young Raff
Raff in 1855









Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt











Raff's wife
Raff's wife, Doris











Hoch Conservatory, Frankfurt
The Hoch Conservatory,


Outline of Raff's life

Joseph Joachim Raff was born on 27 May 1822 in the small town of Lachen, on the shores of lake Zürich in Switzerland. His father, Joseph, was a native of Empfingen, in Württemberg, south west Germany. In 1811, Joseph Raff had fled south to avoid compulsory conscription into Napoleon's army. After spells as organist & music teacher in a monastery in Wettingen and also in Lucerne, he set himself up as a schoolmaster in Lachen. In time he married the daughter of the local cantonal president - Katharina Schmid. The Raff family was poor but young Joachim had a basic education from his father. The boy was later sent to the Rottenberg Gymnasium in his father’s native Württemberg to study philosophy, philology and mathematics before financial pressures on the family forced his return to Switzerland. He finished his education with two years at the Jesuit Seminary in Schwyz, where he carried off prizes in German, Latin and mathematics. When Raff left Schwyz in 1840 it was to return to Rapperswil, near Lachen, to begin work as a teacher. As a child, though, Raff had already shown great natural talent as a pianist, violinist and organist, performing at the Sunday concerts in the nearby spa of Nuolen. Having taught himself the rudiments of music, he began to compose too.

Raff became friends with the young composer and Zürich kapellmeister Franz Abt, who encouraged him to send some of his earliest piano pieces to Mendelssohn. The Leipzig composer was sufficiently impressed to recommend them to his publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, and this in turn lead to a favourable review of Raff’s opp.2-6 in Schumann’s Neue Zeitschrift für Musik which predicted "a future for the composer". Raff, encouraged by this success, gave up his teaching job and moved to Zürich in 1844 to start a career as a composer - much to his family's dismay. Joseph Raff wrote "he has…. made nothing of himself but a begging musician" and despite organising concerts in Nuolen, before long his father was proved right. Raff was declared bankrupt.....

He endured poverty in Zürich, working as a musician, but his great opportunity came when he learned of an appearance by his idol Liszt on 19 June 1845 in Basle, some 80 kilometres away. Determined to hear Liszt play but being unable to pay the fare to Basle, Raff walked there from Zürich through driving rain. He arrived just as the concert was about to begin to find that all the tickets were sold. Luckily Liszt’s secretary Belloni noticed the dejected, disappointed Raff and told Liszt, who decided not only that Raff should be admitted, but insisted that he should sit on the stage with him amidst a widening pool of water from his wet clothes. "I sat there like a running fountain," Raff wrote later "oblivious to everything but my good fortune in seeing and hearing Liszt".

Raff benefited from Liszt's legendary generosity. His new mentor took him with him on the remainder of his tour through southern Germany and the Rhineland with Raff making the concert arrangements. When the tour ended, Liszt found Raff a job in Cologne selling pianos and music scores for Eck & Lefèbre’s shop. Although he met Mendelssohn whilst there and also acted as music critic for the journal Caecilia, Raff soon got embroiled in controversy and had to leave after he wrote a contentious article in the Wiener allgemeine Musik-Zeitung. A trip to Leipzig in 1847 to study with Mendelssohn was aborted when the master died and Raff instead tried to establish himself in Stuttgart - capital of his family’s home area of Württemberg. Here, though, he was met with hostility from the kapellmeister, Lindtpaintner, and he was implicated in the disturbances of 1848 leading him to leave the city in some secrecy. A lasting benefit of his time there, however, was his lifelong friendship with Hans von Bülow, who was to become a renowned conductor and pianist, the son-in-law of Liszt and cuckolded by Wagner.

Liszt again came to the rescue and found for Raff a position in Hamburg with the music publishers Shuberth, where he worked arranging the music of others. All the while during this tempestuous period Raff continued to compose assiduously and to improve his technical skill despite a lack of formal teaching. Though his first 50 or so works were for solo piano, he gradually began to write songs and then experimented with chamber music. Liszt interested the Viennese publisher Mechetti in Raff’s music, but again death intervened and Mechetti died before Raff could sign a contract.

