Biography - Switzerland 1822-1845


Raff was born on 22 May 1822 in Lachen, Switzerland. He was the second child of the community's school teacher, a German refugee from Württemberg who had fled the Napoleonic wars. His mother Katharina, née Schmid, was the daughter of a farmer and landlord of the Ox Inn in the town. Named Joseph Joachim after his father and his maternal grandfather, he was christened on the day of his birth as was the Catholic custom in those days. The boy came into the world to the sound of peeling bells - it was Pentecost Monday. In later life Raff was fond of saying that this welcome decided his musical vocation. As he grew up, an abiding musical stimulus was the sound of the church bells in the evening, mingling with the gentle ebb and flow of the lake. In 1824, soon after the birth of a baby sister for Joachim, the family moved to nearby Rapperswil, where Joseph Raff's reputation had earned him promotion to the Boys High School there. His health soon deteriorated, however, and the family returned to Lachen whilst he recuperated - Katherina opening a shop selling glass and porcelain to make ends meet. Restored to health, her husband was lucky to be able to return to his former teaching job in the lakeside town. Growing up in Lachen's beautiful location, nestling beside Lake Zürich under the foothills of the Swiss mountains, Raff acquired the sensibility to his surroundings which he was to retain in adulthood. He would confess in later years that he was unable to appreciate the attraction of a flat land and called water "the soul of a landscape".

Lachen c.1800
Lachen c.1800

Although blessed by his surroundings, his was not a particularly happy childhood. His father recognised early on his intellectual ability and sought to foster it with a strict and excessive study regime, aiming to turn him into a child prodigy. At six he could read German, at eight translate Latin. His father was a keen musician and the lad was soon playing the violin and organ and singing in the church choir. By ten years of age he was regularly replacing his frequently ill father as the church's organist. Although he learned easily and was self-critical, he was still severely thrashed by his father whenever he made a mistake. Physical punishment in schools was normal in those times but Raff's treatment seems to have been unusually severe. The beatings continued until he was 15 when, after a particularly violent attack, he decided to starve himself to death rather than suffer any longer. Only when his life was clearly in danger did his father promise to end his use of the rod and Raff suffered no more after that. His father's aggression was not just reserved for young Joachim. On one occasion the child intervened in an argument between his parents, when his father began to attack Katharina. Despite the violence, there was a strong bond between father and son, founded in their common love of music and nature. When Raff pleased his father he would be rewarded with a stroll into the countryside and during these idylls they would talk about the father's Swabian homeland in Württemberg. As a result, he grew up thinking of himself as an ex-patriot, although he never lost his attachment to the country of his birth.

A strong influence on him was his maternal grandfather Joachim Schmid, who was an influential local leader and Cantonal Stattholder - chairman of the Landesgemeinde (the local assembly). He had the habit of listening in on the political discussions that frequently took place by his grandfather's hearth and it was here that he acquired an appetite for argument which never left him. His mother and grandmother Cäcelia (her name latterly regarded by Raff as another musical omen) were warm, calming influences in this masculine world. He was in some respects a lonely boy. His closest confidant had been the Raff's second child - the little sister born just before the brief Rapperswil episode. She died in childhood, however, and his introspective bent isolated him from the younger surviving siblings (Kaspar, Maria Antonia, Alonsia, Selina and Peter) and from other children of his age. A childhood lacking the rough and tumble of robust play resulted in him growing up to be the antithesis of a sturdy country lad. An inability to swim nearly resulted in his death. He fell into the lake trying to retrieve a treasured toy and was unconscious by the time he was rescued by a passing fishing boat. He was left with the quiet conviction that he must be destined for great things, otherwise God would have let him die. At 12 his father took him to Rottenburg in his native Swabia where he was enrolled to study at the Gymnasium. Freed of Joseph Raff's overbearing guidance the boy blossomed in the intellectual atmosphere and made many friends, although he kept few in later life. He was also able to establish contact with his paternal family, who had remained in Swabia. His father's sisters and cousins doted on "Jochimle" as did his 71 year old grandfather. Once term ended, he would don a knapsack and hike on foot back to his Swiss home.

