Walter Labhart, describing Raff's compositional style in the notes for a recording, wrote that his music possessed the "smooth form of Mendelssohn, the espressivo of Chopin, the cantabile of Schumann, the elegance and pathos of Liszt and the harmonies of Wagner". All of this is true, but in crediting elements of Raff's style to other and older composers there is an implied charge of eclecticism, of a lack of originality. This has dogged Raff's reputation from the beginning. Liszt wrote that Raff's music was "leaning towards Mendelssohn, most decidedly towards Wagner, sometimes to Berlioz, in some moments to Italian composers"; the contemporary critic J D Shedlock stated that "the influence of Beethoven and Mendelssohn is apparent"; whereas Gerald Abraham categorised Raff as "a fluent stylist in the Mendelssohn-Spohr tradition".
Poor Raff. How difficult to be individual with the ghosts of Beethoven, Berlioz, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Spohr, Wagner and sundry Italian composers crowding onto his pages!
In truth, Raff was as individual in his mature voice as any major composer and anyone who has spent some time getting to know his music can recognise the master's hand in a previously unheard piece as easily as one can that of Liszt or Mendelssohn. Because his music lacks familiarity, however, most commentators are almost forced to describe Raff's style by likening it to that of other, better known, masters - and thus the impression of a lack of originality is maintained.
As a young man he undoubtedly aped his great contemporaries such as Mendelssohn and Schumann and, indeed, his mature character retained significant elements from Mendelssohn - the comparatively small orchestra and the gossamer textures for example. He had a Chopin phase - as some piano works testify. During his early days in Weimar he was also heavily influenced by Liszt - difficult to avoid when he was in daily contact with him. Many great composers display such influences in their early music. Wagner's early Beethovenian symphony or Brahms' first piano pieces being obvious examples. Like them, Raff absorbed some of the styles of others until they ceased to be separately identifiable, fusing them into a base upon which to assert his own individuality.
Gradually, as he freed himself from Liszt's presence, he developed his own musical personality. He acquired a respect for the established musical forms which was at variance with Liszt's attitude to them. Despite his initial adherence to the New German School most of Raff's larger scale works employ traditional structures - albeit often with programmatic overtones. He was amongst the first to revive baroque music. His mission became to achieve "a graceful fusion of classical forms with romantic spirit" and his structures and material reflected that. His daughter Helene wrote "everyone used the phrase: 'Raff wants to pour new wine into old bottles'".
He was determined that his music should be accessible to the average concert-goer, so his themes are deliberately easy to identify and remember. Whilst he employed repetition to a greater extent than some of his contemporaries, this was counteracted by his virtuoso skill as an orchestrator in re-clothing melodies. His orchestral palette is, despite assertions to the contrary, no mere copy of Mendelssohn's sound world but a much more robust and lively one - albeit never brash. His orchestration was daringly original for his day. His fame was immense and his influence on the next generation was significant but has been difficult to isolate because of his posthumous obscurity. Both are a testament to his originality.
His contemporaries never understood Raff's lifelong practice of writing attractive, but essentially trifling, salon pieces alongside his orchestral and chamber works. It was regarded as somehow detracting from his gravitas as a "serious" composer and his reputation suffered. In a different time it might have been taken as a laudable thing, demonstrating his versatility and unstuffiness; or a least recognised for what it was - the need to make some money.
Raff was unique in his time and full of contradictions. A "serious" composer whose themes were easy to remember but who employed counterpoint and fugue extensively. Who wrote grand symphonies and string quartets, but also hummable parlour trifles. Who admired and revived baroque and classical forms and yet employed non-musical programmes in his works. Who brought new excitement and realism to concert halls and yet wrote baroque suites. Who was a master of portraying atmosphere and subtle moods in movements which were nonetheless constructed along traditional lines. Who refused to be categorised as a New German revolutionary or a Leipzig conservative but strove to find a compromise between the two. Who gradually evolved from a heart-on-sleeve romantic to a more restrained classicist.
Far from being a mere imitator, rather it was Raff's misfortune to be too original, not just stylistically but also in his musical politics. He refused to be categorised and so was never free of criticism from any quarter.