At the end of 1849 Liszt invited Raff to Weimar. The Hungarian pianist and composer had been appointed kapellmeister there and Raff was employed as a musical assistant and secretary. This was a great advance for Raff, who suddenly found himself in the very centre of Liszt's "New-German" movement with its circle of young acolytes including Cornelius, Reubke, Nicolai and, again, von Bülow. Despite working for Liszt, Raff's financial affairs continued to worsen until eventually he spent several weeks in gaol for an old Swiss debt. Some idea of the poverty in which he lived even whilst working for Liszt can be gained from the fact that his cell was more comfortable than the room in which he was lodging. Liszt refused to help him on this occasion and Raff was eventually released with the debt unpaid. He undoubtedly had to work hard for Liszt. He complained of being "A rather superior copyist" and wrote to a friend "My labours for Liszt, it is true, are endless. But…..I am not afraid of a heap of paper". Von Bülow confirmed that "Raff sacrificed half his life to Liszt". Nonetheless Raff gained a great deal from his free association with Liszt and his circle and the ability at long last to have his works performed on a more regular basis. When he joined Liszt he was already demonstrating that skill in writing for the orchestra which would later be such a hallmark of his, and this was particularly valuable to Liszt whose handling of the orchestra was still in its infancy. He helped Liszt with the early drafts of the orchestration of some of the master's symphonic poems and indeed subsequently claimed that he partially composed some of them. When these claims were published after both protagonists’ death there was a furore. There seems to be adequate evidence to refute Raff's claim to a share in authorship, though he was undoubtedly of great assistance to Liszt in realising his intentions for these works and in showing him how to write for the orchestra.

During the Weimar years he continued to write much piano music, but gradually his works became more ambitious, aided no doubt by the atmosphere in which he worked and the chance of some performances. He was even able to have his first opera "King Alfred" performed three times in Weimar’s Hoftheater with Liszt’s help in 1851 - though with no great success. Whilst in Weimar, Raff wrote his famous book "The Wagner Question" which addressed in an independent and objective way the issues raised by Wagner's then revolutionary approach to music drama. As Hans von Bülow said "Raff was a great Wagner enthusiast while thoroughly disapproving of his literary works". Slowly Raff distanced himself from the Liszt/Wagner New German School and began to regard his mission as combining the best of their prescription for the future of music with a more academic regard for the forms and traditions of the past such as counterpoint, fugue and sonata form.

In 1853 Raff met his future wife Doris Genast (1826-1902), the actress daughter of Eduard Genast, the director of Weimar’s court theatre and a friend of Liszt . She was to have a profound and entirely beneficial effect on him.

His subservient position to Liszt irritated Raff, but he stayed on despite the undoubted drudgery because of his gratitude for the help which Liszt had afforded him over the years. By 1856, however, Raff's position in Liszt's household had become untenable. It was stifling his own musical individuality and he felt that he was too much of an employee and not enough of a colleague. He wrote: "the pressure which Liszt exerts both intentionally and unintentionally on my own personality is more than I can bear" and he called Weimar "this damned village". At the same time his relationship with Liszt’s censorious mistress, Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein had deteriorated to the point where she described him in a letter to Liszt as "a hanger-on….an apprentice……an unfeeling man who cultivates art only as a science". Raff left Weimar in 1856 and followed his fiancée Doris to Wiesbaden where she had some acting engagements.

After all the drama, poverty and obscurity of the first half of his life, Raff’s final 26 years were altogether calmer and marked by growing fame and recognition.