Raff's second brush with death came on one of these homeward treks. During a winter snowstorm he became exhausted and, resting, unwittingly fell asleep. Luckily, a forester found him and revived him from his potentially fatal slumber.

After four years in Rottenburg, political events in Switzerland provoked Raff's return there. Joachim Schmid became embroiled in a bitter political controversy which resulted in his son-in-law losing his teaching post in Lachen, although he was personally uninvolved in the dispute. Joseph Raff found a new position as music teacher at the Jesuit College in Schwyz, his wife took in students for food and board and his eldest son returned to live with them in Autumn 1838. He thrived in the "harmonically balanced intellectual atmosphere" which he found there. The teaching medium was primarily Latin, in which he was already fluent. Finding homework difficult with a house full of boisterous younger brothers and sisters, he developed the habit of napping during the day and studying at night, sitting with his feet in a tub of icy water so that he kept awake. He was evidently a good student in Schwyz, being particularly adept at mathematics, rhetoric, poetry and history. His French was poor - something he regretted in later life. Indeed, at that time even his written German was not really fluent and his handwriting also exhibited a "heavy, pedantic stroke". Raff idolised the college's Prefect, Father Waser, who for him epitomised the ideal Catholic priest. In Lachen he had been a "dreamily pious" child and his Catholic belief was deeply instilled in him. His religion wasn't without its childish crises, however. On one occasion he could not bring himself to kiss the crucifix because so many lips had kissed it before his own. Another time he prayed to a saint for relief from a toothache and was mortified when none came.

Teaching in Rapperswil

As he developed under the stimulating regime of Schwyz, it became important to him to leave home and earn a living. In 1840, as the college's star Latin pupil, he was recommended to accompany the Papal Nuncio Monsignor Gizzi as interpreter on a visit to St. Gallen. There the 18 year old impressed the locals and, eager to keep his services in the area, the authorities awarded him a teaching qualification. On 18 October 1840 Raff was appointed teacher at the Upper Primary School in Rapperswil, near his Lachen birthplace, with a generous salary of 470 florins a year. Raff was soon regarded by the community as a great asset. He was a firm disciplinarian, but was popular with his pupils and had an encyclopedic knowledge. Almost immediately, however, his childhood interest in music reasserted itself. He made strong and enduring friendships with two musically-minded brothers. Anton and Franz Alexander Curti (professional singer and doctor respectively) encouraged him to compose and he gained a potentially influential friend in Franz Abt who, at only 22, was appointed Kapellmeister in Zürich in 1841. He began traveling there often to attend Abt's concerts.

Rapperswil 1835
Rapperswil in 1835

Outside the classroom, the young Raff was described as being the "most lovable, good humoured man" with "golden glasses" - he was already short-sighted. In the classroom, however, he mirrored his father's strict regimen and disciplined with a slap when he was in a bad mood. These must have increased as it became clearer to him that teaching was not for him, despite a pedagogic streak and a love of children. His first love was music, but he knew that his family would be vehemently opposed to any idea of giving up his promising career. He was in turmoil. This conflict was exacerbated by a brief romantic involvement with a married woman, from which he extricated himself only to be plagued by doubts about his musical ability. "You are a fool, have learned nothing, know not at all whether you have talent" he recalled telling himself . With the exception of his Serenade Op.1 (dedicated to Anton Curti) he failed utterly in getting any of his early works published at the time and this added to his despair. Trying to reach a resolution to his dilemma, he had the good sense to be persuaded by Abt and the Curtis to write to Mendelssohn, sending him some of his compositions for his opinion of them and asking for his advice on whether he should give up teaching. Mendelssohn's reply was very encouraging and he suggested that Raff should abandon his teaching job and travel to Germany as soon as he could. In the meantime, he sent Raff's pieces to his own publishers, Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig with his recommendation. They eventually published 13 of Raff's earliest piano works.

