Joseph Joachim Raff was born in the Swiss town of Lachen on 22 May 1822, the eldest of a large family. His father, a German refugee of the Napoleonic wars, was the town’s schoolteacher and his mother the daughter of a local innkeeper. A precocious youth with a flair for languages, he resisted his father’s attempts to turn him into a child prodigy and received a good education in Germany, before returning to Switzerland to finish his schooling at the Jesuit College in Schwyz, An indifferent pianist, but a better violinist, he began to compose in 1840, the year in which he became a schoolteacher in Rapperswil, across the lake from Lachen. There, his growing compulsion to compose led to friends persuading him in 1844 to send some piano pieces to Mendelssohn, who was sufficiently impressed to recommend them to his own publishers Breitkopf & Härtel. He also urged Raff to relinquish his job and become a full-time musician, but abandoning his well-paid position provoked an enduring rift with his family and quickly reduced him to poverty. A move to nearby Zurich did nothing to improve his finances and he quickly exhausted his savings, sometimes sleeping rough under trees. He was rescued from destitution by Liszt, who was giving a recital in Basle in June 1845. Raff walked the 80kms from Zurich but found the recital sold-out. Liszt, impressed with Raff determination, insisted that the rain-soaked young man sit next to him throughout the recital and, recognising his talent, offered him a place on the tour he was conducting, which took them to Germany.
Taking on the role of mentor, when the tour was over Liszt found Raff work in a piano shop in Cologne, where he continued writing piano works and took up music criticism to supplement his income. There he at last met Mendelssohn, who offered the self-taught Raff tuition at his Leipzig Conservatory. Dismissed from his job over an article he had published, in 1847 Raff was on the way to take up that offer when he learned of Mendelssohn’s sudden death, so he headed for Vienna, where Liszt had arranged another job for him with the music publisher Mechetti, only to learn before he arrived of the proprietor’s death. Following these setbacks, he returned to his family’s ancestral homeland of Württemburg (citizenship of which he had inherited from his father), eking out a living in Stuttgart for two years. During this peripatetic existence he continued to compose piano works, many of them arrangements of popular airs from operas which found a ready market, but he also gradually started to experiment in larger forms, first songs and then a piano trio, a work for choir and orchestra and finally his first opera, König Alfred. Throughout this time, he was in contact with Liszt, who continued to take an interest in him and counselled against Raff’s propensity for over-production. After a brief spell working for the publisher Schuberth in Hamburg, at the beginning of 1850 he took up Liszt’s offer to join him in Weimar as his assistant.
For several years Raff worked tirelessly for his mentor. Hans von Bülow, who was close to both men, wrote that “Raff sacrifices half of his own life for Liszt”, but eventually the relationship soured. Raff, with some justice, began to feel that his own musical personality was in danger of being smothered by Liszt, and he was increasingly out of sympathy with the musical enthusiasms of Liszt’s circle. Liszt understandably felt that Raff was ungrateful for all the support which he had given him, which included offering to bail Raff after he was briefly imprisoned for his unpaid Swiss debts. It was only in the late 1860s that a rapprochement was achieved by Raff dedicating to Liszt his large-scale setting for chorus and orchestra of Psalm 130, De Profundis. During his time in Weimar Raff continued to compose: chamber music, choral works, another opera and a symphony were produced in addition to many more piano compositions. He finally left Weimar in 1856, following his fiancée (the actress daughter of the city’s theatre manager) to the spa city of Wiesbaden, where he stayed for 21 years, establishing himself as a music teacher, critic and independent composer. As both a protégé of Mendelssohn and a former member of Liszt’s circle he had a foot in both the warring camps into which the musical world was dividing itself, and he was at pains to distance himself from both. His own music reflected this determinedly independent stance, melding elements from both the traditionalist and the New German schools into a style which made a virtue of its eclecticism. He achieved international recognition in 1863 when both his First Symphony An das Vaterland and the cantata Deutschlands Auferstehung won major prizes, and after these achievements his star continued to rise until he was able to become a full-time composer, and was for a time regarded as Germany’s foremost symphonist; his Symphonies No.3 Im Walde (1869) and No.5 Lenore (1872) being phenomenally successful.
The advent of Brahms’ First Symphony in 1876 toppled him from that pedestal, and his reputation began to suffer from renewed accusations of allowing easy facility to compromise quality. However, in 1877 he was appointed the founding director of the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt and he guided the institution to become one of Germany’s foremost progressive music schools, scrupulously engaging teachers (including Clara Schumann) from both sides of the musical divide, pioneering the admission of women as students and banning performances of his own compositions at the conservatory. Shortly after hosting Liszt on a visit to Frankfurt, on 24 June 1882 he died suddenly from a heart attack, brought on by overwork. After his death, his reputation plummeted until, for much of the 20th century, his name became a byword for compositional incompetence, his catalogue of 405 works ignored despite the praise it had garnered during his lifetime. It contains compositions in almost all genres: six operas, twelve symphonies, major choral works, concertos, smaller orchestral works, an extensive collection of chamber music, lieder and part-songs, but by far his largest area of activity remained the piano, for which he wrote over 240 works, both original compositions and arrangements.
Start reading Raff's story in more detail: Switzerland 1822-1845.