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Silhouette of Raff




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Raff's bust from a memorial

Introduction to Raff

Joseph Joachim Raff is probably the most extreme example in musical history of pride coming before a fall. Here was a self-taught musician of world renown, ranked by his colleagues, critics and audiences alike as one of the foremost composers of his day with acknowledged master works in most of the main musical forms.

He had struggled tenaciously over many years to overcome the disadvantages of his youth eventually to achieve a reputation equal to those of Brahms and Wagner. He was amongst the most performed of living composers, not only in concert halls but also in homes throughout the music loving world.

An esteemed teacher and musical administrator, Raff was director of a prestigious conservatory and, by his teaching and his innovations influenced composers as diverse as Mahler, Richard Strauss and Tchaikovsky.

Yet….despite all Raff’s acclaim and the recognition afforded him in his lifetime, almost from the moment of his death in 1882, his reputation slid into a rapid and seemingly irreversible decline. Within thirty years his music was hardly ever performed and he was ridiculed in critical and academic circles as a writer of mere salon music, whose more ambitious works were of negligible worth. If his name was known at all by music lovers it was for a comparative trifle - "Raff’s celebrated Cavatina". Sic transit gloria mundi!

Why? A simple question with a complex set of answers …… Undoubtedly Raff simply wrote too much music for his own good - 216 opus numbers, another 74 works besides and a further 48 arrangements of his own music. He was regarded as being insufficiently self-critical. His vast oeuvre was produced as evidence of this, as was the undoubted triviality of many of his early "salon" pieces for piano. It is self-evident that sometimes the material he used was not capable of sustaining the ambitions which he had for it and he was certainly capable of juxtaposing a sublime episode with one of utter banality.

Raff was criticised for being derivative - his compositional style was felt to be a calculated amalgam of the styles of other composers rather than something unique which sprang fully formed from Raff himself.

In musical politics, he sat uncomfortably isolated from both opposing musical camps in late nineteenth century Germany - not an unreserved advocate of the revolutionary ideas of Liszt & Wagner, but sufficiently forward looking to be regarded with suspicion by the Brahmsian conservatives. Being a member of neither group, and not establishing a following of his own, he had no-one to champion his music as fashions and musical methods changed.

He wrote music which was immediately accessible to the average concert-goer, with clear, memorable melodies and generally straightforward harmonic progressions. As a consequence he was open to the criticism of writing shallow music. He could be a difficult character. Although capable of warmth and generosity, this was often only evident once a brusque and tactless exterior had been penetrated. He was an argumentative and sometimes arrogant man who made as many enemies as friends. After his death, when his reputation needed friends, his enemies were to the fore.

It would be idle to pretend that Raff deserved all the acclaim which he ultimately enjoyed in his lifetime. He was not a genius to rank alongside Brahms and Wagner, but he was certainly touched by genius and, if his achievement was more slender and fitful than theirs, it was a very considerable achievement nonetheless and did not deserve the oblivion to which it was virtually consigned for most of this century. Amongst his vast output are works of rare quality, immense technical skill, daring originality and sheer, rapt beauty. To ignore Raff’s music because some of it is run of the mill is to deny ourselves much which is moving and beautiful, stirring and colourful.

© 1999-2017 Mark Thomas. All rights reserved.