He set himself up in Wiesbaden as a piano teacher and Doris, whom he married in 1859, started the process of improving Raff’s chaotic financial affairs so that, as Wagner wrote "by extraordinary thrift and good management she ….succeeded in raising her husband's position of careless wastefulness to a flourishing and prosperous one". His larger scale compositions were beginning to attract audiences, helped by his friend Hans von Bülow, who championed the Konzertstück "Ode to Spring" of 1857, and by successful performances of "King Alfred" in Wiesbaden in 1860. Raff’s tenacity of character enabled him gradually to increase the scale and seriousness of his works. His breakthrough into recognition as a composer of the first rank came with the award in 1863 of first prize in a competition organised by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. Raff’s 1st. SymphonyAn das Vaterland was preferred over 32 other entries by a panel which included such eminent composers as Hiller, Reinecke and Volkmann. At 41, Raff was finally acknowledged as a composer of great worth.

With public and critical recognition his at last, works of all sizes and genres poured from his pen - "his fecundity was astonishing" said Walter Damrosch. Raff’s music soon became highly popular at concerts and in the home alike. His symphonies were listened to with great respect and, of these, the third and fifth symphonies were amongst the most popular in the symphonic literature of the second half of the century. The march movement from the fifth was a particularly well-loved piece, often played by itself and in arrangements for brass band or piano duet.. His Piano Quintet was praised as the best example since Beethoven’s, his piano and violin concertos were popular virtuoso show pieces and his 7th. String Quartet was a frequently played piece - particularly the "Mill" movement. Far and away the most played work, though, was the Cavatina - the third of the Six Pieces op.85. Though originally written for violin and piano it was subjected to innumerable arrangements. His piano pieces for playing in the home were particularly successful and Raff made sure that there was a constant fresh supply. The only works of his with which he did not have much success were his operas - of the six, only "King Alfred" and the comic piece Dame Kobold were performed. Raff used his literary skills to write the libretti for some of his operas and also for his Oratorio op.212.

Many of Raff’s works were premiered in Wiesbaden, sometimes with Raff himself conducting, but his world-wide fame spread until he came to be regarded as one of the foremost composers of his day - the equal of Brahms and Wagner. His skill at orchestration was prodigious and his ability as a melodist was universally praised, but he was not without his critics. Their main charge was grounded on the accusation that Raff was a Vielschreiber - someone who wrote (too) much and was too unselfcritical. He was accused of being an eclectic whose style was a synthesis of other composers’ styles rather than being his own. They felt that Raff’s natural aptitude was for character and salon pieces, rather than the symphonies, concertos and chamber music which he continued to produce. Raff could be a blunt and tactless person, who revelled in argument and enjoyed confrontation. He did little to placate his critics, however, and with growing success tended to become arrogant. "He was too proud" wrote even his daughter Helene.

Success brought official recognition in the form of six decorations and, in 1877, what for him was probably the crowning glory. Raff was appointed to a ten year term as the first director of the newly opened Hoch Conservatory in nearby Frankfurt, having been preferred over such illustrious younger candidates as Brahms and Rheinberger. The family moved to Frankfurt, where Raff spent the rest of his life. He proved to be a very able and forward looking musical administrator, quickly establishing the conservatory as one of the foremost in the country. He engaged other eminent musicians as staff of the conservatory, most notably the pianist Clara Schumann and the singer Julius Stockhausen. Once he took over in Frankfurt, his vielschreiber days in Wiesbaden were behind him. Though he never stopped composing, and some of his last works were amongst of his most ambitious, he wrote much less than before.

He died at 60 of a heart attack on the night of 24/25 June 1882 after several months of illness brought on by his heavy workload. His final years had brought him all the recognition and security he could have desired and he had been confident that posterity would continue to place him in the first rank. So confident, in fact, that he had neglected to provide for his family, assuming that royalties would continue to give them an ample income. Perhaps in writing the motto of his 6th. Symphony: "Lived, Struggled, Suffered, Fought, Died, Glorified", Raff was unconsciously penning what he hoped might be his own epitaph.

In fact, when he was remembered at all, the single word Vielschrieber usually sufficed.

© 1999-2017 Mark Thomas. All rights reserved.