text - Nostrum Desiderium WoO.18A.

Already rather divorced from Liszt's circle, it was inevitable that Raff's membership of the Neu-Weimarverein was a short one. He resigned in March 1855 after a series of disagreements. His relationship with the magnanimous Liszt didn't seem to be affected though, as he was shortly afterwards asked by him to superintend the preparations for the first performance of his Mass at the consecration of the new cathedral in Gran, Hungary. In the end Raff didn't make the trip. Liszt also assisted him in staging a concert which would at last showcase his recent compositions. At Weimar's Grand Ducal Theatre on 20 April 1855 he conducted the première of four large scale orchestral works. As well as his new Symphony and the Psalm 121 choral setting, which dated from 1848, there were two brand new works, the Konzertstück for violin and orchestra La Fée d'amour Op.67 and the orchestral song Traumkönig und sein Lieb Op.66, both of which had been completed during the previous Winter. His fiancée's sister, Emilie Genast was the soloist in the Psalm and Traumkönig, which Raff dedicated to her. His friend and pupil Edmund Singer was the dedicatee of La Fée d'amour in which he was the soloist. Liszt was particularly impressed with it: "Raff can go a long time without anything else, now that he's done this", but despite much local acclaim nothing came of the concert. No publishers wanted to take up the works.

With his fiancée Doris now living permanently in Wiesbaden, Raff became a second son to her family the Genasts, with whom he spent many evenings. In contrast to these home comforts his professional disappointments continued. A hoped-for music directorship in Anhalt-Dessau failed to materialise and the rest of 1855 played out with Raff gravitating more and more to Wiesbaden, where he could not only see Doris but also where he sensed a more receptive musical climate. Whilst staying in the Nassauen city, he composed in the summer of 1855 his major "Fairy Tale Epic" Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty) WoO.19 for soloists, choir and orchestra. As his activities working for Liszt declined because of his gradual separation from the master and his acolytes, he had more time for composition. 1855 proved to be a productive year. As well as finishing Dornröschen, he began to compose songs again, initially for a cycle entitled Todte Liebe (Fatal Love) WoO.17A which never saw the light of day, although some were eventually published in 1864 as part of his major collection Sanges-Frühling (Spring Songs) Op.98. To bring in some money he composed pot-boiler piano arrangements of airs from operas by Schumann, Berlioz and himself (his König Alfred) but also a pretty Capriccio Op.64. The last major work of this year, and of his whole time in Weimar, was his dramatic First String Quartet Op.77. This was finished in the autumn and was played soon afterwards by Edmund Singer's quartet, in which also played his friend the cellist Bernhard Coßmann. Published in 1860, it went on to be one of his most played chamber works.

1856 - Departure

Raff's persistence in cultivating the Wiesbaden court conductor Johann Baptist Hagen paid off when his Symphony was played in Wiesbaden on 23 January 1856 and then repeated just six days later, such was the enthusiasm for the work. It was heard again in the Ducal Theatre and had a fourth hearing with La Fée d'amour on 14 March. Raff had made a good impression in Nassau. This was in stark contrast with the atmosphere back in Weimar where an article he wrote to mark the Mozart centenary was taken by his colleagues as further proof that he was taking a position contrary to their "Music of the Future" credo. Liszt said to Emilie Genast "It almost seems as if Raff wants to break loose from us." He wasn't far from the truth. Raff was slowly gaining a reputation outside Weimar and Wiesbaden. He was invited to Gotha to conduct a concert, consisting of a reworked Bernhard von Weimar Overture, Psalm 121 and the Symphony, on 11 April in the court theatre. He was fêted by the Gothauers and Duke Ernst of Coburg-Gotha, an amateur composer who had previously asked Raff for advice. Back in Weimar itself, despite the renewed recriminations of Liszt's circle, he was able to get his new Dornröschen performed on 24 May 1856 under his own direction. The main solo part was again sung by Doris' sister Emilie, who was establishing a fine reputation for herself. Although not designed as a work for the stage, the performance was illustrated by tableaux vivant and Liszt was "completely enthused by it". He later wrote an extravagant review of the work.

Despite this success, though, Raff had decided to move to Wiesbaden, where he could join Doris and build on the reputation he had quickly gained there through Hagen's promotion of his music. Naturally, Liszt was against the move. He felt that Raff was leaving for a city where he would have no permanent position and would be cast adrift from gifted companions who shared a similar outlook, but for Raff it was clearly time to break free of the frustrations of being a semi-detached member of Liszt's circle and, in particular, of Liszt's benign but overpowering influence. Although he retained for the rest of his life the friendship of many of the Neu-Weimarers and eventually mended his fractured relationship with Liszt himself, whilst in Weimar he had had to endure their continual sniping for daring to distance himself from them ideologically. Away from the place, for good or ill, he was free to be his own man. After five and a half years, early in the summer of 1856 he moved to Wiesbaden, to the city where he was to stay for the twenty one years which would see him eventually gain a reputation as one of the three greatest composers in Germany.

The next episode in Raff's story: Wiesbaden 1856-66.

© 1999-2021 Mark Thomas. All rights reserved.