The young man was elated but it spelt the end of his teaching. "His thoughts were on his piano compositions" wrote a pupil of his, and he devoted all his spare time to adding to the basic musical knowledge which he had gained at the Jesuit College. Encouraged by Mendelssohn's positive response and Breitkopf & Härtel's support, Raff made a sudden decision in August 1844 to quit teaching and take up music full time. His father railed against the decision and, in his turn, was berated by his relatives in Württemberg for allowing his son to waste his talents. Raff's uncle, a bishop, accused Joseph Raff of "knowing how to create nothing from your son but a begging musician". Even his mother and sisters weren't supportive. His employers tried to persuade him to stay with promises of promotion, but he was determined to go and left with testimonials crediting him with "possessing superior knowledge in all teaching subjects" and confirming that he "enjoyed the best reputation". Amidst all this stress Raff moved on to larger scale compositions - the first version of the Piano Sonata Op.14 dates from this time. He gave two concerts largely consisting of his own music in Nuolen, a spa near Zürich. These positive developments were offset by more problems of his own making. He got involved in the political turmoil which was sweeping Switzerland at the time. On a visit to his family in Lachen he spiked the organ of the church in Lachen so that it couldn't play at a Te Deum in honour of the local leader of the conservative faction. As a result he had to flee back to Rapperswil and his reputation amongst his relatives declined even further.

Destitution in Zurich

He now had no income and soon exhausted his savings. Falling into debt, in December 1844 he was declared bankrupt. It isn't known whether he was imprisoned as a consequence (as was usually the case then) but the unpaid debt certainly resulted in a spell in prison a few years later in Weimar. He moved from the small town of Rapperswil to the local metropolis, Zürich, to try to improve his fortunes by giving lessons and making arrangements. It was to no avail - the city's musical life at that time could hardly support Kapellmeister Abt himself. Despite his friend's efforts to find him work, Raff remained destitute and even slept rough - he returned to the city with his wife in later years, to show her the tree under which he had sheltered.

Raff's salvation from this Dickensian descent into poverty came in suitably melodramatic fashion. He read that Franz Liszt would give a recital in Basel on 18 June 1844. He had never heard a "great artist" perform and decided, despite his penury, to make the 75km (46m) trip to hear him. Having no spare money, he had to walk there. It was a day of bad weather and, nearing his destination, he stopped at an inn for a drink and a rest - asking to be woken after a few hours so that he would be in good time for the concert. The innkeeper took pity on the bedraggled Raff and let him sleep on. He was distraught when he woke and realised that he had little time left. He rushed out into the storm and arrived breathless and soaked to the skin at the ticket office of the theatre, only to be told that the recital was sold out and was about to begin. Raff's protestations that he had walked from Zürich just to hear Liszt play fell on deaf ears but, in one of those curious chances upon which people's lives turn, he was overheard by the virtuoso's secretary Belloni.

He took Raff to a side room and instructed him to wait. As Liszt stood in the wings, Belloni told him about Raff. Liszt, ever one for the grand gesture, replied "Bring him here! He is to sit next to me on the stage". Raff was fond of recalling in later years that, as Liszt played, "a complete circle of rainwater gathered around me on the floor; like a spring's source I sat there". The audience's reaction can be imagined... After the concert Raff opened his heart to the great artist, who obviously took a strong and immediate interest in the young man. The warm-hearted Liszt seems to have been charmed by Raff's passion and commitment to music and appears to have divined something special in the bedraggled 22 year old. No doubt to Raff's amazement, the maestro eventually bad him farewell with the words "Stay with me. I'll take you with me to Germany". True to his word, Liszt's route took him back through Zürich, from where Raff left with him for Germany. He would never live in the land of his birth again.

The next episode in Raff's story: Wandering 1845-1849.

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